Avila has not been to The Lighthouse of Houston, a community center for blind people like him, since Metro implemented the most drastic public transportation redesign since the 1970s this past August. The reason, Avila says, is because he would now have to take three buses instead of two, and would be dropped off several blocks away from the Lighthouse instead of right in front of it.
Avila has been blind since December, when cataracts, a retinal disease, and 20 years of welding caught up to him. He had been riding the bus for years at that point, and so with little trouble, his memory led him down the street and to his stop, to work at Minute Maid Park where he made kettle corn, and to dialysis for his failing kidneys.
But when Metro decided to overhaul the bus system just eight months after he had settled into his own overhauled lifestyle, Avila had to start over. He found out that Route 30, which ran right by his home just east of the Fifth Ward, was being eliminated. He found out that Route 3, which ran right by the Lighthouse, would not be going that far anymore. And he found out that he wouldn't be able to go to his usual laundromat or his favorite grocery store, Fiesta, because his new routes had a rail transfer. As a blind person, Avila said, he does not feel comfortable navigating the rail's seating.
Now, Metro has planned service changes to the redesign set to take effect in January—but some riders, like Avila, are unconvinced the changes will help. Avila said he had been attending board meetings since April to voice his concerns about how changes might affect him and the blind community. While Metro did meet with Lighthouse staff yesterday to discuss how the new network is affecting the blind, Avila said he is troubled by how long it has taken to be heard.
“All the visually impaired people, they've given up on Metro,” Avila says. “They've stopped complaining, because they've just given up.”
The goal of the overhaul was to create a more integrated system (with the light rail) and to create a more grid-like bus system that reflects the population shifts and employment developments that have taken place over the last four decades, Metro CEO and President Tom Lambert told the Houston Press in August. While the changes have allowed for swifter and more direct routes for many riders, for others, primarily in the southeastern, southwestern, and northeastern parts of Houston, their new routes have complicated their daily routines. Within the last month or so, two riders told Metro on social media that their jobs were at stake because they couldn't get there on time. Leoandre Menard, a Houston Community College student, told the Press that, while his actual route on the 11 is in fact faster, he has been late to class several times because the bus came much later than expected—a problem he had not faced before the redesign.
Some of the January changes do, in fact, address complaints like Menard's, along with complaints about not being able to get downtown for work early enough. The majority of the changes consist of “adjusted running times for more reliable service,” or more frequent service to alleviate overcrowding, such as on Westheimer, where buses will be coming every six minutes instead of every eight.
“We're simply adjusting the schedule on these routes to reflect the actual traffic conditions, and either speeding up or slowing down the schedule,” said Kurt Luhrsen, Metro vice president of planning.
Almost none of the changes, however, involve route extensions or more service coverage in areas that lost routes and have faced difficulties as a result. Otis Robinson, who has been a Metro bus driver for over 35 years and currently works the 54 Scott Street route, said the most common complaints he hears as a driver are either more transfers or lack of access to service for people who rely on routes that now only run once per hour, primarily on the northeast side.
"If you live on the southwest side, oh yeah, you can catch a bus every ten or 15 minutes," Robinson said. "But if you're coming from the northeast side, you got hell trying to get down there." Robinson said that he knows some riders who have already bought a car instead of having to deal with the trouble. "Come income tax season, when people start getting their tax refund checks, they're going to make these used car dealers very happy," Robinson said. "A lot of them can't wait—because hey, would you want to wait an hour?"
Luhrsen said that Metro anticipated complaints from about 20 percent of riders whom they predicted may be worse off as a result of the new bus network—riders he believes Robinson may be describing. He said they won't consider changing the system's infrastructure for at least six months to let people settle in; they're expecting complaints to diminish as people get used to the changes. As for increased transfers, Metro, using data from riders compiled in a 2011 survey that officials plugged into the new system map, estimated that trips requiring transfers only increased by 3 percent with the new system, and so Robinson's complaint perplexed Luhrsen and Metro spokesman Jerome Gray, who sat in on Luhrsen's interview with the Press.
"I'm sure that there are pockets where people are like, 'Oh my god, this is the worst thing that's happened to me. What have you done to me?,'" Gray said. "I think that's where a lot of the comments and complaints have come in. We've worked to try to address them—how can we improve the system? That's what January's about."
Another rider, Courtney Stewart, isn't sold that those January changes will help people like him who work night shifts. Stewart, who lives in the southwestern part of Houston and has been a loyal Metro rider since 1988, said that in order to get home from his late shifts at Target, he used to rely on the 163, which ran until 1 a.m.—a route missed by so many in the area that one woman tried organizing a petition to bring it back.
Stewart's new route, the 63, stops running at 12:20 a.m. He has missed it several times since the redesign took effect. Sometimes he calls a cab; other times, he walks.