Podcast sheds light on dangerous temperatures at Houston bus stops

Houston Public Media reporters measured wet bulb globe temperatures for “Hot Stops.”

By Rhonda FanningSeptember 29, 2023 10:27 am, ,

Read part one of this investigation here, and part two here.

“The second hottest summer on record.” That’s according to 2023 data from the state’s climatologist.

The average temperature between June and the end of August was 85.3 degrees in Texas.

For Texans having to spend time outside that, the heat can take a toll. Many of those include folks taking mass transit, and that is the subject of a recent investigation by two reporters at Houston Public Media.

Sara Willa Ernst and Katie Watkins are behind this project called “Hot Stops: How Houston Bus Stops Get Dangerously Hot.” They joined Texas Standard to discuss. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Katie, let’s begin with you. Can you explain what Houston’s bus system is like? How big is it? Who are its main riders? How many people rely on it?

Katie Watkins: So the system in Houston is actually pretty big. It covers a 1,300 square mile area in the greater Houston area, and it has more than 9,000 bus stops, which were the focus of our investigation.

And I know Houston has a reputation for being a very car-centric city. But even so, you know, people take the bus around 4 million times a month and a lot of people that take the bus, they rely on it. You know, almost 70% take it at least five days a week.

Sara, in your reporting, you wanted to find out just how hot Houston’s bus stops are. What was the inspiration for this in the first place?

Sara Willa Ernst: So we talked to a couple of bus riders who talked about, in some instances, the bus shelters being even hotter than standing in direct sunlight. And that was very much the inspiration for going to bus stops, taking temperatures and seeing whether that actually mirrored the temperatures we were taking. And it did in a handful of cases.

We found that bus shelters made the heat worse. We also were curious whether or not, you know, these bus shelters, whether or not they were providing shade, reached dangerous thresholds in terms of being at high risk or extreme risk for heat illness in the temperature readings that we took.

The majority did reach those thresholds, 73% of our temperature readings. And we took temperature readings during some of the hottest months of the year – late July, early August – in the 12:00 hour and the 4 p.m. hour.

What was the threshold for the dangerous reading?

Ernst: So we measured in a metric called WBGT – wet bulb globe temperature – and that incorporates solar radiation in the way that regular temperature that you see on daily forecasts doesn’t. And so anything above 90 WBGT is considered an extreme threat for heat illness.

I know 90 doesn’t sound very high in kind of colloquial temperature, but it actually has a pretty different meaning when it comes to WBGT.

Well, now, Sara, you spoke with people who ride the Houston bus system. What do they tell you? Were they reporting health problems as a result of waiting for the bus?

Ernst: Yes. So we spoke to one woman, her name is Glory Medina. She lives in the Gulfton area which is really transit-needy and has some of the highest temperatures in Houston. And she has experienced heat illness multiple times, including fainting. Last year, it wasn’t only her, but it was also her daughter who has overheated while they’ve taken the bus.

We also sent a request out to the Houston Fire Department and we found that in this year, in June and July, there were at least 16 emergency calls for temperature-related problems. These were people who are either at the bus stop or on the bus who are calling 911.

And even since then, we’ve heard stories from people who’ve submitted our survey who have kind of reached out with emails saying that they, too, have either fainted at a bus stop or have kind of experienced these more mild problems, such as headaches, dizziness, migraine and skin irritation.

Side by side images show the WBGT at bus stop shelters at different times. On the left, one reads 88.48 in the sun and 87.5 in the shelter. This shelter has tree shade. The photo on the right has a shelter not in tree shade with WBGTs reading 90.4 outside the shelter and 97.6 inside.

Houston Public Media

Left: Bus Stop on Lockwood Drive and Cavalcade St. Right: Bus stop on Lockwood Drive and Rand St.

Katie, were there certain types of bus shelters that seemed to be heating up more than others? 

Watkins: Yeah. So what we found is there’s a pretty standard design in Houston that has three clear panels on each side. It’s kind of like a plexiglass-type material. And basically our theory is that that is kind of trapping in the heat under certain conditions and creating almost like a mini greenhouse effect.

And so with these type of shelters, it was specifically during rush hour – it’s some of the hottest times of the day – and basically the direction, you know, that the bus shelter was facing meant that the sun was just pouring directly into the shelter. And so, you know, those were the instances where we found that it was actually hotter to be inside the shelter than standing outside in direct sunlight.

Okay. What about solutions? What did you learn from your investigation about what alternatives are available and what could be provided?

Ernst: So we didn’t just take temperatures inside bus shelters, but we took a look at the bus stop and saw, okay, is there possibly another form of shade that’s available for the bus rider to help them cool down? And we also took temperatures underneath trees.

Among the data that we collected, we found that trees were twice as effective on average at cooling riders than bus shelters were. And this was kind of the inspiration for our episode three and the second web story that we wrote in this investigation, which looked at trees – like how feasible [to] provide trees as a form of cooling for bus riders? And is it even feasible to have a tree at every single bus stop?

We found that, you know, there are quite a few challenges that are in the way to making that a reality. But essentially step one would be doing an inventory, taking stock, collecting the data and where it’s actually possible to plant a tree. And where it is possible, plant a tree there – you know, collaborate with different partners. Trees for Houston in Houston actually volunteered to pay for every single tree.

But then beyond that, there’s also the limitations of the built infrastructure. Sometimes there isn’t enough space for a tree. The public right-of-way isn’t big enough, or there’s concrete that doesn’t make it possible for a tree to thrive there. And so in the instances where maybe streets are being repaved, well, that’s possibly an opportunity to extend the public right-of-way to, you know, create an environment that is a little bit less car-centric and a little bit more focused on bus riders and pedestrians.

Katie, Sara, either of you feel free to take this question, but I’m thinking, “okay, if I’m listening to you in San Antonio or Dallas,” how isolated does this problem seem to be to Houston?

Watkins: I don’t know the specifics of, say, the bus shelters in San Antonio or Austin, but certainly I think all across Texas, we saw, you know, record breaking temperatures. It was a really hot summer. And people who take the bus are among some of the most vulnerable and the most exposed to these elements.

And certainly I think some of our findings, especially related to how much trees can help cool and how, you know, different designs of bus shelters can, you know, improve ventilation and cooling. I think those are things that really could be applied to any bus transit system.

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