The great bus route do-over: thoughts on Metro’s New Bus Network

Not too long ago, fans of public transit in Houston were eagerly awaiting the opening of two new light rail lines, the Green Line and Purple Line, to complement the existing Red Line. The new rail lines were great, but the bus routes around them did a poor job of bringing riders to them. For that matter, in certain contexts the bus routes did a poor job of connecting people to destinations at all.

Many routes in their current system trace their lineage back to the days of streetcars, and so we had bus routes that existed just because there at one time used to be a streetcar running on a given street or set of streets. It also did not help our bus network’s organization that many changes to bus routes been made in a somewhat haphazard fashion. A quick bandage fix for keeping part of a route when the rest of it needed to be discontinued was often to just slap that route onto the end of an existing route that terminated nearby. The “best” examples of this are the 58 Hammerly (which conveniently took on the end of the 48 West Dallas when the latter route bit the dust) and the 24 Northline (which absorbed the end of the 15 Fulton when the majority of the latter route was made redundant by the opening of the Northline extension of the Red Line).

Thankfully, as of Sunday, 2015 August 16 (a little over two weeks ago as of the time I am finishing up this post), not anymore. Metro launched the New Bus Network. Most existing bus stops remained, though the routes serving them changed in many cases. The first week was a free ride week; I got to ride during that week twice. I had hoped to ride more, but both of the trips I made were either impractical or impossible under the old bus route network, so I did get to use the new network to at least some of its potential. Before getting into the details of those trips, I’ll compare three routes of the old and new bus networks to give an idea of the changes that were made.

First I’ll compare the 78 Irvington on the old bus network, with the current 79 West Little York (its effective replacement) on the new bus network. There were at least three routes with alternate “via” routing on the old network, and the 78 Irvington was one of them, with the main routing via Irvington (north of Berry) and Turner (east of McGallion), and the other “Via Berry” routing had the bus turn left on Berry and then right on McGallion before rejoining the main route on Turner. In addition, the 78 did not directly connect to the rail line until Fulton/North Central Station, and furthermore the 78 did not connect to any other routes north of Tidwell. In short, it only made sense to ride the 78 north of where I live to go to Dairy Queen, Shipley’s, and maybe the convenience store on Rittenhouse.

Contrast this with the new 79 West Little York, which takes over a large portion of the 78 Irvington route. After the right turn on Bauman, the 79 turns left on Turner, right on Irvington, then right on Berry and left on Fulton stopping at the Northline Transit Center (the northern terminus of the Red Line). After that, the 79 turns left on Crosstimbers and then right on Irvington where it picks up most of the old 78 Irvington route before terminating at the Burnett Transit Center. (Downtown-bound passengers are expected to transfer to the Red Line at either Northline TC, Fulton/North Central, or Burnett TC.)

One of the bigger changes is to three routes on the old system: the 56 Airline Limited, the 24 Northline, and the 34 Montrose Crosstown. (Quick sidenote: the entire “Crosstown” label has bit the dust with the new network, as its purpose was to differentiate routes that did not go downtown when the majority of them did.) Under the old system, the 34 Montrose Crosstown looked nice on paper, but was almost useless for the actual trips I wanted to make on it. It ran infrequently and ended service rather early. Also, many trips that would otherwise be a relative straight shot down Airline required a transfer from the 56 to the 24 or vice versa, due to the former’s routing onto I-45 into downtown.

The new 56 Airline/Montrose route essentially combines the most important parts of all three of those routes. Instead of getting on I-45 to go downtown, the new 56 turns left on Berry, right on Fulton (serving the Northline TC including connecting to the rail), then right on Crosstimbers and left on Airline. To connect to Studemont and Montrose, the route turns right on Cavalcade and then left on Studemont. The new 56 is a much more useful route, which also runs later and much more frequently than the old 24 and 34 while retaining connectivity to the other routes, including the TMC Transit Center and thus the Red Line. (You may notice the new 56 is no longer a “Limited” either, due to the fact it no longer gets on the freeway.)

Finally, the old 44 Acres Homes Limited has been changed up ever so slightly. Instead of going downtown via I-45, it serves the portion of North Main between Crosstimbers and I-45, and then turns on Houston Avenue to connect to the frontage road of Memorial Drive which become Capitol Street and Rusk Street downtown. It’s a small change made necessary by the fact the old 9 North Main no longer exists in the new system. (The new 44 is also no longer a “Limited” and it would appear that at least for the moment there is no such thing as a “limited” route in the new system.)

For me, the sum total of these changes are that I’ll wind up riding the 79 northbound much more often than I ever would have taken the old 78 northbound. If I’m going north, I ride northbound to connect to the 56, 44, 96 (Veterans Memorial), etc. The old system required me to ride south to wind up going north. (Though, due to the low frequency of the 79, sometimes Google Maps transit directions will tell me it is faster to connect to the 56 at Airline and West Little York by riding north/westbound, even if I’m eventually going south. The same is true for trips connecting me to the 27 Shepherd at North Shepherd Park & Ride.)

The only oddity with the new 79 is the new timetables list “westbound” and “eastbound” which stem from the fact that’s the direction the route’s new namesake street runs. I expect there are more of these quirks to be found, though many of these quirks will at least make more sense than the quirks in the old bus network. Overall I am quite happy so far.

Some of the other more notable changes:

  • All routes which are not “peak only” run seven days per week. Each such “peak only” route has alternative service which runs seven days per week (pretty sure on this, but I may need to double check). No more swearing when you realize you need to make a trip on Sunday when your closest route only runs on weekdays!
  • The 1 Hospital is gone, and the number has yet to be re-used for a different route. The service has been taken over by several different routes, most notably the 97 Settegast, 51 Hardy/Kelley, and 52 Hardy/Ley, with parallel service to the TMC on the Red Line.
  • The 26/27 Outer Loop/Inner Loop Crosstown routes are gone. The numbers were reused for the 26 Long Point/Cavalcade and the aforementioned 27 Shepherd. Most of the former 26/27 route still has service in some form, with the remainder being taken up by the 28 OST/Wayside and the 80 MLK/Lockwood except for a very short stretch of Cavalcade between Waco and Lockwood, which does not have direct service on the new network.
  • The remaining express buses were renumbered, with the Memorial Express and new Wilcrest Express becoming the 160, 161, 162, and the new Harwin Express and Westpark Express numbered 151, 152, and 153.
  • The new 44 Acres Homes takes over the University Park/Louetta Road branch of the old 86 FM 1960, a change that is long overdue.
  • Instead of the old two-branch 86 FM 1960 route, we now have an 86 FM 1960/Imperial Valley and a 99 Ella/FM 1960. Both routes connect east of Ella and again at Spring Park & Ride.
  • The new 65 Bissonnet connects to the new 4 Beechnut on the west end. In addition, the Mission Bend Park & Ride now connects the 2 (Bellaire), 4, 25 (Richmond), 75 (Eldridge), and 151 (Westpark Express) routes.
  • The Heights Transit Center no longer has service; the transit center is still standing for the moment. Buses still serve the area, just not the transit center itself.
  • Most stops on the former 163 Fondren Express are now served by the 63 Fondren, with the exception that service for the new 63 now goes north to Westheimer connecting to the new 82. Downtown-bound riders should transfer to the 152/153 Harwin Express at Harwin and Fondren.
  • The new 45 Tidwell and 46 Gessner routes connect at Fairbanks-North Houston and Tanner (near Hempstead Highway). The 45 Tidwell remains one route for now; drafts of the reimagined transit network showed separate West Tidwell and East Tidwell routes but this has not actually happened yet.
  • The 108 Veterans Memorial Express is now a peak-only route, with the new 96 Veterans Memorial providing local service during non-peak hours and on weekends.
  • The 73 Bellfort, in addition to losing its “Crosstown” label, no longer runs north of the Fannin South Park & Ride. It consists solely of West Bellfort between Fannin South Park & Ride and Broadway, before turning south on Broadway to Hobby Airport.
  • The new 23 Clay/West 34th no longer runs east of Fulton. The new 29 Cullen/Hirsch connects Northline TC to Kashmere TC.
  • The 40 Telephone/Heights no longer has branches, instead going straight down Telephone Road to Airport Boulevard and then to Hobby Airport.
  • The 81 Westheimer-Sharpstown and the 25 Richmond’s Sharpstown branch don’t exist in the new system. There are alternate routes within walking distance of the old service.

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