Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Houston Chronicle: Metro Is So Far-Sighted They Are Short-Sighted

What? Perhaps its because Houston has been such a car oriented city for so long, the editors at the Chronicle aren't sure how transit will work when there is a new energy reality. Before we get into more details, I'd like to debunk the myth that commuter rail lines primary transit function is to get people to airports.
Houstonians will still lack a reliable, affordable public transit option to get to the region's two major airports. Such links are a primary function of commuter rail in other cities.
It's nice to have a link to the airport, but they aren't the primary function. But let's talk about the reality of airports in an energy constrained future. Given that flights are having trouble currently with gas prices, I can't imagine what would happen when it gets even worse. Building lines to airports just to go to the airport seems a bit silly to me, at least when people are fighting over such small amounts of funds as it is and shorter flights could diminish extensively. If we were a place like Vienna with an existing extensive transit network, we can build lines directly from the Airport to the major subway transfer station downtown.

But for Houston, the North Line could be eventually built to have an express train on tracks that serve the neighborhoods to the North. But hopefully by that time there will also be High Speed Rail in Texas. Now we're just voting on it here in California, but if it were to happen in Texas, it would not stop at the airport but downtown at the commuter rail and light rail hub. And when you get off of that train, it is more important to have a network that gets you to all of the major job centers (orange below) and places of housing density in the core of the region rather than have an easy link to the airport. Christof always has wonderful maps...

Now they are looking into commuter trains and complaining that the inner-city network is shortsighted. Well what happens when those people get to the hub downtown on those commuter trains without a circulation network? I would guess less ridership because their trip ends there, they aren't going to hop on a bus to get to other parts of the city. It seems to me they are actually quite smart in fixing up the light rail network.
Long-distance commuter rail lines could relieve growing traffic congestion on area freeways, but there is no single agency empowered to plan and build them. Some major roadway projects, such as the recent Katy Freeway expansion, include no provision for future rail systems.
Not that commuter rail isn't needed on some corridors, but Houston has rather good express buses that take HOV lanes downtown from the far flung suburbs. My dad took one of these downtown to work every day which brought me more appreciation for transit. In addition to these existing facilities though, commuter rail could prove to quicker to get through the process of construction than light rail making the initial city circulation network genius. The issue of networks and overlapping service needs to be addressed more extensively, because we keep having these suburb, urban debates when we need to bring every different type for their strengths and build them all together. As discussed before, you wouldn't build a freeway without arterial and local streets, so why would we do that with transit modes?


njh said...

Perhaps once the line is built to the airport, and the airport is closed down, there will be an opportunity for transit oriented development there instead? Lots of land, good public transport :)

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