Houston’s Main Street Line opened 5 years today to a strange mix of high and low expectations. On one hand, it was the long-overdue product of nearly 25 years of planning since METRO was created, with an explicit voter mandate to build rail, in 1979. In a way that the HOV lanes never did, it represented improved transit in a city that had long been demanding it. On the other hand, it was a modest beginning: only 7.5 miles and 16 stations, designed to fit a $300 million price tag that Lee Brown considered politically acceptable. It was widely considered to be too little, too late: a line going nowhere.
Today, by every measure, the Main Street Line is a huge success:
- It carries 40,000 people on an average weekday. That’s remarkable for a line so short; it’s more than the 12-mile line in Minneapolis, the 25-mile system in Pittsburgh, 27-mile system in northern New Jersey, the 30-mile system in Baltimore, or the 42-mile system in San Jose. Only one other light rail system in the United States carries more passengers per mile, and that’s Boston’s, which had a 100-year head start. Dallas carries less than twice as many passengers on seven times as much track built for $2 billion.
- It’s turned out to serve a lot of trips very well. About half of rail riders have a one-seat ride, compared to only 34% of Houston bus riders.
- It has attracted new riders to transit. Half of riders have a car available; 40% didn’t ride transit before the line opened. It even seems to have attracted people to connecting bus routes: 12% of Houston bus riders weren’t riding before rail opened.
- It’s made service faster, more reliable, and more frequent for many existing transit riders.
- It has proven (again) that Houstonians will walk. 2/3 of light rail trips start on foot.
- It has attracted a wide range of riders going to a wide range of destinations. Unlike the Park-and-Ride buses, which are full during rush hour but idle during the day, the light rail line is carry lots of people all day, every day. Average weekend ridership is around 15,000, more than any Houston bus route carries on a weekday. Only about half of trips are home-to-work. I’ve found myself on standing room only trains on every day of the week and nearly any time of day.
- It’s reduced the number of accidents on Main Street. Yes, that’s true: there were more car wrecks on Main before rail was built than there are now.
- It has supported extensive development along the line: new highrises Downtown, new hospitals in the Medical Center, and new apartments in the Museum District: at least 50 significant projects.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of this story is that Houston is now considered a model for effective, cost-efficient transit. Along with Dallas and Denver, it’s proven that light rail isn’t effective only on the East and West Coasts. Now we have light rail in operation in Phoenix, Minneapolis, and Charlotte, and under construction in Norfolk. Houston has also created helped create a new model for light rail. Older systems were generally suburban-oriented, using freeways or abandoned rail lines. Since planning started in Houston, though, we’ve seen a series of new lines running down streets in the urban core: the starter line in Phoenix, the University Line in Salt Lake City, the Central Corridor in Minneapolis, and the Third Street Line in San Francisco.
The Main Street line is a testament to the value of putting infrastructure in the right place. A clue to its success: only 8 square miles, or 0.4%, of Harris County, is within walking distance of the Main Street Line. But that area includes 6% of the county’s jobs. This light rail line may be short. But it goes where people what to go.
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