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 overnight train from North Carolina to Florida

We did an Amtrak trip from central NC to Orlando. Let me first say – the train (trains) weren’t all that late! Wow, Amtrak! I know that’s a rare thing for you, so I thought I’d give credit where credit was due.

First, we took the Piedmont train out from central North Carolina. This is really quite a lovely train, and they have a little cafe car where you get can bottles of water and coffee and tea for free. They used to also provide free snacks, but that hospitality was suspended about 8 years ago or so. Back in the 2000s, this train only ran twice a day; and then, around 2010, they increased it to thrice a day; and now it goes 4 times a day! It leaves Charlotte, NC, around 7 am, 10 am, 3 pm, and 7 pm (check the exact times on Amtrak that will suit your station: you’ve got Charlotte, Kannapolis, Salisbury, Highpoint, Greensboro, Burlington, Durham, Cary, Raleigh.) All of the cars are named after things important to North Carolina: The Honeybee, the Cardinal, the Boxing Turtle, the Gray Squirrel. Plus, the whole train just in general nice and clean.

Oh! And when you ride it, make sure to snag the complimentary bus tickets. They will get you one free bus ride and transfer at whatever city you’re disembarking at. So helpful, so thoughtful, when you’re already a little stressed about traveling by train that you don’t have to go dig in your purse for loose change to cover the bus fare. You have to ask them for the bus tickets, though; there are signs on the backs of the seat pockets to remind you.

We took the 3 o’clock train and got to Raleigh around 7 pm, because this train was 1 whole hour late. It was the latest of all our four trains, and considering Amtrak commonly manages to be 2 or 4 hours late, we’ll count this as a win. I was actually glad the train was late, because the Raleigh train station I remembered to be a small, dingy, ugly affair with plastic pea-green seats and stuffy air and glaring lights, in a part of town where there was nothing except empty roads. I soon changed my mind, however, because as we stepped out of the train onto the platform, a nice train station worker ushered us over the elevators. This was the first sign that something was changed! We took the elevator down from the platform to the terminal, then walked up a long, sloping, softly-lighted concourse with soothing white walls, large windows, and long slabs textured in milky-chocolate swirls and whirls pinned up in a long row. What a welcome.

I still didn’t quite realize what was going on, cause it wasn’t until we got to the top of the concourse and stepped out into the train station that I realized the whole thing has been rebuilt, and it is beautiful! Windows everywhere, a hushed feel, gentle lights way up on the high ceiling that goes up three stories; smart little cubbies wherein desks and seats are arranged; cushioned benches that you can nap on! I never saw such a train station! Modern and comfortable all at once.

When we saw all that, we immediately regretted that our train had been delayed after all; but we anyways rested and used the gleaming bathrooms and poked a bit around the station.

Right on time, we got ready to board our Florida-bound train at 8:45 pm. The sun was gone and the sky was dark as we returned to the platform. Peeking in through the train windows, it looked full of passengers who had clambered on in New York City (where this train starts) and D.C. and throughout Virginia. BUT, by some very lucky fluke, we and a handful of other passengers were ushered onto a completely empty car. So it was about 9 of us with 100 seats or so between us. And even though the train made stops all night long – in Southern Pines, in South Carolina’s state capital, in Savannah, Georgia about an hour before dawn – none of the incoming passengers were sent to our car, either. So we all were able to stretch out as best as we could on two seats and sleep. It’s not the most comfortable arrangement, because your legs will be compressed, but the key is to bring a blanket, and a coat, and something soft for your head. To be sure, I did wake up every 1 or 2 hours, but then I fell right back asleep. At 10 pm, they closed all the lights in the train except for a few emergency beacons, so nothing glared in our faces. And although during the daytime the conductors will march down the aisles and loudly proclaim what the upcoming stations are, they don’t do that at all during the night. So there’s no disturbances. If someone is snoring, the sound will probably get lost in the hum of the train.

Also, the cost of a ticket from Raleigh, NC, to Orlando, Fl, was only $79, and I only booked like 5 days ahead of time. The travel time is all at night, so you’re really not losing any time, and we got to see the new beautiful train station in Raleigh, and we got to travel overland and see how the landscape was changing – when we were awake – and it’s just a way more natural way of traveling. AND we got to enjoy our vacation in Orlando without worrying about all the carbon emissions we had carelessly caused for the sake of our fun.

One more thing: we were two people traveling, and so the combined amount was $158. A sleeper compartment cost less than $100 more, at $243. I didn’t think of it at the time but for two people, getting a sleeper could be very well worth the extra comfort. I was traveling with someone older and she was much less comfortable than me, so I kind of wish now we had gotten the sleeper. But for me alone, I find a regular seat very endurable. You lean your seat back as far as it will go, and you raise the cushioned leg-rest, and if it’s too low, then you can stick one of your pieces of luggage underneath to raise it up. I’ve done this trip twice now, to and fro, and it’s been great, even when I had to sleep sitting up all night.

You wake up with the sunrise and all that over northern Florida, and now it’s time for food. Four years ago when I took this trip, they had a dining car, and we had omelettes for breakfast! Alas, the dining car has been removed. So now there’s just a cafe car, but the Amtrak cafe menu was upgraded sometime in the last two years, and it’s pretty good. I got the turkey sandwich once, it was large and savory and filling. We had planned ahead and brought sandwiches, crackers, and biscuits with us. The dining car closed at 11 pm at night, and it opened up at 6 am the next morning. If you need a ‘brieg’, then the cafe car will also provide you with plastic cups, no explanation necessary (Arabs will understand this!)

And I guess that’s it – oh, other than that the train station in Orlando is historic! It was opened in 1927. There was a historic marker outside that gave lots of details. It’s a nice building. When I looked at the map, I saw that it is just a few blocks down from the PULSE nightclub, where the shooting happened. That was a dampening – when a place has been in the news so much, and you unexpectedly show up in the vicinity.

And that is it! The guilt-free, environmentally-friendly, and time-efficient, dare I say – given it’s overnight – way to get from NC to Florida. No stupid airport lines, no rush, no one yelling at you because your bag is too big, no security line, no cops all over the place, and no need to take your laptop and liquids out and take off your shoes. I mean, seriously.

 

The train in Pakistan is faster than Amtrak

Did you hear that, Amtrak?

Okay, it’s not always faster, but just lookie here:

The train in Pakistan goes from Rahim Yar Khan to Karachi in 10 hours. That is 386 miles, or 621 kilometers.

rahim yar khan to karachi

Meanwhile, I have been on the “Carolinian” between Charlotte, North Carolina and Washington D.C. about 50 times. The route, which does an annoying dip down to Selma-Smithfield, is 475 miles (764 km). Ostensibly, this trip is supposed to take 10 hours, too.

amtrak carolinian route

So far, it’s barely better than the Pakistani train. The problem is that the Carolinian is always breaking down, and in my fifty times of traveling on it, it must have come an average of 1.5 hours late. Seriously! Lots of times it’s 2 hours late or more. Last time I checked, there was a cute little statistic on the Amtrak site claiming that the Carolinian was on average 20 minutes late or something. Hahahahahaha … NO!

Pakistan’s train is traveling at roughly 38.6 miles/hour. Last time I rode the Carolinian, it was four hours late. I’m sorry, that’s just unacceptable! And when it is four hours late, it is traveling slower than 34 miles/hour, so yes, it’s slower than the Pakistani train. And even when it’s two hours late, which is very normal for the Carolinian, then the train is traveling at 39.6 miles/hour. Barely better. Come on, Green New Deal, we need you!

Stuck in Pakistan

I wasn’t stuck in Pakistan; but someone I knew was. Let’s call him Jassim.

Jassim went to Pakistan for two weeks to attend conferences at two different universities. Just so you are aware, purchasing a regular tourist visa to Pakistan, at least for Americans, costs almost $200, but because Jassim was going for conferences, it was considered a “business” trip and that bumped the price up to $350ish. He applied for the visa two weeks before his (already-purchased) ticket was set to depart. The visa arrived from the Pakistani embassy one day before he left, and I think that was only because he spent about four hours on the phone trying to get someone at the embassy to expedite things. He wasn’t talking to anyone; he was waiting hours while the “ding-ding-ding” on-hold music played until someone would pick up. Then as soon as someone picked up, the lined dropped; so he had to call again and listen to the “ding-ding-ding” music another hour until someone answered.

Right around as Jassim was arriving in Pakistan, a big explosion occurred that killed 40 Indian soldiers. India bombed Pakistan in retaliation; and then Pakistan shot down an Indian plane and took the pilot prisoner. We texted Jassim during all the commotion to ask, “are things tense?” and he goes, “no, not at all!” But next thing we know, all the internal flights were grounded in Pakistan. Jassim had just finished up the last items on his business agenda in a city called Rahim Yar Khan, and he was supposed to be in Karachi the next day to catch his plane out of the country. It is almost 400 miles (about 620 km) …

rahim yar khan to karachi

and he no longer had a flight to get there! Luckily, there’s a train. Google Maps says there is no train, but there is. It takes 10 hours, and it’s an overnighter. Jassim found out at 4:00 pm that the planes were canceled; and this overnight train was leaving at 4:30! He rushed to his hotel; he still had to pack up all his things. He grabbed everything, helter-skelter, ran down to the lobby, and made to get on his way. At least he wasn’t alone. All his university professor hosts, plus an entourage of about 10 students, were trying to make sure Jassim made the train. In the lobby, there was a hold-up. The rifle-carrying guards who apparently man all of Pakistan informed Jassim that his journey to the train station, seeing as it had been decided upon just minutes before, wasn’t registered and therefore they couldn’t give him permission to go. A big discussion ensued. The university professors were saying, “just get out of the way and let us go!” After a conference of about 5 minutes, the security police relented, and everyone rushed to the station. Three minutes after they got there, the train came chugging through: choo choo. The entourage of students grabbed all of Jassim’s bags and hurried him and his stuff onto the train. The train departed.

So he just barely made it, but unfortunately all the rush was for nothing, because by the next day, all the international flights were grounded, too, and Jassim’s flight out of Karachi, at whose insistence all the fuss with the train had occurred, was canceled.

Jassim’s train pulled into Karachi on February 28, in the morning. He called the American embassy, but they weren’t ready yet to haul in the military and evacuate all American citizens. They told him: call your airlines and keep updated.

On March 1, the airline Etihad announced that all flights had returned to normal operations. Jassim spent hours on the phone to get a spot, but you know that there were two or three days’ worth of missed flights full of passengers trying to do the same, and the earliest anyone would put him on a flight out was March 6. But he kept calling, and by some miracle, eventually a guy got him a seat on the flight leaving in less than 6 hours. Ta-da!

There were so many checkpoints and security lines around the airport that after all that hassle, he still nearly missed his flight. But he made it in the end. Now he was un-stuck from Pakistan.

Amtrak’s clever plan for getting from Houston to Chicago

Let us first examine the map, so we know what we’re talking about:

amtrak houston chicago

See that, Houston to Chicago, a straight shot north across the United States.

Here’s Amtrak’s proposal:

Step 1: take the Sunset Limited train from Houston to Los Angeles.

Step 2: take the Coastal Starlight from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon.

Step 3: take the Empire Builder from Portland to Chicago.

amtrak houston chicago long way

In all, it takes you 117 hours (5 days) and you take a real scenic route through two thirds of the US. So what are you waiting for?!

Note: In Amtrak’s defense, that was their second suggestion.

 

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.

IMG_20181031_103509

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.

IMG_20181031_122843

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.