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Houston ranks low nationally in use of public transport

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This HBJ article that came out today cites a study of US Census data that indicates that only 2.57% of Houston-area commuters use public transportation.

Top metro areas in the US are as follows:

  1. New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA -- 30.46%
  2. San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA -- 14.56%
  3. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV -- 13.93%
  4. Arcadia, FL -- 12.98%
  5. Clewiston, FL -- 12.8%
  6. Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH -- 11.91%
  7. Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI -- 11.39%
  8. Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD -- 9.32%
  9. Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT -- 9.24%
  10. Elko, NV -- 8.74%

Houston comes in second across Texas cities, the full list of which is as follows:

  1. Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX -- 2.61%
  2. Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX -- 2.57%
  3. College Station-Bryan, TX -- 2.44%
  4. San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX -- 2.24%
  5. El Paso, TX -- 1.85%
  6. Laredo, TX -- 1.83%
  7. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX -- 1.56%
  8. Corpus Christi, TX -- 1.43%
  9. Victoria, TX -- 1.08%
  10. Lubbock, TX -- 0.97%

The average across all US workers is 4.9%. Houston ranks 74th nationally (out of 942 markets). Austin ranks 72nd. The entire DFW area is ranked 148.

The full searchable (by state) database can be accessed at the bottom of this other article.

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I used public transportation for years; quit about 2005. It just isn't safe anymore. And it isn't just the system's buses or trains that don't "seem" safe, its the having to be on the sidewalks. Another reason I think we've seen what I've perceived to be a drop off of use is that one of the most popular routes were the park'n ride routes. After they started putting in MetroRail, they quit adding buses to the Park'n Rides. The last few times I tried riding the park'n ride to Spring, (there's a couple of options), I ended up having to stand; today, its largely SRO on every evening bus outa downtown. A friend of mine used to ride the MetroRail downtown but he saw a friend of his clubbed for his wallet one evening on one of the stations and having suffered head trauma, he's now in a wheelchair. Its a shame really, especially as we careen toward $4.00 a gallon gas. We got fed up with the crime in Spring, sold the house and moved to a gated apt. complex near the office building where I work.

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Yeah, and the lady who used to sit in the cubicle across from me at work got her car stolen out of the parking garage. Despite the presence of the the intimidating security guards driving around in the golf carts. Driving a personal vehicle just isn't safe anymore. Glad I use public transportation.

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I never felt unsafe at a metro rail station, but I carry pepper spray and a pocket knife.

you could just as easily be robbed walking to your car, or carjacked at a redlight.

I wonder how much impact the 3 new rail lines currently under construction will have on Houston's ranking?

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Sorry, I meant safe as in, how often do the buses just randomly run into trains, or cars?

to a lesser extent, personal safety will be ensured by better lighting, more users, etc.

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Has anyone ever seen the ridership numbers for Park-n-Ride?

Also, I ride the train everyday and have never felt unsafe. I rarely have reason to ride it at night.

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Sorry, I meant safe as in, how often do the buses just randomly run into trains, or cars?

to a lesser extent, personal safety will be ensured by better lighting, more users, etc.

I've never felt unsafe on the train, at the stations, on the bus, or at the bus stops. Then again, I do not look for random reasons to feel unsafe, so only those who think like I do would feel the same way.

Oh, and back in the days when I used the Park&Ride, I felt safe then, as well. And, yes, I have had to stand before, but that is only because I did not wish to wait for the next bus. That's the thing about busses. If more than 48 people want to ride a 48 seat bus, rather than wait for the next one, someone's gonna be standing. However, during rush hour, they come by every 5-10 minutes, so if you don't want to stand, you won't wait that long for another one.

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Sorry, I meant safe as in, how often do the buses just randomly run into trains, or cars?

to a lesser extent, personal safety will be ensured by better lighting, more users, etc.

Within the last couple of days there have been two stories: "Metro Bus Crashes Into Car" and "Woman Raped at Metro Bus Stop".

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Likewise, I ride Metro buses and MetroRail regularly, including after dark. I have not once felt the least bit unsafe.

Yes, the park n ride numbers are in Metro's monthly ridership reports. Average daily ridership is running 28,007.

So the total Park N Ride usage for Houston (30 stations, well over 100 miles of HOV lanes) supports over 20% LESS dedicated commuters than the single Metro Rail line (36061 vs 28007).

What is the cost comparison between the two per passengers supported? How many millions/billions of dollars were added to construction costs in order to build an HOV, as opposed to additional main lanes (which could also have been used as contraflow)?

It seemed like the original justification of the HOV was for only buses and car pools, which could justify the cost per passengers, and now they are turning into congested toll roads - with 1 or 2 passenger vehicles the predominate user - and experiencing slowdowns and backups similar to the adjacent main lanes.

Edited by RocketSci

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So the total Park N Ride usage for Houston (30 stations, well over 100 miles of HOV lanes) supports over 20% LESS dedicated commuters than the single Metro Rail line (36061 vs 28007).

What is the cost comparison between the two per passengers supported? How many millions/billions of dollars were added to construction costs in order to build an HOV, as opposed to additional main lanes (which could also have been used as contraflow)?

It seemed like the original justification of the HOV was for only buses and car pools, which could justify the cost per passengers, and now they are turning into congested toll roads - with 1 or 2 passenger vehicles the predominate user - and experiencing slowdowns and backups similar to the adjacent main lanes.

Since most of the P&R routes only serve downtown, I'd be interested in seeing data on what percentage of P&R commuters are also LRT commuters. In that sense, the two services work in tandem and one cannot be shortchanged without shortchanging the other.

For the purposes of comparing the effectiveness of future investment in the different modes, it is also useful to subtract out those commuters that only use LRT as a shuttle between the TMC and outlying parking lots (because that kind of captive ridership cannot be replicated on any future LRT route). Including trips from and back to the Smithlands lot, this accounts for 5,728 average weekday riders.

It's also worth pointing out that whereas the average LRT trip is about 2.4 miles (estimated from passenger mile stats in this document compared to ridership stats you linked to), the average P&R trip is probably ten to fifteen miles (if I had to guess, because unfortunately P&R is not broken out from other bus services in the data). So in terms of vehicle miles and mitigated congestion, it is by no means clear that LRT is the better investment. In fact, the document I just linked to indicates that METRO's vanpool program is already achieving about 2.6 times the number of passenger miles of LRT (and a lower operating cost per passenger mile than LRT).

But probably the thing that most favors the development of P&R service and HOV/HOT corridors is that urban ROW is scarce. Whether its an LRT guideway or bare pavement, each has the potential to accommodate extra capacity; with LRT (as implemented by METRO), that potential is largely sacrificed. But the HOV/HOT lanes used by P&R allow their extra capacity to be utilized first by vanpoolers, then by carpoolers, and lastly by a small quantity of toll payers...but not so many as to exceed the capacity and induce congestion. (Note that there are bound to be hiccups, but that the implementation process takes time to get right.) Unlike LRT, HOV/HOT lanes do not interfere with other modes of regional mobility, and actually serve to take pressure off of congested roadways while giving a bump to transit ridership once people are inside the City.

To my mind, the best bang that us city-dwellers can get for our buck is to convince suburbanites to bring us their checkbook but to leave their cars at home. It takes them off of our 610 Loop, it takes them off of our surface streets, it takes them out of our parking garages and surface lots, and it encourages them to use transit so that we aren't forced to from the inconvenience of having them drive their cars here. Incentives that enable P&R, vanpooling, and carpooling accomplish this better than LRT does.

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Since most of the P&R routes only serve downtown, I'd be interested in seeing data on what percentage of P&R commuters are also LRT commuters. In that sense, the two services work in tandem and one cannot be shortchanged without shortchanging the other.

For the purposes of comparing the effectiveness of future investment in the different modes, it is also useful to subtract out those commuters that only use LRT as a shuttle between the TMC and outlying parking lots (because that kind of captive ridership cannot be replicated on any future LRT route). Including trips from and back to the Smithlands lot, this accounts for 5,728 average weekday riders.

It's also worth pointing out that whereas the average LRT trip is about 2.4 miles (estimated from passenger mile stats in this document compared to ridership stats you linked to), the average P&R trip is probably ten to fifteen miles (if I had to guess, because unfortunately P&R is not broken out from other bus services in the data). So in terms of vehicle miles and mitigated congestion, it is by no means clear that LRT is the better investment. In fact, the document I just linked to indicates that METRO's vanpool program is already achieving about 2.6 times the number of passenger miles of LRT (and a lower operating cost per passenger mile than LRT).

But probably the thing that most favors the development of P&R service and HOV/HOT corridors is that urban ROW is scarce. Whether its an LRT guideway or bare pavement, each has the potential to accommodate extra capacity; with LRT (as implemented by METRO), that potential is largely sacrificed. But the HOV/HOT lanes used by P&R allow their extra capacity to be utilized first by vanpoolers, then by carpoolers, and lastly by a small quantity of toll payers...but not so many as to exceed the capacity and induce congestion. (Note that there are bound to be hiccups, but that the implementation process takes time to get right.) Unlike LRT, HOV/HOT lanes do not interfere with other modes of regional mobility, and actually serve to take pressure off of congested roadways while giving a bump to transit ridership once people are inside the City.

MetroRail and P&R are tough to compare on a per-mile basis, and at present they serve different purposes. MetroRail is only 7.5 miles long, but I'm sure the average P&R trip is at least twice that anyway. More people live in Sugarland or Katy than live within a walkable distance of the rail line, but at the same time, a lot more people live in Central Houston that don't own a vehicle at all. It's an apples to oranges comparison in my view, but we should be investing in both.

Of course the other elephant in the room... you get what you pay for. If we had grade-separated rail, then it wouldn't interfere with street-level traffic, and could move people more efficiently.

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MetroRail and P&R are tough to compare on a per-mile basis, and at present they serve different purposes. MetroRail is only 7.5 miles long, but I'm sure the average P&R trip is at least twice that anyway. More people live in Sugarland or Katy than live within a walkable distance of the rail line, but at the same time, a lot more people live in Central Houston that don't own a vehicle at all. It's an apples to oranges comparison in my view, but we should be investing in both.

Of course the other elephant in the room... you get what you pay for. If we had grade-separated rail, then it wouldn't interfere with street-level traffic, and could move people more efficiently.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 49,103 workers (ages 16 and older) living within the City of Houston (proper) do not own vehicles. Of the workers that responded that they have no vehicles, 19% of those also responded that they drove to work alone in a car, truck, or van (which is odd, but I guess they're borrowing a vehicle like I did when I was poor) and another 20% responded that they carpool. 34% reported using transit, 13% reported walking, 11% reported using a taxi, bike, or motorcycle, and 2% reported working at home.

Only 16,921 workers have no vehicles and use transit. That's just 1.7% of all workers in the City of Houston, and just shy of 1.0% county-wide. Compare to 12% of all workers in the City and 11% of all workers in the County that have automobiles and demonstrate their willingness to carpool by actually doing so. To my mind, carpooling (and jitney services!) seem to be the easier, more flexible, less capital-intensive, multi-modal way to sway people into reducing the aggregate number of cars on the road and enhancing regional mobility.

It would be nice if we could have every sort of infrastructure, but that ignores a real-world budgetary constraint. When it comes down the the ratio of benefits and costs in the grand scheme of multi-modal regional mobility, P&R with HOV/HOT lanes makes a superior investment.

As for the 1%, let them ride local buses and jitneys. Yes, I know...I'm such a brutal classist!

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According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 49,103 workers (ages 16 and older) living within the City of Houston (proper) do not own vehicles. O

I find this hard to believe. I know this is official Census data - but does that mean it's accurate. Go to Southwest Houston - Gulfton, Fondren, etc - the teeming apartment complexes. There are plenty of vehicles, yes, but I would wager you could find 49,000+ adults living in that area alone that are employed in Houston that do own vehicles. Now if the census picked them up might be a different matter or not.

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I find this hard to believe. I know this is official Census data - but does that mean it's accurate. Go to Southwest Houston - Gulfton, Fondren, etc - the teeming apartment complexes. There are plenty of vehicles, yes, but I would wager you could find 49,000+ adults living in that area alone that are employed in Houston that do own vehicles. Now if the census picked them up might be a different matter or not.

I'm sure that there's a margin for error, however the Census does attempt to sample a large enough number of respondents and correct for sample bias, and it did have a very effective grassroots campaign to gain acceptance in traditionally low-response areas. And besides, let's say that the Census was off by a factor of two, that they only picked up half the total of car-less employees. Only a third of those people use transit! It'd still not be encouraging for the sake of capital-intensive transit expenditures.

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The reason why so few people ride transit in Houston is because we have such bad infrastructure. We are basically a bus only transit system with one small rail line, what do you expect?

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The reason why so few people ride transit in Houston is because we have such bad infrastructure. We are basically a bus only transit system with one small rail line, what do you expect?

Dallas County has 1.0% of its 1,086,141 employed persons that don't own vehicles and ride transit. (The municipality is also less than us, at 1.6%, but is smaller than Houston geographically and in terms of employment, so Dallas County is the better proxy for Houston.) Persons that own vehicles also carpool less in Dallas County, at a 10.2% rate. They spent their money on fixed-guideway transit, but it doesn't seem to be a game-changer either.

Let's try something larger and with a better-developed transit system. A post-war sunbelt city, one that you'd think would be so large and inconvenient to get around that an urbane lifestyle should be widespread. Los Angeles County. Only 2.1% of its workers have no car and ride transit (compared to 1.7% in Houston). And only 10% of people that own cars carpool (compared with 12% in Houston).

So yeah, mass transit that's meant to foster a lifestyle seems pretty ineffectual; it's just a plaything demanded by those who already have lots of playthings. To the extent that there are people that can't get around on their own due to financial circumstances, Houston holds its own with buses and could do amazing things with jitneys, IMO.

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Let's try something larger and with a better-developed transit system. A post-war sunbelt city, one that you'd think would be so large and inconvenient to get around that an urbane lifestyle should be widespread. Los Angeles County. Only 2.1% of its workers have no car and ride transit (compared to 1.7% in Houston). And only 10% of people that own cars carpool (compared with 12% in Houston).

I think LA is in the process of building out their system and finally building a subway line. But otherwise, I don't think their system is much more extensive than Houston's at this point - sure they may have a few more lines, but they also have 3-4 times more people. And Houston could learn from LA's mistakes by going ahead and building our extensive / grade-separated system NOW while we can still do so relatively cheaply, as opposed to waiting for the cluster**** that is LA traffic and 10 million + people to happen here.

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I think LA is in the process of building out their system and finally building a subway line. But otherwise, I don't think their system is much more extensive than Houston's at this point - sure they may have a few more lines, but they also have 3-4 times more people. And Houston could learn from LA's mistakes by going ahead and building our extensive / grade-separated system NOW while we can still do so relatively cheaply, as opposed to waiting for the cluster**** that is LA traffic and 10 million + people to happen here.

LA has 77 miles of light rail and subway compared to our 7 miles. Yes, there are 3-4 times more people, but there is 11 times more rail and a great deal more population density due to geographic barriers. Its pretty pitiful to think about, actually. I would hope that we could do better by not imitating them.

However, I tend to agree that if we're going to build light rail, we should built it properly instead of committing to a design that only has to be rebuilt in the future. I'd much prefer that we do unsexy highly-efficient transit first, though.

Edited by TheNiche

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LA has 77 miles of light rail and subway compared to our 7 miles. Yes, there are 3-4 times more people, but there is 11 times more rail and a great deal more population density due to geographic barriers. Its pretty pitiful to think about, actually. I would hope that we could do better by not imitating them.

However, I tend to agree that if we're going to build light rail, we should built it properly instead of committing to a design that only has to be rebuilt in the future. I'd much prefer that we do unsexy highly-efficient transit first, though.

I don't think miles of rail in this case is a good metric for how well built out a system is. By this metric, Austin has 4-5x the amount of rail as Houston. But it is a terrible line. I don't honestly know enough about LA's recent light rail efforts to know whether they were well thought out or not.

The point is Houston needs to build a good core of rail lines / express bus service before we will begin to see a greater percentage of transit ridership. Plus, new residential / commerical needs to start happening around the stations - all of this takes time - in some cases decades.

LA has always been the best example in the country to me of a city that did not *get it*, and let sprawl and freeways take themselves to the limits. Now they are suffering the consequences and doing what they should have been doing in the first place - building more transit.

I am fine with ALSO doing more buses like the Quickline, and more jitneys as well - as you suggest. But if building rail lines is going to take ~15 years then we may as well start building a whole bunch of rail lines and commuter rail lines as well. If we don't have the money for the best solutions I am fine with incremental solutions. Or raising my taxes and building the best solutions. I favor an "all of the above" transportation policy, within reason.

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I don't think miles of rail in this case is a good metric for how well built out a system is. By this metric, Austin has 4-5x the amount of rail as Houston. But it is a terrible line. I don't honestly know enough about LA's recent light rail efforts to know whether they were well thought out or not.

The point is Houston needs to build a good core of rail lines / express bus service before we will begin to see a greater percentage of transit ridership. Plus, new residential / commerical needs to start happening around the stations - all of this takes time - in some cases decades.

LA has always been the best example in the country to me of a city that did not *get it*, and let sprawl and freeways take themselves to the limits. Now they are suffering the consequences and doing what they should have been doing in the first place - building more transit.

The scope of my data was meant to address totheskies' claim that there are a lot more people that live in central Houston that don't own cars and are reliant on transit than there are people who either live along the light rail or that live in the suburbs and utilize P&R. The fact is, that population is limited and can be better served by buses and jitneys...which only require roads, not rail, as the capital investment of choice. That such investments are compatible with carpooling and driving alone are added benefits as one considers the case for regional mobility and modal interoperability.

And then, mfastx claimed that more people would ride transit if we had a better system. My data indicates that Houston promotes alternative commuting methods more effectively than Dallas, which is an otherwise comparable city with a far more extensive system. I'm not comparing to Austin because it's a bad comparable; its demography and economy is skewed and poorly diversified, its growth and commuting patterns are very unusual, and its metropolitan area is a third of the size of ours. We're also contemplating infrastructure that will have a life expectancy during which Houston becomes a lot more like LA (yes, with sprawl, and don't pretend that we can avoid it) and much less like Austin.

And to that end, LA does have a higher rate of transit use, but that should be expected given how much more inconvenient it is to get around and also that it is so much more dense over so large a geographic area. Whether the 40 basis point difference between us in terms of workers that don't own automobiles and take transit can be explained by affordability problems that affect the lower class or lifestyle amenities that influence the more affluent population, it isn't a game changer. I'm sure that there are neighborhoods that have had positive impacts, but a few transit oriented developments are a measly fraction of a percent of aggregate regional economic growth.

Or raising my taxes and building the best solutions. I favor an "all of the above" transportation policy, within reason.

I'm okay with them raising your taxes to build sub-optimal transit too, but leave my tax rates alone please.

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The scope of my data was meant to address totheskies' claim that there are a lot more people that live in central Houston that don't own cars and are reliant on transit than there are people who either live along the light rail or that live in the suburbs and utilize P&R. The fact is, that population is limited and can be better served by buses and jitneys...which only require roads, not rail, as the capital investment of choice. That such investments are compatible with carpooling and driving alone are added benefits as one considers the case for regional mobility and modal interoperability.

Well - I don't for one second believe that only 50k people in Houston aged 16 and above is our target demographic - and I don't buy that only that number of people does not own an automobile either. If you believe that Houston metro is designed to serve only 50k people, sure - focus on buses.

But if you believe that the purpose of transportation policy is to provide efficient transportation options for all citizens, then you need to consider rail. People in Houston often use cars because we do not have such widespread options today.

I also maintain that LA / Dallas are not significantly different from Houston overall in their system build out at this point. From what I understand of Dallas's system, it does not serve the core very well, whereas Houston's approach is focused on providing starter lines within the core.

Bottom line - I don't think there is a successful sun-belt transit city in the US today. But I don't think there is any inherent reason for that - just poor timing - the growth of many of these cities coincided with the era of cheap energy and a cultural love of personal automobiles. Now things seem to be trending towards more transit investment / more density / higher energy costs.

As far as Houston being able to grow without sprawl, I don't dispute that sprawl will play a role. But I don't think any of us has a crystal ball and can see into the future. To expect the next 50 years to play out exactly as the previous 50 in terms of energy costs, public preferences, work / telecommute, demographic changes, etc - is silly. I tend to think sprawl is not going to be as much of a factor for various reasons.

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Dallas County has 1.0% of its 1,086,141 employed persons that don't own vehicles and ride transit. (The municipality is also less than us, at 1.6%, but is smaller than Houston geographically and in terms of employment, so Dallas County is the better proxy for Houston.) Persons that own vehicles also carpool less in Dallas County, at a 10.2% rate. They spent their money on fixed-guideway transit, but it doesn't seem to be a game-changer either.

I believe this has been pointed out before, but Dallas's light rail system is unlike most other light rail systems. It is being built in abandoned ROW's that are seperated from most communities. It functions more a

a commuter rail system, with many park and ride lots. The system we are building in Houston is entirely different, you should be able to see that.

With Dallas's system being more similar to a commuter rail system, their riderhsip is pretty good.

Let's try something larger and with a better-developed transit system. A post-war sunbelt city, one that you'd think would be so large and inconvenient to get around that an urbane lifestyle should be widespread. Los Angeles County. Only 2.1% of its workers have no car and ride transit (compared to 1.7% in Houston). And only 10% of people that own cars carpool (compared with 12% in Houston).

So yeah, mass transit that's meant to foster a lifestyle seems pretty ineffectual; it's just a plaything demanded by those who already have lots of playthings. To the extent that there are people that can't get around on their own due to financial circumstances, Houston holds its own with buses and could do amazing things with jitneys, IMO.

Los Angeles's system is still building out. Give it a few decades. It takes time for cultures to change and people to start using the system. As long as they keep expanding their system, more riders will ride it. Voters clearly want more rail there, they know it works.

However, I tend to agree that if we're going to build light rail, we should built it properly instead of committing to a design that only has to be rebuilt in the future. I'd much prefer that we do unsexy highly-efficient transit first, though.

I somewhat agree with the bolded. I wish we could build a higher quality grade seperated line, but I know that's not realistic given the political climate we are in now. People will start to see the benefits of rail when these lines are built out. Then we can start to build the higher quality stuff IMO.

Also, we've had an "un-sexy" transit system long enough, for the last 30-40 years (since METRO was formed). Light rail is more efficient than buses.

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