METRO Next: Why the building of rail lines and transit guide ways to connect activity centers theory is bunk

Image Credit: METRO (Vision & Moving Forward Plans, 26 July 2018)

This past week, I wrote the first of what I intend to be a series of posts on the $7+ billion METRO Next proposal. I principally wrote about my longstanding criticisms of building rail transit in low-density urban centers such as Houston. In today’s epistle, I’m going to take a very close look at one longstanding rationale that was (and is) offered for building fixed guide ways and rail lines.

The idea of activity centers

Transit agencies and rail supporters often talk about connecting activity centers as a rationale for spending lots of money to build exclusive guide ways and rail lines. So, what is an activity center? Well, there’s no dictionary-type definition that is given, but the phrase is usually used to refer to a spot in an urban area where large numbers of people, for whatever reason, converge and gather on a daily basis. With this idea in mind, there are a number of areas around Houston that could be considered to be activity centers. They include:

  1. Downtown Houston: An employment center with some 150,000 jobs.
  2. The Port of Houston: The port is directly responsible for probably over 100,000 jobs.
  3. The Texas Medical Center: Another major employment center with 100,000 or more jobs.
  4. The Clear Lake / NASA area: Perhaps a few tens of thousands of jobs.
  5. Greenway Plaza: An employment center with a similar number of jobs to NASA / Clear Lake.
  6. The Uptown / Galleria area: The area around Houston’s most famous shopping mall has some 30,000 jobs.
  7. The University of Houston / TSU area: UH has over 40,000 students and faculty, while TSU’s student body has some 8,000 students.
  8. The I-10 / Beltway 8 Energy Corridor: Again, another employment areas with a few tens of thousands of employees.
  9. The Beltway 8 / Greenspoint Mall area: Similar to other minor employment areas, with a few tens of thousands of jobs.
  10. Houston’s two main airports: Hobby and Bush Intercontinental. Hobby serves some 35,000 – 40,000 passengers per day, while Intercontinental serves some 110,000 – 120,000 passengers per day.

The theory behind connecting activity centers is pretty straightforward. We observe that there are large numbers of people traveling to and from these areas, and those folks need a way to connect. Hence, since large numbers of people are traveling to and fro, wouldn’t it make sense to build a separated guide way and move them by bus rapid transit or rail? Why yes, Virginia! That sounds like a great idea!

I’ve been fascinated by land use and transportation for almost two decades. I’ve known about this rationale for years, but to be honest I never really gave the argument for connecting activity centers with rail transit very close thought – that is, until very recently.

So, what prompted my newfound curiosity and inquiry into the connecting activity centers argument? Well, it mainly had to do with thinking about the part of the METRO Next referendum regarding connecting downtown Houston to Hobby Airport via the extension of one of the existing rail lines. To reiterate, on paper, the argument for running a rail line to Hobby Airport (or Bush Intercontinental) is straightforward. There are some 150,000 Houstonians who work downtown, and Houston’s airports are teeming with activity as well. Hence, there are obviously thousands of people congregated together just ready to take transit to get from downtown Houston to Houston’s airports, right?

Up until now, the actual building of a rail line to Hobby was still a figment in people’s imaginations, including mine. Now however, there is a very real chance that such a project might turn out to become concrete reality. With that in mind, I started to think very carefully about the issue. Suddenly, two big questions entered my mind:

1) Exactly how many people who are in downtown Houston (usually working) would have a reason to want or need to travel to Hobby Airport on any given day? The same goes for the reverse trip. How many people coming into Hobby Airport want or need to go to downtown Houston?


2) Just as importantly, asking that first question led me to think about asking the second question: Namely, of all the people who do have a reason to travel from downtown Houston to Hobby Airport, how many of them would take transit to get to their destinations? The same goes for traveling from Hobby Airport to downtown Houston. How many of the people leaving Hobby for downtown Houston would take transit? That number will be smaller than the total number of people who are actually traveling from one activity center point to another.

Bear in mind that both of Houston’s major airports serve the entire Houston metropolitan area, not just downtown Houston. I gave a casual estimate in my last post that perhaps 5-10% of travelers going to and from Hobby Airport might be coming from downtown Houston. That percentage, which is likely quite generous, would still mean that only a few thousand passengers would be traveling on the train on a daily basis. I worked in downtown Houston for 19 years of my career. In all those 19 years, I traveled from my job in downtown Houston to Hobby Airport and back only one time! That was for a business trip I took with some colleagues and a vendor where we flew Southwest Airlines to Dallas to visit a data center located up there. The thought then occurred to me that the actual travel market between downtown and the airports is really quite small. Ergo, spending into the billions of dollars on rail to move such a small number of patrons is absurd. Charles Blain over at Urban Reform posted a study which came to the same conclusion.

Where do Houstonians who travel to Houston’s activity centers live and how do they get to them?

These ideas of trip generation and people traveling from one point to another can be seen in a post that I wrote five years ago regarding the Post Oak bus lane project. In that post, I wrote about a presentation by Andy Icken, a longtime high-level City of Houston bureaucrat. Mr. Icken noted that 95% of the 30,000 employees who work in the Galleria area actually live along Westheimer, in nearby neighborhoods like Tanglewood or Briargrove, in the Memorial area, or along an arc that runs along the west side of Houston from the Spring Branch area down to Sugar Land. Very few employees were shown as living inside the 610 Loop.

So why was that presentation so important? What Mr. Icken’s presentation revealed is that the 30,000 Galleria area employees were (and are) scattered over a wide arc around west Houston. They are not concentrated along a single road or corridor! And why is that important? The reason that is important is that METRO and Houston’s political class have been effectively pushing the argument for the past two decades that it is imperative to build these transit corridors because not only are there a large number of people congregating in these activity centers, but also that the way large numbers of Houstonians will get to these activity centers is by taking transit along dense corridors from exactly this point along the transit corridor to exactly that point along the transit corridor!

And yet, what Mr. Icken’s study revealed is that is not what is happening in the Galleria. Instead, perhaps it is more helpful to think in a metaphorical way. One can imagine each of Houston’s activity centers as being a kind of sun in a celestial galaxy. As for how Houstonians get to each activity center, they are getting to them from a huge and scattered number of points of origin from around the Houston area, mostly by motor vehicles, rather than simply traveling from one big activity center area to another. In other words, Houstonians are like rays of light of those suns, converging on Houston’s activity centers from many different places. When their days are over, they radiate back home, again like sun rays, traveling back out to all of those of many and scattered points of origin where they came from. When one starts to see travel patterns in Houston in this way, a whole new picture emerges, and it is not one of Houstonians congregated together traveling in teeming hordes from one activity center to another.

One can also see these patterns of travel when we examine what is happening with METRO and travel into downtown Houston and the central business district. It has long been observed that some 30% of workers in downtown Houston take transit to get to work. That is useful to know, but in the context of this post, we need to ask exactly where are all those trips originating? A partial answer to that question is easily found from reading the ridership reports on METRO’s own website. For example, the April 2019 ridership report notes that METRO’s Park and Ride routes accounted for a total 33,237 boardings per day in April 2019, with many or most of those headed towards downtown Houston. Yet, once again, what is critically important to note here is that those 33,000+ boardings per day are originating from no fewer than 25 Park and Ride lots – here’s the magic word again! – scattered all across the entire perimeter of METRO’s service jurisdiction. Another six routes in METRO’s Park and Ride regime offer services in off-peak times. All those boardings are not coming from dense centralized corridors, contrary to the arguments that have been pushed for rail and corridors.

We also need to note that downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center area are the only activity centers in the Houston area that are pulling in those travel shares via transit. All the other activity centers in Houston are getting much smaller, single-digit percentages of their trips from transit.

So, what to do with these observations?

These observations of trip origination and destination – where Houstonians are actually coming from and where they are going – need to be applied to any corridor METRO proposes, FOREVER! For example, the much fought-over “University” rail line that was scheduled to be built from the November 2003 METRO referendum was supposed to connect no fewer than four activity centers. METRO has included this corridor once again in METRO Next, but has included the route as a bus rapid transit (BRT) route and not as a rail line. Even so, the theory behind connecting activity centers says that the rationale for this route is that the activity centers of the University of Houston, TSU, Greenway Plaza, and the Galleria area will all be tied together by one corridor route.

What I argue here is that tying together four designated activity centers via a BRT or rail line is not enough of a rationale on its own for spending all that money to build a dedicated guide way. The real acid questions that need to be answered are, once again, exactly how many people are traveling via transit to/from the University of Houston (or TSU) along Wheeler Street and Richmond Avenue to Greenway Plaza? How many are traveling to the Galleria? Likewise, how many people who are in the Galleria have a reason to travel along Richmond or go to Wheeler? How many Galleria-area residents are traveling to the two universities? METRO has, for decades, run the #25 Richmond Avenue bus route, which in its modern form covers nearly the entire proposed BRT/rail route. Indeed the bus route runs far longer than the proposed guide way route, terminating at one of METRO’s transit centers on the far west side of Houston. The ridership of the #25 Richmond Avenue bus route has fluctuated over the years around 6,000 – 7,000 boardings per day. That figure is not likely to go up all that much even with the construction of a dedicated guide way, because it is likely that practically all of the riders who would otherwise use a BRT or rail line in the corridor are riding the bus already.


The rationale of connecting activity centers via rail or other high quality transit does not hold up well under close inspection. The proponents of spending lots of tax money to connect Houston’s activity centers via rail or guide ways have not asked deeper questions such as where Houstonians are starting their trips to reach these activity centers, and where Houstonians are going once they leave them? If proponents have, they have not given Houstonians honest answers to these questions. Among the results of not asking these deeper questions, Houston METRO has built three rail lines at the cost of $2.2 billion that have resulted in ridership numbers no higher than METRO’s better performing bus routes. If these questions aren’t asked first, then it is highly probable that METRO will end up spending billions of dollars more on rail and transit guide ways, including ones from downtown Houston to both of Houston’s airports, that will end up with high-cost/ low-ridership fates similar to those of the last three rail lines.

Travel patterns by Houstonians, rather than being giant, thick corridor marks going from one activity center to others, more closely resemble lots of little tiny specks that converge in on all of Houston’s activity centers from all over the place. Then, these patterns reverse as Houstonians disperse themselves and radiate away from Houston’s activity centers when they go home for the day.

In the future, it would really help both METRO and taxpaying Houstonians to ask some questions before falling all over themselves to vote in favor of the METRO Next referendum, or to spend lots of money on transit:

  1. Does a route, a corridor, or proposed connection between activity centers have a bus route (or bus routes) operating along it already? If not, then try operating a bus route first and see what the results are before making the leap to putting a rail line or dedicated guide way along the corridor. It’s a lot easier on the taxpayer wallets, and doing that will cut out quite a bit of the complaining about METRO.
  2. Ask the hard acid questions on any route, rail line, or guide way, about trip generation. Where are people coming from, where are the traveling to, and why? Do not assume that just because quite a large number of people congregate in a certain area, that is enough in and of itself to justify voting for METRO Next or spending lots of money on transit to go there. At bottom, that is what Connor Harris was complaining about in his post at Urban Reform.
  3. Be honest in ridership assessments before construction starts. Few things get people like me angrier than writing posts like this one, because METRO, aided and abetted by the Houston Chronicle, lied – and lied big time – to the US-FTA, the media, and to the public about costs, previous bus service in the corridors, and ridership estimates before projects were started.

And with that, I’ll call it a wrap. I will consider other aspects of METRO Next in my next post.