Houston’s first bus rapid transit line debuts with disappointing results

There are few places in Houston as busy as the corner of Westheimer and Post Oak, as cars and trucks — many of which carry just the driver — pass through the intersection.

A large gray bus cuts through the crowd on a freezing mid-morning, alone in its own lane, heading south towards Williams Tower and its next station serving The Galleria. No one goes up or down, as dozens of cars and trucks pass.

Another southbound bus approaches a few minutes later. Nobody gets on or off, but dozens of cars and trucks stop and go.

Houston’s transportation future isn’t moving many people, even as traffic rebounds to pre-pandemic levels and ridership returns to many Metropolitan Transit Authority lines. The Silver Line, touted as a viable alternative to light rail using its own tracks and stations along Post Oak through the heart of Uptown, carried fewer passengers in January than 40 of Metro’s bus lines. The line, which runs every 12 minutes and avoids traffic jams in the Galleria area, is a vital route for those who use it, but carries less than 10% of the passengers it was built for on opening day .

“Every bus that passes is empty,” said Mike Riley, 61, who lives and works in Uptown. “After all that work, you might see three people waiting for a bus.”

Despite heavy use of the Silver Line — Houston’s first bus rapid transit project — transit officials aren’t pressing the panic button, Post Oak, or any of the other 75 miles of bus rapid transit provided in the area.

“These are 50-year projects,” said Metro CEO Tom Lambert, acknowledging that the line has lower ridership than expected but has faced near-constant headwinds since opening in August 2020.

After Uptown officials spent $192 million rebuilding the street to expand the line, operated by Metro, to carry 12,000 passengers a day, bus drivers carry fewer than 800 on many working days.

The 60-foot vehicles use a dedicated bus lane along the 610 loop and their own lanes along a 2.3-mile stretch of Post Oak to provide more light rail-like bus service, if stopping only at stations between the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and the 610 loop and then Westpark Lower Uptown Transit Center near Interstate 69 along Westpark Drive.

Each expectation of Houston transit in the years to come makes these two transit hubs major transfer points for buses within the urban core. The Silver Line, built to connect them, is expected to make more than 30,000 trips a day by 2030, more than the Red Line light rail does today.

Currently, however, it only does a fraction of that, even though the roads around it are seeing an upsurge in use.

“We don’t look at this in a one- or two-year frame,” Lambert said. “We have to be very patient.”

Not everyone is willing to give Metro the benefit of the doubt.

“It’s typical of anything they’ve done,” said Ken Grohl, 55, a critic of the Post Oak plan before construction even began. “’Oh, that’ll be great, you’ll see.’ Well, what I see are empty buses. Then they spout excuses.

The first few months of Silver Line service have been unprecedented, with a combination of factors affecting transit ridership in general and the Silver Line in particular. COVID has cut public transit use, as well as most car travel, in half in the Houston area. Riders were advised to stay off public transit at the exact time or Metro would have offered free rides and an advertising campaign. Parking and ride service, which was to be a major draw for Uptown commuters to hop on the Silver Line, fell from 33,000 trips a typical day in the area to less than 4,000 when the BRT started operating on Post Oak.

In many cases, those park-and-ride commuters still haven’t returned. Kastle, a building safety data firm that tracks office usage, estimates that only 51.3% of Houston-area office workers have returned to their pre-pandemic desks. In Uptown, where park-and-ride use has long been tied to strict parking limits in office garages, fewer workers and staggered shifts are making driving more convenient for some, at least until until the traffic becomes terrible again or the plentiful parking dries up.

This leads to low usage of the Silver Line, officials said, even as other bus lines approach their 2019 levels. The Silver Line drew an average of 800 daily riders for the first time in November and December, then fell to 669 in January, depending on metro ridership.

Alma Cato of Cypress puts away her wireless headphones as she prepares to get off the Metropolitan Transit Authority Silver Line Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Houston.  Cato gets on a park-and-ride and Silver Line to get to work.

Alma Cato of Cypress puts away her wireless headphones as she prepares to get off the Metropolitan Transit Authority Silver Line Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Houston. Cato gets on a park-and-ride and Silver Line to get to work.

Yi-Chin Lee, Photographer / Staff Photographer

Two of those trips, five days a week, are made by Alma Cato, 52, who heads from her Cypress-area home to her office near Williams Tower. His office, which does technical reproduction work for the oil and gas industry, cannot operate as a work-from-home business and quickly recalled workers. Cato’s 15-person carpool, however, was not reactivated, so she opted for commuter buses and a trip along the Silver Line. Arriving early, she said it was often a solo trip, or nearly so, on the 60ft bus.

“Bus drivers know me,” Cato said recently on her way home.

Although she considers the bus a lifesaver, she said she understands why the passengers did not return.

“I think some of them are still scared of the pandemic,” Cato said.

As a result, they fail to see how much better the Silver Line is than the Route 33 Post Oak bus it replaced.

“That bus was full of people,” Cato said. “He was late all the time, because of the traffic.”

The Silver Line, the riders said, removed all that inconvenience.

“It’s the only bus I know will be on time,” said Samia Dekonor, 42, who now relies on the Silver Line to get to work.

At first, Dekonor said she resisted the change, thinking the bus would be too erratic and make occasional trips difficult, such as jumping and getting on for shopping.

“I had my way of thinking,” she said. “I was wrong.”

Lambert said transit officials believe early concerns about the line will also prove false, as plans for transit in the Houston area begin to pick up steam.

“As we start to see the commuter network grow, what you’ll see is those plans coming to fruition,” Lambert said.

A Metro Silver Line bus drives along Post Oak in the Galleria Thursday, August 26, 2021 in Houston.

A Metro Silver Line bus drives along Post Oak in the Galleria Thursday, August 26, 2021 in Houston.

Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle/Team Photographer

Many of these plans feed into major routes, including the Silver Line. As part of the $7.5 billion plan approved by voters in 2019, Metro plans to make high-occupancy toll lanes along many highways two-way, meaning two-way bus lanes for commuters. parking and transit lines to Uptown and Downtown Houston, feeding into the Uptown Transit Center.

From the Northwest Transit Center at the northern end of the Silver Line, Metro is weeks away from approving a bus rapid transit concept along I-10 downtown. A third project, possibly the longest BRT line in the country, is planned from northeast Houston to Westpark near the Sam Houston Tollway, crossing the east end near the University of Houston and Texas campuses. Southern University, then through Midtown, Greenway Plaza and south to Uptown.

Each project, Lambert said, has huge support and promises more people for Silver Line travel.

“What we’re seeing is that people want more options,” Lambert said, when asked if Silver Line’s low usage is leading to pushback on other projects. “The pushback we’re getting is to do more.”

Whatever the next few months or years, Lambert said it will likely involve more Silver Line-like services, not less.

For runners who already use it, losing the line would be a step backwards.

“If they get rid of this bus, it will be very difficult,” Cato said.

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