Tuesday, August 05, 2008

One gas solution, rail to the airport, graphs, recycling, and more

As we enjoy the much-needed rain from a fortunately weak Edouard, I thought I'd pass along some of the smaller items that have built up:
  • An interesting graph from this story shows that Houston Harris County has had the least increase in Democratic voting over the last 30 years vs. every other major urban core county in the country. Relative to other core cities/counties, I think we've stayed more balanced and compromising between the two political parties (healthy, IMHO), in part because of non-partisan city elections. I suspect when a city/county tips to Democratic domination, the policies they enact (taxes? strong pubic unions? regulations?) drive Republicans out to adjacent cities/counties - something we still have happening to some extent with Montgomery and Ft. Bend Counties - and make the Democratic trend actually accelerate in the core. I'm curious to hear other theories in the comments.
  • More interesting graphs of population density vs. land area. Surprising fact: half the U.S. population lives on less than 1% of our total available land - about the size of Indiana.
  • An interesting story on Californians who got lured into Austin real estate investing only to get burned by a state that allows supply to meet demand and relies on property taxes instead of income taxes. Hat tip to Hugh.
  • The NY Times reviews Houston's inadequate recycling efforts (plus local coverage). We rank last among 30 major cities with a 2.6% rate. Mayor White has a yard waste recycling plan that should get us to 20+% by 2010, but that's still not too high. My wife and I fill 3 recycling bins full every 2 weeks (mostly Chron and WSJ newspapers), and our Meyerland neighborhood won an award for high participation - but unfortunately we're the exception to the rule. I'm personally OK with higher garbage fees for more or larger trash bins to encourage recycling, but I am concerned it would lead to more illegal trash dumping in the lower-income parts of town (it's already pretty bad in some of the eastside industrial areas). Although I liked the reference to Houston as the "libertarian heartland," we can, and should, do better. Don't miss the associated 4-minute video. Well done.
  • From the debate in Kansas City, good reasons why light rail to the airport - despite constant calls for it - doesn't really make sense (which is why Metro is wisely going with express buses instead).

"On that note, the Star writes over the weekend: "Sure, it sounds convenient, maybe even fast. It would even save you the cost of gas and parking. But would you be willing to drive a couple of miles to a rail station, then haul your bags onto a train that makes multiple stops and wouldn't travel any faster than your car? The odds say you wouldn't," the paper writes, citing data from U.S. airports where rail service is available. For example, the Star cites a survey data in writing that "only 15% of passengers at Washington's Reagan National Airport said they got there by rail," making it one of the top airports for rail usage. The flipside, however, is that figure means passengers arriving by personal car (34%) outweighed rail users by only about a 2-to-1 margin.

"The concept of tying rail into the airport is a very emotional one. People see it as a sign of a major league city," Mark Huffer, general manager of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, tells the Star. For Kansas City, Huffer is skeptical that a rail option would be used by anyone other than light-packing travelers who live very close to rail stations. The Star suggests that with the low-density nature and minimal traffic problems of the Kansas City area, rail may not be the best option. "Most of the people flying are coming from home," Kansas City Aviation Director Mark VanLoh tells the Star. "They're not coming from their offices in the city. It’s scattered."

Plus, Kansas City's horseshoe-shaped, three-terminal layout is not conducive to rail transit, the Star says. And without express service from downtown, rail service may not be faster than driving, once suburban stops are factored in. Even the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association doesn't appear eager to help push for an airport rail connection. "We have other issues that are far more compelling," association president Rick Hughes tells the Star. Even Kansas City's mayor favors express buses for the airport, saying that a rail option would be too expensive given the small number of users he expects would use it, according to the Star."

And the final item is my own suggestion to address the gas crisis: require all new cars to offer instantaneous, trip (car on to off), and average gas mileage displays. I really think a lot of people don't connect their driving behavior with their gas mileage (F350 cruising at 85mph, anyone?). People with Priuses often obsess over maximizing their mileage as displayed by the computer. What if people were doing that across our entire vehicle fleet? Smoother acceleration, less unnecessary braking, more reasonable cruising speeds. The fuel savings could be substantial, no matter what kind of vehicle people are driving. Almost trivially cheap for carmakers to add, and it's a lot less ham-fisted than higher CAFE standards or lower national speed limits.

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At 3:21 PM, August 05, 2008, Anonymous Neil said...

In this case, libertarian is as much a red herring as calling China communist.* The real point on recycling is that Houston has an engineering spirit, compared to the East and West Coasts who pressure us to conform and endorse their enlightened leadership. Engineers' sentimentality doesn't operate like the general population's, and they see unassumingly gorgeous Texan coastal prairie dotted with century oaks every couple of acres as a resource to approach using quantitatively. But that also means that when material waste flows do register as a worthwhile resource - after all, the city 'naturally' concentrates all this stuff to itself for the taking - as Jane Jacobs suggested they would in her 1970 book The Economy of Cities (underregistered masterpiece on economic fruitfulness, but one which Houston has since become the demonstration case for the truth of), then Houstonian engineers will make a much wiser job of the whole recycling thing, in terms of un-jingoistic effectiveness and selectiveness of policies that make it into use, than have the headline Coasts amid their need to retain the feeling of having enlightened superiority in something sensational.

(*I imagine China likes being thought of as communist because it's the perfect distraction from the fact that they are simply willing to hybridize anything with totalitarianism that will work to amass increased power and pride of power.)

At 3:26 PM, August 05, 2008, Blogger John said...

I bought a new car a couple of months ago, and the display will tell you your average and instant fuel efficiency, and I do find myself consciously driving to make the number look better (kind of hard since most of my driving is city driving). It does affect your behavior.

The 15% rail figure for Washington National is interesting. I wonder what % of trips to and from the airport that originate or end in central DC or nearby Arlington/Alexandria are by rail (I suspect the % is much higher). That great rail connection keeps a lot of cars off the already crowded 14th Street Bridge & GW Parkway.

Note also that DC's rail connection is right in the middle of a busy subway line - the train would go right by it no matter what, and people ride straight past it going other places. The real cost of it is tiny, because it simply adds a station to an existing system.

Also note that the good rail connection there (not just that it's there, but that it deposits you at the airport lobby, no shuttle buses, none of that nonsense) obviates some of the need to cram more parking structures into a highly space-constrained airport. (Parking at DCA is horrible - the one or two times I drove there, I nearly missed my flight trying to find a space.)

When I traveled for business I usually took a cab (I wasn't paying), if it wasn't rush hour. The Metro option makes it possible for anybody to get to the airport for $2, which is valuable. No such option in Houston.

And finally, if you don't live in DC, renting a car and driving puts you right into a tangle of horrible traffic and confusing roads.

I think express bus service (real express) would work fine here. The lack of some kind of reasonable transit to IAH makes it an incredibly visitor-unfriendly airport, though. I hated flying in there before I moved here, and don't recommend it to anybody who's not being picked up by a friend upon arrival. (Of course, the whole airport is kind of an embarrassing mess in my opinion, but that's a whole other topic...)

At 4:10 PM, August 05, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

Interesting presidential link.

From the Harris county data for 1972 versus 2004, we do see a 7.6% increase in Democratic voting (source http://uselectionatlas.org):

McGovern 36.9% 215,916
Nixon 62.6% 365,672

George W. Bush Richard Cheney Republican 584,723 54.75%
John Kerry John Edwards Democratic 475,865 44.56%

That said, I think this is overall a pretty crappy measure of voter sentiment. After all, this is just 2 data points, and even if people lean one way or another, other factors such as George W. Bush having local connections certainly played an influence.

On a national level, I question the notion of measuring this using a base point of a national landslide election in which the Democrat only received 17 electoral votes. Dems don't really have anywhere to go but up from there, do they?

1972 national results:
Richard Nixon Spiro Agnew Republican 47,168,710 60.67% 520 EV
George McGovern R. Sargent Shriver Democratic 29,173,222 37.52% 17 EV

In sum: I think Houston is much more in line with the rest of the nation than this snap-shot would have you believe.

If you want further proof that you need to dig deeper than just looking at 1972 and 2004 - just look at 1964 Goldwater versus Johnson. Johnson won Harris county and he was the "hometown" guy:

Johnson 59.5% 227,819
Goldwater 40.3% 154,401

In Chicago, Johnson only won by a couple of percentage points more than that:

Johnson 63.2% 1,537,181
Goldwater 36.8% 895,718

Does that make Houston as Democrat-leaning as Chicago? Probably not. But 2004 is probably an equally misleading data point to choose.


At 5:13 PM, August 05, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Neil: I like the idea that Houston has more of an unbiased "engineering" mentality, which makes sense when you consider our energy, port, medical, and space industrial bases.

>The Metro option makes it possible for anybody to get to the airport for $2, which is valuable. No such option in Houston.

Well, technically you can take a bus there today for that price, but not quickly. The express service will be a big improvement.

Mike: good point about that really just being based on two semi-random data points. I just thought of it as a 30 year trend, but it's really not. What would be more interesting, albeit cluttered, would be a Dem-minus-Rep vote difference line graph for each county from 1972 to 2004. Then you could see which lines were flat overall vs. steep. Might even see some true tipping-point S-curve behavior.

At 5:16 PM, August 05, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Mike: I just looked at that article again. They do have such a line graph as I described, but Houston isn't on it. Dallas seems to roughly match other cities though.

At 5:37 PM, August 05, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A clarification: The one-way fare for the new Metro service is $15; round-trip is $30.

At 11:52 PM, August 05, 2008, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...


This once per half hour shuttle service to Intercontinental airport will work for me and is an excellent, low cost experimental idea from Metro. I can take the #82 Westheimer bus into downtown, then make a one block walk transfer to this shuttle terminal. The total cost of a one way trip would be $16, though the overall trip time would be about 75 minutes, depending upon the wait times involved both in my access to the #82 and in making the transfer between the #82 and the shuttle bus.

In comparison, taking a taxi would involve a $65 trip, but generally takes about 30-40 minutes, depending upon traffic.

A blog entry on rail lines to airports is forthcoming.


At 9:15 AM, August 06, 2008, OpenID johnsterling said...

How can the NYTimes knock Houston for recycling deficiencies withouth linking to John Tierney's famous hit piece on the practice: "Recycling is Garbage." You can find the link here.

Houston should continue to concentrate on civic programs where the benefits actually exceed the costs, at least the benefits other than sanctimonious attitudes. The NYTimes editorial staff will green light any story right now that knocks the Kotkin/Glaeser/etc. narrative that Houston is a white hot boomtown.

At 10:31 AM, August 06, 2008, Blogger Chris Lengquist said...

And let's not forget that the KC airport is about 20 miles from downtown KC. And there would not be a lot of "relevant" stops in between.

At 11:25 AM, August 06, 2008, Blogger engineering said...

In the past I have taken Houston METRO's express bus to both Intercontinental and Hobby. For $1 is not bad but service was bad at best in terms of 1) no clue where METRO stations are located at the airports 2) no schedule posted at bus stations 3) waiting in unpleasant conditions. Some of these things could easily be solved if the know-how and desire existed.

On the other hand, regardless of all the listed reason for not providing mass transit service i.e. passenger train, I favor one linking: Intercontinental, Hobby and downtown. If designed "properly" it could be a success. But our design mentality is often base on systems implemented in other cities not benefit from what Houston has to offer.


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