A Jaunt on the 309: Gulfton’s Limited Public Transit System

A Jaunt on the 309: Gulfton’s Limited Public Transit System
A METRO stop on Gulfton St and Alder Dr in Gulfton. Image Credit: Google Maps, February 2

Half an hour after sunset, I trekked the shadowed sidewalks of Gulfton.

My adventure began on July 18 with an experimental trip on the Silver Line, which METRO plans to extend from the Galleria, through Gulfton, to the east side of Sharpstown.

I was a bit disappointed by the mostly empty “METRORapid” bus, which doesn’t entirely live up to its name. I got off at the Westpark/Lower Uptown Transit Center (TC) on the northeast side of Gulfton, which METRO’s press office claimed is "Houston's most densely populated, diverse, and transit-dependent neighborhood.”

It was just before 7 PM, and I still wanted to stop by Burnett Bayland Park to ask locals what they thought of the controversial Silver Line extension, since it would run right past the park.

Even though the park was only 1.4 miles away—and is likely one of the most popular spots in Gulfton—there wasn’t a one-seat bus ride to get me from the TC to the park. My best option was to take the Gulfton Circulator, a long, circular bus route that only runs once every half hour.

Fortunately, the 309, the clockwise circulator, pulled up to the station at 7:06 PM. Unfortunately, after I hopped on, the driver took a fourteen-minute break.

I know drivers normally have to rest at the ends of routes for safety purposes, but still—it’s one of the many things that make bus travel inconvenient.

At 7:20 PM, the driver closed the doors. Suddenly, a woman ran up to catch the bus. The driver let her on, along with a man. We were the only three on the bus, but after a few stops, we were up to five (already more riders than the Silver Line).

I got off the bus at Gulfton St. a little before 7:30, next to a woman and child selling cold water bottles.

The bus that would take me right past the park—#9 Gulfton/Holman—also runs once every half hour. It wasn’t set to arrive at my stop until 7:41 PM, so I decided to walk the half-mile, past the Houston Gymnastics Academy and the Harris County Justice of the Peace.

When I made it to the park at 7:40, I laughed, wondering if it would have been faster to walk all the way from the TC.

The temperature had finally cooled to a lovely 94 degrees, according to my phone (though with the shade and breeze, it felt cooler). The park was buzzing with life.

As I walked the cracked asphalt trail around the park, I lost track of how many different soccer games were going on—at least eight, I think. I even spotted people playing cricket.

Kids capered through the water jets and mist on the multicolored splash pad. Ten people, ranging from a father to four-ish-year-old boy, smiled and shouted as they played soccer with a gold ball and four plastic water bottles for goalposts. Next to a crowded playground, teens on bikes and skateboards popped tricks on the skate park ramps.

This is the only park in tiny Gulfton, which has approximately 48,000 residents. No wonder it was packed.

The parking lot was packed too—a surprising number of cars for a “transit-dependent neighborhood.” Still, it was probably not enough cars for the hundreds of people milling around.

I interviewed David Williams, Chris Mystery, and other park-goers. After the sun slipped below the horizon at 8:22 PM, I stayed at the park for a while longer—maybe longer than I should have. But the park was still buzzing with families when I left.

Getting there hadn’t been easy, and getting back wasn’t, either. The Gulfton St. line that runs right past the park doesn’t connect to the TC, so I had to walk to the bus stop on Chimney Rock and Glenwood, where the 309 passes as it loops back toward the TC.

I stood next to the gas station, wondering if I’d have to wait half an hour in the dark next to a couple of cigarette-smoking strangers. Fortunately, the bus arrived at 8:55, after I’d only waited five minutes. If I had missed it, the next bus wouldn’t have arrived for half an hour.

I hopped on, and by 9:01, the bus pulled into the TC.

Now, I understand why METRO wants to extend their Silver Line through Gulfton. Most of the bus lines in Gulfton—#9 Gulfton, #47 Hillcroft, #32 Renwick, #49 Chimney Rock, and the #309/310 Gulfton Circulator—only run once every half hour. The only faster lines are the #2 Bellaire and #65 Bissonnet—both at the south end of the neighborhood—which run every fifteen minutes or less, and the #20 Canal/Memorial, which runs every thirty, but speeds up to fifteen during peak hours.

For being "Houston's most transit-dependent neighborhood," Gulfton doesn’t have a lot of transit opportunities.

Even if the Silver Line is a bit underwhelming, it would still provide more frequent service (every fifteen minutes or less, according to METRO) and connect locations that have not previously been connected by a one-seat, zero-transfer bus ride (like the Westpark/Lower Uptown TC and Burnett Bayland Park).

What difference could that make to the community? Read my articles about the experience of being carless in Sharpstown and what southwest Houstonians think of the Silver Line.