A lot of the recent discussion about transportation in Houston has been focused on light-rail and streetcars. These have been great conversations, and I think they are rightly front-and-center considering where we are with METRO and their current LRT expansion plans to date.
There have been a few other pieces of the transportation discussion that we’ve been talking around that I think are pretty important as well.
One item that Cory from Lose An Eye brought up recently was the role of Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, in a Houston transportation program. I think BRT has an important role to play, but I think it serves us best when it’s got the right corridor to run on.
Kuffner has added to the discussion recently, lamenting the difficulty of traversing north-south routes with our packed freeways.
My thoughts on these two issues are that both of them relate to the design of our thoroughfares and local streets and the relationship between the two.
For a long time we’ve had this tension between the importance of automobile thoroughfares, the conflict between accessing local properties and maintaining greater traffic flows, and embracing pedestrians and transit in the same environment. There’s one piece of transportation technology that brings these things together pretty well, and it’s something we need more of in Houston. It’s called a multiway boulevard.
Basically, a multiway is an urban thoroughfare combining express through lanes in the middle with local access lanes on the sides. These local lanes are where the real magic is, they provide parking and a space for pedestrians and cyclists that is separated from the rush of traffic in the middle. They also help keep the main lanes flowing by keeping them clear of turning movements.
One of the world’s best examples of this comes from Barcelona, the Passeig de Gracia.
For even more fun, check out the Passeig de Gracia in Google Streetview.
I’ve spent some time in Barcelona, and from what I observed this street and others like it provide a really positive balance of mobility and local access. There are sidewalk cafes and urban residences facing onto the boulevard’s local access lanes, and traffic in the middle flows pretty smoothly.
Not many of these exist in the US, but there are a few. K Street in Washington DC is a pretty nice multiway. Another more recent example is Octavia Boulevard in San Francisco, which essentially replaced part of their equivalent to ‘the spur’ into downtown.’
Here’s a diagram of how this street type works, from the San Francisco Planning Department:
This approach is a great change from the conventional ‘arterial’ design because it separates out conflicting travel needs. It’s really the same design idea as a freeway, if you put the local access on a side road you free up the main lanes. The difference is a multiway operates at lower speeds and is compatible with urban neighborhoods.
The last major point to consider is this, in addition to creating local access lanes that are much more pedestrian friendly while maintaining automobile efficiency in the center lanes, you create the opportunity for vastly improved transit service. How so? The medians between the main lanes and the local lanes become ideal places for a BRT stop. In some areas you wouldn’t even need a dedicated bus lane. Check out the street view of Passeig de Gracia again and you’ll see how this works.
So the question is, where would these work in Houston?
One cool thing is, we kind of have one of these already: Allen Parkway. Allen is one of the nicest roads in Houston, and a lot of this has to do with the way it handles intersections. The main lanes dip down at the biggest intersections, while access lanes intersect with the cross street. That’s the multiway concept taken to the maximum auto-orientation, but it’s still not a bad street to live near. It’s scenic, it’s fun to drive, it stays fairly clear even during rush hour, you can walk or bike on the trails beside it, and it’s not nearly as noisy as a freeway because the speeds are closer to 50 MPH on the road.
Looking across at Allen’s neighbor to the north, Memorial Drive is much more of a freeway from Downtown to Detering St. From Detering outbound it becomes a more typical urban thoroughfare, but from Detering to Westcott you have tremendous potential to create a world-class street by making Memorial a multiway. Where are some others?
There are plenty of places that this could be a good idea, but those are some of the most obvious. What are the big things we should look for in deciding candidates for a multiway?
The last step is to look at where these streets are in context to regional transportation needs, and prioritize based on the demand for transit in a corridor. BRT Corridors are ideal as connectors between existing transit corridors, as extended circulators for large employment districts, and as primary transit in areas where retrofitting for rail would be impractical. In the map below I’ve highlighted some conceptual BRT corridors and multiways, and also the approximate routes for METRORAIL in 2012.
The goal of these lines is to illustrate connections between areas of medium/high residential density to areas with large commercial centers. Some of the corridors run parallel to a METRO line, and would offer complementary transit, some run perpendicular and would connect corridors, and some run entirely new routes designed to link areas that are currently underserved, like the Heights, and in particular the Heights’ main street area along 19th street.
In particular, North Main is an interesting option because it could also offer a certain percentage of commuters coming in from I-45 an alternate route into the central and east sides of downtown. The challenge there is METRO’s intermodal terminal, which promises to significantly reconfigure the surface streets north of downtown. Until we know where there will be streets it’s hard to say how a bus would get into downtown. Nonetheless, there will be a good way in.
At the end of the day, though, any transit system has to have a mix of frequent stopping local service for local access and infrequent stopping express service for commuting. The challenge in Houston is how to get anything to work much outside the loop when distances become greater and destinations less compact. I have some ideas… but those will have to wait for another day
A mix of investment in multiways and BRT could go a long way to making Houston’s transit system truly world-class. These ideas are just a sketch to help start the discussion, I’m sure there are loads of other corridors worthy of consideration. If you’ve got ideas on the subject, sound off in the comments and let me know!