Bleak prospects for the commuter experience


David Delgado//The Daily Cougar

Last fall, University faculty and students alike enjoyed the 12 new additions to the Cougar Line, UH’s on-campus public transportation system. Most of us have probably experienced them in one way or another — whether by enjoying some rest and reprieve on the plush seating emblazoned with the UH logo or being silently greeted by one of many larger-than-life Cougars who grace the buses’ exteriors. They’ve been a great asset to our lofty commuter population, which makes up roughly 85 percent of UH’s total student populace, according to Commuter Student Services.

“We think students will really enjoy the experience of riding our new buses as they get around campus,” said Robert Browand, director of Parking and Transportation Services, in a press release published by the Division of Administration and Finance University Services. “Once they step on board, they will immediately notice how much of an upgrade they are to the temporary shuttles that were in place last semester.”

The new buses are undoubtedly an aesthetic improvement from our former fleet — though still fully functioning, those buses provide none of the amenities that the new Cougar Fleet boasts, including an audio video system, handicapped seating and an increased number of seats per bus.

An investment in public transportation citywide might be more beneficial than an expanded bus fleet ever could be, according to a study released by Reason Foundation.

As reported by the Houston Chronicle, changes in public transit have no statistical effect on a city’s traffic congestion. The addition of roads, however, showed statistically sound improvements in the city’s traffic.

According to this study, things like buses, trains, Houston’s METRORail and UH’s Cougar Line do nothing to alleviate our city’s traffic, which could certainly use some alleviation, as The Christian Science Monitor named Houston as the fourth-worst city in the nation for traffic.

On campus, some students haven’t ever boarded the buses.

“I actually haven’t even used the (Cougar Line) bus line,” said political science freshman Michael Benz. “I just come up in my own car and walk from there.”

The study examined 74 metropolitan areas over a span of 26 years. In Houston, there was only a brief period of traffic improvement between 1982 and 2007 when, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Houston added a slew of major roads that alleviated traffic congestion by a whopping 35 percent. It makes sense — the completion of Beltway 8’s South Belt happened in the early ’90s. Hardy Toll Road was completed in 1987. Spur 5 and SH 288 were both completed in the ’80s.

“It is also interesting to note that what happened in Houston between 1986 and 1993 has no equal among the other 73 urbanized areas studied over this period,” the report said. “The previous increase in traffic congestion was not only stopped but reversed — and this during a time of significant growth in vehicle-miles traveled in what was already one of the most congested urbanized areas in America. This feat was clearly achieved by significantly expanding the capacity of the road system.”

A natural progression is to try and apply these findings to the University, which caters more than 30,000 commuters each year. We’ve got a great bus fleet, sure, but the many dollars that were put toward improving our public transportation might have more lasting effects elsewhere.

It’s a tough situation to take on, especially since the roads of UH aren’t under the jurisdiction of the University. Rather, the city of Houston is in charge of any and all happenings regarding our streets, which many of us already know due to universal frustration with Cullen Boulevard’s condition and the press it has received.

“I know that space is tight on campus, but I know that a lot of the roads could use a bit more renovation,” Benz said. “I know our infrastructure isn’t exactly solid, but improving the roads might help some of the problems we do have today.”

Last semester, another Daily Cougar columnist wrote a piece on Mayor Annise Parker’s responsibility to patch up Cullen Boulevard. Even then, the prospect of the street’s potholes getting repaired seemed bleak.

It seems like a shot in the dark, but perhaps smoother, more operable roadways would help speed up the flow of campus traffic.

“I don’t think the traffic issue is fixable for commuters because most of the traffic occurs too far from school,” said petroleum engineering senior Rohail Ullah. “But the one way UH could help with traffic within the area is by fixing Cullen and Elgin.”

“The roads are so bumpy and messed up that people drive more slowly and carefully,” Ullah said. “They take more time to get around the area.”

Even if that were the case, SGA or the UH administration can’t just redesign our University’s veins of transportation — unfortunately, that responsibility falls in the lap of Houston, which repairs and rebuilds roads on the basis of the road’s condition, not need. It’s tough to imagine that there are roads out there worse than Cullen Boulevard, but that unfortunately seems to be the case.

Adding roads to the sprawling UH campus also seems to be an extremely improbable, near-impossible solution. Our campus simply isn’t in the position for a massive upheaval of buildings and roads — we’re already adding in a MetroRail, and the discussion of adding more concrete veins to our university also means the relocation of buildings, smoking areas and many more things that would cost many more dollars. Simply put, it isn’t feasible.

For now, it seems, UH’s commuter population won’t experience much traffic alleviation — until, that is, the city of Houston decides to invest in even more expansion of our roadway system.

The cost of building an urban highway can be anywhere from $2.4 to $6.9 million per mile. Parker’s tentative 2014 fiscal budget has nearly $180 million invested in street and sewer improvements through Rebuild Houston, the city of Houston’s initiative to “improve the quality of life and mobility for residents of the city by rebuilding our drainage and street infrastructure.”

Though the possibility of massive roadway expansion seems bleak, our existing roadways seem to have a makeover on the books. Commuting Cougars, it seems like dense traffic will continue to be a part of your mornings for a while, but the ride to campus might soon be a bit smoother.

Key word: “might.”

Senior staff columnist Cara Smith is a communications junior and may be reached at [email protected]

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