Add METRO’s “transit deserts” to list of obstacles to upward mobility in Houston

Image credit: Pixabay

The Houston Chronicle ran an odd piece on its Sunday news pages that was part profile, part advocacy for greater educational opportunities as a way of fighting income inequality (we think). The headline and subheadline fairly accurately summarize the story’s thrust:

Face of Houston’s income inequality

Man’s commute to school points to city’s need to bridge income gap

While the author of the story clearly wanted to push income inequality, and greater investment in education as a way of trying to address income inequality, there is an undercurrent to this story that did not really draw the attention of author or editors as worth exploring. The subheadline above hints at this, but let’s grab a few more snippets of text to illustrate. Here’s one reference that stood out:

“It’s hard for people around here [in the Third Ward] to think about four years of college when most people don’t even know what’s going to happen in the next four minutes,” said Edmond as he walks to his first bus, shortly before noon for a 3:30 p.m. class.

Here’s the text from the photo accompanying the story:

Jerome Edmond’s commute from Third Ward to the MIAT campus in far north Houston takes roughly 2 1/2 hours.

There’s this:

Having no car compounds the stress of life in the Third Ward.

And finally, there’s the lede (where the protagonist’s lack of transportation options is mentioned, but not ever really addressed as an issue):

Jerome Edmond trudges through the damp grass along the shoulder of the North Freeway, gripping the strap of his backpack. He’s ridden three buses from his home in the Third Ward and now he’s in the homestretch, a mile away from a north Houston technical college where he’s training to be a wind energy and power plant operator.

He walks the last leg, wishing he had a car, past a long row of car dealerships.

First, let’s celebrate the efforts of the subject of this profile to better himself, despite the challenges.

However, let’s also recognize the state of the area’s public transportation as one of those challenges. Three connections, a mile hike to the tech school at the end, and a nearly three-hour commute one way should be considered obstacles in themselves to this man’s efforts to improve his life.

Spieler’s “Re-Imagining” may create more, not fewer, obstacles to mobility

So what is METRO doing to address those obstacles? We think the organization is “Re-Imagining” its bus service in a way that will make these obstacles even worse for some people. Recall that Christof Spieler’s “Re-Imagining” project is based on the premise of reducing service to some areas, of de-emphasizing geographic coverage (translation: service cuts) in favor of more frequent service to others (remember the promise of 50% more bus service in the referendum? METRO promises have a way of not materializing), and creating MORE walks to/from bus stops of a mile or even longer. Call us skeptical when METRO promises more frequent service when it comes to buses — instead, it appears there will be more of the sorts of “transit deserts” that the protagonist of the Chronicle feature is trying to overcome, not fewer.

Re-Imagining Houston Transit: Christof Spieler gets married on the Danger Train (courtesy METRO 2004 Annual Report)
Re-Imagining Houston Transit: Christof Spieler gets married on the Danger Train (courtesy METRO 2004 Annual Report)

It’s a shame that the Chronicle didn’t expand the hints scattered throughout this story into a few grafs on the importance of transit in efforts to promote upward mobility in Houston. If we “re-imagine” our transit services into trinkets that the affluent like to ride around to fun bars/cafes, or even use for their weddings(!), that may not be of much use to far less affluent citizens who are looking to pull themselves up, into the world that considers such luxuries. And THAT may not be the best thing for Houston (as the Chron story suggests, despite not addressing the transit linkage).

Kevin Whited
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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX