Metro Update, and the Epic Failure of Transit-Oriented Development in Dallas

This week is an excellent analytical guest post from Oscar Slotboom.

The Latest Metro Ridership

Metro ridership has been stuck around 55% down for the last year, and was down 54% with 138,975 weekday boardings in the most recent data. Nationally, transit patronage has come up from its 2020 low point, reaching 50% of pre-covid patronage in June.

Metro Ridership 2021

Click the image to view full size.

For perspective, average daily highway traffic on the Katy Freeway near Gessner dropped 18% from 387,769 in 2019 to 317,629 in 2020. Traffic counts are reported with a single annual value, and highway traffic in 2021 has returned to near pre-Covid levels in most places.

The Inner Katy BRT

Metro held a virtual meeting on August 16 for the Inner Katy bus rapid transit (BRT), part of the MetroRapid feature of MetroNext, which will provide a fast connection to downtown for commuter bus services on the Katy and Northwest freeways, and also provide service to the new Uptown BRT. A nice feature of the Metro’s depictions is that the stations will have bypass lanes for express buses, so they won’t be slowed by local service.

Separately, TxDOT is studying the addition of managed lanes on this segment, and one of TxDOT’s options is covered by Metro Option 3 (Tell Metro you support Option 3 here!). The managed lanes are the most critical link in the MaX lanes network which Tory and I have promoted, and would also be part the REAL Network being planned by TxDOT. Unfortunately, H-GAC recently denied TxDOT’s request to include the managed lanes in the regional plan. The project will be reconsidered for inclusion in May 2023.

Regular readers will know that Tory and I are big advocates of BRT as a much better alternative to light rail, so we are glad to see this BRT project moving forward. To summarize the advantages of BRT:

  • Light rail is obscenely expensive, with the most recent Metro expansions which opened in 2013 and 2015 costing around $152 million per mile, and the current national average just over $200 million per mile. BRT is far less expensive. Although cost reduction will vary, a good estimate is that BRT costs one-third as much as light rail.
  • Light rail is painfully slow, with MetroRail averaging 14 miles per hour, slightly slower than than the national light rail average of 15.8 mph (page 5). Street-level BRT will be about the same, but grade-separated BRT such as the Inner Katy BRT should be at least twice as fast.
  • Light rail is totally inflexible and unadaptable, usable only by trains. With BRT, buses can serve any route and then enter the BRT facilty. A BRT guideway could potentially be used by technologies of the future, such as automated transit vehicles.
  • Metro’s light rail expansions opened in 2013 and 2015 have low ridership. Pre-covid (Jan 2019 through March 2020), the Red Line north extension ridership on a per-mile basis was only 24% of the original Red Line, and the Green/Purple Lines combined were only 21% of the original red line.
  • Street-level light rail is subject to conflicts with cars and pedestrians, while grade-separated BRT as planned for the Inner Katy project eliminates this hazard.

Read the rest of this piece first on Houston Strategies.

Oscar Slotboom was born and raised in Sharpstown near the Southwest Freeway and a 1985 graduate of Sharpstown High School. He received a BSME from Texas A&M in 1989 and an MSME from UT-Austin in 1990, and worked in the energy industry at the Schlumberger Sugar Land campus in the 1990s before switching to the technology industry in 1998. In 2003, Oscar published Houston Freeways, A Historical and Visual Journey. He continues to do research and analysis of transportation.

Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Urban Reform Institute (formerly Center for Opportunity Urbanism) and co-authored the original study with noted urbanist Joel Kotkin and others, creating a city philosophy around upward social mobility for all citizens as an alternative to the popular smart growth, new urbanism, and creative class movements. He is also an editor of the Houston Strategies blog.