Saturday, December 14, 2019

More on free transit, Houston densifying, CA vs TX, hard economics for TX HSR, Bastrop city plan, and more

Large backlog of items this week:
"Even if Texas Central could manage to attract 6 million passengers a year, the annual payment on a $20 billion loan at 3 percent interest over 30 years is just over $1 billion. That means it would have to collect nearly $170 per passenger above its operating costs in order to repay loans or give funders a return on their investments. Since airfares are already far lower than that, I don’t see any way for this to ever happen."
“1,545 people per day settled in Texas last year, with Harris County seeing the greatest influx from out of state than any other region,” according to Yardi Systems."
"The new code is very lean—based on the rural-to-urban Transect, it does not regulate uses, only nuisances. The thinking is that if the use creates no problem, why regulate it? There are no minimum lot dimensions or parking requirements. Shared parking is encouraged. Every lot is automatically allowed to have two accessory units. So, rather than the continuing the single-family zoning that is fiscally unsustainable as a dominant pattern, every lot can have three units. "
Finally, I'll end with a little good humor piece: Texas Luring Jobs Away From California With Promises Of Electricity:
"California Governor Gavin Newsom was dismissive of Texas's claims, though. “They’re making false claims of being able to deliver electricity 24/7,” Newsom said, “but it just can’t be done.” Newsom was also dismissive of the Lone Star State's other claims, such as affordable housing, plenty of water, cheap gas, plastic straws, and not constantly being on fire. "

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Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Why METRO should eliminate transit fares

Apologies for the infrequency of posts - it's been a busy holiday season.  The big item this week is my mention in this Chronicle article for getting Metro to reconsider spending $100 million on new fare-collection equipment while they're still looking at going completely fareless:
(Metro Chairman) Patman said she spoke with Tory Gattis, a local blogger who has argued for free transit as a way to boost use, on Wednesday after the Houston Chronicle reported on the agency’s plans to expand payment options. Gattis, she said, urged the board to give the contract more consideration in view of the fare study. 
“I agree we need to think carefully about the connection between the two,” Patman said. 
Gattis, in a Twitter post Wednesday, called spending that much to collect about $70 million each year “silly.” 
“$100 (million) could buy and operate enough buses to handle the surge in demand from going fare-less with only a 6 percent revenue loss,” he wrote.
This is something I've discussed here before when I was supporting the Metro bond referendum, and Harris County Commissioner Radack supports it as well.  Kansas City and others are also looking at going fareless to boost ridership. Both Forbes and Aaron Renn have written about the benefits of free transit fares. Here's how I see the case for free fares:

Benefits of METRO going fareless

Affordable: Only 4.9% of Metro’s budget comes from the farebox ($67.5m from $1,363.8m revenue budget). That's less than a couple years of normal sales tax growth.

Increased ridership:
  • People are strongly attracted to “free” and discouraged by any cost
  • Attract the occasional/discretionary rider (including tourists) who won’t go through the hassle of getting a Q card. From Forbes:
"This increased demand is not due solely to the availability of free and convenient transportation, but also to the fact that it is frictionless: people don’t have to worry about travel cards, cash or identification."
Reduced congestion and increased air quality:
Reduced drunk driving as more people choose transit to go out

Faster and more on-time trips from speeding the boarding process
  • Also lower fuel consumption lost to excessive idling at stops
Stimulates the local economy and vibrancy: people will go out more and do more shopping, eating out, nightlife, entertainment, socializing, etc.

Reduced costs from not having to collect, process, and enforce fares
Eliminates fare-based confrontations between drivers and riders (a larger problem than you might think)

Huge PR boost from being the first major city in America to go fareless
From my understanding, it sounds like they could consider fareless off-peak right away, but would need a few years to add capacity to be able to handle the extra demand at peak hours.  I've suggested a 5-year steady ratcheting down of fares (20% reduction per year) while adding incremental capacity where demand increases beyond existing capacity, which is especially likely on commuter routes.  Going fareless off-peak in the near-term can also attract the discretionary rider to move their trip from peak to off-peak hours, freeing up additional peak capacity.

That's the case for fareless. I'm looking forward to the results of Metro's study and what they decide to do. I sincerely hope they look at going big and bold rather than playing it safe.

UPDATE: Bill King sent me an older Chronicle op-ed of his making similar arguments, but with more detailed analysis on the costs and benefits.

UPDATE 2: Kansas City beat us to it, but it shows it's possible for a major city to go fareless and we could still be the first top-30 metro to do it. Hat tip to Chris.

UPDATE 3: CityLab: Why Kansas City’s Free Transit Experiment Matters

UPDATE 4: A Kinder analysis of some of my arguments for Metro going fareless.

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Sunday, November 17, 2019

World Series Houspitality, HTX #1 for entrepreneurship higher ed, cities Americans are leaving, Austin's fantasy, and more

A few items this week:
"Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in America, and the city of Austin and Austin’s transit agency, Capital Metro, have a plan for dealing with all of the traffic that will be generated by that growth: assume that a third of the people who now drive alone to work will switch to transit, bicycling, walking, or telecommuting by 2039. That’s right up there with planning for dinner by assuming that food will magically appear on the table the same way it does in Hogwarts.
Planners have developed two main approaches to transportation. One is to estimate how people will travel and then provide and maintain the infrastructure to allow them to do so as efficiently and safely as possible. The other is to imagine how you wish people would travel and then provide the infrastructure assuming that to happen. The latter method is likely to lead to misallocation of capital resources, increased congestion, and increased costs to travelers. 
Austin’s plan is firmly based on this second approach. The city’s targets of reducing driving alone by a third, maintaining carpooling at an already too-high number, and increasing transit by 394 percent are completely unrealistic. No American city has achieved similar results in the past two decades and none are likely to come close in the next two decades."
  • Animated graph of Where Americans are Leaving: Net Domestic Migration Out Of Metro Areas 2010-2018. Mostly the big 3 of NYC, LA, and Chicago, but Houston does appear at the bottom near the end. Harvey losses I assume. Excerpt:
"People vote with their feet.  Sunbelt states overall offer stronger economies, more job opportunities, better weather, and lower taxes.  These trends may have political implications, as “blue state” residents move to “red” states, perhaps making them more “purple.”"
Finally, while we're all disappointed in how the World Series turned out (how the heck did the home team lose *every* game?!), there is a small silver lining in the ad Nationals fans put in the Chronicle, which I think is an excellent example of Houspitality!

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Sunday, November 10, 2019

Promoting the Houston model in South Africa, Morocco, and California

I'm back! Apologies for the sporadic posts in October - it was quite the travel month for me: two smart cities workshops (Johannesburg, South Africa and Marrakesh, Morocco), another workshop on the California affordable housing crisis with this guy (Irvine, CA), work in Connecticut, and fill-in mini-vacations in Cape Town and Barcelona (and I highly recommend both!). Whew. Way too much time on airplanes. But now I'm back in H-town and ready to be settled at home for a while.

Some items of interest from the trips:
  • In Johannesburg, I presented the MetroNext 2040 plan and how it had evolved politically, especially from light rail to BRT.  It got a ton of interest in the small group breakouts/Q&A.  A lot of curiosity about BRT and MaX Lanes.  Glad to see the plan passed strongly.  Congrats, Metro. Now can we execute quickly on the plan while staying under budget? ;-)
  • In Marrakesh, I presented the Houston model of opportunity urbanism and no-zoning, which definitely sparked a spicy debate from the smart-growthers in the room! The workshop focus was Middle Eastern/North African cities, and I got the impression their representatives were much more receptive to a model that focuses on affordability and opportunity.
  • In California... well, to be frank, California is pretty screwed.  Their housing is completely unaffordable and getting worse, as demand far outpaces new supply. Their CEQA environmental law makes it easy for any anonymous party to sue to stop any development anywhere, which has basically killed development.  Both the environmental and labor movements - which essentially control the California government - acknowledge the flaws, but aren't willing to give up the leverage it gives them.  My solution pitch was MaX Lanes to connect remote suburban housing markets to vibrant coastal job centers with high-speed autonomous buses.
Before I end with some pics below, a reminder that this blog is sponsored by My Best Plan for absolutely optimizing the lowest-cost electricity plan for you.  I've known David over there for years (fellow Rice MBA), and his optimization algorithm is the best, bar none. And completely unbiased too, which can't be said for some of the other optimizers out there that have been uncovered as fronts for electricity marketing companies.  Send him (or me) your latest electricity bill to get an estimate of your potential savings - it's free, and you have nothing to lose while potentially saving hundreds or even thousands of dollars (as he's saved me over the years).

Now finishing this post with a couple of pictures from the trip:

Meeting the Mayor in the Johannesburg city council chambers, which are quite impressive, but I can't imagine trying to run a city government with that many different representatives (at least a 100+).  Glad Houston keeps it a more manageable number, even if our council chambers aren't as impressive.

The "Houston, we have a problem" meme has even made it to Barcelona bus shelters, lol 🙄  Well, at least we're known globally, right?

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Sunday, October 20, 2019

Proposing an autonomous transit service for Houston

This week we have a guest post from Nikhila Krishnan on a potential autonomous transit future for Houston. You can also hear her presentation at a Houston Tomorrow H-GAC lunch event this Wednesday and on the HT website here, including links to more detailed documents.
A recent post discussed that Texas was ranked near the top for residents that feel their state is the best place to live. I would go so far as to say Houston is one of the best cities to live in, but there is one thing holding Houston back from taking the top slot as the best city:  effective public transit. The Houston readers can commiserate with the feeling of boredom and frustration when stuck in stand-still traffic during rush hour. We Houstonians have to make sacrifices due to limited public transit options including:
  • 10 days wasted per year in the car 
  • thousands of dollars spent each year on gas and vehicle maintenance
  • thousands of kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted annually
With the upcoming Metro Next Plan vote, there has been much discussion about future transit systems in Houston, but one key transit possibility has been absent from the discussion: autonomous vehicles (AVs).  

Autonomous vehicles are advantageous for the following reasons:
  • Transform system from small number of large vehicles to large number of small vehicles
  • Switch from fixed-route, fixed-timetable to demand-responsive system
  • Address the first/last mile problem
  • Point A to point B system
Because autonomous vehicles do not require a driver (or a driver’s salary), Houston would be able to better afford a larger fleet size of smaller vehicles. This means that there would be frequent services that reduce commute times and increase convenience. In addition, autonomous connected vehicles can communicate with each other and the passengers to create demand-responsive routes which would be more convenient for riders and would lead to higher vehicle load factors. To increase connectivity, autonomous vehicles can be applied to the first mile/ last mile problem of public transit that excludes some populations from using a transit system. Many opt-out of using public transit due to limited connectivity between their initial location and the transit pick-up or between the transit drop-off and their intended destination. AVs can fill in the gaps of existing transit, helping to create a fully integrated and accessible system that can get a user from point A to point B. The advantage of private cars is that one can hop in a car and get wherever they want whenever they want. If a public transportation system is comprehensive so that commuters can get from anywhere to anywhere with short wait times, it can challenge the dominance of cars and thus change the face of Houston transit.

I recently finished a Masters course at the University of Cambridge in which I wrote a dissertation (alternate link) postulating the use of autonomous vehicles as a means of delivering a public transport service in Houston. The results from the dissertation suggest that autonomous transport systems have great potential in Houston with regards to social, financial, and environmental performance. Houston needs a forward-thinking solution when planning transit that will be in place for the upcoming decades. Autonomous vehicles are that solution and Houston can be the leader in pioneering autonomous systems for public transit. 

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Sunday, October 06, 2019

Ten worst things about Houston, best state rankings, economic diversification, and SF vs. TX homes

Just a few quick items this week.  October is a big work travel month for me (South Africa, Morocco, Barcelona, Connecticut), so posts may be sparse.  Should be back to a more regular weekly schedule in November.
"Texans Most Likely to View the Lone Star State as the Very Best 
Although Texas trails Montana and Alaska in terms of its residents rating it as the best or one of the best places to live, it edges out Alaska (27%) and Hawaii (25%) in the percentage of residents who rate it as the single best place to live. 
Texans' pride for their state as the single best place to live is not surprising when viewed in the context of other measures. According to Gallup Daily tracking for 2013, Texans rank high on standard of living and trust in their state government, and they are less negative than others are about the state taxes they pay. The same is true for Alaska and, to a lesser extent, Hawaii, which had relatively average scores for trust in state government and state taxes, but ranked high for standard of living. The three also have distinct histories, geographies, natural resources, and environmental features that may contribute to residents' personal enjoyment and pride in their locale."
"Taken literally, the argument to diversify says that it would be a good thing if your biggest industries got smaller (that would make you more diverse).  But would Seattle really be better off if Amazon, Microsoft or Boeing was half the size it is today? 
Fourth, the key lesson of clusters is that firms draw competitive business advantage from having other similar and related firms nearby.  By attracting talent, developing specialized suppliers, and promoting intense competition and benefiting from specialized knowledge spilling over, you get stronger, better firms, and a healthier economy.  Specializations are seldom static: one specialization often provides the knowledge base for new specializations: The process of economic development is often about related diversification:  being good in one technology at one time sets the stage to be good at generating the next technology at the next time.  The important thing is this isn’t random:  its path-dependent."
I'll end with a fun video on the Top Ten Worst Things About Houston. I question some of the facts quoted (3 to 1??), but it's pretty amusing.  My favorites are
  • #3 no zoning (starts at 1:40)
  • #6 affordable housing (starts at 4:00)
  • #8 people (starts at 5:38)
Spicy language warning, especially near the end.  Hat tip to George for the find.

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Monday, September 30, 2019

Should you vote for MetroNext 2040?

Back in January, I wrote an op-ed in the Chronicle giving Metro's draft 2040 plan a grade of B-, with the primary penalty being too many miles of extremely expensive, low-ridership light rail, including two redundant lines to Hobby airport.  Since then, they've made some good improvements to the plan, the most dramatic being consolidating two light rail lines to Hobby down to one and saving hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.  BRT to Hobby would have been even more cost-effective, but would have forced an awkward transfer to the existing LRT lines halfway along, so I understand the choice of light rail for Hobby.

The new $7.5B plan includes approximately 16 additional miles of light rail ($2.1 billion), 75 miles of BRT (bus rapid transit) service ($3.23 billion), 110 miles of new HOV lanes ($1.56 billion, the best investment in the plan), 290 miles of BOOST network for high-ridership, frequent bus routes offering speed and reliability ($179 million), 21 new or improved park-and-rides, and additional service enhancements ($414 million). 

On Tuesday November 5th, you'll have the option to vote to authorize Metro to issue $3.5 billion in bonds to execute this new plan. The Greater Houston Partnership business community supports it, but other opposition has formed. While it's not my dream plan, I do support it and hope you will as well.  On balance, it is a cost-effective, pragmatic plan, which is very rare when you look at other transit agencies nationally.  There has been some truly crazy stuff happening out there (like LA, Seattle, Denver, and Nashville), and Houston should count itself lucky to have a plan like this.  Even if you find yourself averse to parts of it, I strongly encourage supporting it, because honestly - based on what I've seen happening around the country - there's a real risk of something much worse coming forward in the future if we reject this one.  This will lock Houston into a solidly good plan for the next 20 years while other cities light bonfires of tax dollars on ineffective rail projects. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Unfortunately, I couldn't convince Metro to add the moonshot aspiration or commit to transitioning to free fares (yet). The farebox is only 4.9% of their budget, so it's totally affordable, and Commissioner Radack called for free fares last week to help reduce congestion.  Kansas City might beat us as the first major city to move to free transit, and Forbes and Aaron Renn have argued for it as well. But Metro is at full capacity during peak hours, so they can't handle the extra demand free would generate.  Instead, I'd advocate for free fares during off-peak hours immediately, along with a multi-year plan to ratchet fares down to zero while increasing capacity to handle the new demand.  The advantage of going to off-peak free fares immediately would be that it could attract flexible riders that would otherwise take their trip during peak hours, and that frees up those peak hour seats for new riders. I'll discuss more on the advantages of free fares in a future post.

After the election, I'm also hoping Metro will study what Indianapolis is doing to see how they're doing BRT for $10m/mile instead of our $40m/mile.  I think part of our extra cost is dedicated right-of-way, but there might be aspects of their approach we can learn from or even apply to certain routes where the cheaper approach can be effective, thus allowing us to get more miles of BRT for the same money.  More on Indy's plan at CityLab.

Final grade: A-, but solidly worth your vote!

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Sunday, September 22, 2019

What Hawaii can learn from Houston, our tourism niche, metro population racing, and more

Just a few items this week:
  • Very cool animated "bar race chart" of metro areas adding the most population between 2011 and 2018.  As you can see, Houston was #1 much of it while oil boomed and the rest of the country struggled to get out of the 2008 crash.  But then the rest of the economy took off, oil faded, and Harvey happened but we're still resilient enough to be #3, just getting edged out by Phoenix as California baby boomers cash out of their inflated houses and retire somewhere much cheaper but with easy access to kids and grandkids they leave behind in CA.  Watch NYC, LA, and SF all drop like a rock as they become increasingly unaffordable.
  • New Geography: On the Houston Chronicle editorial crusade against fossil fuels.  I've always felt the Chronicle was pretty fair about publishing opinions on all sides of an issue, but there have been a lot of personnel changes over there in recent years. I hope that's still the case.
  • Houston with kids: A far-out adventure in Texas. The reason I post this is because it directly supports my tourism strategy for Houston:  a "Washington DC/Smithsonian of STEM" aimed at families inspiring their kids into STEM fields (more here).  It's a niche no other city can lay claim to yet, and we already have a ton of strong assets here.
  • Houston Strategies from 2006 on Chron Wayback machine. As you can see it hasn't changed, lol.  My design is sort of stuck, and that's because I have a legacy Blogspot template that can't be upgraded to a newer design without either a lot of work outside my expertise or losing my archive of old posts.  Hope you don't mind the old format.  I'm kinda assuming the content matters more to my readers than a slick modern design ;-) Hat tip to Rich for the catch.
Finally, a video of my half-hour interview on Hawaiian TV last week about what Hawaii can learn from Houston’s lack of zoning as well as opportunity urbanism.  Horrendous housing supply and cost problem in Hawaii with 95% of the land protected from development.

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