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Urban Planning Alumnus Leads Reform of Houston Metro System Kurt Luhrsen ('96) VP of Planning at the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County leads public transportation renovation

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By Adeney Zo
UCLA Luskin Student Writer 

After 30 years of operation, the Houston Metro was due for a major reevaluation of the system. Urban Planning alumnus Kurt Luhrsen (‘96), now vice president of Planning at the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas, took the lead in reimagining public transportation for a rapidly growing and changing city.

“We realized the population had shifted and how we weren’t serving them well,” explained Luhrsen. “Our first goal was to reverse a long-term trend of decreasing ridership. Despite huge population and employment growths, we were seeing pretty significant losses on the local bus.”

As project manager, Luhrsen oversaw all aspects of the design process as well as public outreach efforts.

“We spent the first six to seven months working through existing conditions and developing what the goals of the project should be very publicly with the stakeholders and public,” said Luhrsen.

The main goal of the Reimagining Project was to increase efficiency and ridership on the local bus – with zero additional operating costs. This meant that only existing resources could be utilized to reroute and improve bus lines.

“Transit is not about making money, but providing access to the system and mobility to people who can’t or choose not to drive,” said Luhrsen. “How much resources you should spend driving ridership and covering as many people as possible is an important discussion to have.”

Balancing the two ends of the public transportation spectrum, coverage and frequency, was a core debate during the planning process. On one hand, lines could be designed to reach as many locations as possible while decreasing bus frequency. Alternatively, lines could be routed to frequently serve areas with the most riders, at the expense of areas with less need.

“The goal is to carry as many people as we can in the heaviest areas,” explained Luhrsen. “We really want to refocus our network on where people are living and working now.”

As of February 2015, project plans have received final board approval and are on track for implementation throughout the city in August 2015.

Though Luhrsen is contributing to major transportation improvements in Houston, he has not lost his connection with Los Angeles and the Luskin School. Luhrsen currently is a board member of the Luskin’s Institute of Transportation Studies and maintains close contact with his former faculty advisor, Professor Brian Taylor.

“He asked me to sit on the ITS board, continuing my involvement despite not living in LA. I help guide research and give feedback on research enterprises,” said Luhrsen. “My relationship [with the Luskin] continues to allow me to give back in a small way.”