Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Houston Transit Paradox

On the one hand, Houston "world-class transit" proponents LOVE that Metro is being given the keys to the car of $900 Million dollars to do with as they please:

(Metro gets its money (finally, $900 million), The Apple Dumpling Gang,
Houston Metro's success in landing $900 million in federal funds for expanding light rail here is little short of a miracle given the national climate of towering deficits and partisan gridlock.

Congratulations to the transit agency's leadership team of Gilbert Garcia and George Greanias for getting it done. And kudos to old pros inside the agency like John Sedlak for doing their part behind the scenes. Hard to believe, but these are the first federal funds granted for Houston rail. Ever.

On the other hand, shiny new apps are being lauded for that old-fashioned, creaky bus service:

(An app for Houston's bus system, The Apple Dumpling Gang,
The app, which Metro says will be available by the end of the year, will list all the bus stops and schedules. We hope this comprehensive view of the system will help Houstonians see that, yes, their city does have a functioning mass transit system.
The problem with this is that, unmentioned here, Metro is currently slashing that very bus service in order to free up money to pay for the red-ink that has become the new 'transit backbone'. Imagine just how expendable those bus lines will become once the expense of an expanded network is factored in.

The solution? You will not be surprised to hear that Peter "plan" Brown*, feels that Houston just needs a plan:

(Get a plan, Peter Brown, letters)
Essentially, there is no coordinated plan; not for the city, not for the region. Without a goal-oriented plan, backed by clear, sustainable growth policies, Houston tax-payers will be the losers, because scarce public dollars will be wasted.
Of course, the counter-argument is that 'plans' such as the ones that Brown is championing, are big money wasters that involve massive resources but which actually get little done. Fittingly, groups with high-minded names such as Brown's Better Houston and David Crossley's Houston Tomorrow love to promote plans that ultimately involve groups of like-minded people (especially people who think EXACTLY as do they) making life's decisions for the rest of us. These are the same groups of people who promote so-called "green" housing construction standards that make home prices even more prohibitive for the poor, and plans to rip up all freeways that run through cities which would make it prohibitive for the poor to get to work.

After all of that, if you can't see the paradox here it is: Proponents of so-called "world class" transit solutions are actually proposing mass-scale solutions whose real end goal is to push the poor outside of the city center and to the suburbs. The more they call for "transit" the less they are actually hoping to provide.

The core of any urban transit program should be allocate resources to ease the most common type of commute, while also providing transit who are most reliant on it. In Houston that should mean ensuring that car transit is primary, and poor neighborhoods have good strong bus service that gets them to places such as job centers, grocery stores and other community centers. Houston's transit future, as envisioned by the cool kids, is actually a plan that's designed to move upper-class urbanites with excess disposable income from their nice lofts to entertainment areas. Successful cities are not typically planned this way.

*That's Peter "plan" Brown, who garnered the support of a mere 22% of the electorate in the 2009 Houston mayoral election. That's means that just about 4 out of every 5 Houston voters disagree with him, and since his ideas closely mirror those of Houston Tomorrow you could say that they disagree with them as well. Despite this, the Apple Dumpling Gang (the editorial board of what was once the newspaper of record for America's fourth largest city)are willing to ignore the will of a strong majority to back plans like this.

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