February 11, 2016 Updated: February 11, 2016 9:58pm
For visitors from the suburbs and beyond who come to downtown Houston for dinner or an evening sports or cultural event, finding a parking spot can involve a lot of driving around in circles.
Starting in March, downtown business officials will let buses do a lot of the work.
Building on the daytime GreenLink circulator bus service, the Houston Downtown Management District on Thursday approved adding a nighttime bus route that connects many popular downtown spots.
With more dining and entertainment options available in various parts of the central business district, management district president Bob Eury said, the evening service is a natural fit. The need is particularly acute as more parking lots on the district’s east and south side become hotels, apartments and offices.
“We had a lot of concerns about parking,” Eury said. “There are far less parking lots than there used to be.”
It was crucial, he said, to make it possible for someone to park in one spot, then spend hours downtown – seeing a performance, then moving to another part of downtown for dinner or drinks.
GreenLink buses operate from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, circling between the George R. Brown Convention Center and various downtown office buildings, notably Allen Center on the central business district’s western edge.
Those same buses now will operate a different route on Thursday and Friday nights, all day Saturday and most of the daytime on Sunday. The expanded service, operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority with natural gas buses owned by the management district, is pending approval by the transit agency’s board.
The night and weekend service, dubbed the Orange Route, covers an area extending 40 blocks from the convention center that includes the Theater District, Market Square Park, Minute Maid Park and the GreenStreet commercial development along Lamar.
Eury said the route was chosen to connect high-traffic areas, and because it provides ample connections with other Metro bus routes and the three light rail lines that crisscross downtown.
Also important is ensuring that daytime and nighttime service only overlap around the convention center.
Eury said having clear signs detailing each of the routes is important to prevent to make sure visitors don’t inadvertently wait at a daytime spot for a weekend bus, or vice-versa.
For visitors and residents alike, those connections – along with bike-sharing access and transportation services like taxis and Uber – are becoming important assets.
That demand is predicted to spike both for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in early April and Super Bowl LI in 2017. Both spectacles, while held at NRG Park near Loop 610, have extensive events planned in the central business district.
Waiting outside the Magnolia Hotel on Texas for a cab Wednesday evening, Preston Breckinridge – a regional sales manager who frequently travels – said Houston was more difficult to navigate than other large U.S. cities, particularly during large events.
“You need a car, or you take cabs wherever you go,” Breckinridge, 67, of Phoenix, said.
He referred to Las Vegas, which along with being a tourist mecca has various ways to hop on buses and trains, should be a model. He said Houston’s circulator buses would help travelers and conventiongoers – “if they tell people about it.”
Gotta keep running
Houston residents also said the buses could be useful.
John Shipley, 56, said he would certainly use a nighttime circulator from his condo near Discovery Green, citing the ease of use.
“I like the daytime one,” Shipley said, noting he told one of his neighbors who now uses it frequently.
To Shipley, frequency of buses is key.
“What I like is there’s one every few minutes, so you never have to think about it,” he said.
Officials estimate adding night and weekend service costs $450,000 annually – about half what the daytime service costs.
The seven natural gas buses purchased for GreenLink’s opening in June 2012 have had an easy life, Eury said.
“Those buses are, quite frankly, not used enough,” Eury said. “Buses are meant to be run and run and run.”
Adding the Orange Route will require another shift of bus drivers. Because traffic is lighter at night, however, fewer buses might be needed to provide service about every seven minutes along the route, Eury said.
Slightly more than 900 people hop on the daytime GreenLink daily, Eury said, a decline from last year.
Eury said construction on the route – notably the lane restrictions on Dallas related to water and sewer line work – has made the buses less reliable. The route also changed to allow for work near the convention center.
“When you make a change, it takes a while for it to come back up,” he said.
The nighttime Orange Route is expected to attract fewer riders than the daytime service, Eury said, but ebb and flow with convention and event activity.