Note: This entry was intended for publication in the Houston Chronicle's "Gray Matters" group blog, but I have not heard back yet from Lisa Gray concerning whether it is usable.
“Eighty-two, eighty-two, eighty-two.”
Fans of the 1988 Oscar-winning film Rain Man may recognize the quote above as Raymond Babbitt’s way of counting 246 toothpicks dropped on the floor in the diner scene. There is also a Houston phenomenon, when three Westheimer buses pass under the West Loop in quick succession: 82, 82, 82.
Here in Hustle Town, traffic and freight trains all too often keep Metro buses virtually immobile for minutes on end, so that the next scheduled bus on the same route catches up…and sometimes a third. Then the buses play an elegant game of leapfrog the rest of the way, taking turns picking up and dropping off passengers, passing each other as they do. Scenes like this are part of why Metro has undertaken its massive Reimagining, which became reality in August.
To begin this series of reviews of Metro’s new routes, I wanted to make an end-to-end journey on the 82. Circumstances conspired against that happening, so I decided instead to chronicle a trip from my workplace in Montrose to a Thursday night soccer practice in George Bush Park. Since no bus routes serve Westheimer Parkway, I arranged for a teammate to pick me up at West Oaks Mall and drive me the rest of the way.
The 82 Westheimer was the first bus I ever rode in Houston. This was 1970, when third-graders still roamed free. The Galleria was but a multi-million dollar twinkle in retail developers’ eyes. The Harris County establishment had not yet established Metro. After school twice a week, my classmate and I would cross Westheimer via St. John’s School’s pedestrian tunnel, catch the westbound 82, pay our ten-cent children’s fare, and ride out toward Fondren Road. His mother would pick us up near the Cellar Door restaurant and take us to their home in Memorial Bend, where I stayed until my mother could retrieve me after work.
One challenge of a semi-nostalgic blog post like this one is resisting name-checking all the business establishments, especially local ones, that hold precious memories. In its 15-plus miles, and with my decades of exploring Houston, Westheimer Road simply has too many such places for me to list.
A second challenge is avoiding Inner-Loop snobbery. Here I fail miserably. Since my teens, I have preferred walkable, bike-friendly neighborhoods and independent, locally owned businesses. The further west one goes along Westheimer, the Walk Scores tumble from 81 in Montrose (Very Walkable) to 43 in West Houston (Car-Dependent). National retail and restaurant chains dominate Westheimer, but noticeably more so outside the Beltway. The observation deck at the top of the Williams Tower faces west, overlooking Outer Westheimer; an Inner-Loop snob quietly prays that this was not Philip Johnson’s intention.
Change, Like the Bus, Comes Slowly
In the early 1990s, some local policy-makers proposed building an elevated monorail between the two business districts. Because River Oaks lies right between them, some of its influential residents pulled the brakes on that idea. In its New Bus Network, Metro runs three buses between Downtown and Uptown, and none of them are elevated: the 82 Westheimer, 20 Canal/Memorial, and 32 Renwick/San Felipe.
Unlike most other routes, the Reimagined 82 Westheimer from Downtown to West Oaks Mall has changed only minutely. Through Downtown and Midtown, the buses now travel on Travis and Milam Streets, closer to the MetroRail Red Line, instead of Louisiana and Smith. They terminate by the Downtown post office instead of Toyota Center.
When Metro began its Reimagining project a few years ago, the planners proposed changing the numbers attached to nearly all bus routes. The numbers would reflect the part of town that their routes served, with single-digit numbers assigned to routes with the biggest ridership. The venerable 82 would have become the 8 Westheimer. But even small changes can be difficult to accept: Passengers who have ridden the same routes for decades rejected the change like an incompatible kidney. It was confusing enough for some regular riders when the Sharpstown branch of the 82 became the 81 Westheimer-Sharpstown. So Metro backpedaled on that plan. (The Sharpstown branch no longer exists; another part of the Reimagining was getting rid of those confusing branches.)
One of Metro’s expressed hopes for the Reimagining was more reliable service. Two months after the changes took effect, reliability is still missing in action. During peak hours, the 82 is scheduled to run every 8 minutes, but for this outbound trip I waited 13 minutes. This is not an isolated occurrence: About half of all times I have ridden Metro buses since August, they have arrived between five and 20 minutes behind schedule. A bittersweet paradox of public transit is that buses get stuck in the very traffic they’re supposed to alleviate, because not enough people are riding them. People drive because the bus is unreliable, and the bus is unreliable because people are driving.
After I reached Westheimer and Waugh at 5:14 pm, I sent a text message to Metro’s real-time service, which I call the BusBot. It informed me that buses were coming at 5:27, 5:29, 5:40, 5:44, 5:47, and 5:50. Riders should take the BusBot’s forecasts with a sizable grain of salt; it is prudent to check them again after about five minutes.
At 5:27, two 82 Westheimer buses arrived nose to tail, both standing room only. They stayed nose to tail all the way past Hillcroft Avenue, leap-frogging only once, because there simply was no space for either bus to change lanes that whole way. If the bus in front has to stop to let passengers off, the bus behind has to stop too, regardless of whether anyone is exiting it.
I exited the bus at Highway 6 and Richmond Avenue at 7:02, 95 minutes after boarding, grateful that I did not ride the entire route from Downtown. Sitting on a bus for an hour and a half in afternoon traffic is exhausting. Unlike John Nova Lomax’s still-famous 2006 hike from Highway 6 to Bagby, it is more mentally exhausting than physically. Just riding that distance, one can understand why the driver needs to hop out and stretch at the end of the line before making the trip back Downtown.
After practice, my teammate drove me to a stop near Eldridge Parkway, and I got to experience the late-night return trip on the 82 to Kirby Drive. That is still a mighty long journey, and I was glad to have a book in my backpack to help pass the time. The bus ran on schedule, though, with no epic-scale traffic jams impeding its progress. Most of my fellow passengers were retail and food-service workers, mostly heading home but some on their way to the night shift.
The transfer to the new 41 Kirby/Polk was a breeze, with very little waiting time. The new timetables are supposed to keep waits between buses to a minimum. Since most of the routes have less frequent service at night, waiting for a transfer in a strange, dark place (even River Oaks) can truly test one’s patience. Even now, if there is one quality that Metro patrons in this city must have in abundance, it is patience.
Sites and Thoughts along the Way
Lower Westheimer: In the 1980s, the stretch between Mandell and Bagby Streets had a very different atmosphere. On Friday and Saturday nights, young suburbanites would flock here to cruise the strip—i.e., sit idling in traffic and occasionally move slowly forward. It was a kind of tourism: drag queens and streetwalkers weren’t as plentiful in Spring Branch or Pasadena. Many of the old Lower Westheimer landmarks are gone or upscaled: That Tex-Mex joint used to be the Tower Theater, where I saw some great rock shows; that coffee shop was Mary’s Bar, that wine bar was Charlie’s Restaurant. There are still plenty of places to get a tattoo, but if any massage parlors remain, they no longer advertise.
Vintage District: Nobody actually calls it the Vintage District, but the section between Mandell and Hazard Streets is home to multiple purveyors of antique furnishings and vintage clothing. It also contains Sidney Lanier Middle School, which claims TV news icons Walter Cronkite and Linda Ellerbee among its distinguished alumni. And that’s the way it is…and so it goes.
River Oaks: Westheimer at South Shepherd serves as the southeastern corner of River Oaks, the Inner Loop’s toniest subdivision. This year, the corner is a terrible place to drive a motor vehicle. The seemingly endless utility construction on both these major streets causes bottlenecks and headaches.
St. John’s School and Lamar High School: This was the site of flour merchant Louis Westheimer’s original farm, the very reason Westheimer Road was built. St. John’s straddles Westheimer, with the primary grades and the football field on the south side, the church and the remaining grades on the north. In my brief time at St. John’s, we were the Rebels, formerly the Crusaders; since 2004, they’re the Mavericks. Next door, Mirabeau B. Lamar High School’s teams were the Redskins, but they only recently became the Texans. “Rebels” doesn’t have to mean “Confederate Rebels,” and there’s a romantic connotation to the word. The origin of “Redskins” has no such ambiguity or romance.
Timmons Lane: Before Greenway Plaza sprang up, Timmons Lane, where my mother and I lived, may have had some loft apartments, but it did not have a lofty reputation. The area extending from there to Mid Lane was notorious as a party district and a place to purchase drugs and sex. Mom found this out only after we moved there, of course.
Highland Village: Here our two 82 buses stop for a couple of minutes, roll forward a bit, and stop some more. This opulent shopping district west of Weslayan/Willowick is undergoing some feverish renovations; apparently it is not opulent enough. West of the Union Pacific tracks, the eastern border of Uptown, mixed-use development is underway, under the moniker of “The River Oaks District.” (Is River Oaks annexing this area?) Mixed-use urbanism is great, as long as it facilitates walking, cycling, or public transit. This does not look like a place where anybody will walk, cycle, or ride the bus, especially with “a curated collection of distinctive boutiques and eateries” (mostly upscale national chains) at street level. Westcreek Market & Deli, long a neighborhood fixture, looks too much like an old U-Tote-M to last much longer here.
Uptown: The buses reach the West Loop just before six o’clock. Ten of our 30 minutes have been spent in the half-mile between the tracks and the Loop. By now the third bus must have caught up with us: 82, 82, 82. The stretch between the Loop and Post Oak Boulevard gets us back to normal speed for a bit. Then we pull to a dead stop in front of the J.W. Marriott Hotel as a coach parked in the right lane—on Westheimer, during rush hour—unloads tourists and their luggage.
Briargrove: Uptown fades into Briargrove around Fountain View Drive. Here we find the Uptown HEB, but HEB stands for Huge Empty Building. That particular supermarket has moved north to San Felipe Road. Shopping centers with architectural flair give way to the tired strip malls for which Houston is infamous, but the cabarets stay upscale. There are also some strip malls behind the strip malls and other buildings that front Westheimer, most in fair to poor shape with plenty of vacant space.
Old Farm: I had been under the impression that this area between Hillcroft Avenue and Fondren Road had belonged to the Westheimer family, but apparently it was somebody else’s old farm. Now this area is all apartment complexes and retail chains as far as the eye cares to see. We finally have room to get out from behind the other bus.
Woodlake Square: Longtime Houstonians may remember the terribly destructive apartment fire at Woodlake Square, a master-planned development along South Gessner Road within easy reach of the large Woodlake Square shopping center. The fire led to new standards for flame-retardant shingles on the roofs of apartment buildings. At its birth, Woodlake was at the western edge of Houston. The shopping center is old-school, with pedestrian access between shops. In this car-dependent district, the shops not visible from Westheimer or Gessner do not get much foot traffic.
Westchase: Despite the Westchase Management District’s best efforts and all those “W” obelisks, when you tell a fellow Houstonian that you live or work in Westchase, nine out of ten will ask, “Where’s that?” I have both lived and worked there, but (in true Houston fashion) not at the same time. The area boasts thoroughly modern skyscrapers, mid-price chain hotels, and distinctive old shopping centers. We reach the West Belt an hour and a quarter into the journey.
West Houston: Kirkwood Drive marks the western boundary of Westchase. Beyond that is the nebulous territory known only as West Houston. Here the retail picture changes abruptly: more vacant storefronts, pawn shops, dollar stores, and e-cigarette vendors on nearly every block. What were built as luxurious (or at least comfortably appointed) apartments have evolved into low-rent dwellings. A mile off in each direction, however, lie relatively new gated communities like Royal Oaks and Parkway Place.
West Oaks Mall: Just after 7 pm, the 82 bus turns south onto Highway 6 (aka Addicks-Clodine Road), then west onto Richmond Avenue, and terminates its route “behind” West Oaks Mall. Safely outside the Beltway, this mall remains active, albeit changed from its heyday. A for-profit school for health professions has taken up residence in what was once a department store. The sheer number of automobiles rolling past it on Highway 6 is astounding to an Inner Looper. Motorists looking to turn right from Highway 6 get around the huge lines at traffic lights by driving on the shoulder. The cyclist in me shudders.
Blogging Sporadically since 2014
Here you will find political campaign-related entries, as well as some about my literature, Houston underground arts, peace & justice, urban cycling, soccer, alt-religion, and other topics.