Tuesday, July 06, 2010

IBM kudos to Houston for minimizing commuter pain

IBM has released its annual Commuter Pain Index (press release), and despite what you might expect, Houston ranked remarkably well, scoring 17 out of 100, the second-lowest in the index behind Stockholm.  In his analysis, Wendell Cox has some nice things to say about Houston:
The Houston Advantage: Perhaps the biggest surprise is Houston's favorable traffic congestion ranking.
  • Houston has the lowest urban density of the 20 metropolitan areas.
  • Houston has the lowest transit market share, by far, at only 1%.
  • Houston also has the highest per capita automobile use among the IBM metropolitan areas.
Yet Houston scored better than any metropolitan area on the list except for much smaller Stockholm. As late as 1985, Houston had the worst traffic congestion in the United States, according to the annual rankings of the Texas Transportation Institute. Public officials, perhaps none more than Texas Highway Commission Chair and later Mayor Bob Lanier led efforts to improve Houston's road capacity, despite explosive population growth. Their initiatives paid off. By 1998, Houston had improved to 16th in traffic congestion in the United States. The population growth has been incessant, so much so that Houston has added more new residents since 1985 than live in Stockholm and more than half as many as live in Melbourne. While Houston had slipped to 11th in traffic congestion by 2007, the recent opening of a widened Katy Freeway and other improvements should keep the traffic moving in Houston better than in virtually all of the world's other large metropolitan areas.
It's easy to overlook how easy it is to get around this massive city (outside of rush hour, of course) compared to most other major world metros.  It really is remarkable.  I'm still in awe every time I drive on the new Katy Freeway.  Keeping up this performance is another good reason to push forward with the 290 expansion plans, including the parallel Hempstead Tollway (are you listening, HCTRA?).

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16 Comments:

At 5:25 PM, July 06, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

And HCTRA trying to shift from Hempstead to Seg E of the Grand Parkway isn't good news.

Even if the main lanes of US 290 take another 5-8 years to get under way, having the told road along Hempstead and removing the HOV lane would be a massive benefit.

 
At 5:45 PM, July 06, 2010, Anonymous Martin said...

So, if anti-planning, highways, and low transit usage are what supposedly caused Houston to be ranked 18th, why is Houston tied with Melbourne, a city of 4 million where land use is highly regulated and commuting by personal automobile is discouraged (through taxes, limited road building, etc.). Stockholm, although smaller, still has a metro area of over 2 million and has even MORE stringent land use restrictions, congestion charges and extensive public transit.

The fact that New York (a city with a population of over 8 million and a urban population of over 18 million), is ranked 17 raises even more questions. New York is the most dense, urbanized city in the United States. It contains the highest percentage of people in the US who commute via transit. It has been destroying highways (see West Side Highway), rather than expanding them. And yet, it is only ranked one spot worse than Houston on the ranking? Following Mr. Cox's logic, New York should be ranked at or near the worst.

Instead, what this list seems to show is that large cities have the worst traffic. Compared to Beijing, Mexico City, Moscow, Sao Paulo, Delhi, etc., Houston, Stockholm and Melbourne are puny. The fact that New York does so well on this list (4th biggest metro area, 14th biggest by city proper), suggests that the only way for a massive city to deal with transit is to plan and provide extensive transit. It seems that Mr. Cox is again attempting to fix a report to fit his strident libertarian, ideological viewpoint.

 
At 6:44 PM, July 06, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think you have to invest in the right transportation for your city. NYC historically built a massive transit system when it was affordable (and before the car age), and kept the jobs concentrated in Manhattan, the nexus of the rail lines. Works for them.

Houston developed during the age of the car, and, appropriately, developed that infrastructure. With its job decentralization, rail transit would be both unaffordable and inappropriate to the city.

 
At 11:17 PM, July 06, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Focusing on highway mobility investments has paid big dividends for Houston. Let's hope politicians have the wisdom to continue to focus on highways.

There is a serious threat on the horizon - an anticipated total collapse in TxDOT highway funds.

http://www.h-gac.com/taq/commitees/TPC/2010/06-jun/docs/ITEM%2010%20--%20A%20-%20Background%20HGAC%20Status%20Report.pdf

Over the next 25 years, available funds originally estimated to be $43.4 billion have dwindled to nearly nothing - $6.5 billion over 25 years. Keep in mind that TxDOT was contracting around $1 billion per year in the early-to-mid 2000s.

The funding collapse will be a nationwide problem, leading me to believe there will need to be political action to prevent a funding collapse. But the sooner political action can be initiated, the better.

 
At 11:04 AM, July 07, 2010, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

I profoundly hope that they continue to place greater and greater emphasis on tolling, both as a funding source and as a traffic management tool.

 
At 11:27 AM, July 07, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>Houston developed during the age of the car, and, appropriately, developed that infrastructure. With its job decentralization, rail transit would be both unaffordable and inappropriate to the city.

Most jobs are located inside loop 610 or within a few blocks of major thoroughfares like I-45 or I-10 near major roads. Would not be that difficult to connect several of them. Plus the population inside Beltway 8 is going to continue to densify, to the point where much more rail and BRT transit makes sense. If Houston reaches 10 million people, there is no doubt about it - we are going to have to employ way more rail and BRT than we have now.

Plus, am I wrong or is low congestion not necessarily a very good indicator of anything? I can drive from Houston to Austin on a Sunday morning and I'm not likely to encounter much congestion, but that doesn't mean I'd want to design cities that have exurbs 160 miles from the city center where people have to do this on a daily basis. The point is Houston may have relatively low congestion but still relatively long, expensive (tollways), and inconvenient commutes.

 
At 12:55 PM, July 07, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

First, the overall index is commuter pain, not congestion (which is a part). See the link for details. And there is nothing about Houston that requires people to live far from work - there are residential areas very close to every job center in the city.

Actually, the majority of jobs are not inside the Loop. Downtown is <7%. Add in TMC, Greenway, and even Uptown (technically mostly outside the loop), and you're still less than 20% or so of the jobs. And you raise another issue, which is that most of the jobs are strung out along freeways - not in a concentrated node, which is also very hard for rail to serve efficiently.

Finally, I think we can accommodate going from 6m to 10m quite handily and affordably with express buses and vanpools in a HOT express lane network. First, H-GAC projections show most of the job growth will be outside of the beltway. Second, each one of those buses takes 40+ cars off the road, which is a massive impact. If you look at the number of commuter buses that move on dedicated tunnel lanes from NJ into Manhattan every day, you'll see that we have barely scratched the surface of the potential bus capacity.

 
At 5:14 PM, July 07, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>And there is nothing about Houston that requires people to live far from work - there are residential areas very close to every job center in the city.

This seems like a silly position to me. Houston is sprawling, and there are a great deal of homeowners, and careers change very frequently these days. Your best bet is probably to live somewhere near the center if you hope to be here over a decade or so. Or rent - so that you can easily relocate when necessary. But the reality is people choose to buy a house in Humble because that's where their initial job is, and then they get a new job downtown. Could they move downtown at that point? Sure. Do they? In most cases, probably not. Instead 30+ mile commutes are quite common here. That's just the reality.

>>And you raise another issue, which is that most of the jobs are strung out along freeways - not in a concentrated node, which is also very hard for rail to serve efficiently.

My point was that the jobs are *concentrated* along freeways. You want to serve the Energy Corridor with rail? It's pretty easy. Have a stop at Highway 6, a stop at Eldridge, a stop at Dairy Ashford, a stop at the Beltway, and those stops connect to North-South bus lines, or in the case of Highway 6 and Beltway 8, probably more North / South rail lines. I'm not sure how that corresponds to what the Energy Corridor district is thinking about - but I know they are considering rail along I-10. Other business districts could easily do the same thing - and connect into regional commuter rail networks. Add up all these districts plus the Uptown / Downtown / Med Center and you've got probably a majority of the jobs we'd be interested in serving with first class mass transit.

 
At 6:14 PM, July 07, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Re: the energy corridor: check a Google satellite map sometime. Those buildings are nominally near a freeway, but very spread out when considering walking from a rail stop (there is a particularly large cluster along Enclave Parkway near Eldridge, far from I10). Uptown has the same issue. And those buses and rail lines would move an average of 20mph, tops, with all of those stops. You might be able to move people within a few miles (who are probably just going to drive anyway), but it would be horribly painful and slow for people farther away - esp. compared to an express commuter bus in a HOT lane going 65+mph with no intermediary stops. It can also circulate around the energy corridor - or uptown, or wherever - and get people much closer to their buildings.

 
At 8:14 PM, July 07, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>Those buildings are nominally near a freeway, but very spread out when considering walking from a rail stop

I never said anyone would be walking from a rail stop. I like the idea of circulator buses too - just for particular areas - a Downtown circulator, Uptown circulator, Energy Corridor circulator, Westchase circulator. Run them every 5 minutes at peak hours. In certain districts like Uptown and Downtown, build light rail or streetcar to complement the circulator system.

>>but it would be horribly painful and slow for people farther away - esp. compared to an express commuter bus in a HOT lane going 65+mph with no intermediary stops. It can also circulate around the energy corridor - or uptown, or wherever - and get people much closer to their buildings.

I don't see the advantage to taking a bus versus taking a fast train and possibly connecting to a circulator bus at the destination. At some number of commuters, it becomes very inefficient to run buses instead of trains. Let's say we need to transport 10k people via mass transit from the Woodlands to Uptown. You are telling me you'd want to do that with buses? You'd have to use articulated buses and I don't think they'd be very efficient at transporting people around the destination location. "No stops"? Maybe if you happen to work at the first stop, and you don't encounter any traffic lights or congestion, but otherwise such rapid bus transit is not operational or possible given today's infrastructure. The same goes for rail of course - but if we have to choose to build a future mode of transport my money would be on rail.

 
At 10:17 PM, July 07, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Circulator buses would face the same local congestion that express buses would.

The great thing about express buses is that, if there's that much demand, you can fill buses with very focused routes - like maybe to only a small part of the EC or Uptown - and so people can wait through fewer wasted stops for their commute.

I just don't see those Woodlands people preferring a train to downtown that nets out to 20-30mph with stops, then a wait and transfer to LRT to Uptown, then a wait and transfer to a circulator bus - at least 1.5+ hours each way - vs. a point-to-point express bus at 65+mph. Before they accept those sort of super-long commutes, the employers will just give up and move out to The Woodlands.

 
At 8:55 PM, July 08, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

In the 1950s, Melbourne wasn't much bigger than Harris County. It and Houston developed more or less at the same time. In the last ten years they've had about the same population growth. Calgary developed even later than Houston, but decided early on to build arterials and light rail instead of freeways.

 
At 11:10 PM, July 08, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>I just don't see those Woodlands people preferring a train to downtown that nets out to 20-30mph with stops, then a wait and transfer to LRT to Uptown, then a wait and transfer to a circulator bus - at least 1.5+ hours each way - vs. a point-to-point express bus at 65+mph.

Granted - maybe The Woodlands to the Energy Corridor should and always will be served by Express Bus. But The Woodlands or Katy to Downtown or Uptown should ultimately be rail. Preferably some sort of commuter rail that can share tracks with LRT to minimize stops, etc. I'm not a rail expert but I hear these sorts of things can be done - and don't see why we couldn't do it in Houston. Even if tracks couldn't be shared, if you had Katy - Uptown - Downtown and Woodlands - Downton - Med Center lines, for instance, you are talking huge numbers of commuters for whom this service would be of great convenience and a minimal number of stops.

I will agree with you though - I don't want to build crappy rail that will take 1.5 hours to get from the Woodlands to the Med Center. Spend the money and build something that goes 100 mph and stops at Woodlands / IAH / Downtown / Med Center and make the whole trip 40 minutes, and you've got a great service. Connect it to Dallas / Galveston and you've just revolutionized transportation for the entire state.

>>Before they accept those sort of super-long commutes, the employers will just give up and move out to The Woodlands.

Probably not. Companies are very careful about where they move. If they have a central location right now then most likely they are drawing talent from around the entire city. If they choose to move to a suburb they do so at the risk of losing a large portion of their work force for whom the commute will become too long, and who will simply leave the company.

 
At 3:23 PM, July 09, 2010, Anonymous Texas Home Buying Tips said...

Houston is great! I love it here.

 
At 7:51 PM, July 09, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Michael, I think you're conflating commuter and intercity train technologies here. Modern commuter trains run at a top speed between 75 and 100 mph, depending on the distances they're expected to serve. New intercity lines at the Houston-Dallas range are built to run at 220. There's a tradeoff between speed and acceleration. A bullet train would not make a good commuter train; it may be very comfortable to ride in, but it doesn't serve multiple stops well.

The main advantage of modern trains over buses is that they can run more reliably and frequently. Even a low-speed commuter train can average 50 mph, making multiple stops on the way (=higher frequency to each destination). Express trains can be even faster, and can offer timed cross-platform transfers to local trains.

Bear in mind that it's all hypothetical and federal regulations make modernized commuter rail more or less illegal, but technically it's feasible.

 
At 6:54 PM, July 10, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Rereading the commuter pain study press release, I just realized Cox butchered the study even more than I'd thought. The study measured commuter pain as perceived by motorists alone, rather than pedestrians or transit riders.

 

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