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Houston's Free Downtown Shuttle Trolley Service

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Many cities offer free shuttles to help people move around their downtown areas. Fort Worth, Texas has “Molly the Trolley” which takes visitors between hotels and various attractions. Denver has its free “MallRide” bus which transports riders near its 16th Street Mall. Smaller cities like Des Moines, Iowa and Savannah, Georgia also have free shuttles. But in Houston, a trip through downtown will cost you. There’s a $6.00 flat fare for cabs, and a ride of any distance on the bus or rail costs $1.25. The only option for getting around cheap is to walk or bike.

But starting next year, locals and visitors will be able to get around for free on the new Greenlink Route. Seven buses powered by compressed natural gas will ferry riders along a 2.5 mile route, stopping at destinations like City Hall and the Theatre District. City officials hope the route will help revitalize downtown retail business, because office workers can get to stores that may be too far away for a lunch-hour walk. Like a lot of older downtown areas, many people don’t see it as a shopping destination and parking is one of the big reasons.

Officials also say it will make the nation’s fourth-largest city a more attractive destination for conventions and tourism. Thousands of people attend events each year at the city’s huge George R. Brown Convention Center, and officials say the free shuttle will be a selling point as they try to lure more conventions and trade shows. Right now, many organizations run their own free shuttles during conventions.

Houston has been without a free shuttle downtown since the Metropolitan Transit Authority stopped operating its trolley buses several years ago. Ridership fell on the trolleys after Metro imposed a 50-cent fare in 2004. The shuttle ceased operating the next year.

The new Greenlink buses will be operated through a public-private partnership. Involved in the effort are the Houston Downtown Management District, the Houston First Corporation, which manages city-owned venues, and the energy company BG Group, which just opened a downtown office. Startup costs for the Greenlink line amount to $3.7 million, with the bulk of the money coming from two Federal Transit Administration grants. The buses will cost about a million dollars a year to operate.

Mayor Annise Parker says along with helping people get around downtown quicker, the natural gas buses are also part of the city’s commitment to clean energy. “Being more sustainable, being more environmentally conscious, is also often, in fact most often, good for the bottom line.”

The 28-seat buses will be manufactured in the US by Gillig LLC, and officials are touting amenities such as ”high-quality air conditioning.” That will no doubt be a relief to riders when the buses start running next May. Parker says the Greenlink line should create about 30 new jobs.

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Houston used to have a few downtown shuttle circulator routes, and I used them when I lived in Midtown. They weren't particularly useful, though, because service was infrequent, the routes were cumbersome, and the hours were limited. The hours made them only useful for suburban office workers looking for lunch options. And infrequency is a bigger problem in Houston than elsewhere, because who wants to stand on a street corner for 30 minutes waiting for the next shuttle when it's 106 degrees outside?

I've used the downtown shuttles in Los Angeles (DASH), and liked it a lot. Frequent service, good routes. The cost at the time was 25¢.

Frankfurt has a very thorough downtown shuttle. It costs €6 (about $8.25), but you get a free bottle of local wine and a bag of pretzels.

Instead of having a dedicated shuttle service in downtown, what Seattle does is simply makes all rides on buses and trains free in the downtown zone. It achieves the same goal as circulator shuttles, but without the extra expense of maintaining a new fleet, and it encourages the use of public transit.

The only other city I can think of with a circulator trolley system is Cincinnati, but I've never used it.

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Actually, the old trolley service made stops every 7 or 8 minutes, not 30. I believe the one that made a trip down into Midtown may have been less frequent than the downtown routes. Further, the trolley was not only useful for lunch trips by suburban workers. Those of us who officed in downtown, but had business in other downtown buildings, used it often. Specifically for me, I used it to make trips to the federal courthouse and City Hall from my office near the County Courthouses. It was also useful when taking transit into downtown to get to my office, and for a few months I used it to park in a cheaper parking lot on the edge of downtown without having to walk to my office. Because of how my court schedule changed daily, I eventually parked in a closer lot, but for those who go to the same office each day, this present another option.

I agree that simply allowing free rides within the CBD on existing buses may be more efficient, but the trolley was very useful in its time. That's why they are bringing it back. I just hope the new shuttle isn't that goofy trolley look. They looked silly and rattled horribly, even if that look was effective in advertising its existence.

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Downtown shuttle service extends back decades in this city starting with the old 55 - Shoppers Special. What most here will remember are the old Metro Texas Special Routes (Red, White Blue and later Silver). These aren't to be confused with the still existing Red, White and Blue lines in the TMC. Anyway, before the trolleys, the Texas Special routes used Metro's flagship fleet of RTS buses up until 1998 when they bought the trolleys, reconfigured the routing and made them free. Like the Texas Special routes, the trolleys ran on average every 5 minutes so there was pretty much always one coming. They were EXTREMELY popular. They even added a night trolley towards the end when downtown was briefly the core of the city's nightlife. What killed the trolleys however was the light rail. Metro, in a desperate attempt to cram all available passengers it could in it's trains, reconfigured the trolley network AND charged 50 cent per ride, a deadly combo that killed the trolleys within a year. Sad story.

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