The cacophony that surrounded MetroRail yesterday was, for once, not the sound of a crash followed by emergency response sirens, but a celebration of (per Metro) 100 Million train boardings that have occurred since Houston's 7-mile long amusement park ride was placed into service. Houston's boosters for world-classiness in the transportation system were giddy. One imagines that the Apple Dumpling Gang is currently consulting with Houstonians of a sardine-urbanist lean to author an editorial that's sufficiently gushing while not sounding like it came directly from the agency's bloated PR department.
Before that however, the Chron's newly minted transportation blogger/reporter has come out with what is supposed to be a reasoned analysis of the numbers. And while he gets a little bit correct, he has hopped aboard the train on at least one major issue.
100 Million reasons to celebrate, and a few to condemn. Dug Begley, The Highwayman, ChronBlog.
Here’s the actual news: To celebrate its 100 millionth boarding, the Metropolitan Transit Authority is offering free rides on Tuesday. The agency said it ferried its 100 millionth rider last month, four years ahead of schedule.
If you like trains, you point out that in less than a decade, and quicker than projected, the little trains that apparently can have handled 100 million trips. That’s 13.3 million riders per mile and 33,200 people per day, through March 31. For February, the rail system averaged 37,538 trips every weekday.
Those sound like big numbers, and they bolster the point that people will ride rail in Houston. That’s millions of car trips taken off the road and millions of people getting to jobs that maybe they could not afford to drive to, all feeding the local economy.
Emphasis mine, and it illustrates a fallacy about MetroRail that is never properly addressed in the media. Namely, MetroRail, in its current configuration, does not take car trips "off the road" in the numbers that they are claiming. There is probably some reduction of vehicle travel on an intra-day basis. After people drive into work they might hop onto the rail to go to the Medical Center or somewhere to run an errand. In this sense some of those trips are "avoided". The more likely scenario is that people are taking mid-day rides on the train that they otherwise wouldn't take at all. In other words, they might hop on the train after work to head to another location along the line for drinks, or to run a shopping errand. These are not "avoided" trips but "extra" trips. It doesn't mean that this type of trip isn't a benefit of MetroRail, it most certainly is, but it also doesn't mean that "cars have been taken off the road". At some point in this a car trip was required to board the train, so congestion (in a commuting sense) is not affected. It is more accurately argued that MetroRail has taken more cars off the road via collisions than by people choosing to ride the train vs. drive.
A second boarding scenario (a far worse one) is that the current Metro system is using the train as a transfer vehicle, or as a means to handle the "last mile" problem in the downtown core/medical center. In this case people ride a bus into town, and then board the train to transfer to the point where they would get on the next bus, to head to their final destination. The "last mile" issue is when riders disembark from a transit station, and then take the train to a train stop nearer their destination. (I know, it's not an entirely accurate descriptor because, many times, they still will need to walk to their final location.) Metro's (not so) dirty little secret is this: They've intentionally routed their train system to 'force board' passengers already on the bus system onto the rail to boost ridership numbers.
The big problem with using the train as a transfer vehicle is that it's a horribly inefficient use of resources. A more well planned out system would use fixed-rail, grade separated trains to move people into transit centers, and then buses to ferry people to and from somewhere near their final destination.
The last incorrect statement is the contention that Millions of people are now reaching jobs they might not be able to afford to drive to otherwise. This is patently false. There is nowhere that MetroRail has significantly improved service to the point that a once inaccessible job is suddenly reachable via public transit. The toy train services downtown, the museum district the medical center, and Reliant Park. These are hardly areas where prior bus service did not exist. MetroRail didn't expand service, it simply change the mode of transportation to something more expensive, and less flexible.
The biggest problem with MetroRail is that it was designed and implemented to serve a customer that no longer exists. If you remember, back when it was rolled out, much hey was made over getting the system in place before Houston's Super Bowl. The early focus was to move people from an (imagined) long-term downtown entertainment district to Reliant Park. Rail planners envisioned this happening during Texans game and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Unfortunately, the entertainment center in Houston has moved on and the inflexible system has been forced to rely on forced loads and other gimmicks to inflate ridership.
It's mission has also changed. Beyond being an entertainment vehicle MetroRail is now viewed by the sardine-urbanist set as the cog in the wheel of Inner Loop living. Unlike other, more practical, transit systems throughout the world, the idea is not to move people but to try and change how and where they live. On this front MetroRail has been a spectacular failure. Infill development has been slow to materialize, has not shown long-term staying power and is now hampered by speculative land owners. Then there's the fact that the people most likely to use public transportation (the poor and lower middle class) are being priced out of the areas where most of it exists.
This should not be read to mean that I'm anti-train. Nothing could be further from the truth. I've vacationed throughout the world and partaken in some really great public transit. From Seattle to London to Rome, Dublin and Singapore I've been on and enjoyed them all. Rarely on vacation do I rent a car because I simply do not need to. I spent 2 weeks in the Black Heath suburb of London where I took a train into the city every day and then rode buses and the tube to get pretty much everywhere inside the city that I needed to go. MetroRail, because of the agendas of its planners, is designed specifically to prevent people from doing that. It's designed instead to make them want to move inside the Loop. Given the recent census numbers it has failed miserably even at that.