Monday, August 19, 2019

Flooding plan, faster cheaper Ike Dike, new MetroNext video, bad fad road diets, good gentrification, and more

A lot of items in the backlog this week, and I'm on vacation next week so probably won't have time to post, so here's your two-weeks worth! ;-)
"Houston is a top U.S. city for STEM grads and engineering talent with more than 300,000 educated millennials and 240,000 STEM workers. STEM talent powers some of the largest industries in Houston, from energy to life science and manufacturing. 
Houston also offers these UHD and other STEM students a top-tier job market. According to the American Enterprise Institute’s Housing Center, Houston is the second best U.S. metro area for STEM workers. 
Technology, in particular, is thriving. According to the Partnership's most recent edition of Houston Facts, with more than 223,000 tech workers, Houston has the 12th largest tech sector in the U.S. Nearly two-thirds of Houston’s high-tech workers are employed in industries other than computers and software."
"The Cascade Policy Institute released a detailed study of a road diet plan whose effects include worse traffic congestion, less transit service, and no significant increase in bike and pedestrian traffic that had been projected. The study, “The New Sellwood Bridge: Promises Unfulfilled,” is a valuable case study of how the local politics of transportation and smart growth led to unfortunate outcomes."
  • The age of winner-take-all cities. Cool graph of metros by GMP. Houston is 5th largest metro by population in the country, but drops to #7 ranked by GMP, getting edged out by DC and SF.  Interesting fact: even with substantially fewer people, if you combine SF and San Jose's GMP they're notably larger than Chicago. That's the power of tech. 
"The top 25 metro areas (out of a total of 384) accounted for more than half of the U.S.'s $19.5 trillion GDP in 2017, according to an Axios analysis of Bureau of Economic Analysis data."
Finally, I wanted to end this week's post with Metro's new MetroNext plan overview video, which I think is pretty well done getting it all packed into only two minutes. In particular, they do a good job explaining the MetroRapid BRT rail-like benefits, which the public isn't familiar with. Last week they officially approved the bond referendum for this November's ballot.

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Saturday, August 10, 2019

Benefits of the I-45 Expansion and the High Cost of Electric Buses

This week's post is a guest post by Oscar Slotboom

North Houston Highway Improvement Project (IH 45 expansion)
Recent Chronicle reporting on the North Houston Highway Improvement Project has been somewhat one-sided against the project. The Chronicle gave heavy publicity to the "boondoggle" report by a special interest group. On July 14 Tory posted a link to the response by Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation debunking the biased report. On July 14 the Chronicle featured an anti-project op-ed in the first page of the Sunday opinion section, which at 1818 words was far longer than the usual 700 word limit.
To bring some balance to the issue, I submitted a pro-project outlook op-ed and the Chronicle kindly published it this past week on August 3 (online) and August 8 (print). In short: I enumerate the extensive benefits this project will provide for mobility, downtown improvement and enhancement of adjacent neighborhoods, concluding that the project is a vital investment in Houston's future.
  •   Houston needs the I-45 expansion
  • PDF of online version (permalink, login not required)
  • PDF of print version, abridged from online version (permalink, login not required)
67% of weekday peak-period traffic on downtown freeways is passing through downtown, not originating from or going to downtown destinations. These trips are virtually impossible to serve with traditional public transit, since they are coming from dispersed locations and going to dispersed locations. The value of 67% was derived from the 2014 official traffic study, and is summarized below.

Freeway % Through Traffic Lanes
Through Lanes
Through Lanes
45 SB 62% 4 2 (50%) 3 (75%)
69 SB 72% 5 2 (40%) 3 (60%)
10 WB 71% 4 2 (50%) 4** (100%)
288 NB 76% 4
69 NB 50% 5 2 (40%) 4 (80%)
10 EB 69% 5 2 (40%) 4** (80%)
45 NB * 4 2 (50%) 3 (75%)
Average 67% 45% 78%
*Available data is not consistent with other freeways **IH 10 express lanes (2 each way) counted as only one each way due to one-lane entrance/exits

The capacity percent for through lanes is a simplification since in some cases connections occur before the narrowest point, but it is a good indicator for comparison. The existing downtown freeways have around 45% through capacity, compared to 67% of travel demand. The NHHIP will increase through-capacity to around 78%, well above 67%.

Due to the insufficient downtown through capacity, nine of the top 20 most congested freeways in Texas are included in the NNHIP or are immediately adjacent to it. The #1 most congested freeway segment in Texas is the West Loop between IH 69 and IH 10. Of course, plans to add lanes to the West Loop were canceled in the early 1990s, and this is the result - tens of thousands of people suffering in more severe traffic every day because of that bad decision.

Rank Freeway Limits
1 610 West Loop I-69 to I-10
2 IH 69 Southwest Freeway West Loop to SH 288
5 IH 69 downtown SH 288 to IH 10
10 IH 45 North Freeway Loop 610 to Beltway 8
11 IH 45 downtown and Gulf Freeway IH 10 to Loop 610 South
12 SH 288 South Freeway Loop 610 to IH 45
16 IH 10 downtown IH 45 North Freeway to IH 69 Eastex Freeway
17 IH 10 West (inside Loop) West Loop to IH 45 North Freeway
18 North Loop West IH 45 North Freeway to IH 10 Katy Freeway
20 IH 45 North Freeway IH 10 to Loop 610
Electric Buses
A couple recent articles about electric buses caught my attention.

The Dallas Morning News recently analyzed an implementation of 7 electric buses run by DART and concluded that the initial cost and overall lifetime cost of the electric buses is much higher than conventional diesel buses. Our million-dollar bus doesn't add up. We did the math
"The buses gobble up vast quantities of electricity for very little distance. Between seven buses recharging 34 times every weekday, the city spends about $1,000 per day on power for the electric buses. The city also spent over $800,000 on the new charging stations alone, which will need upkeep of their own over the years. ...Given all these costs, a simple net present value calculation shows that we'll spend nearly half a million more for a single electric bus over the course of its lifetime — or, the cost of a new diesel bus."
An article in Wired, Why Electric Buses Haven't Taken Over the World—Yet, explains why a conversion to electric buses is going to be difficult and expensive. In short, the entire workflow and infrastructure for servicing buses is going to need to be rebuilt, at a very high cost.
"But charging stations are expensive—about $50,000 for your standard depot-based one. On-route charging stations, an appealing option for longer bus routes, can be two or three times that....Then agencies also have to get the actual electricity to their charging stations. This involves lengthy conversations with utilities about grid upgrades, rethinking how systems are wired, occasionally building new substations, and, sometimes, cutting deals on electric output."
My conclusion from these articles is that there's no need for Metro to be an early adopter of electric buses. It's just going to cost a lot of money, and any air quality benefit would be negligible with a small percentage of electric buses in the fleet. Thankfully, it appears that Metro is proceeding slowly on electric buses, mainly due to concerns over the ability of electric bus air conditioning to meet summer needs.

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Sunday, August 04, 2019

Atlanta is a cautionary tale for Houston

Aaron Renn recently wrote an excellent piece in the City Journal describing the challenges facing Atlanta, and it holds some cautionary lessons for Houston.

First, here are his excerpts related to Houston:
"Though still growing rapidly, Atlanta’s fortunes have taken a hit in the new century. From 1980 to 2000, metro Atlanta grew in population by an astonishing 82.3 percent, outdistancing Dallas–Fort Worth and Houston. But in the 18 years since 2000, its population growth rate was only 39.6 percent, which trails its Texas peers. Since 2000, the population gap between Houston and Atlanta more than doubled, rising from less than 500,000 to more than 1 million. And growth has continued to slow. From 2000 to 2010, Atlanta’s average annual population growth reached only 2.13 percent, and that has fallen to 1.45 percent since 2010.
Migration to Atlanta has significantly slowed. The city welcomed fewer domestic migrants than much smaller Charlotte and Austin did last year, and it’s drawing far fewer immigrants than Dallas, Houston, and even Philadelphia.
Atlanta also has huge transportation challenges. Its freeways are among the nation’s widest but also the most congested. Atlanta failed to rearchitect its freeway network as it grew, retaining its sixties-era beltway-and-spoke system. By contrast, Houston is working on its third beltway. The net result: Atlanta outside its I-285 perimeter is by far the most developed urban area in the world without non-radial freeways, according to demographer Wendell Cox. The metro area has the nation’s third-lowest share of jobs accessible to the average commuter in 30 minutes or less
The highway problems may be unfixable. Regional planners have been pushing transit expansion into the suburbs, but in the highly dispersed Atlanta region, transit has no chance of making a dent in mobility needs." 
I’ve been warning Houston for years about the risk of underinvestment in transportation infrastructure leading to employers leaving the core for the affluent suburbs like Exxon did.  Now I can point to an actual example of that happening in Atlanta (especially a lack of loop freeways), based both his piece as well as the comments there and at his blog.  There people discuss the jobs boom in the suburbs - not the core - because of congestion. Employers will move to where their employees want to live if they can't reach them within a reasonable commute time.

When a metro region gets too hard to get around – like LA and Atlanta – it fragments into an archipelago of isolated, zero-sum winner and loser “islands” rather than being a single cohesive labor market.  Houston faces the same risk if we don't invest in projects like the 45N expansion and connecting up a regionwide MaX Lanes network.

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Sunday, July 28, 2019

How Metro should spend $400m, what brings people here, gentrification helps residents, expanding market-based parking, realistic Dome plans, Newsweek on HTX

This week the Metro board will be meeting to discuss what to do with $400 million in savings recently created in the MetroNext 2040 plan by consolidating two light rail lines to Hobby into one.  The initial ideas are a new park-and-ride for Kingwood (looks good) and extending the Hobby rail line to the Monroe park-and-ride (~$350 million!).  That extension is super questionable.  I have trouble understanding who exactly would use it? Anyone at that Monroe park-and-ride will be able to choose between a fast express HOV bus ride downtown (maybe 10 or 15 mins?) or a 45+ minute light rail ride - who's going to take the rail? Maybe to go to Hobby or UH, but if you're already in a car, why wouldn't you just go the rest of the way to their parking lots?  I just can't see a compelling use case. I'm curious what kinds of marginal ridership gains the Metro staff predict for the extension.

My own alternate suggestion: reduce rides system-wide to $1, including commuter buses. Any ride anywhere within Metro would only be $1.  This would attract a ton of riders to the park-and-ride express buses (which cost several dollars each way now, depending on the route), and reduce congestion on the freeways - a huge winner with voters across the Metro service area whether they ride transit or not.  Certainly, a lot of commuters now do the time+cost+parking math on park-and-ride commuter buses vs. driving and end up picking driving.  This would strongly tip that value equation back over to commuter buses for a *lot* of people.  If you're interested in putting in your two cents, the Metro board meeting is at 10am this Wednesday.

More on my Metro Moonshot proposal here.

Moving on to this week's smaller items:
Finally, a couple of links related to Houston's identity.  First, this local NPR Houston Matters episode on "What Brings People To Houston?"  Some great keywords you'll hear in it: opportunity, diversity (and how that spawns the amazing food scene), and a welcoming friendliness (Houspitality!).  And then this NY Times piece on "Want to Be Less Racist? Move to Hawaii -The “aloha spirit” may hold a deep lesson for all of us."  Again, I think Houspitality is our version of the Aloha Spirit, and something we should definitely hold on to and actively cultivate (starting with Houston drivers! ;-).

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Sunday, July 21, 2019

A proposal for our next "giant leap" beyond the moon: the Solar System Explorer

As we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this weekend, the Chronicle asked "What’s our next ‘giant leap’ beyond the moon?"  That reminded me of an old unpublished op-ed I submitted way back in 2003, but I think it still holds up after all these years. See what you think and let me know in the comments.

A New Mission for NASA

“In Search of a Mission” reads the bold Sunday Chronicle headline, kicking off a six-part in-depth series on NASA after the Columbia tragedy.  In search of a mission, indeed.  The Columbia disaster has surfaced many reservations about NASA and its $15 billion dollar annual budget, especially about the limited scientific contributions of the manned shuttle and space station programs.  NASA seems to have lost its way, and a growing chorus of voices is calling for a renewed vision and reinvigorated leadership.

Some of the more extreme voices – focused purely on maximizing “bang for the buck” science – are calling for a severe curtailing or even elimination of the manned programs in favor of more unmanned robotic missions like the very successful Mars Rover.  But no matter how much the economics make sense, most people agree that there is something important and magical about manned exploration of space – a shared passion for simple human exploration that goes beyond the pure science.  NASA needs an inspiring vision that recognizes the importance of manned exploration, the value of good science, and the realities of budget constraints.

I believe that long-term vision – that big, audacious goal to motivate the tens of thousands of NASA employees, contractors, and scientists – should be no less than the eventual construction of a Solar System Explorer: a manned ship designed to go on long-range missions to Mars and the moons of Jupiter and beyond.  A flexible, modular ship that could perform base-building freight missions to the Moon in addition to its long-range exploration missions – designed to return to Earth orbit again and again and again for refitting and upgrades for the next mission.  This would be a ship designed to be built-in orbit and never touch the surface of a planet (although it would certainly carry landing modules).  The Solar System Explorer would bring a level of excitement back to the space program not seen since the 1960’s race to the Moon.

Unfortunately, such a ship is well beyond any budget reality that exists today.  This is where a short to mid-term vision for NASA comes in: they need to create a “Moore’s Law of Space Travel.”  Moore’s Law is named after Gordon Moore, who postulated in 1965 that the price/performance of semiconductor chips would double roughly every 18 months – a prediction that has held up remarkably well ever since to be the dominant driver of our computer and Internet revolutions.  Just as Intel has helped drive those improvements through sustained R&D investments, NASA should drive improvements in space travel economics through innovative R&D investments in propulsion and other systems.  Just as the NIH gives out grants to test innovative approaches to attacking our most intractable diseases, NASA should administer grants to test a wide range of possible approaches to reducing the costs of space travel.  Doubling every 18 months is a bit unrealistic, but even smaller gains can compound over time until the Explorer is financially feasible.

This approach allows NASA to “think big” – so critical to morale and public support – while staying grounded in economic realities: an inspirational mission balanced between head and heart to launch the space program to new heights in the 21st century.


Sunday, July 14, 2019

45N not a boondoggle, beating gentrification, HTX vs global warming, mixed rankings, and more

A whole lot of items came up this week:
Finally, a cool video on the ruins of the old Westbury Square, a faux Italian shopping village created in Houston in the 50s. Great aerial drone footage. Hat tip to Chris and Richard.

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Sunday, July 07, 2019

Hobby rail critique, livable city ranking flaws, Houston tops Dallas for homeless reduction, and more

This week's items:
  • I've come around to accepting light rail to Hobby in the MetroNext plan as a less-than-optimal compromise among many different constituencies, but this Urban Reform blog post by Connor Harris of the Manhattan Institute makes a pretty strong case about the cost-inefficiency of such a line at $167,000 per new daily rider. His alternative:
"For improving service to Hobby Airport, Houston Metro has a much faster and cheaper option: express buses. 
Currently, bus route 40, the only direct bus line from the airport to downtown, takes a scheduled 55 minutes to cover a distance that is less than 9 miles as the crow flies. An express bus alongside Interstate 45, however, could easily make the trip in 20 to 30 minutes—substantially faster than light rail, which currently averages only about 15 miles per hour. Buses could make the trip this fast even during rush hour: Interstate 45 has a separate HOV lane all the way from the airport to downtown, and adding an entrance at Airport Boulevard for express airport buses would just require repainting a few lane markings. Special-purpose express buses could also be fitted with luggage racks, which would compete with rush-hour commuters for space on light rail trains."
"Issues such as housing affordability are taken into account, for example, but have to balance against more rarified qualities such as access to opera, high-end restaurants, and other amenities. This isn’t all bad—for those who can afford them, opera and restaurants are wonderful things. The result is still that rankings often end up assessing cities in terms of a small band of citizens for whom almost all of such metrics are relevant. They assess, broadly, how much potential a city possesses when seen from a privileged point of view: that of a straight, affluent, mobile, and probably white couple who works in something akin to upper management and has children. Remove even one of those characteristics from the equation and the results often seem way off the mark.  City rankings are thus a window onto the projected tastes of a highly specific elite."
  • This month’s edition of the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston: The Economy at a Glance analyzes recent population estimates and discusses how the region's population has grown since '10, provides an employment update, and summarizes the Partnership's recent publication, Global Houston.

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Monday, July 01, 2019

Reimagining the $7B 45N project

There has been a lot of back and forth in recent weeks about TXDoT's 45N redevelopment plans, including a Kinder essay series, a supportive Houston Press column (how the heck did that happen?!), Kuff columns, and a very biased pro-transit/anti-car group labeling it one of the largest boondoggles in the country (full report - why am I not surprised?) Oscar Slotboom has updated and simplified his list of flaws in the project as well.

In regional TXDoT director Quincy Allen's piece at Kinder, he vigorously defends the project and makes a not-so-subtle threat that we need to take seriously:
"To be clear, the funding allocated to delivering the I-45 improvements cannot be made available for transit expenditures.  If Houston decides they don't want the highway improvements, the funding will ultimately be re-allocated to highway improvements in other areas of our region or the state.  Imagine where that would leave Houston in addressing congestion in the nation's fourth-largest city.  "
On the whole and on balance, I'm a supporter of the project (although it can always be tweaked to be better, of course).  It's probably the last realistic opportunity Houston will ever have to fix this freeway.  But it is mighty expensive and I greatly fear what a decade of disruptive construction will do to downtown, including a potentially major exodus by employers as their leases expire and they decide to head out to the suburbs for an easier life like Exxon did.  There's also the issue of tremendous land loss/takings in EaDo and no funding for the imaginary deck parks over the newly sunken freeways.  And I'm personally not a fan of losing the Pierce Elevated's six lanes of capacity, which really reduces the impact of new capacity on the north and east sides around downtown.

If someone made me all-powerful dictator-in-charge, here's what I'd consider doing instead with $7 billion of TXDoT's money:
  • Take the $1-2B already allocated in the short-term budget to start work on the 59-288 piece (which everyone agrees is a major bottleneck) as well as 45N north of the loop (with all needed mitigations for Independence Heights).  That lets us use all the existing filings/process/EIS as-is and not lose that money.
  • Keep the downtown tangle pretty much as it is today, including the Pierce Elevated.  Downtown will always need surface parking lots - put them under the elevateds.  Give the surface streets under the elevateds some nice treatments so they're more inviting for pedestrians to cross under to EaDo and Midtown.  Lighting, paint, noise insulation, whatever.  There are good examples all over the world on how to do this.  And if we want more park space downtown, put it cheaply where it belongs along the bayou or on existing land rather than on an extremely expensive deck park over a sunken freeway.
  • To solve the capacity problem, build a single set of 4 new MaX Lanes down the center of 45N inside the loop (as planned), but when they get downtown wrap them around the north and east sides of downtown elevated on their own single pylons - not disrupting any of the existing freeways nor taking much land from EaDo (like over Chartres St).  In addition to exits downtown, connect them into MaX Lanes on 45S, 288, and 59.
  • Take the billions saved from doing it this way to build out the rest of the interconnected MaX Lane network across the city.  This will do far, far more to improve long-term mobility across the region.
I know I'm really oversimplifying things here vs. real, detailed plans, but I think it conveys the broad alternative concept.  In my mind, this is the 80/20 solution: 80% of the benefits for 20% of the cost and disruption (at least for the downtown portion).

An alternative variant of this Michael Skelly has proposed would bring the Hardy toll road downtown (as planned), but congestion price it like MaX Lanes so TXDoT won't need them on 45N.  This would be even less expensive and disruptive, but requires cooperation from HCTRA and Metro (moving their planned IAH BRT).  And I believe they would still need to continue to wrap around the east side of downtown in addition to offering downtown exits, so they can connect up with MaX Lanes on the south side of town.

That's my proposal for what it's worth. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. And if an all-powerful dictator-in-charge position opens up, I'm happy to offer my services... ;-)

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