Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Onion on transit

I finally found it online. Hilarious.

WASHINGTON, DC—A study released Monday by the American Public Transportation Association reveals that 98 percent of Americans support the use of mass transit by others.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

A hypothesis on the deeper psychology of rail

I've been doing a little speculative thinking on the deeper motivations behind rail. Why are so many people so passionate in their support of it in the face of so many economic arguments against it? The usual arguments have a lot of weaknesses: congestion relief (none), cost effectiveness (not), speed (slower vs. car or HOV bus), overall transit ridership (drops), pollution/energy benefits (debatable), development (mixed record). But there is clearly something qualitatively compelling about it, as evidenced by the recent uproar over the LRT to BRT changes in Metro's plan. I even find myself strangely attracted to it as my rational/left brain whispers "boondoggle".

My hypothesis? There is a deep human psychological need to be liked. Everybody likes to impress guests they have over to their home. The natural extension of that need beyond our house is our city. When out-of-town friends or family visit, we like to show them Houston's highlights, and we want them to be impressed. To impress out-of-towners, whether on business or vacation, you have to offer them something they don't have in their hometown. Many cities impress people with their natural beauty (Austin, Portland, San Francisco, Denver, etc.), especially waterfronts. But what if that's not really an option for your town, like Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, or, of course, Houston?

The vast majority of people in this country live in the suburbs and drive to their suburban office building. That's not going to impress them. Low cost of living and home affordability is not going to impress them either, nor is an efficient, cost-effective bus network. New York, DC, Paris, and London impress them, both because of their scale but also the novelty of walking, taxis, and subways. A lot of people aren't necessarily interested in living that way full time, but it's fun for a short trip. Sure beats staying in a generic hotel in a generic suburban office park with a generic rent car. Much higher novelty factor. Even if all they saw was a small, interesting core that's unlike the vast expanse of the rest of the metro area, they go away impressed, and have formed a good image of that city in their head which they're going to tell their friends and colleagues about.

When business travelers visit Houston, they generally rent a car (or pay a fortune for a taxi), wrestle with maps, and fight traffic (they don't know which freeways to avoid when, like locals do). Not a way to leave a good impression. Now imagine a business traveler, esp. a conventioneer, stays at hotel near the rail, rides it to meetings, and even uses it to visit a few museums or restaurants and maybe do a little shopping. No rent car or navigation to worry about. No confusing bus routes or schedules. It makes for a nicer experience. My wife and I have visited dozens of cities, and we generally enjoy walkable with rail more than a rent car if we can get away with it (i.e. enough stuff we want to do is along the rail), and it's a whole lot cheaper to boot.

In my humble opinion, this is also where cities like Dallas and Atlanta missed out by focusing on relatively ineffective, low-ridership, infrequent-stop commuter rail rather than frequent-stop light-rail transit in the core like our Main St. line. Visitors don't use commuter rail, they just want to get around the main attractions and job centers in the core.

Should any of this really matter? I don't know - does it matter to you if guests don't say nice things about your house? If they just politely smile? I think some people would be just fine with that, and they're probably not big fans of rail, but others would be embarrassed, and they're probably rail supporters - because people generally feel the same way about their city that they feel about their home. How many potential companies or jobs didn't consider coming here or opening an office here because of a bad - or even just a ho-hum - impression of Houston from a previous visit? Reviews of Houston were pretty good after the Super Bowl. Would they have been without the light rail? Hard to say, but I doubt it.

I think people have a hard time really expressing this deep need. It usually gets bundled up in the "world class city" thing, but nobody seems to have the definitive checklist on that one. It really comes down to a simple litmus test: Are out-of-town visitors impressed? Do they leave with a good impression of my city?

Is it worth the billions? Again, I don't know - people spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on home interiors, exteriors, landscaping, and furnishings, essentially to impress other people. We as a city had to decide collectively how much it's worth to us to impress outsiders, and I guess a referendum was as good a way as any (although it was certainly muddled by all the other arguments). The feds undoubtedly make the decision a whole lot easier with massive matching funds.

Overall, I think Houston's doing all right. Our new transit plan is not outrageously expensive or overreaching like Denver or Seattle. For transit, it's relatively cost efficient and maximizes federal funds. It will probably actually move a fair number of people. It connects most of the core attractions and job centers of our city with only two crossing lines. It'll probably generate a fair amount of high-density new-urbanist development along the lines. With more bus-rail transfers/connections, it's probably going to actually make a lot of trips more inconvenient for a lot of the transit dependent and reduce overall ridership (as it has already), but the more transit-dependent parts of town voted the most overwhelmingly for the plan, so it must be a tradeoff they're willing to make. Sure, it's a little bit of a splurge for the city, but haven't you ever splurged on something nice for your house that wasn't pure economic rationality?

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Afton Oaks and routing the new east-west University rail line

The Chronicle has a story today about strong Afton Oaks opposition to the new light rail line going down Richmond through their subdivision, with the helpful attached graphic on potential routing options of the west end of the line. I've previously stated my thinking on routing the line, and have a few additional thoughts to add.

First, one way or another, I now believe the line needs to end physically at the Galleria, even if that requires a northbound "hook" on the end. A lot of business travelers and conventioneers staying downtown or in the Medical Center might make one transfer to go shopping at the fifth largest mall in America (from the Main LRT to the University LRT), but not two (to the Uptown BRT). The hook shown above doesn't go quite far enough. It really needs to be extended all the way up Sage to Westheimer. This Google satellite map shows that stopping at Richmond would leave too long a walk and would probably confuse visitors. Getting all the way up to Westheimer (or at least Alabama) also improves access to some substantial office buildings west of Sage that can be seen in the map with their long shadows. This Sage hook is also interesting because it leaves all of Post Oak open for the Uptown BRT, creating more overall transit coverage for the Uptown area (map).

Now back to Afton Oaks. My first thought is that a Richmond routing makes a whole lot of sense, and Metro might consider pushing through this opposition (with reasonable accommodations for residents, of course). There really aren't that many oak trees in the median (maybe they could be pruned for power line clearance and kept?), there's a lot of right-of-way, not that much traffic, and it's a much more direct routing.

That said, if Afton Oaks is not an option, there is a routing that is not in this graphic that should be considered. Weslayan and Timmons should not be considered: Weslayan is full of traffic and needs the capacity, and Timmons doesn't get over 59. The Union Pacific railroad right of way is definitely the best option, and gets the most access to the commercial strip along Richmond before turning south. There has been some talk of Edloe, but it would lose access to a lot of Greenway Plaza and this commercial strip (inc. the Edwards theater).

The alternate routing: down the UP railroad RoW, then turn west on the northside feeder of 59. That feeder gets very little use, and could even be reduced to a single lane. Then either hook back up to Richmond, or, more creatively, take it over the new 610 feeder trench but under all of the ramps and the 610 bridge. There's a lot of dead space among the columns under that bridge and those ramps. Seems like it wouldn't be too hard to route the rails through there with a little clever engineering. See here for a satellite map to visualize. This option also completely preserves the Westpark RoW for future commuter rail all the way into Midtown.

I'd love to hear feedback or other creative ideas in the comments.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Beware the lure of traffic calming

A post on the dangerously seductive concept of traffic calming that can turn a 1.5 mile drive into 40 minutes from Otis White's Urban Notebook on Otis doesn't have permanent links, so I post the full content. My thoughts at the end.

Remain Calm, Please

Chaos Theory and Traffic Engineering

If you’d like to learn the intellectually challenging field of physics known as chaos theory, here’s a suggestion: Hang out with traffic engineers. You’d find that, like chaos theory’s “butterfly effect,” small changes in traffic in one place have huge ramifications elsewhere. And you’d find other mind-twisters, like the notion that nothing in transportation ever truly gets fixed. In fact, as soon as one thing is fixed, nearly everything around it will need fixing, too. Perfect example: traffic-calming efforts on Los Angeles’ Westside.

Background: Traffic calming refers to a series of things cities do to slow motorists and discourage “cut-through” traffic — commuters who veer off highways and through neighborhoods to save a few minutes’ time. You’ve seen these “traffic mitigation” projects in recent years: speed bumps, narrowed streets, “bump outs” (jutting sidewalk extensions), four-way stops, turn restrictions and so on. And they work: When commuters can no longer zoom down a side street at 40 mph and instead have to creep along at 20, they stay on the freeways.

For years, people in L.A.’s Cheviot Hills, a quiet neighborhood where houses start at $1 million, complained about commuters using their streets as shortcuts to nearby Century City, the gigantic office and retail development. So L.A.’s traffic department pulled out every traffic-calming trick in its book to redirect the commuters. Good news: It worked. Traffic on the ironically named Motor Avenue, the neighborhood’s main street, dropped by 20 percent after bump-outs were installed and turn restrictions imposed. Bad news: It has made driving a nightmare for some residents.

Take Chuck Shephard’s recent afternoon drive from his law office in Century City to his son’s baseball game at the Cheviot Hills recreation complex. It’s less than a mile and a half from office to the ball field; Mapquest says it should take three minutes to drive. But it took Shephard 40 minutes because of all the restricted turns he had to navigate. “People have become prisoners of Cheviot Hills,” his wife complained to the Los Angeles Times. “You can’t leave in the morning or get back at night.” Result: Many in the neighborhood are demanding that the city mitigate its traffic mitigations.

Not everyone in Cheviot Hills is unhappy, mind you. Those living along Motor Avenue are pleased that they can now safely back out of their driveways or cross the road on foot. One said the traffic calming measures have made her street “more like a neighborhood and less of a highway.” Still, angry residents elsewhere have voted out pro-calming members of the neighborhood association board and are demanding that the earlier fixes be fixed. Problem is, as one longtime activist told the Times, “If you really talk to a traffic engineer, they’ll tell you they’re out of tricks.”

Footnote: Realistically, what can be done to make traffic work better? Answer: Have less of it. America's freeways work wonderfully well when they're not at capacity. Problem is, we're driving more and over longer distances and have no stomach for building enough new lanes to keep up. Ultimately, then, the solution is for people to drive less by living closer to work, car-pooling or taking transit. Until then, every strategy, from traffic-calming to toll lanes, merely shifts the problem around, it doesn't solve it.

It's definitely a bad sign when your city has to mitigate its mitigations.

Not mentioned here, but even more serious: I've seen other studies that show substantial increases in ambulance and police response times in neighborhoods with traffic calming devices, and minutes definitely count when it comes to heart attacks and strokes. I also believe there have been some successful lawsuits along these lines.

I think Houston has avoided most of this problem, although I still run into some mildly annoying speed humps from time to time. I think they're leftover from the Lanier administration. Not sure if new ones are still being added today.

His footnote is in the right direction, but a little trite. Peoples' schedules are crazy enough these days to make carpools a nightmare. Job changes have gotten more and more frequent, and people naturally want to stay in the same house and community where they have ties/roots if at all possible. Combine that with a two-income household that can really only be close to one job, and you've got a recipe for long commutes.

Getting back to traffic calming, I found a great quote that sums up Otis' post:

"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." ~ H. L. Mencken

Monday, July 25, 2005

I45 expansion plans and Woodland Heights

There's a lot of noise around this issue: the Chronicle, BlogHouston, and Off the Kuff. And all kinds of solutions are being thrown around: tunnels, elevateds, and the ever-popular "nothing" (both sides: either don't change the plan or don't widen at all). And I have previously posted my own solution for minimizing right-of-way needs with managed lanes, and I'd love to find a TXDoT person that could explain to me why it would or wouldn't work.

On a lark, I decided to check out the facts, aka "the situation on the ground". Check out this Google satellite map of the Woodland Heights area at 45. The simple fact is, as far as Woodland Heights is concerned, the right-of-way is already there. Yes, it's a set of steeply sloping hillsides, but that's also what 59 used to have inside of Shepherd, and they widened it quite nicely by simply putting in vertical walls - no extra RoW needed, no houses condemned. They may have to do a little clever ramp work like the depressed section of Central in Dallas, but it seems very doable. Throw in some nice new sound walls, and I'll bet residents would end up better off than they are now, where the hillsides project the sound right up into their houses. I don't know why TXDoT doesn't point this out and diffuse peoples' fears.

Now, go a little bit north of Woodland Heights - just north of N. Main - and you can see where the RoW is very, very tight. Not sure what the right solution is there, but I think the simplist would be to remove the feeders and widen the trench. Those feeders end just south of there anyway, so it may not be much of a mobility loss. Maybe keep one feeder lane on each side if necessary, but hang it out over the trench, again like Central in Dallas.

What's needed overall? A little more calm, reason, dialogue, openness, and simplicity - on both sides. Why does every mobility project in this city have to be an all-out war?

History of Metro and rail: Chronicle vs. Lone Star Times

I have to admit, one of my weaknesses as a commentator is that I only really started taking an interest in Houston and urban issues in the last 5 to 10 years, so my knowledge of earlier Houston history is thin and not first hand. So I have to pass along these two editorials on the history of Metro and rail which I found fascinating: the first from the Chronicle and the second a response by the Lone Star Times. Read them both and form your own opinion.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Houston = the Gulf Coast Megapolitan Area?

USA Today has an interesting article on the new concept of "megapolitan areas" or super-regional cities based on research by the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech and a coalition of other universities.

...the world is no longer about towns, cities, counties, metropolitan areas or even states. Those traditional boundaries may become even more parochial as a booming nation of 295 million braces for another 125 million people by 2050.

If current development patterns continue, millions more will settle around metropolitan areas, along interstate highways and near major airports. They'll form giant urban areas linked by common culture, economy, geography and ecology:

Ten megapolitan areas have more than 10 million residents or will have that many by 2040, according to a new study by Virginia Tech. They extend into 35 states and include parts of every state east of the Mississippi River except Vermont. They incorporate less than a fifth of the land area in the continental USA but house more than two-thirds of the population. Four states are completely megapolitan: Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Department of City and Regional Planning predict that by 2050, more than 300 million people, about 70% of the population, will live in eight "super city" regions that today have about 175 million people.

They have a nice table I can't duplicate here (and is unreadable in the graphic above) with the 10 areas listed along with their current population, biggest city, signature industry, and political leaning. Houston is included in the Gulf Coast Megapolitan area along with New Orleans and Mobile, with 12.1 million people today focused on the energy industry and backing the GOP.

I think they're really on to something. Not that people daily commute across these super-regions, but that they do have pretty tightly linked and integrated economies, and I think people are more willing to move within a region where they can stay a half-day's drive away from extended family and friends, i.e. "weekend driving trip range".

From what I can tell, their coalition of universities doesn't include any from around Texas, and it shows in their city clusters. I buy their definitions of the pacific northwest, northern CA, southern CA, the midwest, the northeast corridor, Piedmont/Atlanta, and southern Florida. I only have a minor quibble with the way the put Las Vegas with SoCal, but put Phoenix by itself. Either Vegas belongs with Phoenix, or they all belong together in one giant blob in the southwest (with a Death Valley gap) - probably the latter. But their Texas clusters make no sense. Kansas City goes with San Antonio, but Houston goes with New Orleans and Mobile? Come on. Anybody who knows anything about Texas knows that the core regional economy is the Texas Triangle of San Antonio, Austin, Ft. Worth, Dallas, and Houston. People travel back and forth among these cities all the time. Houston is far more linked to any one of them than to New Orleans or Mobile, and San Antonio-Kansas City definitely fails the "weekend driving trip" test. They need to create that Megapolitan area and spin off Oklahoma, Kansas and Louisiana to the unaffiliated status they have for most of the country (which is by no means a condemnation, since it includes pretty vibrant cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Boise, and Minneapolis). When you look at UPenn's list of 8 super-cities, it does break down this way, with the Texas Triangle as a stand-alone mega-metro:
California will have two supercities — one stretching from San Diego to north of Los Angeles and the southern Central Valley, the other encompassing the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley and reaching inland to Modesto and Sacramento. A third supercity will permeate the Pacific Northwest, including Portland, Tacoma, and Seattle. A fourth, in Texas, will encompass San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston. Almost all of Florida will be a supercity. The South’s supercity will reach from Birmingham through Atlanta to Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham. The Midwest’s will start in Cleveland and include Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee. The East’s will reach from Richmond all the way up the Atlantic Coast to Portland, Maine.

One minor item I found amusing: every region gets a nice export-focused "signature industry" except Phoenix, which got "home building." Not really an export industry. I think it might be a politically correct proxy for "people retiring/escaping from California and living off the bundle they sold their CA house for." That's certainly one way to bring money and economic vitality to a region...

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Hybrid maps: Google gets even cooler

Just when you thought Google Maps couldn't get any cooler, with click-and-drag zoom in-and-out and flying around through maps and satellite images, they take it to the next level. Today, a new button appeared: Hybrid. It overlays the map labels on the satellite images. Very, very cool. No more flipping back and forth. Here's one of downtown to check out, as well as one of the Texas Medical Center, all nicely labeled with major roads highlighted.

Friday, July 22, 2005

CNN Travel on Houston

CNN Travel/AP has a write-up on visiting Houston.

Houston: Fun on a budget

In the sprawling expanse of the nation's fourth largest city, you don't need a bank account the size of Houston native Beyonce's to have a good time. There's lots of Texas-sized fun to be had for less than $20.

But before you go, there are two things to know: No. 1, rent a car -- it's the only logical way to navigate a metropolitan area that's larger than Rhode Island. And No. 2, pack your shorts to combat the 90-plus degree summer temperatures coupled with stifling humidity.

It follows with sections on museums, the zoo, live entertainment, public spaces, sports, shopping, food and lodging.

Thanks to Richard Johnson for the link.

Fixing IAH terminal confusion

Well, I'm back from Ottawa and have time for a short post. One thing we noticed at Intercontinental Airport with the parking shuttles is common confusion over the terminal letters because they're easily misheard. B, D, and E all sound very similar and it's very easy for misunderstanding to ensue. I'm sure tons have people have had similar problems with bad cell phone connections and ended up at the wrong terminal.

Solution? Well, since our airport is named after former president George H.W. Bush, why not rename terminal D to H and E to W? We would then have terminals A, B, C, H, and W. They're audibly distinctive, and on a map H and W will be right next to each other spelling out his initials. Who says terminal letters have to be sequential? It would clear up the confusion and be a nice honor to our hometown president.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

No posts this week

Vacationing this week in pleasantly cooler Ottawa, Canada, returning late Wednesday night. I may possibly post on Thursday or Friday if I have the time and content. If you're bored and need a content fix, check out earlier highlights here, or just browse the archives at the bottom of the right side column.

See ya next week, eh?

Friday, July 15, 2005

Handicapping the 2016 Summer Olympics

So now that London won the 2012 Olympics, speculation is moving on to who will get the 2016 games. The feeling is that North America, and specifically the US, is due for a games since it will have been 20 years since Atlanta '96. There is evidently sentiment at the IOC that Africa or South America should get a games soon, but the word is that the two leading contenders, Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro, are not ready to propose yet. The time frame is pretty tight too, since the USOC would probably need to pick its contender by 2007 for a 2009 IOC decision. So here are some contenders and comments:
  • New York: Evidently exhausted by the failed 2012 bid, with many expiring agreements on facilities and land, plus lack of citizen support, they may not try for 2016. There is also sentiment that they let the USOC down by not getting together on the West Side Stadium - the the USOC saying 2016 is "wide open". Still, they have a pretty good shot if they can get it together. Doubtful.
  • Toronto: Has taken itself out of the running, probably because of Vancouver's 2010 winter Olympics bid. Don't want to over-favor one country.
  • San Diego/Tijuana: Interesting co-bid across the border might catch the eye of the IOC because it includes Mexico, and they certainly have the right weather for a summer Olympics. Cross-border transporation could be a nightmare, especially when combined with massive anti-terrorism security efforts. The tiny one-runway airport also seems pretty inadequate - are they gonna bus people down from LAX? Innovative but risky, and I don't think the USOC/IOC is up for any additional risk.
  • Philadelphia: Wild-card, but seems unlikely. No organization yet with a tight time-frame, and they'd have to get a whole lot of political unity across two states and dozens of counties and cities in the metro area.
  • Chicago: Another wild-card. No movement yet, but if they get it together, it could be a really strong bid.
  • LA: Already had two Olympics, and if they can't get political unity behind an NFL stadium and franchise, what chance do they have with an Olympics bid?
  • DC: Again, after New York, the USOC may shy away from metros with political unity problems like the ones that came out around DC's new baseball stadium for the Nationals. Complex joint bid with Baltimore also makes a bit of a sprawling mess. Unlikely.
  • Houston: We've got a great technical bid, with a really compact venue plan and strong political unity and citizen support. But I'm not sure I could inflict our heat on the athletes (not that Mexico City, Athens and Atlanta weren't hot). And we're hurt by the bad impression of Atlanta's Olympics (I think people see us as almost twin cities), and not really being a tourist city. Oddsmakers have us at 33 to 1.
  • San Francisco: They came a close second to New York for the 2012 USOC bid. Gorgeous bay area with perfect weather (well, except maybe for the fog). Popular tourist town. None of the athletes, officials or reporters will have to afford a house there. What's not to like?

Oddsmakers are betting on New York. My prediction? I think the USOC will use Houston and others to put pressure on San Francisco to up the stakes and push their bid to the limit, then they will give it to San Francisco. In my mind, it's San Francisco's to lose, which they certainly could do if they have political unity problems or weak citizen support. The SF Bay Area is a lot of different counties and cities that may have trouble coming together, and California as a state is just about broke. But Schwarzenegger is a powerful charm machine to have on their side. So, putting my neck out there very early with thin information to go on: first the USOC, then the IOC, will pick San Francisco for the 2016 Olympics.

Am I being disloyal to Houston? No, just realistic. And as I've posted before, an Olympics would be a big drain on the money and energy of our city that could go into more important long-term problems. I just hope we don't waste too much energy being a straw man for the USOC to get more out of San Francisco. If, by some miracle, we do win it, I will certainly be a major supporter and booster - and I think we will do a great job just like the Super Bowl. It's kinda like light rail: once it's a done-deal sunk cost, we might as well get everything possible out of it...

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A balanced view of New Urbanism

This columnist in Orange County might be a tad harsh towards New Urbanism, but the jist of his argument pretty much matches mine:

Some of what the New Urbanists like, I like too: pedestrian- friendly neighborhoods, traditional architecture. But their depiction of suburban America is wrongheaded, and policy prescriptions from New Urbanists and their allies in the Smart Growth movement range from the commendable (i.e., reducing zoning restrictions in urban areas) to the outlandish (i.e., growth controls, metropolitan governments).

The New Urbanists dislike current design forms, in which most people live in a fairly large house on a suburban street with a decent-sized yard and a two-car garage. We should live in townhouses or apartments, they explain, with little or no back yards, and should walk to work, to shopping, or take the light-rail line or other form of transit when we need to travel.

New Urbanists display little interest in the reason most people prefer suburbia - it's a good place to raise kids. As one architect friend of mine explains, New Urbanism is good for a specific demographic - i.e., childless yuppies - but fails when it seeks to impose that one idea on the entire nation.


To the degree New Urbanism is a design movement operating in the free market, I'm for it. No writer has been more vocal in his support for efforts by the city of Anaheim, for instance, to reduce zoning restrictions to allow higher-density construction in the Platinum Triangle. To the degree New Urbanism is defined by subsidies, growth controls and a new regimen of government planning, I'm against it.

Beyond the debate over public policy, I question some of the underlying assumptions of the New Urbanists. They say suburbia destroys a sense of community. But I live an interconnected life with work, friends, school, church, family, neighbors, local merchants ... in suburbia.


By all means, let's remove the barriers to New Urbanism so developers can build these types of projects, but let's not create new barriers that make it harder to build the suburban houses needed to shelter the millions of new residents heading to (or being born in) America in the next 50 years.

I think Houston public officials recognize the impracticality of imposing the New Urbanist/Smart Growth model on the whole city. That said, we should still do everything possible to encourage New Urbanist transit-oriented development near the LRT/BRT stops, because it's a lifestyle choice we currently offer very little of and a good way to absorb population growth with minimal traffic increase. It's also the best way to maximize property tax return on investment from the huge capital costs of rail.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Is New York's financial industry migrating to Florida?

OK, this post falls in the realm of pure speculation, and really has little to do with Houston other than being about cities and their economic engines.

The Wall Street Journal has an article talking about how Ft. Lauderdale airport has become as congested and delay-prone as all three New York area airports. JetBlue announced today they're starting service from NY/Newark to Florida this fall (Continental reacted swiftly, and WSJ analysis), which will bring them to 77 flights/day from NY to Florida, 26 of those to Ft. Lauderdale - which is right up there in frequency to the Boston and DC shuttles. That is simply crazy. Throw in the other airlines, and I'll bet you're looking nearly 200 flights/day from NY to Florida. That's a flight every 5 minutes during a 16 hour flying day. Assuming ~100 people/flight, that's around 20,000 people each direction every day.

So who are these people? I'm betting a good chunk of them are the well-off financial dealmakers of Wall Street. A couple hundred bucks a week to shuttle between New York and their estate/condo in Florida is chump change for them. I think a few variables are at work here:
  1. The rise of cheap, comfortable, frequent flights by JetBlue and others.
  2. The Internet makes it easy to work remotely.
  3. Miami is putting almost no limits on high-rise condo building, which are selling like hotcakes at these low mortgage rates.
There are only about 200,000 investment company jobs in the city of New York, meaning on any given day up to 10% of them could be going to Florida and 10% of them coming back from Florida. The question becomes: at what point do they say,

"Hey... everybody I work with also owns a place in Ft. Lauderdale/ Miami, and Florida has no income tax. Why am I going to New York for meetings - and paying state and city income tax - when everything I need and almost everybody I need to deal with is down there?"
The financial industry is the backbone of the New York economy. It's a little known fact that New York is even more dependent on the financial industry than Houston is on the energy industry. Could they really lose it down this slippery slope? If anybody has any anecdotes or other evidence, I'd love to hear it in the comments.

Monday, July 11, 2005

San Antonio vs. Houston toll roads

Today's guest post is brought to us by Erik Slotboom, author of Houston Freeways:

Article: San Antonio left out of toll road decision

The bottom line is that is is good for Houston/Harris County to have its own toll road authority to maintain local control and keep the profits and toll rate-setting local, as well as use the profits to benefit the local infrastructure rather than make profits for a corportation.

TxDOT is trying to impose a private toll scheme on San Antonio and didn't even bother to notify San Antonio officials. If this moves forward, San Antonio residents will have to pay for the private operators to make a profit.

Here is the analysis from the anti-toll group:

"Surprised and concerned leaders from San Antonio could only stand on the sidelines Thursday as state officials agreed to pursue a private bid to build and operate toll roads in Bexar County." That's the opening line a story by Patrick Driscoll that appears in today's San Antonio Express-News.

Even Bill Thornton, the Governor appointed Chairman of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) was shut out of the process. Shockingly the Transportation Commission didn't have the common courtesy to notify Thornton that the deal for privately built and operated toll roads in Bexar County would be on the Commission's agenda yesterday.

Toll roads in Houston generate $50 million dollars a year in revenue that is reinvested in Harris County transportation projects. But toll roads in San Antonio may instead generate billions in revenue for TxDOT's private monopoly road operator over the next half-century, denying Bexar County the same degree of benefit that Harris County enjoys.

Not surprisingly, the private bid to build and operate Bexar County toll roads comes from Cintra Zachry, the same group selected by the Commission last December to plan and build TTC-35. Of course the deal is secret, again. Most things involving money, monopolies, and unexplained transportation projects by TxDOT today are secret. Gone is government transparency, accountability and open government. No longer is the public permitted to participate in, or even observe, the planning, negotiation, or details of government contracts involving billions of dollars of public infrastructure and the expenditure of millions upon millions of our tax dollars.

Here's an article on HCTRA's finances.

OK, now back to your regularly scheduled blogger, Tory:

I had to comment on the last paragraph in that HCTRA article in Tollroads News:
Texas toll agencies manage to get a lot of road for the dollar compared to most others. They deny they 'disappear' the various environmentalists, federal agents and other road opponents who plague road building elsewhere in the US.

"Disappear"? Is this the Texas version of The Godfather and Goodfellas? If so, here's a friendly health tip, Erik: you may want to tone it down a bit... ;-)

Misleading STPP stats on transportation costs

The Surface Transportation Policy Project recently released their new report along with a press release supposedly showing that sprawl and weak transit drive up transportation costs, and they rank Houston as the worst:
"Families in the Houston (TX) metropolitan area have the highest overall transportation expenditures at 20.9 percent." [of household income]
This abuse of statistics drives me nuts for two main reasons.
  1. It hides the costs of transit. They include all the car-related taxes in the cost of driving, which are built-in to registration fees and the cost of gas. Those taxes support roads, of course. But transit costs are paid out of federal, state, and local income and sales taxes, and are not included in their cost of transit for the end user. So, of course, transit looks like a bargain.
  2. They confuse voluntary spending with involuntary costs. Since Houston has such a low overall cost of living, especially housing, we have extra money left over to spend on more and nicer cars. That extra spending is a voluntary amenity -- not a "cost of basic transportation." The average Houston household chooses to spend $9,891/year on transportation, but they could also choose to spend a whole lot less if they drove around in used Honda Civics instead of shiny new full-size pickups and SUVs.
Mark Twain said it best: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Friday, July 08, 2005

A different take on Dallas vs. Houston

Amusing. Thanks to Erik for the link.

Routing the new east-west light rail line

People have started speculating on specific routing for the new east-west Metro light rail line from the Galleria to UH, so I thought I'd make my own amateur recommendation/ prognostication. In a few years I'll either dig up this link to show how brilliant I was; or, more likely, you'll never hear about it again. I highly recommend opening a separate browser window to follow along with a Google map, zooming in and out and switching to satellite view at will. Makes it a whole lot more fun than just reading some text. That said, let's begin from the western end near the Galleria and go east:

  • Post Oak/610 at Westpark: Some people will argue for Westheimer or Richmond, but the reality is that "The Galleria" is not a single point-destination, but a whole cluster with more jobs than many other cities' downtowns spread over a large area. Look at the Google satellite map for the tall buildings that leave long shadows. To serve those effectively, Metro has realized that a long north-south BRT line is needed rather than a simple end-of-line point-drop at Westheimer and Post Oak. So the light rail should start at the southern tip of that line. Longer-term, if the Galleria/Uptown line gets converted from BRT to light rail, it could just turn here and continue down the east-west line - no transfers needed. Also, longer-term, there may be commuter rail along the Westpark right-of-way to far west Houston, and it will need to connect up to the core network here. This brings up another "nice to have" if possible for the east-west line: don't align it along the straight-as-an-arrow Westpark right-of-way that goes to far west Houston. If that commuter line does happen one day, it would be nice to be able to bring it farther in than 610 at 59 - ideally all the way to the Main St. line for easy transfers to downtown or the medical center. The included picture above nicely shows the super-straight Westpark corridor on the south side of 59.
  • Down the Westpark corridor to the Union Pacific freight rail line, under the Westpark bridge, up the west side of that UP freight line, and then an elevated ramp (or not?) over the freight line and into the median of Richmond. Satellite map link. Richmond is an overall better routing than the Westpark corridor. There's a lot more existing and potential commercial and high-density residential along it, including Greenway Plaza, plus access to the Menil and University of St. Thomas. Westheimer and West Alabama do not have enough right-of-way. This route avoids the Afton Oaks residential neighborhood and taking out their nice oak trees. It also avoids losing lanes in Weslayan for the north-south jog, which is already packed and cannot afford to take the hit.
  • Richmond all the way to Spur 527 off of 59. Then it gets tricky. Richmond becomes Wheeler. Wheeler is not only narrow with probably inadequate right-of-way, it goes through a residential area and right smack through the middle of the TSU campus. Doesn't seem like a good idea to have thousands of students crossing tracks going to and from class. The Wheeler routing also goes along the south edge of UH, which is ok, but not ideal because it will require some long walks to the far side of campus. But there is a good alternate routing.
  • Follow the Spur 527 feeder up to Alabama. Then go east along Alabama right into the center of the UH campus (including through the UH stadium parking lot). West Alabama has a lot more right-of-way available for rail in this part of town, and would provide much better access to HCC. The Ensemble/HCC stop would be the transfer station between this line and the Main St. line. It would run a block north of TSU, but it looks like a stop at Burkett would create an easy walking route right to the center of campus (map). And it would be far more convenient for UH students, getting close to the core of campus without necessarily cutting across a lot of common student walking routes.
  • Alternate: since I originally typed this, I have gotten information that Alabama may have insufficient right-of-way to keep two lanes each direction along with rail. I think it actually would be ok with only one lane each direction, like Main, but if it is problematic, then I think splitting the line between Alabama and Cleburne makes sense, just like the Main St. line splits between Fannin and San Jacinto in the Museum District. If routing up the Spur feeders from Richmond becomes problematic, I also understand it is workable to put it along or underneath the 59 elevated until it connects up with Cleburne or Alabama down to TSU. Here's what that area looks like.
All the curves in this route should be doable, even with the very large turning radius of light rail (90 degree turns are very difficult if not impossible in most intersections).

Comments/debate welcome. And if you agree with it, and know anybody inside Metro with any influence, please, by all means, forward this to them.

Testing new Blogger pictures

As if coming up with text for blog posts isn't hard enough...

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Marginal Revolution economics blog debates Texas frontage roads

A Yankee economist has discovered feeder roads on Texas freeways, and likes what he sees.

(It's fun getting an opportunity to use the word "Yankee" - seems like such a quaint throwback.)

Yours truly comments here.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

An innovative idea for Metro LRT/BRT stations: taxis

Tom Delay called for Metro to get innovative, so here's my suggestion to really boost ridership on the existing light rail line and future rail and BRT lines: taxis. Too many places are just too far to walk from the stations (like the Rice Village), and many people would be happy to pay a few bucks for a quick trip a mile or two from the station to their final destination, especially if the weather's not so great for walking (hot, cold, raining... did I mention hot?).

Here's how it should work: when I buy my ticket at the station with the touch-screen terminal, I should have the option of telling it what station I'm getting off at and that I'd like a taxi waiting there when I arrive. The terminal could automatically send the dispatch to the taxi companies via some sort of allocation system (ideally to the company with an idle taxi nearest to that station), along with my estimated time of arrival at that station. I'm thinking it might charge me a small fee for the request, maybe 50 cents, to prevent false/prank requests and no-shows.

This simple feature could tip a lot of borderline trips ("do I drive or take the rail?") towards rail if I know I can easily arrange for a taxi to finish the last leg of my trip. And I'd think the taxi companies would love the extra revenue beyond the usual hotel/airport business.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

And you thought Metro's $2 billion plan is expensive...

I meant to pass along this article from June earlier, but it got misplaced in the chaos that is my email inbox. Just to show that everything is relative, Metro's $2B plan looks like a paragon of good sense and taxpayer stewardship in comparison to this plan by Seattle to build 14 miles of monorail. Get ready for it. $11 billion. You read that right. Read about it here.

Fun with math: divide it out and you get a staggering $149,000 per foot of monorail. Wow.

I'll pass along just one quote, from the Washington state treasurer:
"You've got to be kidding me," Murphy said yesterday. "That's ludicrous."

I think that just about sums it up.

Thanks to reader Richard Johnson for the link.

My 2012 Olympics prediction: London

The IOC is making the decision tomorrow, Wednesday July 6th. As I mentioned before, I'm actually kinda glad Houston's no longer in the running. Don't get me wrong - I'm sure we would have done a bang up job. I just think it would suck up all the available energy in this city for the next 7 years, and there are bigger and more important problems that need that attention and energy - like maybe education, flooding, transportation, neighborhoods, crime, pollution, etc. We already did our superficial spruce-up for the Super Bowl - time to focus on the real stuff.

Back to the prediction: New York is out because the West Side Stadium got rejected. Paris is the front-runner, but I think they will get rejected for a few reasons:
  1. Unpleasant anti-globalization political environment from the rejection of the EU constitution
  2. Stagnant economy that could degrade even further over the next 7 years
  3. If you were the IOC, would you want to risk one of France's infamous transportation strikes during the Olympics?
London's bid is a close second behind Paris, and I think the reasons above will tip it their way. We'll see.

Pittsburgh: poster child for eminent domain gone wrong

John Tierney has a great piece in the NY Times today about how eminent domain for private development can go very wrong, using his hometown of Pittsburgh as a case study.

...the city's finances are in ruins, and businesses and residents have been fleeing the high taxes required to pay off decades of urban renewal projects and corporate subsidies.

Yet the mayor still yearns for more acquisitions. He welcomed the Supreme Court decision, telling The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that eminent domain "is a great equalizer when you're having a conversation with people." Well, that's one way to describe the power to take people's property.

But I think a future Supreme Court justice would have a different view of eminent domain after touring Pittsburgh's neighborhoods, especially those that escaped urban renewal: the old-fashioned business districts with crowded sidewalks and the newly gentrified neighborhoods with renovated homes and converted warehouses. The future justice would quickly see what sets the success stories apart from Gateway Center and East Liberty. No politicians ever seized those homes and businesses for a "better use."

Monday, July 04, 2005

Jobs in the core: Houston vs. other cities

The proposed new east-west light rail line got me thinking about Houston's core job centers: downtown, the Texas Medical Center (TMC), Greenway Plaza, and Uptown/Galleria - which will all be pretty well connected by the new network. Here's how they stack up jobs-wise, on a numerical and percent-of-region basis, in 2000 and 2025 according to HGAC projections:
  • Downtown CBD: 154K (7.1%) -> 179K (5.2%)
  • Uptown/Galleria: 116K (5.3%) -> 141K (4.1%)
  • Medical Center: 88K (4%) -> 108K (3.1%)
  • Greenway: 65K (3%) -> 80K (2.3%)
  • --------------------------------------------------------
  • Total: 423K (19.4%) -> 508K (14.7%)
If you're wondering how the numbers can grow but the percentage drop: the total number of jobs in the Houston region is expected to grow from 2,178K to 3,469K in 2025, with most of the growth outside the core.

Now, here's the interesting part: stack those up against some of the biggest cities in the country. These are the best stats I could find (bottom table), with two caveats: they are from 1990, which is a bit dated, and they are downtown/CBD only, which is not an entirely fair comparison to our four core job centers in aggregate. That said, our four job centers might make an odd shape but are very comparable to Manhattan on a land area basis (16m of light rail + 4m Uptown BRT = 20m total length x 1/2m on each side x 2 sides = 20 sq. miles vs. 23 sq. miles for Manhattan).

So, New York blows everybody away with 1.7 million jobs in Manhattan. But our total of 423K/19.4% compares very favorably vs. #2 Chicago (336K/9%) and #3 Washington DC (324K/14%), even allowing for their growth during the 90s or if you want to include some of their non-CBD job centers. I thought we might stack up pretty well, but not #2. Quite the impressive surprise.

Friday, July 01, 2005

June highlights

Time again for the monthly ritual. Near the first of every month, I'll be adding a post highlighting key posts from the previous month(s), with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action. The main page will only show about a month's worth of entries, and I know most new readers won't go back into the monthly archives linked at the bottom of the right-side column. If you're just interested in the highlights, here they are:


From May:

From April:

And from March:

Thanks for your interest in Houston Strategies.