Updated 8:55 pm, Sunday, August 16, 2015
Seven members of the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority board were among the first passengers to try the revamped bus network launched early Sunday morning after taking a 30-minute bus ride around the city.
Metro CEO Tom Lambert joined along on their quick spin across town, allowing them to see the results of more than two years of planning in action for the first time.
“We’re looking forward to getting more and more people to give us a test drive this week,” Lambert said at a press conference before boarding the bus, adding that his staff has focused on making sure customers have all the information they need in hand.
The new system focuses on instituting buses that run frequently along key routes that form a grid pattern downtown, moving away from the current system where many buses take roundabout paths to cross the city. The overhaul also seeks to connect more closely with the 22-mile light rail system.
All local bus and rail rides will be free from Aug. 16 to Aug. 22 to give passengers time to adjust, and Metro authorities will be posted at various stops during the week to ensure riders are able to locate the appropriate group.
Before boarding their buses Sunday morning, board members urged Houston residents to test out the new system and see the changes for themselves.
“We’re just really excited about this,” said Diann Lewter. “We think that a lot of people that have never tried transit before are going to try it. … I encourage everyone who is listening to please go out, get on a train, get on a bus and try it for the first time. I brought my family here, my grandson just moved here from Denver and he’s going to be out trying it today.”
The board members were eager to assist the few passengers using the buses on Sunday morning, quizzing them about their experiences and how frequently they use public transportation.
At a bus stop south of downtown, Lewter pulled out her cell phone and demonstrated how to use new online tools for tracking buses that launched Sunday along with the new routes. The tools include “next bus texting,” which allows passengers to text the number of their bus stop, found on signs posted nearby, to a Metro number to receive arrival times for the buses serving that stop.
Board secretary Christof Spieler said there is a palpable difference in the quality of the new bus system that will likely make peoples’ commutes easier.
“I was standing there last night, watching the last runs on the old network, and it’s just amazing how much better Houston’s transit system is this morning than it was last night,” Spieler said. “This is one of the biggest transitions any transit system in the United States has ever done and there has been extraordinary effort on the part of the staff to actually make this happen.”
Houston’s transition has certainly drawn national attention – five employees from the Central Ohio Transit Authority have been watching Houston’s staff work to unveil the new routes in preparation for their own system upgrade in 2017.
“Our system is definitely smaller,” said COTA spokeswoman Lisa Myers on Sunday. “But lots of great ideas are happening here that we can certainly scale to Columbus, Ohio.”
Former Katy Mayor Don Elder has been on the board since May, helping with the final implementation of the system. He said Sunday’s ride was his first time using the Houston buses.
“This is great,” Elder said. “In the inner city, if you can make it easier for people that live here to have access to all the different entities of the city, it’s so much easier for them to get where they need to get. We sometimes don’t realize how lucky we are if we have other modes of transportation.”