Carless In Houston

“What, you don’t have a car?!”  I’m in Houston, Houston’s a car town, everyone in Houston has a car, right?  Well, not everyone.  I had been using public transit for many years, so was already used to it, but it really became pressing 3 years ago when my son moved off to college. Do I buy him a car?  Or wait, why not give him my car, do I really need it?!  I examined my own transportation habits, and realized I could easily do without a car, and in fact even enjoyed being without a car.  Technology and service improvements have made it much easier these days, so give him the car I did, and couldn’t justify the expense of buying another one.

So, these days, I get around in Houston without a car.  Well, almost – my wife still has a car.  It’s a cherished classic car, though, a 1985 Mercedes, we give it a limited range, used mostly on weekends when we venture outside the loop to Chinatown.  (strike that – since September 2017, we have no car). Beyond that, we use alternate transportation.

I am not exclusively a public transit user.  These days, my modes of transportation are:

Each have their utility for different transportation needs.

But Why?!

But why, you may ask, are you using all these transportation modes?! Well, for several reasons: convenience, cost, exercise, and yes, I’ll give a nod to the environment too.  And oh, time: oftentimes, door-to-door, public transit is quicker than taking my own car.  Sure, perhaps I can drive from point A to point B faster in one’s own car, but then I have to navigate parking garages, search for parking spaces, lock my car, forget where I left my car, and oops, did I lose my keys again?!

There are lots of annoyances to lugging your own car around – I liken it to carrying around a 1-and-a-half ton hunk of metal. You always have to make consideration for it, make sure it’s parked in a safe location, deal with refueling, maintenance.   Yep, it’s often quicker to take the bus.

And, let’s look at shorter trips.  That’s when a share bike becomes useful, especially downtown.  No need to spiral up the parking garage, no need to find a parking spot at your destination. Nah, just grab a bike, boom you’re at your destination in a few minutes.  And, why are you taking a car to the grocery store just a half mile away?! Hop on your bike, or even walk.

Costs. Let’s not forget the dollar signs.  I typically owned a car for at least 10 years.  That’s not the typical owner, though, I know plenty of folks who get a new car every 3 years. But, let’s go with my own numbers – buy a new or nearly new car, divide out that  loan over 10 years.  What’s a decent car price? Hard pressed to find anything under $20,000.  Let’s say you can, and you also stretch that car out to 10 years.  It’s still ~$166 per month to own a car, car price alone. Then, add fuel, maintenance, insurance.  Insurance, maybe $100 a month, Looking at fuel and maintenance repair costs over the years, I estimate an average $250 per month.  So, total cost of car ownership in my case?  $500 per month.  That’s a lot of Lyft rides!

Most of us live a sedentary lifestyle these days. I play soccer, I try to go to the gym, Connie does yoga. But still, do all our activities add up to 10,000 steps a day?! Rarely.  So, look at your transportation needs and replace a few of them with alternate modes like walk or bike that will get you there as well as deliver exercise.  Short errands around downtown? Share bike.  A dash to Walgreens or the grocery store? Hop on a bike.  Going out for dinner?  Add to the pleasantry by walking to your favorite nearby restaurant. Rushing back home? Why?!  Slow down in life a little bit, take a share bike halfway home perhaps, take in the city a bit, stop at a museum or park.

Yeah, Houston can be a hot and humid place – I’m not advocating walking or biking exclusively for your commute – don’t show up to work sweaty! But, on the way home, certainly you have more options.

Lastly, I do care about the environment too.  Cars put out a lot of fumes.  Certainly, walking and biking have lower environmental footprints than cars.  Bus and rail, per rider mile, are typically more efficient too.  Electric cars may sway the equation, though, back to private vehicle ownership, so this is not always about the environment.

Technology Improvements – Google Maps, SMS, and Metro apps

I’ve used Houston public transit for 19 years now, after I first moved back her and landed a job in downtown.  It was convenient to commute, but still a challenge – remembering bus schedules, figuring out hops between rail and bus, etc.  Technology improvements, though, have made life much easier and more fun.  The first big leap in quality was Google Maps, around 14 years ago or so.  Plug in a destination, and Maps would optionally show the quickest bus or rail path, complete with nearest bus stop and estimated arrival schedule.  No more remembering time tables, No more puzzling over criss-cross routes to hop between buses. It was quite a refreshing advance.

My commute from home to work was easy – it was a single bus ride (later, a short bus hop + rail), so that was never a problem. It was when I was meeting clients outside my normal transit corridor that figuring out the buses became a pain, and because of that, I’d choose to grab my car instead.  But when Google Maps came out, venturing outside the norm became easy – I could meet a client in River Oaks or Greenway Plaza, and not even have to guess which bus would get me back home.  I could catch up with friends in Montrose or the Museum District, knowing a bus route was nearby.

Google Maps, though, created its route optimization based on planned bus schedules.  It was not real time; so occasionally that would mean a missed bus or connection, and consequently long waits for the next bus.  Walking to the bus stop on time, only to see the bus had already passed by 30 seconds ago – ugh.  So, Houston Metro to the rescue! Two years ago they came out with real-time SMS alerts.  Text a bus stop # to Metro, and it responds with the actual time the next 3 or so buses will arrive at that stop.

So, now I’m relaxing at home for breakfast and tea, I’ll text the stop nearest my home, and determine whether I can have another cup, do an extra errand, or make for a quick exit.  Often I’m at the bus stop a mere 30 seconds before it arrives – no idling around.

Metro one-upped itself last year with their Metro Trip app. Open it up and it displays the map of your current location, with dots marking nearby bus stops and their bus routes.  Click on a route, it it not only displays the real-time schedule to your location, but it shows an icon of the bus driving down the road.  Yes, in real-time. Very cool.  In many situations, though, I still prefer the SMS message.  I can text it then hop in the shower. Get out and just glance at my phone, I can review the next arrivals with ease.

So, public transit has become fun in this town.  Oh, but a note – is public transit any good in Houston?  Most folks will say “Houston has no public transit” or “Houston has a horrible public transportation system?”  Wrong on both counts – well, with qualification:

A Note on Houston Public Transit

To me, Houston public transit has been great – at least Inside the Loop.  Yes, that’s my main qualifier.  Look, Houston is a big city.  It’s a huge city!  And, it was built out when gas and land was cheap, so naturally it is spread out.  Houston Metro has the largest bus system in the nation – in bus transit miles, that is.  It has a lot of ground to cover.  And indeed, that leads to more limited options outside the loop.  It appears the commuter lines work well – I always see lines at them.  But, try to take a bus to Hillcroft, or to the Bellaire Chinatown, or other far-flung destinations.  Well, maybe you can get out there just fine, but then you find yourself waiting 30 to 40 minutes before a returning bus arrives.  And there are large stretches of land with no nearby bus line, so be prepared to walk.

Inside the Loop (ITL, in our local parlance), though, is a different story. Coverage is great, bus schedules are frequent, and there’s light rail.  It’s all a matter of geography – my house to downtown, for example, is the same distance in Manhattan from Battery Park to East 80th Street.  Frequency of schedule and total transit time compare well, actually, between ITL and Manhattan.  I’ve lived both places, so I can vouch for that.

Play a game with Google Maps. Plot two points in Houston, and similar distanced points in New York.  Get public transit directions for both. See which wins. ITL is comparable to Manhattan. Houston’s rail corridor, between the Medical Center and Downtown (and not stretching northward, as well as east to the University of Houston), is quite convenient, but I also routinely use buses to quickly get to Montrose, Greenway Plaza, Rice Village, etc.

Plot two points Outside the Loop (OTL), though, and soon transit times start to fall apart.  So do they, though, also in the New York area.  Try going from, oh say, Morristown, NJ, to Wall Street by bus or rail. It’s about the same distance as Kingwood to downtown Houston. Well, Google Maps tells me the public transit time in New York is longer than the Kingwood commuter bus!

The Grand Parkway – Houston’s 3rd loop, is equivalent to a circle around Manhattan that includes Jersey Shore’s Monmouth Beach, Long Island’s Levittown, and everything inside Interstate 287.  Yes It will depend, of course, where the commuter bus lines fall in Houston or the rail options traverse in New Jersey or Long Island, but not only will the public transit commute be long in both cities, consider the challenge of getting from two different points in this area versus always going through the center of the city. Public transit can’t cover all that ground effectively.  When Houstonians compare their own public transit, though, they often talk of their experiences in this vast metropolitan area compared to just living on Manhattan or in the comfort of old Boston and Cambridge.  Solution: live ITL.

Service Innovations – bCycle, Uber, and ZipCar

The bus worked out great for commuting when I first moved to Houston. Then they added rail – that was nice, albeit a bit slower, as I had to transfer from bus to train instead of take a single bus ride.  Google Maps and SMS and the Metro App make public transit easy and cool.  There’s been a few service innovations, though, that really shifted the equation, for me, of ever owning a car again.

The first was Houston bCycle, a share bike solution.  Several years ago I saw station in front of the downtown YMCA, but ignored it.  Then, a station appeared right in front of my office.  Hey, I can now bike to the Y!  Shaved 10 minutes off of that walk every day.  Or, dashing off to the post office, swinging by the CVS for prescriptions or supplies.  Wow, short errands suddenly became very convenient.  Why own a bike, when a share bike service is around?  Certainly beats having your bike stolen, which unfortunately happens often in the big city.

It’s a nice recreational service too.  When I worked downtown,  on nice days after work I often rode from downtown to Hermann Park, for exercise and relaxation.  It’s a nice way to take stock of the day, decompress from work stress, and avoid road rage (oh, but beware of cars on the road though! You may not be in rage, but they likely are, or are distracted by texting or calling or whatever the heck these drivers do on their phones all the time).

Then came Uber.  Public transit ITL is nice and all, but sometimes you’re out late.  Or, perhaps you’re at one point in the city and need to get to another point across, not necessarily back to downtown.  Metro has added more cross-town routes to their typical radial commuter pattern, but still it can be awkward, especially outside peak times.  I’d be at Té in Montrose in the evening, covering for Connie during close, and need to get home. Or, I’m attending a HAMUN board meeting at St. John’s in River Oaks, it runs late past 9 pm, what are my options? Yellow Cab, sure, but oh my, how horrible was their service.  I’d call a dispatcher, no one would show up for 45 minutes. Or, a car would show up, I realize I didn’t have cash, and he’s like, “oh sorry, my car doesn’t have a credit card reader”. Frustrating, completely not reliable.

Uber changed all that. Pay through the app – no need for cash or even carrying a credit card, as long as I had my phone.  Talk about quick – in dense service areas, like every place I frequent, often times an Uber car arrives before I have time to pack my laptop. I use Uber for late night rides, for cross-town (inside-the-loop) trips, for a quick dash to the rail line instead of waiting for the bus.  Keeping my rides inside the loop, I optimize my Uber use so that I rarely have higher than $11 rides – many of them are quick $6 rides, because I didn’t budget myself enough time to take the more leisurely transit option.

That leads me back to my car vs. no car equation – if my estimate of $500 a month for car ownership is correct, that’s approximately 50 Uber rides per month (I’ve averaged my receipts over the years, it does come to around $10 per ride – including the occasional airport trips). That’s more than 2 rides per work day!

Recently, Texas changed a state law, so Lyft has come back to Houston.  They are now my preferred share car network.

Uber/Lyft, though, become relatively expensive OTL.  Solution?  ZipCar.  ZipCar is great for trips between 1 and 4 hours, and very convenient to use.  Get a membership card, reserve your car in advance, then just walk up to the car and tap its sensor with the card, and off you go!  I live close enough to the Medical Center and Rice University where there are multiple ZipCar lots, so it’s a convenient option for me.  For a while, they even had a lot within a mile of my house, but it closed.

Multimodal Transit

I now use multiple transportation options, sometimes in combination (need to get a ZipCar but am in a rush? Bike or grab a $5 Lyft ride to the lot;  heading to a concert or game downtown? Bike from home to rail to downtown bCycle). It roughly breaks down to the right option for the right distance and conditions:

  • 1/2 mile or less?  Walk
  • 1/2 mile to 3 miles, good weather?  Bike or bCycle. Bad weather?  Lyft
  • 3+ miles, ITL?  bus/rail
  • 3+ miles, ITL, in a rush? Lyft
  • OTL, or errands with multiple stops, 4 hours or less?   ZipCar
  • Weekend trips – traditional rental car

I was in Hawaii last month so I had several trips to the airport, plus some rides within Honolulu, it was my biggest month for Lyft so far, $222.   How does that compare to that $500 car ownership?!


Is Carless Right For You?

YMMV – your mileage may vary.  Yes, literally so.  If you live and work ITL, your mileage will indeed be low, all the above are great options for you.  Live outside the loop, work outside the loop, have a job that involves visiting multiple sites, then owning a car is the way to go.  I live ITL, I’m enjoying my carless life and the freedom it gives me.

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I'm the founder of Agoric Source, co-organizer of the Houston Python Meetup, director of technology at Newspaper Subscription Services, LP, technology advisor to InstaFuel, active board member of the Houston Area Model United Nations, and occasional volunteer to the Red Cross (during hurricanes or other local emergencies). I'm first and foremost still a software hacker, but with my economics background and business experience, I serve well as a project or program manager, technical visionary, etc.