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Transit Field Trip: Houston 2010

So for Spring Break I took the family down to Houston to do a bunch of museums - and we stayed at the Holiday Inn Medical Center, which is close-ish (not real close) to the Main Street light rail line. My only condition for the trip was that we had to ride the line once; which we did.

Thursday we drove to the Hermann Park Zoo on this route. As it turns out, we had to park slightly further away than the light rail station actually was (and even that was a very long walk). The close-in lot that we could otherwise have used was difficult to approach since the road that apparently would have taken us there was closed by the cops (I have a handicapped plate thanks to the reactive arthritis). So we parked about a block and a half away from the train station, and paid $12 for the privilege. Hooray. Streetscape in the Medical Center is very nice and very busy - in a good way. Pointed out to the family that the basic layout here matches what we would have had in front of UT with the 2000 light rail proposal (and now can probably never have).

During the time we took just to cross the street, a train in each direction went by - each one standing-room-only. Headway this time of day is every 6 minutes. Turns out it takes long enough to cross the street there that you'll always see a train either coming or going.

Leaving the zoo on the long walk, once again saw a couple of trains; once again standing-room-only.

Friday was the train day. Got a late start thanks to sleeping in and a late breakfast; then walked about 1/2 mile (remember, this was the point of the day for me) and boarded at the Dryer/TMC station. Bought our single-ride tickets (really a 2-hour pass) from the vending machine without incident - although couldn't take pictures as the train was arriving fast enough we just had to board immediately. We went only three stations up the line to the Museum District station and then took another longish walk back to the Museum of Natural Science (which sucked). The train this time was about half full - we actually got to sit down.

Left the Natual Science Museum (which sucked) and took the train back at about 5:00. Standing room only again; again no wait for the train; pointed out to the 16 year old that Texans won't ride public transportation; walked back to the hotel. The end.

On this drive, saw a good instance of TOD (brand new block-spanning apartment complex advertising proximity to the train; parking garage not readily apparent - doubtlessly THERE, but the complex is clearly oriented to the train, not the drive - unlike the joke at Crestview Station).

Saturday was wet and cold, and our destination (Downtown Aquarium) was way too far from the train to do that way; so we drove; but I made sure to drive next to the train most of the way. Even on a wet sloppy day, the trains were relatively full; frequent; and uneventful. Pointed out to the family that the cross-section in the Museum District on the one-way streets matched what we would have had on Guadalupe/Lavaca downtown between MLK and 9th-11th-ish on the 2000 light rail proposal. Second half of the day we spent at the Childrens' Museum which was a workable walk from the train station, but we already had the car, so we drove.

Sunday was NASA. No train, obviously. 6 year old would have spent the entire time in the giant playscape had we let him.

Overall conclusions:

  • Houston's still a sprawling mess, which is depressing. They've also got a good urban core which has gotten a lot better in the Medical Center area, which is also depressing, since they did it by just following the easy recipe for light rail success that we're ignoring.
  • The CityPass is a good deal only if you're not that much into the Natural Science museum. Everything that was interesting there was a separate charge. Ugh.
  • The Downtown Aquarium is OK but a half-day event. The restaurant is expensive but really worth it; the kids (and the adults) LOVED the fish while we ate. Even the baby was enthralled.
  • NASA: Would be nice if you didn't have to have an adult or adult-like substance sitting next to the playscape all friggin' day.
  • The rail line is a success. Period. 36,000 daily trips. And they're actually paying money to ride. They've fixed most of their safety issues; it's very hard to interact with the train now and not know exactly what you're supposed to do - and interactions are kept to a minimum; unlike the current debacle at 51st/Airport which I warned you about in November and the city/CapMet are just starting to take seriously.

No more time. Trainin', trainin', trainin'. Not that kind of train, sadly.

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The tunnels are pretty cool too. We took them from our hotel to the museum district. There's a lot of value to providing pedestrians with an air-conditioned concourse in Texas in the summer.

Another important point, because Houston's red line was done well, has proven its worth, and was intentionally chosen as a possible backbone for a wider system, the political capital was there to expand the system to five new lines: http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/houston1.jpg

The new lines will connect downtown to the Galleria area (high density commercial, office, and residential development), Greenway Plaza (like a mini downtown), UH's main campus, and the near north and east sides, which are rapidly adding density. Plans are developing to add lines out to the airports, and commuter lines to the suburbs (note the order of operations here: Get a viable urban rail system set, and everyone will want to connect to it)

I left Houston in '05 for Austin, and it's bittersweet to see Houston getting it right, and Austin getting it so very wrong, in a way that makes it unlikely we can ever get it right.

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