Sunday, August 12, 2018

METRONext 2040 Transit Plan Should be Affordable, Adaptable, and Designed for the Future

Today's guest post is from Houston Freeway's Oscar Slotboom as a followup to my recent post on the early draft MetroNext plan.
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How can very limited available public transit funds be used to achieve maximum benefit for the Houston area? I suggest that the guiding principle should be designing for the future, not the past.

The Past

Light rail is very expensive and very slow, with new mileage likely to cost in the range of $150-200 million per mile. Commuter rail (expected to be under the authority of an agency other than Metro) is expensive and slow, costing at least $50 million per mile. Both are fixed, inflexible and usable only by trains.

Miles per hour Cost
Metro Red Line 13.6 $143 million/mile
Metro Green Line 12.3 Approx. $154 million/mile (2015)
Metro Purple Line 13.5 Approx. $154 million/mile
USA average light rail speed 15.8
USA average commuter rail speed 32
Houston 2015 commuter rail study
Cost Estimates
$48 million/mile outside the loop
$45-99 million/mile from Northwest Mall to downtown depending on route
Metro 222 Grand Parkway
Park and Ride
44
(to first stop downtown)
33
(to last stop)
Northwest Freeway Expansion, including 1 reversible HOV and the massive Loop 610 interchange
($2.5 billion for 38 miles, with $1.27 billion for construction)
$66 million per mile
Typical cost per lane of concrete: $6.5 million/mile
Equivalent cost of 2-lane BRT (pavement only, no stations or buses)
$13 million/mile

This table tells us three important facts
  • Concrete roadway is vastly less expensive than rail
  • The fastest transit service is achieved by bus-on-concrete express bus service with limited stops
  • Light rail is extremely slow, suitable only for short distance travel like 5 miles or less.
The Future: More Job Dispersion

HGAC projections show the percentage of jobs inside Loop 610 will drop to 16.6% by 2045.

Employment, millions (HGAC, January 2018)
2015 2045 Change
Region 3.2 100% 4.8 100%
Inside Loop 610 0.66 20.6% 0.79 16.6% -4.0
Loop-BW8 0.85 26.6% 1.34 28.2% +1.6
BW8-Grand Parkway 1.18 36.9% 1.82 38.2% +1.3
Outside Grand Parkway 0.51 15.9% 0.81 17.0% +1.1

This tells us that:
  • A downtown-centric mass transit system will serve a declining percentage of overall regional travel, and the need to serve so-called long and thin routes (i.e. routes with low ridership) to points outside downtown will increase.  
  • We don’t need more high capacity transit, but instead need more routes that can be affordably operated to more destinations with low rider counts at high service levels. 
  • Transit technologies of the past cannot affordably meet the future need.
Transportation of the Future is Taking Shape Today

While the future of autonomous vehicles and their impact remain speculative, recent reports detail impressive progress.
  • Google’s Waymo test program has logged more than 8 million miles of its vehicles driving in the fully autonomous mode in Phoenix, with around 400 people participating in the program for their daily transportation needs. An excerpt: (emphasis added)
"If self-driving cars make ride-hailing cheaper and more convenient, the research suggests, it could take a wrecking ball to public transportation. Strangely, the head of Phoenix’s public transportation agency agrees with that assessment.
'It will absolutely happen,' says Scott Smith, Valley Metro’s CEO. 'But I’m not scared, I’m excited. There will be a reduction in bus use, in subway use in some areas, but expanded use in others. This is real. We’ve got to be a part of it.'”
  • Wired reports on Phoenix's efforts to keep public transportation relevant with coming automated transportation services
  • Zoox (with impressive video report) is developing an all-electric robot taxi which is potentially highly suitable for transit service. The vehicle travels in both directions and can move sideways with its four-wheel steering. It is being tested in downtown San Francisco, and Zoox is among only three firms (along with Waymo and GM’s Cruise) that are currently known to be well-along in urban testing.
  • At least 6 other major efforts are in progress (see chart), which currently are reported to be less far along than Waymo, GM Cruise and Zoox.
Being Adaptable to Whatever the Future May Bring

While decentralization of employment is virtually certain in the future, the impact of new technology on public transit is unknown but could but 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.

  • Scenario 1: A future with minimal influence of autonomous vehicles
In this case we need to serve dispersing employment with expanded service to more job centers at an affordable cost. Low-cost designs will maximize the number of these routes.
What we need: Concrete pavement for an expanded network of HOT lanes for buses and HOV
  • Scenario 2: A future where autonomous vehicles and traditional transit coexist, each serving different segments of the market
In this case we can envision traditional transit serving mainly a few high-volume destinations such as downtown, but most other transit will be served with public or private autonomous vehicles.
 
What we need: Transit facilities designed to be used by autonomous vehicles, as these vehicles may start on regular streets, then enter a dedicated transit guideway for a segment, then switch to a HOT lane, then return to regular streets
  • Scenario 3:  A future where autonomous transit vehicles are affordable and widely available, drastically lowering the demand for traditional public transit
In this case the focus of transportation agencies may totally change, perhaps with public transit agencies subsidizing fleets of autonomous vehicles to serve low-income communities, and perhaps shifting their focus to build and maintain autonomous vehicle guideways to provide premium high-speed service for robot transit taxis.
What we need: Transit investments that won’t go to waste when demand for traditional public transit collapses. We need transit facilities that are readily usable by autonomous vehicles and regular (non-transit) automobiles.
Implications for MetroNext

Metro could have as little as only $1 to $2.8 billion available for capital projects in the next 20 years. If new light rail costs $175 million per mile, that money could be burned up with only 6 to 16 miles of light rail. We can and must do much better.

The need for a transit system which is affordable, adaptable and ready for future leads to these conclusions and guiding principles:
  • Rail-based fixed guideways are totally useless for use by autonomous vehicles
  • Rail-based public transit, particularly light rail, is obscenely expensive and will likely suffer from low ridership, like we’re seeing on the Green and Purple lines
  • New rail mileage should be eliminated or minimized in MetroNext
  • Pavement-based transit is much less expensive to build than rail-based transit, is better-suited to serving future needs, and is adaptable to meet future autonomous vehicle needs
  • All new transit facilities should be pavement-based and designed to be used by autonomous transit vehicles. This may mean design features such as frequent entry/exit points, and through-lanes on bus rapid transit guideways at stations
  • MetroNext Plan B (or similar plan) should be adopted, since it is least expensive and most compatible with future needs and technology  
  • Due to Metro’s limited financial resources, Metro should partner with TxDOT to build key transit links in our future system. TxDOT will do the financial heavy lifting, minimizing the cost to Metro, but full political support from Metro and the City of Houston will be needed.
Partnerships with TxDOT

Click for full size

  • Interstate 10 Katy Freeway between the West Loop and downtown
Both Metro Plans A and B show BRT on this section. On the west end of this section are the existing Katy Managed Lanes, and on the east side new express lanes are planned as part of the downtown reconstruction project. These two sections of managed/express lanes need to be connected.
This section needs to be expanded, with four new MaX lanes and possibly a separate BRT as included in the Metro plans. I can envision a potential plan where the current westbound lanes are converted to MaX and BRT lanes, with new main lanes built on the north side.
  • Interstate 69 Southwest Freeway, Uptown/Gulfton area to downtown split
Metro’s plan A shows BRT on this corridor and plan B shows a “partnership project”. This section is currently under preliminary study by TxDOT, and this corridor should be widened to add four MaX lanes and potentially BRT.
  • West Loop
MetroNext has no new plans for this corridor, since the Post Oak bus lanes will open soon. TxDOT has proposed four express lanes on this corridor.
The express lanes should be designed to be usable by automated transit vehicles which need to pass through this congested area. This will involve connections at both ends, and possibly a third express lane in each direction for exclusive use by transit and automated vehicles.
Future Vision

MaX Lanes as proposed by Tory are ideally suited to provide the kind of service needed in the future. We can envision a future with buses, automated transit vehicles and HOV using regular streets, MaX lanes and dedicated transit guideways to serve a vastly expanded range of transit routes with high levels of service at speeds much faster than traditional transit.


Click for full size

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Monday, August 06, 2018

My COU report on Resilient Houston after Harvey now available

Me and a team from the Center for Opportunity Urbanism have been working for several months on a 3-part report about Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and now it's finally available here just before this crucial bond election.  An overview:

HOUSTON RESILIENT
How Houston has met — and will meet — the
challenges posed by Hurricane Harvey

This is a three-part report on how Houston has met — and will meet — the challenges posed by Hurricane Harvey. Part One defines the city and region’s trajectory, and its fundamental resilience. The second part addresses Houston’s urban form, and how the right planning choices can provide some solutions to the problems of flooding. The third part lays out specific suggestions for balancing growth with environmental sustainability.

As leaders and policy makers address post-Harvey issues, we present the steps they can take to make Houston more resilient, while still allowing it to retain its character as a region of opportunity. We demonstrate how actions that raise housing costs will make the Houston region less competitive with other parts of Texas, and with the nation as a whole.

Click here to view and read the full report (PDF opens in new tab or window)

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Friday, July 27, 2018

First reactions to the preliminary METRONext 2040 draft transit plan

On Thursday the Metro board got their first look at a preliminary draft of the 2040 METRONext transit plan leading up to a 2019 bond election.  Unfortunately, there are no public maps or slides to share (UPDATE: now there are here), just the 1.5 hour video you can find here - look for the METRONext Board Workshop on July 26, 2018 (I recommend adding the Video Speed Controller extension to your Chrome browser which will allow you to watch it at a much faster but still perfectly understandable speed - or you can just jump to the time points I list below). I should pass along that Chair Carrin Patman is super careful to emphasize at that this is very preliminary and subject to change based on feedback and better financial projections (which are all over the place due to high economic uncertainty), and they expect to hold a second board workshop on the plan next month.  She also points out the substantial uncertainty around technology change (mainly autonomous vehicles), which makes a lot of this subject to change over time.  This plan is based on current technologies.  With all of those caveats out of the way, let's dive in.

I think they've done a very clever thing, which is create a fantasy plan with everything they'd love to have to meet the region's mobility needs through 2040 (including plenty of rail, ugh), but then they scale it way down based on financial reality, which I really applaud. I say this is clever because when they show the plan to the public and someone says "why doesn't it have X?", they can say "here's X over in our dream plan, but we can only afford the projects with the absolute highest bang for the buck," - which will either be mollifying or inspire them to lobby for more resources for Metro, a win for Metro either way.

First the $35 billion (!!) dream plan (UPDATE: complete presentation here):
  • Map at the 17:28 point.
  • Starting at 19:26 they build up the layers one at a time to show how they got to that dream map.
  • I will quibble with their assertion that light rail (LRT) is fast. Maybe compared to buses, but net speeds under 20mph with stops is not fast compared to 60+ mph express buses in MaX Lanes. This is particularly relevant to airport service.  Who will ride rail from Hobby airport to downtown that is likely to take an hour?!  And IAH will certainly be longer than that!
  • Extensive improved bus network which they call BOOST.  Good stuff.
  • Great regional express service at 25:05 - essentially MaX lane express bus services.
  • Metro makes it very clear they need financial partners to step up for a lot of the services that go outside their service region, including proposed rail along 90a.
  • At 28:47 they quickly build the master map with all the layers.
  • At 29:30 is a great summary stats slide: 200 miles of 2-way HOV (MaX Lanes!), 100 miles of LRT (!! - minimum $10 billion, probably more like $15B or closer to $20B with future cost inflation), 90 miles of new BRT, and more.
  • Benefits slide at 29:39, including 460% increase in people served and 120% increase in employment served.
I'm actually not going to bother spending any time critiquing this plan, as it gets radically slimmed down after the financial check.

At the 30:40 point, the CFO comes in for a harsh reality check: Metro can only realistically afford 3-8% of the $35 billion dream plan.  That leads to two new versions of the plan, optimistic Plan A and pessimistic Plan B (a literal "Plan B" - nice humor Metro ;-)

UPDATEMetro has now posted good slides with Plan A and B details here.

Plan A (~$2.5 billion?)
  • Map slide at 1:03:58
  • Universities line converted to BRT (smart as long as it doesn't disrupt the already heavy-and-growing-heavier traffic loads on the north-south streets like Weslayan, Buffalo Speedway, Kirby, Shepherd, and Montrose)
  • BRT from downtown to the northwest transit center and the new high-speed rail station at 290 and 610. More on this later
  • Extend the Uptown BRT down to Gulfton (high transit ridership there)
  • LRT extension on the north Red line up to a Tidwell transit center. This is pretty short and reasonable.
  • LRT connecting the south ends of the Red line (near the old Astroworld site) and the Purple line (Third Ward past UH) out to Hobby airport through Sunnyside.  While I can see a little bit of the logic (connect downtown, UH, and the Med Center/Rice to Hobby), it's a lot of money over a lot of miles through a very low-density part of Houston.  And as I mentioned before, the trips will not be fast.  I think this would be very expensive for pretty low ridership.  Airports are not as great connections as people think: the slow trip times and hassle of hauling baggage are discouraging vs. family or leisure travellers 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.
  • IAH connection converted to express bus. Smart.
  • Misc other improvements, including improved bus network (BOOST).
  • Summary stats slide at the 1:08:19 point, including 12 miles of LRT and 34 miles of BRT.
The more realistic Plan B (roughly $1 billion)
  • Map at 1:23:18
  • Universities BRT removed (this may be wise with all of the traffic disruption I could see it creating)
  • LRT to Hobby converted to BRT, which is far more affordable and makes more sense, although I still think express MaX Lane services make more sense to/from airports.
  • Stats slide at 1:29:42, including only 1 mile of LRT (kudos!) and 11 miles of BRT.
Now let's discuss that Inner Katy BRT connecting downtown to the northwest transit center and the new high-speed rail station that's in all three plans.  The planning models show it attracts high ridership. Here's my concern with what we'll end up with: a downtown commuter on the west (I-10) or northwest (290) sides will take a park-and-ride express bus to the northwest transit center, where they'll be forced to switch to this relatively slow BRT that then will transfer them to the downtown LRT west of the theater district, and then they have to walk many blocks from an LRT stop downtown to their final building.  That's two transfers (three if they have to get on the Red line) plus a long walk, and it will make for a very long, very painful commute - then they have to reverse it at the end of the day!  Compare that to putting MaX Lanes on I-10 inside the loop and allowing an express bus to go 65+ mph directly from their park-and-ride lot to downtown where it can circulate to get them pretty close to their final building (similar to today's HOV service).  That commute is probably half the time, maybe less depending on transfers and walks.  It would also be easy to have special luggage-friendly express buses meet the incoming high-speed rail trains and run people very quickly down the MaX lanes to downtown, again circulating to get them close to their final destination.  This service is superior and should be a heck of a lot cheaper than a BRT line.  It lacks a couple of local connections in the Heights, but does that really add much value with low-density residential and few jobs?  I'm skeptical but still open to this BRT line, but I just don't want Metro to build it and then try to force a bunch of connections to it that build ridership but dramatically slow peoples' daily commutes vs. direct express bus service.

Overall I've got to give Metro a lot of credit for thorough analysis, openness to new technologies, and financial realism leading to only the most efficient projects (Plan B).  I certainly have some quibbles with B, serious concerns with A, and massive issues with the unrealistic dream plan, but at the end of the day I think Metro has the right priorities and is going in the right direction.  Those are my first reactions, but I'm looking forward to the next METRONext board workshop in August to see how it evolves.  Stay tuned...

UPDATE: Metro has now posted the presentation slides here.
UPDATE 2: Good summary from Kinder.

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Rolex of transit, the logic of Houston's sprawl, millennials seek community, interactive flood risk map, and more

Apologies again for the growing delays between posts - it's been a busy summer with a lot of travel.  Getting on to our new items:
"With many major urban areas seeing ridership decline by 20 to 40 percent in the last few years, however, transit agencies are desperate for new ideas that can recapture some of those lost riders. The changes they will make, however, are most likely to be too little, too late.

On close scrutiny, Houston’s story isn’t as compelling as some claim. In 2012, Houston buses carried 66.1 million trips. After revamping the system, they carried 68.6 million in 2013. So far, so good. But by 2015, the number had fallen to 66.5 million, and in 2017 it was 66.4 million — barely 1 percent above the 2012 level. One reason for the 2015 decline was that Houston opened new light-rail lines that year, which no doubt captured some previous bus riders. But, if anything, the real story is that bus ridership hasn’t declined as much since 2012 as it has in other cities such as Los Angeles.

Houston’s real problem was that it built light rail in the first place. In 2002, as it was starting light-rail construction, buses carried 94 million riders. After the light rail opened in 2004, bus plus rail together beat the 2002 number for three years. Then ridership began to collapse, falling to 77 million in 2010, possibly due to a 12 percent decline in bus service. With the revamp of bus routes and opening of new rail lines, ridership grew to 85 million trips in 2017 — which is still 9 percent fewer than bus alone in 2002.

But that growth is mainly due to the new light-rail lines. Since 2012, light-rail service has nearly quadrupled from 0.9 million to 3.4 million vehicle-revenue miles. For all that, they got a 65 percent increase in light-rail ridership. From 2012 to 2017, bus vehicle-revenue miles grew by 5 percent, but ridership grew by only 1 percent — and bus ridership in 2017 was less than in any year from 1984 through 2011. Since Harris County’s population grew by 9 percent between 2012 and 2017, a 1 percent growth in bus ridership is hardly something to cheer about."

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Well, worth cheering about relative to other transit agencies, but Metro and others are certainly facing some daunting headwinds. Here's to hoping they ride the new technology wave with their new plan instead of fighting - or ignoring - it.

Finally, I wanted to share this super-cool National Geographic award-winning pic from Hong Kong really conveying the density there! (click on it for full size)



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Saturday, June 23, 2018

Why LA tourism is exploding and might help Houston too, flood overregulation, Houston and transit, and more

Some good items this week:
"Houston is one of the few regions where transit ridership is still growing. From 2012 to 2017, when San Antonio ridership declined by 23 percent, Houston ridership grew by 7 percent. In the first four months of 2018, when San Antonio ridership fell another 3.2 percent, it grew by 3.5 percent in Houston. (Houston’s market share still declined despite ridership growth because ridership didn’t grow as fast as driving.) 
Houston’s success appears to be due to a major reorganization of bus routes. Instead of operating buses on a hub-and-spoke system focused on downtown, Houston rerouted them into a grid system. Since most jobs are no longer located downtown, a grid bus network allows more people to get to work with fewer transfers and out-of-the-way trips. 
Houston’s success is not a complete victory. Houston-area transit ridership was much higher before the 2008 recession than it is today. Ridership peaked in 2007 at more than 102 million trips per year; in 2017, it was just 89 million trips per year."
"It ain’t the heat here, Bourdain realized, it’s the humanity."
Finally this week, an older item I'm finally getting around to from the LA Times: Los Angeles, Houston and the appeal of the hard-to-read city:
"Houston is casually written off even more often than Los Angeles, which is saying something. Now the fourth largest city in the country in population — and gaining on third-place Chicago — it's an unruly place in terms of its urbanism, a place that (as Los Angeles once did) has room, or makes room, for a wide spectrum of architectural production, from the innovative to the ugly.
...
Roughly one in four residents of Houston's Harris County is foreign-born, a rate nearly as high as those in New York and Los Angeles. Houston's relationship with Dallas, the third biggest city in Texas, is something like L.A.'s with San Francisco; the southern city in each pair is less decorous, less fixed in its civic identity and (at the moment, at least) entirely more vital."
Speaking of LA, an observation that came out of my recent vacation there.  It relates to this Cranky Flier post showing the dramatic increase in LAX traffic from 2009 to 2017, growing by more than 50% (!) in those 8 years. Why? My hypothesis: before the smartphone (circa 2007), vacationing in a city like LA was pretty nontrivial, involving a rent car in a large unfamiliar city and a lot of paper maps and planning - unlike New York, DC, San Francisco, London, Paris, Rome, and other older, more concentrated tourist cities with subway transit where you can just show up and figure it out without too much trouble.  But now with a smartphone, LA is a whole lot easier to "wing it" on vacation: driving and exploring, finding good restaurants on Yelp or tourist attractions in TripAdvisor and navigating there easily (avoiding traffic!) with Google Maps or Waze.  I think people have discovered this and LA has become a significantly more popular tourist destination.  Maybe Houston will do the same on a smaller scale??

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Sunday, June 03, 2018

The real reasons Amazon didn't shortlist Houston for HQ2, urbanism doesn't reduce transportation costs, your TX right to AirBnB, and more

I'd like to open my post this week on Houston's hand-wringing over not being shortlisted for the Amazon HQ2. Now while I'm all for improving the city, and am excited about the new developments in the "innovation corridor" that might have been at least partially sparked by the rejection, we need to get some clarity on the real reasons Amazon didn't shortlist us (IMHO), and it's not because we're not good enough:
  1. They don't want to compete with the energy industry for talent, especially when oil might spike to unknown highs at any time.  At the end of the day, Amazon runs a pretty thin-margin business built on tech talent, and if the energy companies poach their talent whenever they're swiming in cash from high oil prices - or make them pay that talent more to keep them - it will destroy those margins. Not an option.
  2. They didn't want to be seen as squeezing Houston for incentives while it's recovering from Harvey. That would definitely look very, very bad from a PR perspective.
As I've mentioned before, I ultimately think they're angling to end up in the DC area, mainly because there is a plentiful supply of underpaid and demotivated government tech talent there they can easily poach.

Moving on to this week's items:
"Perhaps the paper’s significance was best summed up by Smart’s mother, who was apparently unfazed by its somewhat surprising conclusion. “She was like, ‘Of course,’” Smart recalled. “’Everyone loves cars. It doesn’t matter where you live.’”
"The reason is simple — cars are vastly superior to alternatives for the vast majority of individuals and circumstances.  Automobiles have far greater and more flexible passenger- and cargo-carrying capacities than transit. They allow direct, point-to-point service, unlike transit. They allow self-scheduling rather than requiring advance planning. They save time, especially time spent waiting, which surveys find transit riders find far more onerous. They have far better multi-stop trip capability. They offer a safer, more comfortable, more controllable environment, from the seats to the temperature to the music to the company.
...
The superiority of automobiles doesn’t stop at the obvious, either. They expand workers’ access to jobs and educational opportunities, increase productivity and incomes, improve purchasing choices, lower consumer prices and widen social options. Trying to inconvenience people out of their cars also undermines those major benefits.

Cars’ allow decreased commuting times if not hamstrung, providing workers access to far more potential jobs and training possibilities. That improves worker-employer matches, with expanded productivity raising workers’ incomes as well as benefiting employers. One study found that 10 percent faster travel raised worker productivity by 3 percent, and increasing from 3 mph walking speed to 30 mph driving is a 900 percent increase. In a similar vein, a Harvard analysis found that for those lacking high-school diplomas, owning a car increased monthly earnings by $1,100.
...
As Randal O’Toole noted: “Anyone who prefers not to drive can find neighborhoods … where they can walk to stores that offer a limited selection of high-priced goods, enjoy limited recreation and social opportunities, and take slow public transit vehicles to some but not all regional employment centers, the same as many Americans did in 1920. But the automobile provides people with far more benefits and opportunities than they could ever have without it.”

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

Houston Stronger Resiliency Conference Thursday May 31st

I've been working with this organization for a while and am a strong supporter.  This is an absolute no-brainer for Harris County taxpayers: every dollar we approve here has the potential to be matched 9-to-1 by the federal government for desperately needed flood-control infrastructure.


From their press release:
Houston Stronger, a new community advocacy group, will hold a symposium on May 31st at 2:00 p.m. at Houston Community College’s West Houston Institute, 2811 Hayes Road to promote resiliency efforts in the Houston region. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett will kick off the program.

“Many organizations in our region started talking about how our community should respond after Hurricane Harvey,” said John Moody, Chairman of the West Houston Association and one of Houston Stronger’s organizers.

“Houston Stronger formed to bring these different community voices together and ensure that our region is better prepared for the next storm” said Karen Becerra, another Houston Stronger organizer and President of the Houston Chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors.

“Sims Bayou was the only major channel that did not overtop its banks during Hurricane Harvey because of recent improvements. This $390 million investment enabled Sims to handle a 100-year storm event, and the Harris County Flood Control District concluded that the enhancements paid for themselves in Harvey alone,” said Becerra.

A team of engineers volunteering for Houston Stronger estimates the cost to provide 100-year storm protection in all of Harris County’s major watersheds is $35 billion. While the price tag is a large one, investing in infrastructure saves taxpayers’ money in the long run. Two recent studies, including one cited by the Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, have concluded that government saves over five dollars in services for every dollar it spends on resiliency infrastructure.

Regarding federal funding, Congress has allocated more than $141 billion to help Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and 20 other states address emergency response and resiliency expenses from storms in 2017. In order to be eligible to receive these dollars, local governments are required to provide matching funds.

Harris County has called for and the Governor has approved a special election for August 25 for voter approval on bond funding that would provide the required local match for much-needed flood control projects. The date coincides with the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey.

Houston Stronger estimates that Harris County is likely to need approval for a bond of at least $2.5 billion to receive federal funds to support buyouts, channel improvements, and other resiliency projects to bring 100-year storm protection to the other 21 major watersheds in Harris County. Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson estimates that to pay for $2.5 billion in bonds, homeowners could pay as an estimated 5 cents per $100 value in taxes.

For more information about Houston Stronger and to register for the May 31st event go to houstonstronger.net.

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Monday, May 14, 2018

The genius of Houston deed restrictions, micro-transit solution to rail fail, tech to end traffic, top rankings and more

My featured item this week is another in Nolan Gray's excellent series at Market Urbanism on Houston's unique and free market land-use regulationThe Case for Subsidizing Deed Restrictions, which Houston does with a City legal department enforcing them.  Highly recommend reading the whole thing, but he ends with this great conclusion:
"This is the genius of Houston’s unique system: Let those with strong preferences for tight restrictions have them and the city as a whole can go on operating under a largely liberal land-use regime. There is a valuable lesson here for other cities: when attempting to liberalize land-use regulations, consider strengthening the private (subdivision deed restrictions) and public (stricter local rules subject to local consensus) mechanisms whereby the most powerful opponents of liberalization can simply opt out. Houston figured this out in 1965 and again deployed this strategy to great effect in the 1998 subdivision regulation overhaul. In relationships as in city planning, sometimes you have to give a little to get a little."
Hear hear! Moving on to this week's items:
"In the meantime think about this.  What could we have done instead with the $2.2 billion that was spent on light rail?  The answer is lots.  Like solving most of our flooding problem or resurfacing virtually every street in the street in the City or repairing our dilapidated wastewater system or putting more police officers on the streets or demolishing some of the thousands of dangerous buildings in the City or any one of dozens of other critical priorities facing the City. 
The question is not whether light rail is a good thing or not.  The question is whether it was the best use of $2.2 billion of taxpayer money.  The answer to that question is pretty clearly, “No.”
"According to the American Public Transportation Association, the average speed of rapid rail (a.k.a. heavy rail) is just 20 mph, while the average speed of rapid bus is less than 11 mph. 
According to the 2016 National Transit Database, the nation’s fastest heavy-rail line is BART, which averages 35 mph. Atlanta’s is 31 and Washington’s is 27, while New York City subways average just 18 mph. Considering that most transit riders also have to take time getting to and from transit stations, none of these can compete effectively with door-to-door driving, which in San Antonio averages 33 mph."
"For decades, cities have overseen transit monopolies that use heavy infrastructure, fixed routes and set schedules, under the premise that these will spur surrounding growth. And in many cities, they have. But thanks to the rise of the gig economy, workers often find themselves making multiple trips in a given day, and public transit has proven inflexible — unable to get them from point A to point B in a timely manner, or at all. As a result, even densifying cities have seen declining ridership. 
Contrast that with private transit, which has grown in success by pursuing “microtransit.” This model stresses malleable routes, on-demand service, smaller vehicles and minimal brick-and-mortar infrastructure. Companies include the bus services Via and Chariot; the ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft; and the bike-share services Zagster and LimeBike. Their flexibility lets them locate where demand exists, rather than counting on populations to come to them.
...
Indeed, these new microtransit companies could increase the flexibility of  transit, creating systems that are complicated yet smart, not orderly but dumb."
Finally, building on last week's post, it turns out that not only does Houston employ more people inside its city limits than larger city Chicago, it even employs more than much larger Los Angeles!  Reasons: I'd guess good annexation and multiple major job centers. Again hat tip and graphics credit to George.  Click to enlarge.



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