Houston 101

No Easy Ride: What Using METRO's New Bus Network Is Like in a Low-Income Community [UPDATED]

The moon is still out when Krystal Hersey wakes up her two daughters for school, around 4:30 a.m. They don't start for a few hours, but ahead of Hersey is a two-hour commute to her job that is less than 20 miles away — 20 minutes by car. The girls, ages seven and eight, will go to day care until school starts so that Hersey can make it to work on time.

She lives in southeast Houston, in a sprawling 252-unit apartment complex off Calhoun Road. The rent is cheaper there for Hersey, who works in a school cafeteria near Alief, the wealthier neighborhood where she used to live.

To get there, Hersey says, she has to take three buses and the rail.

That's a new routine. It kicked in a few weeks ago when Metro redesigned its bus system for the first time since the 1970s. Before then, Hersey says, she was only taking two buses for a one-hour trip. The elimination of a route 87 bus stop that was once right outside the gate of her complex — a gate that is 0.3 miles from Hersey's building — has also made her walk even longer, about a half mile, to catch the 29. Generally, it's in the dark. “It's so dangerous,” Hersey said. “You have everything from homeless to people who are on narcotics.” She says she carries a knife for protection.

The 87 still runs — just not right here. While the previous bus network had 89 routes, the new one has 79 — and as a result, low-income communities like Hersey's lost access to 12 routes, while non-low-income communities gained three. That's according to the April 2015 analysis Metro was required to conduct under Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act — analysis to make sure any major transportation changes won't have a disproportionate impact on minority and low-income communities. The conclusion, in every category — such as travel times and route changes — was no.

But since the new system has been in place, dozens of riders in these communities have spoken up to disagree, claiming everything from significantly longer commutes to longer walks and doubled transfers. And next week, Paul Magaziner, a Houston business owner who has both frequently and unabashedly criticized Metro for years, plans to file a Title VI complaint with the Federal Transit Authority, accusing Metro of discrimination. “They've basically created a transit desert in low-income, minority areas,” he said. “And this is very un-beneficial to those who are transit-dependent.”

Metro CEO and President Tom Lambert said that, with a transportation change as sweeping as this one, the push-back was expected, and the board plans to respond to every complaint and make proper adjustments. Last week, roughly 25 people spoke at a Metro board meeting to explain how the changes have unraveled their daily lives. Hersey was one of them. “I'm ready to move from the whole area, because it's too much,” she told the board. “I'm just asking you guys to look over everything, because that bus stop, it was a helping hand.”

Her neighbor, Pamela Green, came too, lamenting the same missing stop. Green's son attends Bastian Elementary 1.2 miles from the apartment complex. The bus, once stopping right outside that complex, used to drop the kids right outside the school, too. Green says that, if she and her son wanted a ride now, they would have to walk the half mile to the route 29 stop along Cullen and 610 east, take that bus to transfer to the 73, which would then go one stop to the school. “I would rather just walk,” she said. With two round trips by mid-afternoon, she's walked almost five miles. She had considered transferring her son to a different school that might have catered better to his ADHD and Tourette's. She changed her mind after the redesign: “He would have had to take three buses,” she says.

But significant challenges like these are not exactly found in any of Metro's data.

Metro has frequently cited that 61 percent of all routes will have faster travel times in its new network. Thirty-nine percent would be slower only by less than 15 minutes, and just 5 percent would be slower by more than 15 minutes (all of which are located along low-income/minority routes). Those numbers are based on 452 sample travel patterns, tested in the April Title VI analysis. But of those 452 test trips, none consider transfers to other routes — what many in the low-income neighborhoods in southeast and northeast Houston have found most cumbersome (*see update at the end of this story). And so, because 57 percent of the routes classified as low-income were still found to have faster travel times as well, the conclusion is still that there is no disproportionate impact.

“The routes are really much worse for the poor people — the people who really need transportation,” said Daphne Scarborough, a Houston business owner who frequently attends Metro board meetings. “All you have to do is look at a map and see that so many routes on the poorer side of town have been taken away, and then all the routes on the wealthier side of Houston have more buses running every 15 minutes.”

Lambert said that higher frequency was a main focus of the redesign, along with increasing rail ridership in a more integrated system (52 of the 79 routes now connect to the METRORail). Overall, 80 percent of the budget was focused on ridership, while 20 percent focused on geographic coverage. But that's exactly what Magaziner criticized, given that the places benefiting the most, he said — such as stops along Westheimer where buses are coming every eight minutes — are not where the people who rely on public transit the most are actually living. “What they've done is they've robbed lower-income, minority service to shift the service to southwest and west,” Magaziner said. “It's not going to work.”

Charles X. White, President of Sunny Side/South Park Super Neighborhood, has also been fighting for an additional group of people he's seen affected by the changes: the elderly and disabled. In the Title VI complaint Magaziner plans to file next week, White says that Americans with Disabilities Act noncompliance will also play a role.

According to Metro, fewer than 0.5 percent of people are walking more than a quarter mile to get to their stops. But to White, the problem — in addition to many bus stops not being wheelchair friendly — is access to MetroLift, a ride-sharing service that, as an alternative to the public buses, aids people who are unable either to walk to their stop or to make it onto the bus. Riders have to apply, but White says he's seen many who truly need it being denied.

One such person is Deborah Pardue. Pardue, 58, walks with a cane. She has fibromyalgia, diabetes, neuropathy and a fractured knee that physical therapy couldn't fix. The walk used to be easy for her, when the same route 87 bus stop that Hersey and Green and the hundreds of other residents in the apartment complex relied on was just outside the gate. If she wanted to go to H-E-B, the 87 would drop her right outside the store. Now, she walks the extra blocks to the route 29 stop and is dropped off a quarter mile away, at the Southeast Transit Center. Her knees started aching more. So she started thinking about MetroLift.

She got a letter from her physical therapist that explained her condition, and she took it to an interview with Metro. She answered a series of questions before the Metro employee said they should take a walk. It was quick, about two minutes, Pardue said. And afterward, the woman asked Pardue, “Are you okay?” Pardue said she was.

The letter came several days later: Because she wasn't out of breath on that walk, she was denied.

“It made me feel like I had to be either half dead or blind, crippled and crazy in order to qualify for MetroLift," Pardue said.

She explained this to the board at the August 27 meeting, and board Chairman Gilbert Garcia approached her afterward. He, too, was a little concerned that Pardue wasn't accepted, Pardue said. He asked her if she had considered appealing.

Pardue told him no — she didn't want to. If it was going to be that hard, she said, she would rather walk.

*Updated 9/4/15 at 12:00 p.m.:
Earlier this week, the Houston Press asked Metro officials whether the 452 test routes were based on singular routes or, if not, how many included transfers. Metro press officer Jacqueline Gil responded via email on September 2, saying: "Yes, they were tested on all individual bus routes."

This morning, Metro sent us another response from another spokesman, Jerome Gray, who now claims Metro tested some transfer routes ahead of its switch; Gray did not, however, say how many of those test routes included transfers. Gray wrote in an email: "The comparison of travel time did include transfer between bus routes as well as an allocation for wait time."