Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Why Houston is the best city in Texas and #1 attracting young adults, HTX vs. NYC opportunity zones, and more

Lots of good items this week:
"However, what I propose is that the high cost of airport connectors is not because the elite spends money on itself. Rather, it’s because many ordinary middle-class people fly a few times a year and wish for better airport transit, without thinking very hard about the costs and benefits. An airport connector appeals to a very wide section of the population, and may be very cheap if we divide the cost not by the number of daily users but by the number of unique annual users. Hence, it’s easier for politicians to support it, in a way they wouldn’t support an excessively costly subway line connecting a few residential neighborhoods to the city."
Finally I wanted to end with this great excerpt from Scott at the Market Urbanism Report on why Houston is the best city in Texas. I'm even quoted in this one!  Here's the summary quote I tweeted:
"Houston is easily my favorite Texas city, because it combines the best aspects of the other three... I prefer density over sprawl, big over small, new over old, and diversity over monoculture." 
And here's the more extensive excerpt:


"Houston is easily my favorite Texas city, because it combines the best aspects of the other three. The metro area is similar in size to Dallas, and has the same rapid growth, ethnic diversity, and global feel. In fact, Dallas and Houston sit alone together as America’s foremost boomtowns, each growing by more than 144,000 last year throughout the metro area (the third place MSA, Atlanta, grew by a mere 95,000). But, like San Antonio and Austin, Houston has remained more tasteful than Dallas, with numerous interior neighborhoods that are urban, walkable, and separated from the innards of the city.

Not only is Houston Texas’ best city; it is among a handful of emerging ones in the U.S.—including Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, Denver, Atlanta and Seattle—that will become the dense infill cities of tomorrow, joining the coastal legacy cities. The thing that differentiates Houston from the others, though, is that it doesn’t have the regulatory hurdles to stop this fundamentally market-oriented process. The city has no zoning code, which means a range of densities, uses and architectural styles can go anywhere in the city.

The folk wisdom is that this turned Houston into a sprawling mess like Dallas. But densification is already happening in Clutch City. This year it will lead the nation in multi-family housing construction, with 25,935 units entering the market (Dallas is #2 at 23,159). Much of this is going up rapidly via mid-rises in interior neighborhoods like Midtown, Montrose and Rice Military. Houston has the highest Walk Score of Texas’ big cities. Dallas, meanwhile, may feel more fragmented because of the low-density zoning in its central areas.

Of course, my choice, like anyone’s, is clouded by bias; I prefer density over sprawl, big over small, new over old, and diversity over monoculture."

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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

2018 Highlights

I recently realized I forgot to wrap up 2018 with a highlights post! Well, better late than never, and as a bonus I can even sneak in a couple of key posts from the beginning of 2019 ;-)

These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument; and, last but not least, they've also been invaluable for me to track down some of my best thinking for meetings or when requested by others (as is the ever-helpful Google search).

Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly once/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box at the bottom of the right sidebar. An RSS feed link for newsfeed readers is also available in the right sidebar (I'm a fan of Feedly).

As always, thanks for your readership.

And don't forget the highlights from the first few years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging) and most definitely in the best posts from the first dozen years and million pageviews.


Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Dallas Light Rail Ridership - A Cautionary Tale for Houston and MetroNext

This week's excellent guest post is from Oscar Slotboom:

The Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) 93-mile light rail system has the most track length of any light rail system in the United States, although several cities have more rail track length when heavy rail is included. 

But despite its broad reach, DART light rail suffers from low ridership. Let’s take a closer look at DART, and see how the same pattern of DART's low ridership is occurring in Houston with recent and proposed additions to Metro’s light rail. 

Data is from Metro's ridership page and MetroNext plan summary, and DART's annual reference books (2018, 2017, 2016). As a reminder, ridership is so-called unlinked trips, so ridership of 1000 roughly represents 500 people making a round-trip.

Light Rail System and Route Ridership
DART has 4.2 times the track of Metro, but its systemwide ridership is only 59% more than MetroRail.

However, Houston's good showing in this comparison is due to the high ridership on the original Red Line from UH-Downtown to Fannin South. Recent additions in 2013 and 2014 costing $2.13 billion have ridership comparable to DART.

DART published an extensive report on its ridership in January 2018. This view taken from the report shows that light rail ridership has been flat around 97,000 since 2013, in spite of strong economic and population growth in North Texas.

The report discusses many factors influencing transit ridership, without citing a leading factor or factors. But one interesting page in the report shows downtown Dallas employment down 9% since 2002. The 93-mile DART light rail system is fully focused on downtown, yet its presence was not enough to stem employment decline.

In my opinion, these are key reasons for DART's low ridership
  • It is almost entirely downtown-focused, and downtown Dallas has been in decline. Employment in North Texas is highly decentralized, and becoming more decentralized.
  • It attempts to cover long distances, but light rail is inherently slow, making trip times too long. (Houston-style express bus service is much faster.)
  • Many lines were built for political reasons. Tax-paying suburban communities feel entitled to get their train links, even if the links make no sense based on cost and ridership.
  • Some lines, especially the north Green Line and Blue Line to Rowlett, are far from activity centers 
Houston Light Rail Expansions: Ridership is Trending Toward Dallas Levels
Let's take a look at the riders per mile of track. The DART system average 1045 riders per mile of track. The most recent additions to MetroRail average only slightly better, 1226 riders per mile of track, even though the MetroRail expansion was in dense urban area (while much of DART track is in low density areas). The proposed MetroNext light rail expansion averages well below DART with 822 riders per mile of track, and the proposed Purple Line extension has a dismal 378 riders per mile of track.

Airport Connections
DART opened its Orange Line connection to DFW Airport in August 2014. DFW is the fourth busiest airport in the U.S. Hobby served 20% as many passengers as DFW in 2017.

Passengers% of DFW

Ridership has been flat in the range of 900-1000 per day since it opened. With the current schedule showing 72 train departures per day, this averages 14 riders per train. Obviously, bus service can easily handle that level of ridership, even accounting for peak periods (which should be minimal for airport service). If ridership on the proposed Hobby light rail is comparable to DFW and directly proportional to airport size, that translates to around 200 riders per day. But other factors (e.g. shorter trip time) would likely raise it above 200, but still be in a range well-suited for bus service.

Light rail airport connections are generally ridership losers, as Tory mentioned in his recent Houston Chronicle op-ed. After all, who wants to take luggage on public transit and travel at a speed of 13 mph when most people have much better options (i.e. family, friends, Uber/Lift, company expense account for taxi, company-paid rental car). Airport workers in low-paying jobs, mainly restaurants, are the best candidates for using airport transit, and would be just as well if not better served by bus or BRT service.

Keeping Perspective
Trips on a single point of major freeways easily exceeds the systemwide overall trips (bus and rail) of Metro and DART, and busy freeways dwarf light rail ridership.

  • The original Red Line is the only corridor in Houston which can justify light rail.
  • Metro's 2013-14 expansion brought small increments of ridership for the high $2.13 billion cost, with ridership levels very similar to the Dallas system.
  • The proposed $2.45 billion MetroNext light rail extensions have estimated average ridership worse than Dallas, with the Green and Purple line expansions to Hobby Airport particularly poor.
  • There is no way Metro can justify the inclusion of the $881 million Purple Line extension to Hobby airport, especially considering that it duplicates the already-weak Green Line extension to Hobby and has estimated ridership of only 378 riders per mile of track.
  • Transit investments should be right-sized for the service demand. This means that $150+ million/mile light rail should not be built when the demand is far lower than the capacity provided by light rail, and bus rapid transit around $50 million/mile is the correct solution. 
  • In MetroNext, light rail should be trimmed back so we don't follow too far in the footsteps of Dallas, with its large-mileage, low-ridership system.

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Monday, January 28, 2019

No-AC Astrodome ok, Houston winning tech jobs, NZ learns from Houston, funding tech startups, and more

My MetroNext op-ed made a big splash last week and got a ton of positive feedback (very much appreciated everyone).  Numerous smaller items this week:
"The Market Urbanism stance on affordable housing:
Deregulate land. In hot markets, this will lead to rapid construction & price stability. Take Houston: since 2010 it's #2 in population growth, but #1 in permits - maintaining price medians below the US average."
"But it goes much further. Even the metropolitan areas of Texas have comparatively high residential densities, despite their reputation for urban sprawl. A seminal analysis by the Brookings Institution characterized Texas metropolitan areas as having “an unparalleled openness to growth and development.” Indeed, Brookings named the Texas land use category, “Wild Wild Texas,” noting that “Wild Wild Texas presents the closest thing the United States has to land use deregulation.” This reflects the most market oriented land use regulations in the United States, and as every planner seemingly from Adelaide to Berlin seems to have been taught, “Houston has no zoning.” 
In fact, the four largest Texas metropolitan areas, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin each have median lot sizes of from 0.18 acres to 0.25 acres, small or smaller than Philadelphia, Boston or Washington. The market orientation of Texas land and residential development have not resulted in less efficient use of land."
  • Vision Zero, a ‘Road Diet’ Fad, Is Proving to Be Deadly: Emergency vehicles get stuck on streets that have been narrowed to promote walking and bicycling.  To be clear, I support Vision Zero efforts when it's about pragmatic accident reduction at problematic intersections, but not when it's a smokescreen for anti-car efforts shrinking roads, reducing speed limits, and adding speed humps.  Excerpt:
"It’s noble to want to make America’s streets as safe as they can be. But government officials shouldn’t impose projects on communities that don’t work, inconvenience residents, hurt businesses and impede emergency responders in the process."
Finally, new County Judge Lina Hidalgo has put out a survey to the public to help set the priorities for her administration. I encourage all my readers to fill it out here.

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Monday, January 21, 2019

Getting METRONext 2040 from B- to a real A+ (Chronicle op-ed)

Sunday the Houston Chronicle published my op-ed on the METRONext 2040 plan as the lead feature in the Outlook section (alternate link, UPDATE: also now at New Geography and discussed by the Chronicle editorial board here).  They were forced to trim it down to fit, so I'm publishing the full-length original version here:

Getting METRONext 2040 from B- to a real A+
By Tory Gattis

METRO's proposal - Click for full size
(more details of Metro's plan here)

METRO recently released a draft $7.5 billion 2040 transit plan they’ve labeled “A Plus” (the previous “A” plan plus some additions), but unfortunately it’s more like a B- when it comes to addressing Houston’s real transportation needs over the next two decades.  It has some wonderful, cost-effective local and express bus improvements – including bus-rapid transit (BRT) at less than one-third the cost per mile of light rail – but continues to throw mountains of good money after bad on wasteful new light rail extensions.

The A+ plan proposes to add 20 miles of new light rail for $2.45 billion, or a third of the overall plan cost, to serve only a tiny 18,900 trips per day at a pricey $130,000 per daily rider – about the same as buying each rider a Porsche Cayenne Turbo SUV. The two redundant light rail routes to Hobby airport will serve a trivial 7,200 boardings per day at a projected cost per rider of a quarter-million dollars (like a Ferrari for each rider!), totaling $1.8 billion or around $129 million per mile, which is probably low since the Green and Purple lines cost $154 million per mile when completed in 2015.  Why is the ridership estimate so low? It might have something to do with the fact that the 13mph light rail is so slow it will take almost an hour to get from Hobby to Downtown!  Why couldn’t that be replaced with far cheaper and faster express lane BRT service like Bush Intercontinental airport is getting?

Unfortunately we're already all too familiar with low ridership on light rail. The $1.4 billion Green and Purple lines have dismally low patronage, with only 5,077 weekday boardings on the Green Line and 7,416 weekday boardings on the Purple Line. For comparison, the Main St. Red Line has 53,412 weekday boardings, and the Katy Freeway near Beltway 8 served 366,000 vehicles carrying a half-million people per day in 2017.

Beyond the wasteful cost-inefficiency, rail is also at significant risk of technological obsolescence as autonomous vehicles and shared-ride services like Uber, Lyft, and Google’s Waymo continue to evolve.  The impact of new technology on public transit is unknown but could be hugely disruptive, potentially substantially reducing demand for traditional public transit. That’s why we need a plan which is adaptable to whatever the future may bring. For future planning purposes and METRONext, it really does not matter if autonomous vehicles become available in 5 years or decades in the future. Anything built in the MetroNext plan can be expected to be in service to the year 2100 and beyond. METRONext needs to be ready for autonomous transit, if and when it comes, but also maximize mobility benefits of transit investments if autonomous transit is slow to develop or has a minimal impact.  Practically, that means concrete guideways with rubber-tired vehicles that can evolve as the technology does.

Bus rapid transit guideways substantially reduces the risk of obsolescence, since concrete can accommodate the potential autonomous transit vehicles of the future. But we also need to be cautious with BRT: yes, it is much less expensive than light rail, but $42 million/mile is still not cheap, and it’s no bargain if it causes traffic chaos at intersections.  METRO needs to complete the Uptown BRT, optimize it, and study its impact and effectiveness before building more of it, especially the Universities line along Richmond that will cross many congested intersections like Kirby, Shepherd, Montrose, and multiple key thoroughfares in Midtown.  In some cases, Signature Bus service may be good enough, less disruptive, and far less expensive. Existing bus service on Gessner receives 6,879 boardings per day, about half of the daily volume on Westheimer (slated for Signature service) and less than the daily volume on Bellaire, Beechnut, and Richmond (all slated for enhanced BOOST service). Why spend $793 million on Gessner BRT when much less expensive Signature Bus or BOOST service is likely to be sufficient?

How should METRO redeploy that $2.45 billion light rail budget instead? They should focus on three priorities:
  1. Faster commutes: METRONext makes substantial regional express improvements to the HOV lane network, including two-way service and service between job centers, but it is still too downtown-centric and fails to provide regional service from all areas to all major job centers. The Texas Medical Center, Greenway, Uptown, Westchase, and the Energy Corridor all get express service from only limited parts of town, some requiring time-consuming transfers.  H-GAC predicts jobs will continue to disperse with less than 17% of the region’s jobs inside the 610 Loop by 2045. METRO, in partnership with TXDoT and HCTRA, needs to serve more of the other 83% with interconnected express lanes stitching together the entire region (including connecting around downtown).  We don’t need more high capacity transit, but instead need more routes that can be operated affordably to more destinations with low rider counts at high service levels.  The major economic risk is that more employers will give up on being in Houston’s congested core and move to the outer suburbs like Exxon did, draining our tax base and vitality.
  2. Equity: LINK Houston recently released a report estimating almost a million Houstonians need better basic bus service.  The METRONext plan calls for 241 miles of BOOST network bus service with higher frequencies, better reliability, and sheltered stops for the bargain cost of only $53 million ($220k/mile).  Why not dramatically expand that to more of the city?
  3. Increased ridership and reduced congestion: To buck the national trend of shrinking transit ridership, METRO needs to go big and eliminate fares entirely.  Metro’s revenue is mostly sales tax, with less than 9% coming from the farebox. $1.3 billion of that $2.45 billion saved from light rail could provide free fares for the next 20 years, and it would actually cost less than that because of the internal cost savings from no longer having to collect, process, and enforce fares.  That also makes boarding and trips faster.  Free fares and faster trips means more riders and less traffic congestion – a win whether you ride transit or not.  As a bonus, the boost to Houston’s national reputation would be substantial as well.  Additionally, METRO could use the savings to improve the rider experience with more shelters and better sidewalks, making Houston more pedestrian-friendly in the process.
METRO is planning a multi-billion-dollar bond referendum in 2019.  If we learned one thing after the 2003 referendum, it’s that METRO will doggedly stick with voter-approved plans even in the light of changing circumstances and shifting cost-benefit ratios.  Whatever gets passed in 2019 is likely to shape Houston transportation for better or worse for decades to come amid rapid technological change, with a high risk of obsolescence and white elephants.  It’s a plan we really need to get right. I encourage every Houstonian to get involved through the METRONext website and public meetings to help make it a truly A+ plan.

Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and writes the Houston Strategies blog.

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Great quote on Houston, Complete streets not adding value, planning problems, NYT love for HTX, and more

Quite the backlog of smaller items this week:
"After adjusting the two sets of data to make them comparable prior to the time when one group adopted Complete Streets, they found that “Complete Streets policy has no effect on house prices, and therefore we are unable to find a positive amenity value from a municipality-level commitment to Complete Streets.” 
"State DOTs should be far more cautious in agreeing to requests from municipalities to convert arterial routes to Complete Streets treatment. Most of the information provided by New Urbanists consists of anecdotes, rather than careful analysis such as Vandegriff and Zandoni have provided."
Rebounding bigger and better after a hurricane

"After Hurricane Harvey, the city is back on its feet and showing off the everything-is-bigger-in-Texas attitude. Four food halls opened in 2018, including Finn Hall, which features up-and-coming chefs including the James Beard-nominated chef Jianyun Ye with a downtown outpost of his Chinese hot spot Mala Sichuan and a taqueria from the local favorite Goode Company. The five-diamond Post Oak Hotel opened in March 2018 with a two-story Rolls Royce showroom, art by Frank Stella and a 30,000-bottle wine cellar. The Menil Collection, known for its eclectic art ranging from Byzantine antiques to 20th-century Pop Art, underwent a seven-month renovation of its main building and opened the 30,000-square-foot Menil Drawing Institute. The low-slung white steel-and-glass building with a trapezoidal roof is the first addition to the Menil campus in 20 years and the first freestanding museum dedicated to modern drawing in the United States. The city’s museum boom continues with a massive expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to be completed in 2020, a newly built location for the Holocaust Museum, which will move in the spring of 2019, and a restoration of the Apollo Mission Center that will open in time for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in July." 
"Transit riders are more sensitive to frequencies than to whether a transit vehicle runs on rubber tires or steel wheels. A bus carries fewer people than a train, but that’s a virtue, not a flaw, because it allows for higher frequencies. If Ft. Worth had used buses rather than rails for this route, it could have run those buses every 10 or 15 minutes (instead of hourly), attracting a lot more riders."
"Houston is a city of immigrants and engineers. Function trumps fashion with this no-nonsense crowd that expects to work hard and earn rewards based on merit. Looking at demographics and migration patterns, people voting with their feet consider the Bayou City the most egalitarian of the Texas metro areas."
Finally, I wanted to end with a longer set of excerpts from an excellent piece by Nolan Gray in CityLab: "How Cities Design Themselves"

"Sometimes when I read the papers of my fellow urban planners, I get the sense that they think cities are Disneyland or Club Med. Cities are labor markets. People go to cities to find a good job. Firms move to cities, which are expensive, because they are more likely to find the staff and specialists that they need. If a city’s attractive, that’s a bonus. But basically, they come to get a job.
Urban planning has an important role to play. With the exception of fire and safety regulation, planners should focus much less on what people do on their plot or in their apartment, and much more on the management of the public spaces, like streets and parks.

Insomuch as urban planners deal with land uses and densities, they should closely monitor trends to be aware of what’s happening. For instance, in New York, household size has plummeted over the past 30 years. Urban planners should be aware of that and address rigidities that prevent the city from accommodating those demographic changes.

An area where urban planners should play a much more active role is mobility, mainly by adapting existing systems to emerging trends. Urban mobility is the key to housing affordability. Improved urban transport makes more land available for housing and therefore allows low-income people to live in areas that are both affordable and accessible to most of the city.
In my book, I talk a lot about income distribution curves. Every time urban planners do something, they should ask: Who is going to pay?"

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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Houston 2020: From freeways to scooters, transit will get disrupted

The Houston Chronicle Sunday editorial section today was dedicated to Houston forecasts beyond 2019, and I was honored to be featured for transportation (on the COU website here)  I'm going to include the full text below for posterity on the blog:

The transportation future’s so bright, we’ll have to wear shades
From freeways to scooters, transit will get disrupted by construction and technology
By Tory Gattis

In most ways, 2020 transportation in Houston will only be incrementally different from today: the completion of the U.S. 290 expansion, new toll lanes down the middle of Texas 288, the extension of the Texas 249 toll road beyond Tomball toward College Station, the next segments of the Grand Parkway 170-mile mega-loop. And of course there’s the one constant in Houston over the last 70 years: the never-ending widening of the Gulf Freeway.

The great redevelopment of Interstate 45 and the tangle of downtown freeways will only have just begun, and although Texas Central originally forecast 90-minute high-speed rail service between Dallas and Houston in 2020, that date has almost certainly slipped since construction has not yet begun.

On a smaller scale, we’ll see the completion of 50 new miles of high-comfort bikeways as well the redevelopment of Bagby Street downtown into a “complete street” with enhanced pedestrian and biking amenities connecting the theater district with parks and City Hall.

Rapidly growing dockless bike and scooter services will likely come to Houston, making it much easier to make short distance urban trips and increasing demand for these bikeways and complete streets.

What’s far more exciting is that 2020 will kick off the greatest decade of transportation technology disruption since the invention of the car itself. We’ve already seen the beginnings with the rise of Uber and Lyft shared rides, which have been challenging transit ridership nationally. Autonomous vehicles will make these services even more affordable and transform cities in all sorts of ways with increased safety, less congestion, lower parking needs enabling all sorts of urban densification and redevelopment, and increased exurban development as long commutes become more tolerable (even more radically, Uber has begun testing autonomous drone air taxis to allow us to soar over what congestion remains — at a price).

Houston TxDOT is already preparing for this autonomous future with a strategy of next-generation HOV lanes called MaX (Managed eXpress) Lanes moving the maximum number of people at maximum speed from across our region to all of our major job centers, including high-speed autonomous buses from METRO.

In the commute of the future, you’ll be able to take a nonstop autonomous ride safely at high-speed (possibly up to 100-plus-mph) in protected MaX Lanes directly to your job center where it will circulate you right to your building, while autonomous shared-ride services will get you around for short trips during the day. And unlike driving, you’ll be able to be productive or entertained on your phone, tablet or laptop the whole time. To paraphrase the immortal Timbuk 3: the transportation future’s so bright, we’ll have to wear shades (probably with augmented reality).

Gattis is a founding senior fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

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Monday, December 24, 2018

The Good, Bad, and Ugly of the METRONext A+ Plan

Earlier this month METRO released their new "A Plus" plan through 2040 at a board workshop you can watch here (Dec 11) and review the documents here (Chronicle coverage here, Metro promotional video here).  My thoughts on their previous round of plans are here, as well as Oscar Slotboom's take here, including some great stats, and all of which still applies to this plan.  The new plan is more than double the cost of the previous A plan: from $3.5 billion to $7.5 billion.  Overall, Metro is continuing their refreshing pragmatism and financial prudence, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be even better.  In the past I've used a good/bad/ugly framework for reviewing Metro services, and that framework will work well again here.

The Good
  • Substantial BRT and HOV service expansions, including two-way service in most corridors.
  • Speed improvements to HOV service to get through downtown, midtown, and the med center
  • Express bus/BRT to IAH airport at only $11million a mile!
  • Dropped the high-cost/low-ridership LRT line from the Astrodome to Hobby.
  • Converting the major east-west Universities line from LRT to BRT.
  • Great leverage of TXDoT money on MaX Lanes.
  • BOOST Network of local bus routes with frequent, high-quality service at the bargain price of only $53 million!
  • Faster and more reliable trips between activity centers.
  • Expanded access to opportunity within commute time constraints (see their Greenway Plaza Access map on slide 17).
The Bad/Concerning
  • BRT is still a not-cheap $42 million/mile (although a bargain vs. $150m/mile LRT!), so we need to be selective about where those routes go vs. more affordable BOOST/Signature bus service.  For example, does Gessner really justify BRT vs. good signature bus service?
  • I am still concerned about the slow commuter transfers to/from the Inner Katy BRT and the I10+290 HOV lanes, as described at the bottom of my first analysis.  MaX Lanes with commuter buses making a quick stop at the NW transit center then continuing downtown makes far more sense, and those same lanes can provide all-day express service connecting downtown to the high-speed rail terminal.
  • Strongly disagree with their assessment (in the table) that the Regional Express Network has "Low" economic growth potential.  As mainlane congestion increases, these commuter bus services will be *huge* in determining whether major employers stick it out in the core or move out to the suburbs like Exxon did.
  • General concern about congested and unsafe intersection crossings across the Universities line, especially Buffalo Speedway, Kirby, Shepherd, Montrose, and Midtown/Main/Richmond/Wheeler.  This really needs to be modeled out before going ahead so we don't end up with pure chaos on our hands (like Dallas did with their LRT downtown).
  • The priorities in this plan seem to give short shrift to the recent LINK report calling for more equitable transit serving more low-income populations.  A lot more resources could be shifted from flashy, expensive, low-ridership LRT projects (see below) to improving good basic bus service in more neighborhoods that need it.
The Ugly
  • Metro is still low-balling LRT estimates, assuming $122m/mile when all of the more recent extensions were closer to $150m/mile.  They're estimating $2.45B for LRT when it will probably be closer to $3B.
  • Even if you assume their cost estimates are right, we're talking about spending $2.45 billion for only 18,900 daily riders. That's $130k per rider! (and remember they're mostly not even new riders, but existing bus riders switching to rail)  Yes, we could buy every new rider a very nice new high-end Porsche for less money!
  • Extending the Red Line north 5.9 miles to Acres Homes at an eye-popping cost of $634 million(!).  There are some arguments about the benefits of connecting to a transit center up there, but it still seems a steep price for only 9,000 additional daily riders (most of whom are probably already riding the bus).
  • The near-criminality of spending $1.8 billion to extend both the Green and Purple lines to Hobby with only 7,200 riders a day! That's a quarter-million dollars per rider! The BOOST network is already shown connecting Hobby in the same directions at a tiny fraction of the cost! Isn't that good enough? But in both cases, I'm guessing it will take a solid hour to go from Hobby to downtown.  Who's going to ride that?! Why not just do an express bus service in the MaX Lanes like they're doing to IAH that's far faster at a tiny fraction of the cost?! (it could even hook in UH with a stop just like the IAH service has a couple of intermediate stops).
    • Airports are not as great connections as people think: the slow trip times and hassle of hauling baggage are discouraging vs. family or leisure travelers getting picked up or dropped off by friends/family or parking or using Uber/Lyft, and business travelers are usually happy to expense a faster taxi/Uber/Lyft ride (or rent a car depending on how much they're getting around).  Here's the question I ask everyone when they suggest rail to the airport: Metro needs to put limited resources where it will do the most good. With that in mind, how many times per year do you commute to work vs. commute to the airport? (probably 100-to-1 for the average person)  Connecting job centers makes far more sense than airports.
Here are a few opportunity cost thought experiments: with the $2.45 billion being spent on a negligible 20 miles of light rail, the plan could instead offer:
  • 58 more miles of BRT, or...
  • 197 more miles of additional commuter bus HOV service, or...
  • 4,900 more miles (!!) of better BOOST and signature bus service, or...
  • Provide free fares for all riders for 38 years, increasing ridership and reducing traffic congestion in the bargain! 
As Metro goes through the public feedback process, I hope they consider some of these alternatives with far, far higher benefit-to-cost ratios.

Hat tip to Oscar Slotboom for some of the observations in this post.

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