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  That reminded me of an old unpublished op-ed I submitted way back in 2003, but I think it still holds up after all these years.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.

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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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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Houston dining capital of TX, Top 5 city of the future, new luxury housing increases affordability, protecting against rising seas

This week's items:
"Friday, the Austin-based publication released its list of "The Best Texas Restaurants in Every City" featuring favorites from the past three years of its popular series, "Where to Eat Now." 
Of the five cities included in the list, Houston has the most at 12. Dallas follows with eight. Seven Austin made the list, while San Antonio has three and Fort Worth has one."
The ranking is based on data in five categories:
  1. Economic potential
  2. Business friendliness
  3. Human capital and lifestyle
  4. Cost-effectiveness
  5. Connectivity
... 
"Business Facilities magazine agrees with that assessment. In July 2018, it ranked Houston the No. 1 metro area for economic growth potential, stressing that the region's economy has expanded beyond Big Oil and that it's brimming with "innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship."
"Houston has a distinctly favorable business climate. The region benefits from a skilled workforce, world-class infrastructure and transportation system, and a pro-business environment that stimulates rather than stifles business growth," the magazine says."
"His model suggests that for every 100 luxury units built in wealthier neighborhoods, as many as 48 households in moderate-income neighborhoods are able to move into housing that better suits their needs, vacating an existing unit in the process. Somewhere between 10 and 20 of these households are coming from among the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods, vacating units and reducing demand where housing is most likely to be affordable for working families. 
This suggests that even pricey new units could free up a lot of existing housing. Accounting for possibilities like units sitting vacant, out-of-town movers filling the units, or units being used as second homes/pied-a-terres/safe deposit boxes in the sky, Mast’s model still indicates that for every 100 new market-rate units built, approximately 65 equivalent units are created by movers vacating existing units. If the migration chain is as robust as this paper finds it to be, as much as half of theses newly vacated units could be in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. This new supply, combined with less demand, could play a major role in easing pressure on rents in the short run."

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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

MetroNext kudos and tensions, HTX traffic is better than you'd expect, road diets kill businesses, the aging affordable housing pipeline, and more

Before getting to this week's items, some thoughts on last week's MetroNext board workshop I attended (presentation slides here).  First off, kudos to Metro (and Chair Carrin Patman) for sticking to its guns on the value of BRT over LRT.  They can build three miles of BRT for the cost of one mile of LRT, getting more service to more areas more quickly and cost-effectively.  People keep asking for fantasyland LRT service everywhere without understanding the economic tradeoffs, and it's good to see Metro have the backbone to say no.

As Dug's Chronicle story mentioned, there was tension on the Hobby line routing between the board and Houston City Councilmember Gallegos.  He doesn't want it to come down 75th Street even though that's the most efficient routing with the best service, including bringing people to a renovated Mason Park (he's worried about right-of-way loss, which Metro thinks would be absolutely minimal if any).  He's insisting on a longer routing that hits the new botanic gardens but misses shopping and restaurants of Gulfgate, which I guarantee generates 100x the trips the botanic garden does. How often do you eat or shop vs. go to tourist attractions? (probably in about the same proportion as you go to work vs. go to the airport!)  Metro's plan includes an autonomous shuttle that would run from a stop near Reveille and Telephone along Sims Bayou to offer connectivity to the botanic gardens at Glenbrook Park, which I think could be an attraction in itself.  It makes total sense.

Moving on to this week's items:
"There’s room for a new politics that recognizes that the path to actual social justice lies primarily in expanding opportunities for a broad range of jobs and housing options. But this can only be done by confronting the current approach to social justice that results in conditions demonstrably unjust."
"The new TomTom Traffic Index puts Houston at No. 204 globally and No. 18 nationally for traffic congestion, as well as No. 2 in Texas.  
In Houston, drivers spent an average of 23 percent extra travel time stuck in traffic last year, according to TomTom. The worst day in 2018 for traffic congestion in Houston: October 31 (44 percent). The best: Christmas Day (1 percent)."

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Monday, June 10, 2019

Houston Carbon Council, free transit reduces congestion, HTX #2 for STEM jobs, and more

Last week I attended the fantastic Houston Low-Carbon Energy Summit put on by the Center for Houston's Future and KPMG (story).  Speaker after speaker said Houston has the assets and skills to really make difference in reducing carbon, from carbon capture and sequestration to methane reduction to biofuels to hydrogen manufacturing (a key one for anything requiring high energy densities like aviation). That extends to the energy trading world too, where carbon offsets are a natural market for us.  There is a lot of pragmatic room in the middle between "nothing to worry about here" and "pure green renewables are the only answer" (lots of obstacles there that will take decades).  My proposal: we need to form a Houston Carbon Council (maybe through the GHP?) to set pragmatic economic and technical goals and coordinate efforts, while also publicizing carbon-reduction efforts and improving Houston's brand as a can-do city doing its best to mitigate climate change as we transition towards a long-term low-carbon future.  It could provide more realistic alternatives to the fantasyland green new deals of the world, including cost-effective solutions governments could really implement.

UPDATE: Chris Tomlinson column in the Chronicle on the summit.
UPDATE 2: Great Chronicle op-ed on why Houston needs to lead on carbon reduction.

Moving on to this week's smaller items:
"The Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston metros respectively garnered the #1 and #2 overall rankings for best STEM metros. This was due to each scoring in the top 10 on all three metrics – total STEM employment, total employment growth and relative affordability for first time buyers (FTBs). ...
#2: Houston earned the number 2 spot among the 30 largest STEM employment centers by also having top ten ranking on all three metrics: 
- STEM employment of 207,000 earned a 10th place ranking, just below Seattle. 
- Overall employment growth of 70% since 1990 earned a 6th place ranking, more than double the national average of 33%. 
- A FTB median home price to median income affordability ratio of 2.7 landed a 6th place finish. 
A vibrant new home construction sector helps Houston maintain both a high rate of employment growth and FTB affordability. New construction sales accounted for 25.5% of all home sales in the 4th quarter of 2018, well above the national rate of 11.2%. For the entry-level home segment, the new construction share was 16.1%, also well above the 6.2% rate for the national entry-level home segment. In the move-up home segment, Houston’s share was 42.3%, again well above the 19.6% rate for the national move-up home segment."

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Monday, May 27, 2019

Should "Be Someone" be Houston's official motto?


Most Houstonians are familiar with Houston's most famous piece of graffiti, the "Be Someone" message in giant letters on the Union Pacific bridge over I45 north of downtown.  It's gone through a lot of iterations and defacement over the years, including recently, but the fact that it keeps coming back is a testament to its popularity.  Long ago I did a post here titled "What message is your city telling you?" discussing an essay by Paul Graham (of Y Combinator fame).  His basic theme is that each city has its own subtle message it's sending you about what's important and how you should direct your ambition.

Here are some of his examples:
  • New York: "You should make more money."
  • Boston/Cambridge: "You should be smarter." (or at least better read)
  • Silicon Valley: "You should be more powerful." (i.e. change the world)
"Cambridge as a result feels like a town whose main industry is ideas, while New York's is finance and Silicon Valley's is startups."
  • SF/Berkeley: "You should live better." (more conscientious, more civilized, better 'quality of life')
  • LA: "You should be more beautiful and famous."
  • DC: "You should know more important people."
  • Paris: "You should do things with more style."
  • London: "You should be more aristocratic." (higher class - although he says this signal is weaker than it used to be)
Here's the summary list of messages he came up with:
"So far the complete list of messages I've picked up from cities is: wealth, style, hipness, physical attractiveness, fame, political power, economic power, intelligence, social class, and quality of life."
And here's what I came up with at the time for Houston:
"So what about our little town of hard working engineers and entrepreneurs? The city of Canion, Cooley, DeBakey, and a gaggle of energy and real estate mavericks? Well, I think we can rule out style, hipness, physical attractiveness, fame, political power, intelligence, social class, and quality of life. Wealth, maybe a bit, but I think the primary one is economic power - "You should be a bigger player in business." (even the business of medicine) We don't seem to care too much whether you're an entrepreneur, developer, or top executive - just so long as you're a big shot. And if you're not a big shot, the message is to become one by whatever path necessary - whether on your own or through a large organization. 
Maybe not the ideal message I'd choose (although not bad), but I think it's an accurate reflection of the culture of the city." 
Later my friend Anne suggested maybe "industriousness" is a better ambition message for Houston rather than "economic power", because it's more inclusive of people working hard in all sorts of endeavors, including nonprofits. Both of those certainly fit well with a "Be Someone" motto encouraging people to go out and make a difference in the world.

I think it would great for the city to embrace "Be Someone" as our official motto and start baking it into our identity as a city (cue the T-shirts).  It's a great message we could put just about everywhere.  A similar example of an inspiring motto is "Live a Great Story".  On a practical note, that probably means cleaning up the sign and protecting it from future defacement, maybe with a protective spray-paint-repelling clear coat and/or some sort of physical protective shield added to the bridge.  But the real value is beyond the sign itself, but in the collective sense of identity it can unify Houstonians around.

Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments...

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