Thursday, February 19, 2015

What will be lost?

With the scheduled demise of our current local bus network in August 2015, what will be lost?  A lot, actually, consisting of a lot of headache that infinitely outweighs the sentimental of this ancient mass-transport network that has in one form or another in a single and uninterrupted historical and active continuity dating to ca. 1874 carried this city and region from strength to strength.

This is the mass-transit network that transported Houstonians via mulecar.  It got our town through the latter years of Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, the second half of the Victorian era, the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the post-war boom, the 'Sixties', the oil boom and bust of the '70s and '80s, the 1990s comeback, 9-11, and today's post-'Great Recession' revival.  This is the network that saw the Bayou City through its years of growth from a frontier village to the fourth-largest city in the United States and one of the great cities of the world.

But it is a network that was never iterated upon past ca. 1990.  It was never allowed to grow and evolve with the demographics of our city and region.  It is old.  It is tired.  And to 'tweak' it will be a far-more difficult proposition than just starting over from scratch with a sleek and shiny replacement.

And while there will be an end of an era come this August, it will be in the end the beginning of a new era in Greater Houston mass-transit welcomed by everyone and remembered down through the years as the start of the point where our local bus service caught up to Park & Ride and light rail and became something of which we could be rightly be proud.

It will be the day when to a great many Houstonians, mass-transit finally became relevant.

Yes, there were mulecar lines in Houston going back to as early as 1868 with HT&B Horsecar Line and Houston City Railway, but those lines were discontinued.  The actual continuity of our present local bus service network does indeed go back to ca. 1874 and the Houston City Street Railway with a line going up and down Travis and radiating from same lines on Washington, Congress, Dallas, and San Felipe.

From the beginning, this network radiated from Downtown with spokes radiating from thence and to all places all over the City.  However, and even as with today's network, going north-south through anywhere but Downtown was difficult at-best.

Look at the greatest extent of our streetcar lines in 1927: everything centering on Downtown...

from Steven M. Baron's Houston Electric, page 81

Yes, we have lots of north-south buses that do not go though Downtown nowadays, but how many of them are on the Frequent Network - those buses that come by your stop at least every fifteen minutes on weekday-middays?  In red, here is our Frequent Network as it stands right now.  Check out the resemblance to the streetcar network of 1927!

Downtown-centric..  Difficult to go north-south save through the very center of our city...  A literal horde of routes all converging in upper Downtown near what is now the Theater District...

Take a look at METRO's horrible full System Maps of our current local bus network HERE.  What a Kafka-esque spaghetti-bowl of madness!  No wonder we don't have ridership.  Who save someone well-acquainted with our system over years and years could possibly figure out this mess??

This is a network for a Houston that has not existed in a very long time.  Scads of people are moving out west and southwest.  Not so many live in the northeast of Houston or in the east and southeast.  The time for change has come.  And believe, me, a great change is going to happen.

Compare the above current-Frequent Network map with the coming Frequent Network...

No more radial-hub-and-spoke... (could not find a static image - sorry!)

For the first time ever, Downtown will not be the chief transit hub at the expense of all other areas in the city and region.   Getting from north to south in our system will be far-easier than ever before.  The legions of humanity living in the west and southwest will have immensely-improved bus service in a way I never dreamed was possible.  This is how much inefficiency there is in our current local bus network - that our Frequent Network could be doubled in size!

And look at that grid!  Yes, for the first time, we will have a network of local mass-transit based upon the mathematical and geometrical optimization only a grid can provide.  With a grid structure, it will be easy to add streets to the system, upgrade them to the Frequent Network, and if need-be, downgrade them.  This is a plan designed such that it can be iterated upon indefinitely without the need for a gigantic three-year System Re-imagining to ever be done again.

What??!  It's actually possible to have a government agency doing something competent for a change and giving us a local bus network built to respond to the changing demands of our city and region?  Who knew?

What, then, will be lost in August 2015 with the demise of our local, historic, and character-filled mass-transit network going back to 1874?

A lot worth chucking to the dustbin of history...

And with good riddance...

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