Sunday, February 8, 2015

Why under current System Reimagining plans the current 53 Westheimer Ltd. and its routing is doomed

It offers direct service from Briar Forest west of Gessner to Downtown by way of Westheimer between Gessner and Yorktown, the Galleria, Williams Tower, Rajin' Cajun on Richmond, Greenway Plaza, Lakewood Church, and takes the freeway from Buffalo Speedway into Downtown all the way to Main Street Square METRO Rail station and beyond to the George R. Brown Convention Center.  For Lakewood Church folks, it is the route for getting to and from worship.

My friend, Mark Hogue, who for three decades has been an enormous advocate for mass-transit in Houston, faithfully attending METRO Board meetings for all this time with cogent public comments has been campaigning tirelessly for the retention under System Reimagining of this particular route and routing.

Under METRO's current plans for System Reiimagining, this Briar Forest - Westheimer - Galleria - Richmond - Highway 59 - Downtown non-transfer routing is to be scuttled completely.  It is to be done away with completely because were it to be retained under System Reimagining as currently planned, it would violate almost every single underlying philosophy inherent in the coming new local bus network, set to go live in June 2015.

What follows is an edited portion of an email from Wednesday 27 November discussing a number of things I sent to the folks at METRO and who advocate for mass-transport who have given me the privilege to count them as contacts and as friends.  I have left in my lengthy discussion of this said route.

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the current 53 Westheimer Ltd.  

Bear with me here as I give this a little analysis of my own...

The Richmond Strip:

From my own recollections as well as the info in the above Wikipedia article, the Richmond Strip, which Mark Hogue seeks to avoid at all costs, extends from Chimney Rock westward to Gessner.  The above Wikipedia article seems to imply it ending at Hillcroft, but rest assured of the presence of many a seedy joint all the way out to Tanglewilde.  The Richmond bar/cantina/stripclub scene is by no means dead.

What does the current 53 do?  It provides non-transfer service between Briar Forest west of Gessner, Westheimer & Gessner, Westheimer between Gessner and the western terminus of W. Alabama, the Galleria (though it should be located right under the skybridge to Galleria IV instead of near Post Oak), avoidance of the Richmond Strip entirely, the busy Richmond @ Weslayan intersection (which causes me to ride this bus from time to time when not travelling Downtown), Greenway Plaza, Lakewood Church, and Downtown to the Main Street Square Station via the Southwest Freeway starting from Buffalo Speedway, thereby providing an alternative to the Galleria/Westheimer traffic bottleneck.

The advent of Sunday service for this route made getting around on the Westheimer corridor on that day of the week a lot easier.

Let's consider ridership numbers...

(most-recent available reports)

The current 53 may not be in the top ten in boardings at any day of the week, but it is one of our our twenty highest-performing weekday routes, and on weekends it's solidly in the middle of the pack.

This bus route does a lot of things well and carries a lot of people.  In the paradigm of the current network, it is one of our shining stars.  In the coming re-imagined grid-paradigm, it is easy to see it is an anomoly and I have to, with much reluctance, support its being a regrettable casualty.  Getting from Westheimer to Greenway Plaza will become more of a chore, I'm afraid.

Serving the Briar Forest prtion of the current 53, we have the currently-proposed 153 Harwin Briar Forest Flyer, the intersection of which @ Richmond is west of the Strip.  In getting to Lakewood Church, this bus' terminus at Hillcroft TC is no good as there are no routes that get one to Greenway Plaza.

As I look at the METRO Revised Draft Reimagined Network Plan Map (from whence the above-linked map to the proposed 153 comes, I am reminded this is a plan that is already budget-optimized.  There is no budgetary wiggle-room for the 8 Westheimer to deviate south on Buffalo Speedway to Richmond and back up Edloe to Westheimer.  Such a deviation would bog down the budget and add greatly to the time spent travelling the route, especially during rush-hour.  Such a deviation is the only solution, impractical as it is to avoiding a second transfer from Westheimer to Richmond.

Unfortunately for Mr. Hogue and all the people (me included) who enjoy the anomolous ease and convenience of this singular 53 Westheimer Ltd., I see nothing on the horizon that can be done within the constraints or budget to make for a re-imagined route that can do what the current 53 does without taking budget from the Frequent Network.  For there to be a replication of Mark's favorite bus route, at least two Frequent Network routes would have to be downgraded to blue.  True, the proposed 153 could then be taken away, but that takes away frequency from Harwin, which forces METRO to futz with the 151 Westpark Express and the 152 Harwin Westwood Flyer.

The proposed Re-imagined network plan is designed around not only the geometric efficiency of a grid (I currently buy into this thinking of Jarrett Walker's, btw, wholeheartedly), but also the value gained every inch travelled by a bus.

A complete replication of the current 53 would duplicate service on Westheimer, Richmond, and in Downtown and would create a domino effect, forcing the agency to effectively go back to square one in redesigning the whole of west Houston, which in turn would force a redesign of the entire local bus system to accomodate this change.

Well, if we can't have our 53, why does the inner loop get its 48 Buffalo Speedway?  As I look at this proposed route, it takes what is wonderful about the Galleria portion of the current 73 and injects it with steroids.  The value of what this anomolous-to-the-grid route offers, even though it's only a blue route, is even more amazing than what a replication of the current 53 could offer.

The connection the proposed 48 offers between the Med Center and NWTC is unbelievable.  Not to mention the direct connectivity between those places combined with Rice Village, Greenway Plaza, San Felipe, Highland Village, and West University.  Like the current 73 Galleria branch, I will not use this route all the time, but when I do, it will come in incredibly-handy, particularly as it is the proposed route servicing Rice Village and the southern side of Rice University.

Well, what about this: a proposed route taking in Briar Forest with non-stop service on Westheimer save at the Galleria and ending in Greenway Plaza, avoiding the Strip.  Make this route 'green' (the lowest grade of frequency in the coming system'.  Perhaps make it only a weekend route like the five proposed peak-only routes operating only on weekdays?

To do this, again, we'd have to chuck the proposed 153 and replicate its contribution to the Harwin Frequent Segment in some way.  This gets back to the utter re-design of some parts of the system I was talking about earlier.  And again, this would take away from other routes, the Frequent Network perhaps, compromise the grid with not enough value in return, and create a dangerous precedent that would contribute to the accumulation of eventual route-garbage long outserving its initial usefulness, thereby contributing to another re-imagining a half-century down the road with Lakewood Church being re-located to who-knows-where-bigger-place-Astrodome-Lord-knows-what.

I see no easy solution.  The limited bus budget does not allow it, if nothing else (thanks Mobility funds), and neither does our agency's drive to buck the hooks and snares of customer requests for not enough value in return (wiser and smarter people than I will doubtless correct me on this).

Well, let's think outside the box.  The real issue is the getting from Westheimer to Richmond while avoiding the Strip, yes?  What about this...  A green route beginning at Westheimer at the Beltway with Westheimer stops at Gessner, Fondren, Hillcroft, Renwick/Fountainview, Galleria (W. Alabama), Post Oak, Buffalo Speedway, Edloe, and ending at Greenway Plaza?

Again, duplicate service, and what we have is another 402 Bellaire Quickline, the viability of which for Houston has yet to be proven as the current 402 and future 405 Quickline is/are a guinea pig for future limited-stop signature service.

Well, what about nonstop from Westheimer @ Beltway, taking in Gessner, Renwick (because the proposed 9 is so expansive), Galleria, Lakewood Church, and Greenway?  From where for this service will the money come?

And in the end, this is not just about Lakewood Church, as peopled it may be, and when I say this, I run the risk of parroting my friends in METRO's planning department, it really is about setting a precedent not just for our mass-transit government going forward, but for government in general: not acquiesing to a few at the expense of the many or the whole in return for lesser value.

We have to make the most of our limited resources.

Good government is competence.  Good government is putting the nuts and bolts in the right way to make the machine work smoothly not just for a few, but for everyone or as many people as possible.  We stand at a rare moment when we have a Board who has proven to be one that actually cares about the community it serves and has a real interest in what mass-transit is and could be.

The coming probable-demise of the 53 Westheimer Ltd. is a facet of the switch-a-roo from one mass-transit universe (HouTran, Houston Electric, old METRO, mulecars) to a new one (starting from a clean slate).  In the current network, the 53 works very well, remedying deficiencies in the current system and providing unusual connectivity between improbable places.

In the new network and with our limited funds (a HUGE factor driving everything with this project), something has to give.  And as easy as it is for me to say it as one who will not be adversely affected, the agency has been forced by the dictates of logic, geometry, and finance (especially) to have to do away with something which has for a large group of people to make room to make the lives of a far-larger group of people so much better.

Gone will be the twisting of the current 163 Fondren through the Gulfton area.  Gone will be the Picasso-exhibition that is the stair-stepping current 5 Southmore.  Gone will be the puzzle that is the current 40 Telephone.  Gone will be the 11 'Nance'.

To new existence will be stuff we have either never seen before or have not seen in a long time.  Look at the proposed 48's connectivity between NWTC (which will be the biggest transit hub in alll of METRO) and TMC TC!  Look at the Conan-the-Barbarian right angle of the 9 Renwick!  Look at all that service on San Felipe!  Look at the clean and sleek lines of east Houston and the 69 Broadway forging a mighty red track to Hobby airport.  Yes, there should probably be a train doing what the 69 does currently, but who knows what the future might bring.  The fewer trains we can get away with, the better.

8-minute headway on Westheimer!  8-minute headway on Westheimer!  omgomgomg - all the people who will benefit from the tripling or quadrupling of service on this street!  All we need now are bus lanes through the Galleria - lolz.

How 'bout that schnazzy western portion of the proposed 32 Eldridge!  And the unbelievable connectivity at Mission Bend P&R (should be a Transit Center?)...  And the rocket-buses from Memorial City Mall to Downtown and back!!  And while it's blue, the 66 OST Wayside stands to provide a lot of direct connectivity to a lot of places...  I could go on and on...

Yes, the current 53 will most-likely be no more, but we won't have service on Bingle at all, and the current Plan map screams for same.

As for avoiding the Richmond Strip, the new system will allow for that.  It's just that it will now take two transfers, but without completely junking the whole west Houston part of the proposed map as well as take away from far-more people than would be served by same, I don't know a good solution to allow our Lakewood Church ridership from Briar Forest to be able to do anything other than 153-8-48.

Yeah, this situation is not great at all with that second transfer (or a hot walk down Edloe from Westheimer), and yes, our coming system is not perfect.  In this process, I know METRO has had to make some hard, hard decisions, and within the constraints of budget, it has had to optimize things as best it can within those boundaries.

Of course, there is taking the 153 all the way to Richmond, thereby taking in the entirety of the Strip.  Yeah, this is not fun, and in the wake of being attacked by some drunken fool, I would be a little afraid of that part of town, too.  Without having to take half the map back to square one and compromising the underlying principles of what this transit system needs to be for the next half-century or more as well as staying within budget, I hope a way can be found to at least alleviate the second transfer (Westheimer to Richmond via the 48), which I think for our Lakewood friends the real spanner-in-the-works second to safety concerns about taking that Richmond bus and dealing with characters fresh from a night of partying on the Strip.

This coming Wednesday 11 February 2015 with the reveal of the final network map on which the METRO Board will vote to or not to approve will be quite interesting: will the direct Briar Forest-Westheimer-Greenway-freeway routing be retained in any way, shape or form?

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