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.