Harvey Wrecks up to a Million Cars in Houston and 15% Lack Car Insurance. METRO is is working with state and federal relief agencies to distribute schedules and loaded Q cards to those in shelters and other government-paid housing.

What are some of the ways to adapt transportation for the future, in the wake of disasters and flooding like Hurricane Harvey?

Of the 85% of Texas vehicle owners with insurance coverage, just three-quarters have comprehensive insurance policies that are sure to cover flood damage. Even if just 300,000 were destroyed, a lowball estimate —that’s 100,000 people who may have to pay for a replacement out of pocket. Many of them may have also lost homes and most of their belongings.

Where should public investment be focused?  Many of the communities hit hardest by Harvey, like northeast Houston and Sugar Land, aren’t served by transit all. Particularly for lower-income families who only had one vehicle to begin with, getting around “is going to be really problematic for a lot of folks.” 

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By  in Wired Magazine, 3 Sep 2017

Cars are pushed together during heavy flooding in the center of a hotel compound, in Houston, TX, on Aug. 29, 2017. MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES/GETTY IMAGES  

AS THE HURRICANE Harvey storm system dissipates and the water it dropped recedes, Houstonians left without shelter face the daunting task of rebuilding their lives. Many people are focused on the staggering figure of 40,000 homes lost, but another number also deserves close scrutiny: The flooding destroyed as many as a million cars in the Houston metro area.

Reliable transportation is a daily, fundamental need, almost more so in the wake of a disaster. Add in the fact that Houston is a car-dependent city, and the consequences of the destruction of so many vehicles comes into stark focus. How will rental companies and dealerships suddenly supply cars to people who need them right now? How do people get permanent cars? And what is the fate for the many people who can’t afford to replace their way of getting around?

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“You really have to have a car if you’re in Houston,” says Andrea French, executive director of Transportation Advocacy Group Houston, which advocates for better funding for all modes of transportation. People in the city center may commute by bus or bike, and Uber and Lyft have made it easier to go without a personal vehicle, but as a rule it’s hard to get by without your own wheels. That’s why 94.4 percent of households in the Houston area have cars—1.8 each on average, according to analyst firm Cox Automotive. Only Dallas has a higher percentage.

As of Thursday morning, insurance companies had received about 100,000 claims for cars hit by Harvey’s flooding, 75 percent of them totaled. “In an event like this, that number’s gonna be rising daily,” says Mark Hanna of the Insurance Council of Texas. “There are probably cars still submerged that people can’t get to.” A lot of people are just now returning to Houston to assess what they’ve lost and start rebuilding.

Counting just licensed cars (though many of the destroyed were waiting on dealer lots), the cost of the losses sits somewhere between $2.7 and $4.9 billion. 

New Wheels

The need for replacement vehicles, therefore, is massive and immediate. For many with insurance, the first step will be getting a rental car until their payment comes through and they can take home a new forever car. Exacerbating the problem, bereaved car owners aren’t the only ones in need: FEMA staff, emergency services, and other groups like the Red Cross also have to get around.

To cope with the surge in demand, rental companies are shipping thousands of extra cars from all over the country into the region. “We are moving vehicles into the affected areas as quickly as possible to increase inventory,” says Katie McCall, head of communications for Avis, which is also waiving fees for extended loans, late returns, and one-way trips. Hertz locations in Harvey-hit areas have extended their operating hours.

A rental can only last so long, though, and most Houstonians will be eager to get a permanent replacement for their ruined vehicle. Car dealerships that survived the deluge have already seen a spike in business, but there’s good news for customers too, at least those with means: Auto industry sales surged between 2014 and 2016, and millions of cars leased then are now sitting in used car lots.

“We have plenty of new vehicle supply,” says Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Cox Automotive. Based on current market offerings, rates of car owners with insurance, and vehicle registration data, he estimates 30 to 40 percent of replacement vehicles will be brand new. Automakers sense a good PR opportunity and a chance to bring new customers into the fold: Both Ford and Volvo, for instance, are offering healthy discounts to Harvey victims.

The Most Vulnerable

But some ruined cars won’t be replaced at all—and that’s where Harvey’s impact may prove most devastating. Roughly 15 percent of Texas vehicle owners don’t have any kind of car insurance, despite laws saying they must, according to Hanna, at the Insurance Council of Texas. Of the remaining 85 percent, just three-quarters have comprehensive insurance policies that are sure to cover flood damage. Assuming those percentages apply to the Houston area—and using a lowball estimate of 300,000 destroyed vehicles—that’s 100,000 people who may have to pay for a replacement out of pocket. Many of them may have also lost homes and most of their belongings.

“We’ve increased the number of vulnerable people,” says French, the transportation advocate. “A situation like this sheds a lot of light on the lack of existing infrastructure. It’s difficult to get around when it’s not flooded.” Houston’s public transit agency had half of its bus lines up and running by Friday, and Harvey’s aftermath could provide an impetus for expanded and improved service. But that’s no help to people stuck without cars, living far from bus lines.

And that’s where another specter raises its head: title washing, or taking a damaged vehicle, fixing it up a bit, and fudging the record (either by forgery or taking advantage of legal loopholes by moving states) to hide the fact that it was once the victim of serious problems. A 2014 study by Carfax found there were nearly 800,000 cars on US roads that had been through this sort of fraud; 650,000 of those were flood damaged or salvage vehicles.

Because these cars tend to be sold cheap, their sellers are likely to target the many people now in desperate need of a new chariot. “Flooded vehicles will be showing up on the market,” says Fred Britton, owner of Public Auto Auctions in Niederwald, Texas, near Austin. “That’s always a bad thing.” Cars that have been submerged are almost certain to be totaled: Water can wreak havoc on the engine, exhaust, electrical systems, and computer controls. “Somebody may be able to get it running again,” Britton says, but the problems caused by the water will almost certainly persist and eventually resurface.

And so the pain of the storm could continue to throb long after the water dries up.

**

In City Lab, by Laura Bliss

Nearly 91 percent of the commuters in the Houston metro travel alone by car to get to work. Somewhere between 500,000 to 1 million cars were destroyed by the storm, the most of any natural disaster in U.S. history.  Now, waitlists for rental cars are vertiginously long, gas prices are spiking, and the 32,000 who escaped flooding in shelters are now fanning out to other forms of temporary housing. Many Houstonians are grappling with how they’ll get to their jobs, their shattered homes, and to their children’s schools, minus car keys.

“I keep hearing on the radio that people won’t be able to get anywhere,” says Janis Scott. “But this doesn’t need to be end of the world. Now is the time to get with METRO.”

Scott is known as Houston’s “bus lady.” In a city known for car-oriented design, the 65-year-old native is as passionate a transit advocate as they come. She greets her bus operators by name, helps fellow passengers navigate newly redesigned routes, and speaks out at every public meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County that she can. Before we spoke on Thursday, Scott had hung up with a METRO staffer, to whom she’d suggested offering up ride vouchers to those in shelters.

“People need to know they’ve got options,” Scott says. “From what I’m hearing, buses are not even on the brain.”  
Yet METRO has emerged among the heroes of Hurricane Harvey. After discontinuing service just before the storm made landfill on August 25, the agency gamely positioned vehicles on high ground to ready them for emergency response. Operators transported some 8,000 individuals evacuated from dangerously flooded neighborhoods to shelters around the county, according to METRO CEO Tom Lambert. Paratransit operators fielded emergency calls during the storm. Bus drivers coordinated quickly with firefighters and police officers to rescue stranded drivers.

“I’m extremely proud of how our colleagues have worked in hand in hand with our partners to support this community,” says Lambert.

With gas shortages throughout the Houston area, reports of rampant price-gouging have emerged. (Charlie Riedel/AP Photo) 

As rescue turned to recovery, METRO has positioned itself as a resource for storm victims. Through social media, local news channels, and directly to shelter staff, agency staffers are spreading information about bus routes, light rail lines, and park-and-ride services. Before the storm, METRO undertook a complete overhaul of the bus network, shoring up high-frequency routes helped pick up sluggish ridership numbers. Along the lines of Scott’s suggestion, the agency is working with state and federal relief agencies to distribute schedules and loaded Q cards to those in shelters and other government-paid housing.

“The cost of getting a new car can be such a huge hit,” says Christof Spieler, a member of METRO’s board of directors and a lecturer in architecture and urbanism at Rice University. “If we can help people out by letting them do what they need to on transit without having to borrow money at exorbitant rates to buy a car that may very well be unreliable—then that’s one of the things we want to do.”
Spreading the word about METRO in the face of a staggering disaster is a magnification of the challenge the agency faces every day, though. One recent survey showed a majority of Houstonians hadn’t stepped on the bus once in the year prior. “It’s amazing how few people are aware of some of our services,” says Spieler.

Misinformation doesn’t help: In dissecting local officials’ decision not to evacuate Houston ahead of Harvey, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman tweeted that there’s “no mass transit” in Houston, echoing a sentiment shared by many Houstonians themselves—and ignoring the nearly 300,000 daily riders who depend on the METRO network.  

Now, “there will be people who will suddenly find themselves dependent on transit when they weren’t before,” Spieler says.

After nearly a week of service at a standstill, METRO started running buses along some of its regular routes on August 31. “We carried 43,000 boardings when we brought on limited service,” says Lambert, METRO’s CEO. The system is expected to be almost fully operational by September 5, Lambert notes, and METRO will be closely monitoring boarding numbers to add capacity where it’s needed.

But once the agency resumes normal service, officials say they will begin to look at how METRO can assist communities that have long lacked transit. With Houston Independent School District starting classes on September 11, “we’re working with all of our partners to see how we can get those kids to school, in particular,” says Lambert. “Whether it’s with buses, Uber, Lyft, or the yellow cab companies, we’ll be working to develop a coordinated plan to bring normalcy as fast we can.” Shelton notes that he hopes to see METRO ramp up paratransit services to lend extra help to qualifying riders.

Transit should also take on a more important role in the region’s long-term recovery, Spieler and Shelton say. With affordable housing stock destroyed throughout the area, discussion will soon turn to where infrastructure investments should be targeted, and whether future floodplain development should be limited. “Do we rebuild in places where there is good transit?” says Spieler. “Can that be part of the discussion?”
Encouraging development near transit connections isn’t just about encouraging more Houstonians to opt out of driving alone: Robust transit can help neighborhoods recover from faster from shocks and disasters.

How Houston’s Bus Network Got Its Groove Back AUG 28, 2017

You discover in an event like Harvey that there are development patterns that are more resilient than others,” says Spieler. “In neighborhoods where it’s easier to use transit or walk or bike”—whether it’s downtown Houston or a well-planned suburb—“not having gas in your gas tank or having your car flooded isn’t as big of a deal, because you can get around in other ways.”

Now that bus routes have been redesigned with frequency in mind, “Maybe the next set of investments needs to have a greater equity lens,” says Shelton, “where service is improved in areas with lower car ownership rates or less-frequent service now.”

There will always be limits on the quality of transit in a city like Houston. So long as employers choose to locate in suburban office parks, and residential developers plot homes on endless cul-de-sacs, decent bus service in those areas will be a pipe dream. Money is a challenge: Without voters approving major bonds, the agency won’t be able to do much more than it already is.

But a wave of new post-Harvey riders may mean more support for Houston’s workhorse buses. “If folks can begin to remove the worry of whether a bus is coming or not from their list of concerns each day, that lightens the load” of Harvey’s immense burden, says Shelton. “If [METRO] can get folks where they need to go consistently, that will have an additional positive impact for them in terms of ridership, I’d expect.”

Scott believes another kind of transformation is possible for Houston transit. Perhaps buses can shed their reputation an option of last resort, especially for those who can afford to drive. “Some of those people are going to have to learn to live without their cars,” Scott says. “If that involves riding METRO for the first time, and you’re apprehensive, ask someone for help. You meet the nicest people on the bus.”

Laura Bliss Laura Bliss, staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. Her work also appears in the Atlantic, SierraLos AngelesGOOD, the L.A. Review of Books, and beyond

A short documentary gets viewers up to speed on the system’s overnight transformation.  Not long ago, Houston’s bus service befit a version of the city out of the 1950s. Despite decades of decentralized urban growth, most bus lines still zig-zagged into one small section of the downtown core, where only 25 percent of the region’s jobs are located. Route redundancies were rampant. And despite the all-day transit needs of university students and low-income riders, frequent service (meaning buses arriving every 15 minutes or faster) was mostly limited to weekday rush hours.

But as a new short documentary from Streetfilms recounts, one Sunday morning in August 2015, Houstonians awoke to a completely re-envisioned system—the first that the Metropolitan Transit Agency had undertaken in four decades. A less redundant, more grid-like network of routes “vastly expanded the reach of frequent service” and offered all-day, all-week service on several key lines, according to Human Transit’s Jarrett Walker, who worked with the city as a consultant on the redesign. Houston Metro was able to transform the system largely by trimming and tightening unnecessary routes, with no significant additional costs. The original before-and-after network maps are fairly breath-taking:

One fact the film excludes about the city’s huge overhaul is that, inevitably, not all Houstonians were or are supporters. Because transit officials focused on cutting redundant bus service with low ridership to open up capacity for heavier-use lines, some riders saw their walks to the bus stop get a little longer. “[W]hy take away what people are doing now that’s working fine?” one frustrated rider wondered to the Houston Chronicle in August.

But so far the data suggest that the changes, even with their pain points, were worth it. “The early results are looking really good,” Christof Spieler, secretary of the board at Houston Metro, tells Streetfilms. Weekend ridership leapt up virtually immediately, as did numbers on Houston’s light rail system thanks to more complementary bus routes. By the third month of service, local ridership was up 8 percent. And transit experts believe that more people are poised to discover the new system as the months and years roll on, bumping up ridership more over time.

Every city should do a ‘system reimagining’ of their bus network,” writes Streetfilms. And some are: L.A., with the second-largest bus fleet in North America, is considering following Houston’s lead.