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Houston just dramatically improved its mass transit system without spending a dime

While it's fun to write about bad transit projects, it's also nice to see that sometimes great transit projects get put into place. The recent "reimagining" of Houston's bus network — officially implemented on August 17 — is a great example of doing things the right way, drastically increasing the utility of the city's bus fleet for most people without incurring any increase in operating costs.

This handy slider lets you compare the old frequent bus route network with the new frequent bus route network:

The new one is plainly much more extensive and broadly useful. With it, a person willing to make a transfer can get from most areas of the city to most other areas of the city without needing to rely on any extremely infrequent buses.

How is Houston able to pull that off with no additional funding?

Well, as Jarrett Walker, one of the plan's lead designers, explains, it's all about prioritizing routes that will plausibly attract riders. The old system, like many bus routes in the United States, expended a lot of resources on very low-ridership routes for the sake of saying there's "a bus that goes there." The new plan says the focus should be to provide reasonably frequent service on routes where reasonably frequent service will attract riders. That does mean that some people are further than ever from a transit stop. But it means that many more Houstonians will find themselves near a useful transit stop.

Focusing transit planning on the goal of promoting transit services that are actually used strikes me as common sense. But it's also the best way to create a virtuous circle of sound urban planning and transportation management. A system with a lot of riders is a system with a lot of advocates for expansion and improvement.

Houston's ability to make things so much better without spending money is amazing, but sometimes more money really is needed. Having a system that is used by more people and that is spending the money it already has in a responsible way can build support for getting that money when it's needed. A system that promotes ridership also helps create a city whose electorate contains more people who don't rely on cars for every trip and who can conceivably lobby for sensible parking reforms and other sound urbanist measures.