Public transportation in Houston

Everyone says public transportation in Houston is horrible.

I’ve lived there now for a few months, without a car, and it’s not as bad as everyone makes out. There’s some real positives, in fact — but there also are some real drawbacks.

I’d say the biggest drawback is that you really cannot get out into the suburbs, at all. If you go to Chicago, or Philadelphia, or New York, or San Francisco, or Washington D.C., you can take a train or a metro quite far out of the city. For example, if you’re in Chicago, you can take a local train out to Wheaton College (27 miles away), or the cute little town of Glen Ellyn. If you’re in D.C., you can take the metro to New Carrollton (okay, fine, that’s only 12 miles away, not that far.) If you’re in Philadelphia, you can take the trains and buses out to Ursinus College (30 miles away, and very cute), or out to the quaint town of Doylestown (almost 35 miles away, although it’s debatable whether it’s actually all that quaint.)

In Houston, sadly, you can’t do any of that. There’s no local trains taking you out of the city. There’s just some buses. For example, you can take the bus to the suburb of Cypress, which is about 30 miles away. Now this is all fine and dandy and totally great, EXCEPT, these buses only run Monday through Friday, only during commuting hours. So you can’t go to Cypress on the weekends, at all, via public transportation. And if you’re in Cypress, you can’t head for the city. This is true for all the surrounding settlements around Houston. You can’t go to Sam Houston National Forest, north of the city; you can’t get to Bear Creek Pioneers Park, to the west. Just suppose you’d really like to get to the suburb of Pasadena, for a Christmas market; well, you can’t. Or you want to go to visit someone in the suburb of Sugarland. Can’t do that, either. You’re just stuck in the city. The only direction slightly accessible is to the southeast, towards the seacoast, as you can get a bus to Galveston.

I used to live in Philadelphia. The city was somehow just more manageable than Houston. I biked all over the place. I wouldn’t probably bike there today, having lost my youthful fantasy of invincibility since then; but it was doable. Most of the streets are set out on a grid, most of the streets have sidewalks, most of the streets connect simply and easily to each other. It might take you two hours, but you can definitely get from one side of the city to the other. Not so in Houston. When I compare back to Philadelphia, Houston feels like one big freeway. Freeway here and freeway there — even if you wanted to bike, how are you going to manage it when everything connected by freeway?

Just another note on that commuter bus that goes to Cypress: its sole destination is a park-and-ride lot in Cypress. That’s it. So everyone else gets off the bus and just goes to grab their car and drive home; but if you don’t have a car waiting for you, then you either are going to walk to circles around the park-and-ride lot, or you are going to have to call for a Lyft to get to your final destination, wherever that is in Cypress. There’s no other bus at the park-and-ride lot to take you anywhere. It sucks.

Given all of this, if you want to live in Houston without a car, then you need to live pretty close to your work, for two reasons: 1) if you live in the suburbs, then there’s a good chance you won’t be able to get to work on the buses; and 2) if you live in the city, but, say, 5 miles away from your job, there’s a good possibility that the buses will take an hour to get you to work. So good luck with that!

This means that you probably want to live no more than two to three miles away from your job to make the commute reasonable; and that kind of limits you to the parts of town where the rents are highest.

So where can you get to in Houston? Well, there is a very nice light-rail system, and this will take you to downtown Houston, to Rice University, and to the northern and southern parts of the city. There are also buses that can take you to the movie theatre and Ikea (about an hour — as a reference, in Philly, I could bike to the Ikea. It was a bit of a stressful bike ride, but I managed). You can also take the bus to Trader Joe’s pretty easily (if you’re starting at Rice), and to a Barnes and Noble. You can get to the big cluster of museums (some of which are very nice) near the center of the city, and you can get to Herman Park, which is a green oasis with a lake and boats and trees. I have also been able to get to eye doctors, dentists, and regular doctor appointments.

One time, I took a bus north to get to a free museum. I got off the bus stop and I had to walk for a few blocks west. My steps took me right through a university I’d never heard of, and they were hosting an Italian festival I’d also never heard of. So I saw both the festival and the university, and the free museum. On my way back, I arrived at the bus stop just as the bus zoomed off. Feeling grumpy, I decided I didn’t want to wait for the next bus, so I started walking back south. I walked one block, and I came upon the most delicious lovely library ever! So I just ducked in there while waiting for the next bus (there was another bus stop right outside). Occasionally, someone with mental problems starts yelling at me on the light rail platform or on the bus, but so far, nothing violent has happened. Sometimes, I get a little nervous because it’s dark out, and I’ll be waiting for a transfer between buses at some bus stop in the middle of the city, and I’ll be bracing myself for something to happen; but then after all, it ends up feeling quite safe.

At each bus stop, you can also text a number, and a text will come back letting you know when to expect the next bus. Sometimes, it will say 5 minutes; but then 5 minutes come and go, and there’s no bus, and so you text again, and this time it says 3 minutes. And sometimes you text and it says 20 minutes; so you browse around inside a store, and because you didn’t keep texting, you didn’t realize that the bus was speeding up and after all, the bus comes in 18 minutes and you miss it.

You can also get to the airports. To get to the smaller airport, you take the light-rail all the way south, and then you take a long bus ride. I did this once. I got yelled at by the people in the airport: don’t you know the buses aren’t safe, ma’am, you don’t want to get onboard those. Excuse me, what do you think I’ve been doing all this time?

To get to the larger, international airport, you take the light rail downtown, and then you take an even longer bus ride. You know what’s funny about that bus to the international airport? It is called an “express” bus … but somehow, it’s got over 60 stops, and takes an hour to get to the airport, and goes through all these neighborhoods. But okay.

The nicest part of the public transportation in Houston is that your ticket only costs $1.25. This is the same cost of a bus in the no-one’s-heard-of-it town of Concord, North Carolina. Can you believe it? Except the Houston tickets are even better, because your ticket there is valid for 3 hours. You can ride on as many buses and light rails as you want within that 3 hour period. In most other places, a ticket just gets you a ride and a single transfer — and in Concord, there’s all these ornery rules and conditions limiting the type of transfer you can muster.

So given the nice price, and given that I was able to get to the movie theatre and Ikea and the Amtrak train station and to go see the downtown Christmas lights, I was thinking, oh, the public transportation in Houston isn’t so bad after all. It gets a bad rap unnecessarily. Also, I should add that many of the buses are quite frequent — sometimes every 15 minutes — and usually my transfer waiting time between buses aren’t that long — and the light rail sometimes comes by every 5 minutes. I was thinking of all this, and thinking, I guess the public transportation in Houston deserves some respect.

But then I went to Chicago just before Christmas. I went to Chicago on cross-country trains. And while I was there, I took the local trains all the way from downtown Chicago to a far-away suburb. While sitting on nice, tidy, local train, it finally struck me: this is what’s missing from Houston. You really can’t go anywhere outside the city without a car. And then I started remembering a bit more of when I lived in Philadelphia, and how much of the city was accessible, and more and more I am starting to see the difference in mobility.

The Concord, NC buses are not always 10 minutes late

The last time I rode the Orange bus on a Saturday – same bus stop, same time – it was 15 minutes late. So I thought there was no harm in now showing up 10 minutes late and still catching it, but it would appear that I missed it. Shucks.

And one time, I was catching the purple bus, and I again banked on a secure 10 minute cushion. So I showed up just about 3 minutes late to the stop. As I walked up, the bus pulled up from the other direction! I had to run to make it to the stop in time. And then, I actually delayed the bus further because I hadn’t had a chance to count out my change. I had to do it while the bus was waiting on me, and my $1-bills all disappeared at the crucial moment.

Update: I ended up catching the bus a bit later in the afternoon. Same bus, same stop. I got to the stop 3 minutes late, and the bus came 2 minutes after that. Wow!

The purple bus

I had to go to the license plate office to pay the car registration. It is in a very dangerous part of town, as far as driving goes – the streets are busy and scary, and cars zoom about like masterful bullies –  but luckily, I found out I can take the bus there! I started off on Union Street, then walked to the library (also on Union Street) and from there I went west about 4 blocks till I came to the bus stop. The bus was supposed to come at 10.42. Of course, according to tradition, it did not come until 10.52. But no matter, I stood and read a book, and all around me were beautiful views of hilly fall-colored slopes stretched in all directions.

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Then the bus showed up. I was only to ride it for 6 stops, or about 10 minutes. Just perfect! I didn’t need to transfer, it was a short walk to the bus stop, and I’d be on and off the bus in no time. And the bus made things easy because a women’s cool voice announced every single stop (and then a man’s stately voice repeated it in Spanish). So I was able to follow along and checked off four stops, but then all of a sudden the announcements stopped. I thought it was because we were passing through an empty stretch with no stops, but no! We whizzed past my stop without me knowing it. But I think it was for the best. Google maps had told me to get off at the stop right after the coffee factory, and then cross the street, and walk 3 minutes to the license plate office. But it’s dangerous to cross right there — certainly no pedestrian signal, and the traffic light is so crazy and has cars going in so many directions at the same time, I’m sure it’s not safe.

Luckily, the bus was almost at the end of its route, and getting ready to turn around. I was still expecting my Google-specified stop, when lo and behold, we pulled into the vast Wal-Mart parking lot. I have lived here nearly all my life, but it wasn’t until yesterday’s bus ride that I figured out where the Wal-Mart is in relation to everything else. Honestly, I haven’t missed much!

Passengers got on and off at the Wal-Mart, and then the bus maneuvered its slow way out the other end of the parking lot, and now started its clumsy way back-tracking its route. I got off at the very next stop, in front of the Aldi. I had to walk about 30 seconds alongside the highway (luckily there was a grassy bank; no sidewalk) till I came to a little shopping complex, and then I walked 5 minutes across the parking lot to where the license plate office is tucked in. I never knew until that day where the Aldi and license plate office were. I feel like a new person.

I was in and out of the license plate office in about 20 minutes (reading my book as I stood in line), and then I had about 20 minutes until the bus was *scheduled* to come back. So I went back across the parking lot, back down the grassy edge of the highway, and into the Aldi. I bought almond chocolate cookies, returned outside, found a nice spot on the grass a bit back from the road, and ate cookies and read my book, waiting for the bus to come back. It was expected at 11.57. I knew that means, “add ten minutes”, so you could have knocked me over when at 11.54, I looked up and saw a bus zooming past, en route to the Wal-Mart. I figured it actually might get to the Wal-Mart, unload, and spin itself about in time to come back to the Aldi stop at 11.57. But I waited and waited and nothing! Finally, at 11.02, another bus came zooming down the highway, en route to the Wal-Mart. This time I paid attention: yes, this bus was labeled ‘purple’, and I watched it as it proceeded to the traffic light, and turned into the Wal-Mart.

I checked the transit map and there’s no other bus that’s marked to come down that highway. I don’t know what that first bus was. At 11.08 (11 minutes late), the purple bus came back to the Aldi stop, and I rode it about 10 minutes till I again disembarked a few blocks west of Union Street. There was a hijabi lady on the bus, so I gave her a really big smile. The walk coming back to Union Street very very beautiful.

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It cost $1.25 each way on the bus. I had made sure ahead of time that I had exact change. But because I caught the second bus so soon after getting off the first bus, I thought my transfer pass might do the trick and save me five quarters. Unfortunately, the bus driver was very strict: transfer passes ONLY valid to get on a different colored bus.

The bus in Concord

They have something called the “Rider” bus system here. I think it’s six different routes, all color-coded. I needed to get to the train station last week, and I hate driving, and didn’t want to leave my car at the train station anyways, so I decided to take the bus.

My train left at 10:55. The bus was supposed to get to the train station at 10:48. I thought: yes, I know the bus will probably arrive late, but surely the 7 minutes cushion will smooth things over.

So I had my bag packed with presents for friends and a few changes of clothes, and I had an extra coat hanging on my hand for cooler evening weather, and I locked the door, walked out of the gravel driveway, a bit up the sidewalk, through a shady back lane, and there I was at the bus stop! I got to the bus stop at 10:00, and the Orange bus was supposed to get there at 10:07. So far, so good!

Because I was stress-free and didn’t have any big PhD dissertation hanging over my head, I got to instead look up at the blue summits of the sky and marvel at the perfect fall beauty of it, at least until 10:12 rolled around and there was still no bus. Five minutes late, huh? Surely the bus will be around soon. But then it became 10:15 and now the bus had exceeded my 7 minute cushion. It finally showed up, and bumbled its way down Church Street, around the mall, me egging it on in my head to go faster. Somehow, we made it to the transfer station at 10.26. I raced over to the Blue bus. The counter was re-set; my 7-minute cushion for the train was still intact.

At 10.31, the buses started bustling out of the transfer station driveway. Great job, I thought — you’re only 1 minute off schedule. But then, my Blue bus suddenly paused! All the buses were rolling out, except one which was sidelined, and for some reason, our Blue bus decided to wait politely for the sidelined bus to make its move. That’s very nice, but I had a train to catch. Now it was 10.32. We finally reached the street just as the light turned red. We waited at the light literally for 3 minutes. So it wasn’t until 10.35 that the bus actually started on its route. At a blow, my 7-minute cushion was cut to two.

We were supposed to get to the DSS at 10.38; instead, it was 10:48. Ten minutes late! By now, I was investigating whether any Lyft drivers could help out, but the earliest Lyft estimate arrived at the train station at 10.59. That wouldn’t help me either. At this point of accepting I was going to miss the train, the driver suddenly stepped on the gas. We exited onto a empty, lonely ramp surrounded by forest, passed the Kannapolis city limits, whirled by A.L. Brown High School – all within 2 minutes – and somehow at 10.52 we made it to the train station. According to the schedule, it’s supposed to take 10 minutes to get from DSS to Amtrak, but we did it in four. I made it with 3 minutes to spare. And the train itself was actually like 2 minutes late, so everything was fine, and soon I was whizzing through fields of yellow wildflowers, and little brown creeks flowing out of forests, and horses in pastures caught in a quick glimpse through trees, and small towns of central, rural North Carolina, with just the tiniest touch of pale yellow or dark red wreathing the landscape in tufts and drifts here and there.