Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How the new Apple iPad (and other mobile tech) changes the commuting equation

Apple's much anticipated iPad tablet computer was announced today, albeit to some mixed reviews. While the iPad itself may or may not succeed, the overall technology trend line is clear: increasingly rich mobile access to the Internet and email. Oddly, this Business Week columnist thinks the iPad may lead to more telecommuting, when what it really favors is tipping the balance for commuters from driving to transit, where the usually "dead" commuting time can become really productive. Most people are already spending more than two hours a day on email and the Internet - why not put those hours at the beginning and end of the day while commuting so you can spend less time in the office and more time with your family?

A decade ago, the workplace was much more call and voice-mail driven, which matched up just fine with long driving commutes and cell phones. But the shift has moved strongly towards email and other data-driven communications (texting, Twitter, Facebook, collaboration applications, etc.). Most messages have multiple recipients and can expect to have a string of replies - something voice mail simply can't handle. People are trying to do this data-driven communication while driving, with very bad effects that are leading rapidly to a comprehensive legal ban.

As more people realize the productivity advantage of a transit commute, I think there could be a substantial shift. But it might not be quite what you'd expect. Mobile productivity favors one long ride in a comfortable seat - no transfers, no standing 'strap-hanging' (like on a subway or full light rail or local bus), and minimal walking (which is not only incompatible with mobile productivity, but also has weather risk and is especially hard on women in heels). That argues for express buses over trains. I recently met with a friend that lives in Manhattan but works in Connecticut. Does he take the subway and then ride the train? Nope - a luxury shuttle bus with wi-fi picks him (and the other Manhattan employees) up right near his apartment and drops him at the front door of work. Point-to-point express buses are the future of commuting. All you need are a couple dozen people that need to get from the same neighborhood to the same job cluster on roughly a similar schedule to justify a daily round trip - and they can all be productive the whole way, whether through individual 3G data connections on their devices or wi-fi on the bus (by far the cheapest option).

While the climate-concerned may cheer increased transit use, an ironic side effect may actually be increased sprawl. When commuting is truly unproductive time, as driving is, people really hesitate for it to be more than an hour a day, which puts a pretty hard limit on how far home can be from work. But if you can be productive on a bus doing work you'd have to do anyway, you might consider two or more hours a day commuting (as my Manhattan friend does) and look at exurban communities you wouldn't have even considered before, especially if they have more affordable or newer houses with better amenities and public schools.

This is the commute of the future, and cities that offer it conveniently, affordably, and comprehensively (all neighborhoods to all job centers) through some combination of public transit, private buses, and HOT lanes will continue to grow and thrive in the coming decades, while those that don't, won't.

Update: They picked this one up over at New Geography.
Update 2: A NYT story on Google's commuter buses.
Update 3: The Human Transit blog has thoughts, and the comment stream is excellent.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The power of congestion pricing and bus rapid transit

I recently received an email from John of NY with a couple of book micro-reviews that make some really good points, so I thought I'd pass it along with his permission. The power of congestion-priced toll lanes to move so many more cars is a particular eye-opener:
I have read the book Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive Twenty-first Century by Sam Staley and Adrian Moore that I mentioned back in November as well as a book put out a few years ago called 21st Century Highways: Innovative Solutions to America's Transportation Needs by Wendell Cox, Alan Pisarski and Ronald Utt. Staley and Moore's book Mobility First was an excellent read! I am sure you will really like it. I can assure you that these authors are very much on the same page as you and I.

They argue for more limited access highway capacity and the use of variable tolling (where the toll increase as use increases) and electronic toll collection ("open road tolling") both to generate revenue for building and maintaining new capacity and to control excess traffic loads. Indeed, they cite a very interesting statistic involving the use of variable tolling on the SR 91 Freeway in Southern California. That roadway, which I personally traveled on back in 1997, has 4 or 5 free lanes and two variable toll lanes on the far left side in each direction. According to the statistic they cited, the two variable-priced toll lanes (which are rarely congested) move as many cars in a day as the 4 or 5 free and often congested lanes. If these statistics are even remotely accurate, it makes a whole lot of sense to use variable tolling whenever new capacity is added.

They also advocate improvements in boulevards and other arterial roadways. These improvements include synchronizing traffic lights and building underpasses or overpasses to move traffic nonstop through major intersections. There whole point is to increase the traffic speed and, hence, the mobility for those who use arterial roads.

They also argue that rail mass transit (including light rail) makes very little sense outside of New York City's Boro of Manhattan and a few other very densely populated places. They argue for expanded Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) which is much cheaper, and more flexible and which can be easily combined with express toll lanes and other improvements for cars. Indeed, the book suggests that your skepticism about much of Houston's proposed light rail system is very well-founded. It would seem that BRT should be used instead, as you have suggested. The book was particularly tough on light-rail - which is very much favored by anti-car elites. The authors suggest that light rail in many ways combines the worst both both bus and rail transit. It is inflexible and often quite expensive, like a new rail line, and it is often slow like traditional bus service, particularly where the light rail line must use public streets (as most light rail systems do at least part of the time).

The book 21st Century Highways, which came out in 2005, reaches many of the same basic conclusions as Mobility First. This book was published under the auspices of the Heritage Foundation think tank based in Washington D.C. To me, this book's most valuable contribution is historical context. It provides an interesting history of highway building in America. In particular, it takes a detailed look at the Federal government's role in highway building and transit funding from before the interstate system right up until about 2004. It makes the important observation that mass transit is not underfunded. Indeed, it is overfunded. Over 20 percent of federal "highway" spending now goes to mass transit projects, even though only about 2 percent of all transportation trips involve the use of mass transit, while over 90 percent involve the automobile.
Which creates its own warped incentives (solution here).

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

A couple of events this week

Just want to pass along a couple of event announcements for those who might be interested.

The first is a personal one: Bob Sanborn of Children at Risk has asked me to co-host his KPFT radio show from 3 to 4pm on Monday Jan 18th. The theme is 2010 predictions, and here are some of the topics:
“Light Rail – Is it good for our children?”

Bob - For
Tory – Against (I was assigned this position, even though I have a mixed opinion. Nonetheless, Bob should fear me... ;-)

1. Environment Predictions
2. Health: Impact of Obama’s new health bill
3. Arts: Predictions for Best Picture of the year
4. Politics
  • a. When will Texas go blue?
  • b. Governor’s Race
  • c. House of Rep/Congress
  • d. Leading Republican Candidate against Obama
5. Education: Superintendent
6. Sports?
You can listen live at 90.1FM or find it online afterward in the KPFT archives here.

The second event is a symposium and indicator "report card" release on air quality, parks and trails, and trees by the Center for Houston's Future on Wednesday morning Jan 20th at the GRB. Details here, including registration.
This year’s report focuses on Air Quality, Parks and Trails and Trees. Its results span a 10-year period that gives a more accurate picture of the region’s quality of place, and its improvement or lack thereof, over time. A chapter on the health implications of these changes has also been added to better illustrate how these indicators affect our everyday lives. In light of the Obama Administration yesterday releasing new EPA limits, the air quality piece in the report may be of particular interest.

Panelists at this important Symposium include experts in air quality, parks and trails, and trees, as well as public health experts who will discuss the implications of these Indicators on the well-being of the region’s residents.

Keynote Speakers include Kathleen Wolf, Ph. D., a Research Social Scientist and Professor at the University of Washington, and Larry R. Soward, a former TCEQ Commissioner who, until last year, was known for his efforts to balance environmental concerns with business objectives. He will speak about the challenges our region faces and the commitment required to improve. Dr.Wolf will speak to the social and economic benefits of these indicators, including the competitive edge that they provide to our region.
Hope to see you there!

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Houston accolades, transit crises, worst-run city, happy TX, and more

First, let me apologize for the inconsistent posting over the last month or so. It's been crazy-busy, and not just because of the holidays either. I've decided to cut back blog posting to once a week (from twice/week now) for the indefinite future. If things lighten up again, or if I find I suddenly have more to say, I'll go back to twice a week. Hopefully this will also allow me to put a little more time into each post and write up more of the 'big idea' essays I have in mind, but take a serious time commitment to generate.

On to the backlog of smaller items:
"By contrast, in cities such as Houston and Hong Kong the skylines are not the cause of their economic prosperity, but merely the most visible manifestation of it. That's a prosperity that has been built over the years on the basis of those old reliables: economic freedom, the rule of law, hard work and sound management. Without these, nations and cities alike build on nothing but foundations of sand."
Hat tip to James.
Public-Transit Passengers Face Rough Ride
Agencies Nationwide Raise Fares, Cut Service as Budget Pressures Mount;
In Chicago, 'Less Frequent, More Crowded Service'
The city's ineptitude is no secret. "I have never heard anyone, even among liberals, say, 'If only [our city] could be run like San Francisco,'" says urbanologist Joel Kotkin. "Even other liberal places wouldn't put up with the degree of dysfunction they have in San Francisco. In Houston, the exact opposite of San Francisco, I assume you'd get shot."

Hat tip to James.
But the election of Annise Parker in Houston makes clear that the Charlottes and Houstons are now at the forefront of American political change, while the shrinking and declining big cities of the Northeast and Rust Belt are bringing up the rear.

"Houston is your post-racial, post-ethnic future of America," said demographer Joel Kotkin. "It's a leading-edge place."
  • In case you didn't see it, Texas is again tops in population growth. Hat tip to Anthony.
  • If this study is to be believed, Texas is the 15th happiest state. Not bad when you note some of the heavy hitters at the bottom of the list: NY, MI, CA, NJ, IL, MA. We also beat out some pretty nice trendy states like Colorado and Oregon. But if Louisiana is the nation's happiest state, how come I see so many of their license plates in Houston?
  • Houston's economy looks good for 2010. Hat tip to Jessie.

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

2009 Highlights

It's time for the Fall 4Q09 quarterly highlights post, which also sums up all of 2009 (if you've been outside recently, then you clearly understand that we are now officially in the 'Holy Crap It's A Cold Winter!' quarter). These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument.

Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly twice/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box in the right sidebar. An RSS feed link (Atom) (or RSS 2.0) is also available. As always, thanks for your readership.

And from Summer 3Q09:

Spring 2Q09:

Winter 1Q09:

And don't forget the highlights from the first four years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging).