Monday, March 25, 2013

The Metro service you want vs. what Metro says you need.

Like a few of you, those few who still subscribe to the dead-tree edition of ChronBlog and actually read it instead of just grabbing the coupons and using the rest for grilling kindle, I was surprised Sunday morning to read the Outlook piece by Metro board member Christof Spieler regarding their plans to receive public input on 'making bus service better'.

The link:

Metro works to make bus service easier to use. Christof Spieler, Chron.com

This could be viewed, with reservations, as good news.  For one, it's long been the position of this blog that Metro's antiquated hub and spoke system doesn't serve the transit needs of a city with multiple employment and entertainment centers and, given that Metro has spent an incredibly large amount of money chasing the white whale of central core developing rail, Metro hasn't been putting much thought into what should be the meat of their public transit plan.  In fact, Spieler mentions these exact things in his piece, talking about the need to have bus service that matches the City's needs etc.

On the surface then it's all well and good, the people are going to explain why buses can't take them anywhere in Houston without first going downtown and being force-loaded onto the Danger Train, Metro is going to sagely smile and nod and changes for the good of all are soon to come and we can all ride around town on beautiful buses adorned with T-Mobile adverts. Only Bob Eury will be angry.

Underneath the happy-talk there's an undercurrent of heels-dug-in predetermination that starts to emerge when Spieler speaks of "goals" and "missions". It becomes clear that the blank slate he was talking about in the beginning is not as blank as one might imagine.  First, there are certainly sacred cows, bus routes in places that serve political, as well as mobility, goals.  Second there is still the Danger Train, and the beast has to be fed.  Then there's the, now required, fealty expressed to the central business district and Medical Center, areas which Metro's "stakeholders" (Read: developers) have long-held financial positions in which they've heavily invested and are not ready to relinquish.

Then there's the problem with Metro itself.  For all of the talk about "New" Metro vs. "Old" Metro the differences are basically only seen on the public relations side.  They have done a better job controlling their message and projecting the appearance of transparency.  When it comes to the actual nuts and bolts of transportation operations however they're pretty much the same. The same "side" of the transportation debate, the minority who supports Metro's stated mission of driving development inside the Loop, are the one's whose input is greeted with an open ear while others are shut out, cast as Luddites in a Siemens-constructed new-technology world.

It would seem as if the residents of the Houston region would welcome a totally re-designed bus network that got them where they needed to go quickly and efficiently.  The problem with Metro (either new or old) is that they seem to have a pre-determined preference on these matters regarding what the public should want that's given preference despite what's actually communicated.

If history is any indication then they'll do a good job disseminating the preferred plan to certain activist groups, the Apple Dumpling Gang and other fellow travelers.  If you start to see a symmetry in the "wants" between all of these groups then you know that the "Old" Metro style fix is in. Of course, the way to prevent that would be to hire a third party firm to conduct many of the surveys Metro is touting, and to have them release the full data for all to see, including cross tabs.  Given the history of Metro and its public interaction it's doubtful this option has ever been seriously discussed.  I believe what we're going to be told we want is exactly what Metro has decided we need.

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