Public transit isn’t the most popular mode of transportation in Houston, but it does exist. Nearly five million people take the city’s local METRO buses every month, with another two million using the METRORail train and commuter network’s park & rides. There’s something of a learning curve when navigating the METRO system, but it can be a nice alternative to battling Inner Loop traffic by car. Here’s what you should know.
How to Ride the METRO Local Bus System
Most people who use mass transit in Houston use the bus system. There are dozens of routes that criss-cross the city, and while it might take a little longer than driving, it goes pretty much everywhere you need it to go.
- Fares: Rides on local buses are $1.25, with free transfers up to three hours in either direction if you pay using one of the Q card or Day Pass options. Certain groups can get a discount — including seniors, students, Medicare card holders, and the disabled — and kids five and under ride for free, so long as they have an adult with them.
- Routes and Hours: Local bus routes run every day of the week, but how often and how long can vary. Higher traffic buses run every 15 minutes (or less), while lighter routes might only be scheduled every hour. Routes typically start in the early morning (around 5 a.m.). and go until mid-to-late evening (8 p.m. to midnight). Real-time tracking is available via the METRO app.
- Service Alerts: Like in any major city, METRO services will periodically have delays or detours, especially if the weather is bad or there’s a big event happening in the city. You can find service changes on METRO’s website, or sign up for email or text alerts to get notified whenever there are interruptions along your route.
- Transfers: Transfers are fairly easy to do for local buses and trains. If you’ve bought a ticket within three hours, there’s no need to buy another — so long as you use a Q card or day pass. Bus drivers don’t give you a receipt when you pay cash, so if you pay that way, you’ll have to pay the full fare again when you transfer.
- Accessibility: METRO buses, platforms and trains are accessible to people with disabilities, including having ramps, designated seating, and a combination of audio and visual announcements for major stops. METROLift and STAR vans have additional services for those with accessibility challenges, though some planning in advance is required, and fees can differ from those of the standard bus and rail service. For more information about accessibility — or to see routes or departure times — check out the METRO website.
Riding the METRORail
Houston’s light rail isn’t long — 22 miles of track barely scratch the surface in a city whose metro area spans nearly 9,500 square miles — but it still manages to carry over 65,000 passengers a day. It’s the city’s second most popular public transit option, and it can often be the fastest way to get where you’re going downtown.
- Routes: The METRORail has three lines, but the longest and most utilized is the Red Line. This track connects some of Houston’s busiest neighborhoods, including downtown, Midtown, the Museum District, and the Texas Medical Center. The other two lines cross the Red Line downtown to get from the Theater District to EaDo.
- Hours: Depending on the time of day, trains come every 6-20 minutes, though that can vary. Hours are: Monday - Thursday, 3:30 a.m - midnight; Friday, 4:30 a.m. - 2:20 a.m.; Saturday, 5:30 a.m. - 2:20 a.m.; and Sunday, 5:30 a.m. - 11:40 p.m.
- Fares: Fares are the same on the train as they are for local buses ($1.25/ride), but there’s no turnstile. Fare checkers pop up randomly throughout the day and fine those without a valid pass, but otherwise it works on the honor system.
How to Pay for the Houston METRO
There are a lot of ways to pay for METRO buses and trains — most of which can be purchased online or at a local grocery store.
- METRO Q Fare cards: Most Houstonians who take public transit use their own Q Fare cards. These cards work a little like digital wallets, where you wave them in front of the Q card reader (look for a large red circle) to pay. You can order the cards online, with the option to refill them automatically when the balance gets low. After every 50 rides, you get five rides free.
- METRO Q Mobile Ticketing: The Q-Ticketing app (free in the App Store and Google Play) lets you buy a single fare or a day pass from your phone, which you can then show to the bus driver or fare inspector.
- METRO Day Pass: The day pass is a reloadable card like the Q card that gives you unlimited rides for $3 a day. You can buy it in the ticketing app, online, or at a Houston-area grocery store.
- METRO Money Card: A little like gift cards, money cards are disposable, pre-loaded cards that can only be used for rides. Cards come in $1.25, $2.50, $5, $10, and $20 denominations and can’t be reloaded. These can be ordered online.
- Cash: If you don’t buy a pass beforehand, you can always pay with cash. Buses require exact change, but not trains. The platforms are equipped with a ticketing kiosk that will make change for larger bills.
- Credit Card: You can only use a credit card when buying a train ticket on the platform. The kiosk lets you reload your Q card or a buy a day pass or single ticket using a credit card, but it isn’t an option for buses.
Other Transit Options
Houston is massive, and local bus and train routes can only go to so many places. In those cases, direct commuter buses, bike- and ride-shares, and rental cars might be a better bet.
Park and Rides
For commuters living out in the ‘burbs, METRO Park & Rides offer direct, nonstop service to and from major employment areas, including downtown and the med center. Fares are based on their assigned zone. Here’s the breakdown:
- Zone 1: $2/ride
- Zone 2: $3.25/ride
- Zone 3: $3.75/ride
- Zone 4: $4.50/ride
Houston’s bike-share system, BCycle, has over 75 stations throughout central Houston, most of which are concentrated downtown, the med center, and the Museum District. You can either pay as you go (it’s $3 for every 30 minutes), or sign up for monthly or annual memberships that give you unlimited hour-long rides for $9 or $99 respectively.
Taxis and Ride-Sharing Apps
When you can’t hop on a bus or board a train, hailing a ride works in a pinch. Taxis and ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft operate all over Houston, including the suburbs, and are common methods to get to and from the city’s two major airports.
Renting a Car
If you have a tight schedule while in Houston and you don’t mind heavy traffic, having your own car is probably the right call. While parking can be a pain in certain areas (like downtown and Montrose), most of the city is built for drivers. Renting a car can be especially useful for visitors interested in going to outside the city to attractions like NASA or the beaches around Galveston, where public transit options are limited.
Tips for Getting Around Houston
Houston’s metro has more than six million people living in an area larger than the state of New Jersey. Getting around can be a bit of a hassle, but you can avoid a headache by following these tips:
- Don’t try to get across town at rush hour. For Houston, the busiest commuting times are between 7 a.m. - 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.. During these windows, trying to go anywhere can mean getting stuck in stalled traffic. If you can’t avoid venturing out in rush hour, be sure to double (or sometimes triple) the amount of time you think you’ll need to get around.
- There’s no such thing as a “reverse commute” in Houston. Some cities only have rush hour going in one direction — not Houston. It doesn’t matter if you’re leaving downtown in the morning or heading toward it in the afternoon, heading out at rush hour will mean traffic every which way.
- If given the option, choose the METRORail. The light runs a little faster than buses during rush hour, and comes more consistently throughout the day. If you’re in a situation where you could take a bus or the train, take the train — especially if you’re trying to go downtown or to the med center.
- Rain almost always means accidents. It rains often in Houston, and when it does, there are typically a large amount of motor vehicle accidents that cause bus and sometimes train delays. If the weather looks like rain, expect to spend a little more time getting where you need to go.
- You can walk faster than the train downtown. In downtown Houston, the train stops every few blocks. If you’re waiting on a train that’s delayed — either because there’s been an accident or it’s late at night — walking can be faster if you don’t have too far to go.
- Download the METRO app. Houston’s METRO app tells you what buses are nearby, when they’ll arrive, and where to catch them.
When in doubt, rent a car. While a lot of Houstonians use mass transit, it’s not always a great solution for visitors. Unless you’re planning to stick around downtown, the Museum District, or med center, the best bet for most will be to drive.