Tuesday, August 24, 2010

HSR, TX growth, help bring a Space Shuttle to Houston, and more

Another week to clear out some smaller items:
"Based on our comprehensive review of possible locations, Victoria's proximity to our supply base, access to ports and other transportation, as well as the positive business climate in Texas, made this the ideal site for this project," Gary Stampanato, Caterpillar vice president for excavators, said in a statement. 
The Victoria plant is Caterpillar's second major recent investment in Texas. The company moved its engine-manufacturing operations to a new plant near San Antonio early this year from Illinois.

Finally, a plea to help support Houston, and it'll only take a minute of your time:

     Help Bring a Space Shuttle to Houston!

When NASA retires the Space Shuttles next year the three orbiters will be decommissioned and placed on permanent display at selected museums or science centers across the United States. The competition is stiff. We know that one will go to the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar Hazy Center thereby leaving only two vehicles for the more than 15 locations, including Space Center Houston, that are vying for an Orbiter. Time is of the essence; your help influencing key decision makers is immediately needed. You can support Space Center Houston’s acquisition initiative by visiting www.bringtheshuttlehome.com . Here, you can send a letter to your congressmen, senators and President Barack Obama urging them to select Space Center Houston to receive a retired Space Shuttle. Let them know, the right home for one of these orbiters is the very epicenter of human spaceflight – Houston, Texas. Let all of your friends and family know about Space Center Houston's effort.  Letters from outside of Houston are very important too.  It shows that there is broad support for the effort.  We expect the decision to be made very soon so please send your letters today.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Houston's first official jitney service growing fast

I was recently able to have lunch with fellow Rice alum Lauren Barrash to talk about her rapidly growing jitney transit service, The Wave.  What started as a small shuttle service for nightlife on Washington Avenue has grown to multiple shuttles now serving the Heights and Midtown, with downtown shuttle service coming soon - all with Metro's full blessing and permitted by the city's brand new jitney ordinance.  There are plans to expand to Montrose, Shepherd, and Kirby - and even Austin and Dallas (not from here - intra-city, not inter-city).  She is proving that private transit can work, at least in selected niches.

Here are some of their details that I think readers of this blog would find interesting:
The Wave is a high quality, fixed route, fixed rate, permitted jitney service running within the Washington Corridor, Midtown and the Heights, connecting people and places, while helping to resolve theses area’s immediate & critical needs. The Wave promotes ease of movement, encourages transit use and enhances existing public transportation systems, while also helping to reduce congestion and improve public safety. The Wave improves Houstonian’s quality of life by connecting people and places with reliable, safe, and easy-to-use travel choices that reduce congestion and energy use, save money, and promote sustainability, healthier lifestyles, and a more environmentally responsible community.
But what is a jitney everyone asks. Wikipedia definitions below:
“A jitney is a North American English term which originally referred to a livery vehicle intermediate between a taxi and a bus.  It is generally a small-capacity vehicle that follows a rough service route, but can go slightly out of its way to pick up and drop off passengers. In many U.S. cities (e.g. Pittsburgh and Detroit), the term jitney refers to an unlicensed taxi cab.”
“The name jitney comes from an archaic, colloquial term for a five-cent piece in the US. The common fare for the service when it first came into use was five cents, so the five-cent cab or jitney cab came to be known for the price charged.”
How Houston defines a jitney:
Houston Code of Ordinances, Chapter 46, Article VI defines a jitney as: “a motorized passenger vehicle having a manufacturer's rated seating capacity of not less than nine nor more than 15 persons including the driver, that is operated upon a closed loop route following specified streets and highways in a specified direction, and is operated without a fixed schedule, carrying passengers from place to place in exchange for a fee.” (as of August 12, 2010)
Business Model
The Wave is a locally owned, private, officially permitted “jitney” shuttle company created to enhance the economic urban development within Houston. Most are surprised to hear about our rapid growth in such a short period of time, as changing Houstonians perception of public transit is quite the challenge.
There are several forces that indicate that The Wave & its services are a necessity:
  • Explosion of development - several new bars, restaurants, retail stores, gyms, and other businesses have already opened in the last couple of years and many more are already in the planning stages 
  • Increased daily traffic volumes - with all the new activity, comes an increase in visitors to this area, making parking and traffic challenging to both residents & visitors 
  • Public safety - many of the establishments in the Washington Corridor serve alcohol and are open late, increasing the number of drivers on the road who have potentially consumed alcohol in this area, thereby increasing the risk of accidents, injuries, and deaths
  • Quality of Life - for the near 44,000 residents of these neighborhoods, the jitney services would serve as a much more economical and efficient mode of transportation than their current personal transportation options, thereby making  the entire area easily accessible to them
  • Current transportation issues - The Metropolitan Transit Authority bus system currently does not have late night service in this area & this demographic are not typically public transit users in this city, cab service is not a viable option for these short distances 
  • Residential parking permits - residents of Super Neighborhood 22 on 3 blocks North and 3 blocks South have been issued permits for their cars & guests in an attempt to reserve the street parking for the area home owners and residents, thus limiting the number of patrons of the Washington Cooridor who can park on the street 
  • Pending parking changes along Washington Ave - thus limiting the amount of time and time of day/night patrons of these businesses can park 
  • Pending valet ordinance - giving less viable parking spots for this service
The Wave resolves most of these issues with our expansive parking lots, a taxi stand in one of our parking lot, and shuttle service from the parking lot.  
Lauren's creating a great asset for Houston.  Please give it your support, and be sure to tell your friends (or even charter them for special events).  Facebook users can start by Liking their Facebook page.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Is best-of-both-worlds Houston pulling away from competitor cities?

Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) has a fascinating piece over at New Geography titled "Civic Choices: The Quality vs. Quantity Dilemma".  'Quality cities' like Boston, NYC, SF, LA, DC, etc. focus on elite populations and jobs at the expense of affordability or any broad job or population growth.  In fact, their overall job growth is usually negative.  'Quantity cities' like Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Houston, etc. focus more on broader middle-class growth and affordability.  The article contains two very interesting tables of statistics on these cities.  A couple of observations that jump out at me from the first table on Quality cities:
  • Does Portland's decade of 15.8% population growth with essentially zero job growth mean they just added a bunch of unemployed slackers?  Atlanta seems to be in even worse shape, with 28% population growth but no new jobs.  What are these people doing?
  • The federal government continues to consume ever-greater portions of the economy by creating tens of thousands of jobs in DC and paying them whatever tax dollars are required to cover the high cost of living, allowing DC to buck the market-driven slow-growth of peer cities.  As an aside, has anybody noticed that government jobs have shifted from low-paying but secure to high-paying, high-benefit (roughly 2x the private sector), and still just as secure?  Nice work if you can get it, but I'm not sure it's a good indicator for the country as a whole. (Update: "Federal workers earning double their private counterparts" - USA Today, hat tip to kjb)
But the more interesting table to me is the second one on Quantity cities (Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Nashville, Orlando, Phoenix, Raleigh, Salt Lake City), which indicates that Houston is pulling away from similar competitor cities like Atlanta and Dallas in key ways:
  • At 114%, Houston has the highest per capita income of the Quantity cities relative to the U.S. average.  All of the others except for Dallas are below the national average.  We're also ahead of Quality cities Chicago, LA, Miami, and Portland.
  • We're also in the top 3 for GDP per capita ($49K), and, again, actually ahead of Quality cities Chicago, LA, Miami, and Portland.
  • Houston is the only city in the group where average income continued to grow faster than the U.S. average over the last decade.
  • Our job growth over the decade (12.6%) is just behind Raleigh (14.1%) and Austin (12.7%), but well ahead of our peer group mega-metros Atlanta (0.5%) and DFW (3.7%), as well as all of the Quality cities.
Summing up, you could say that Houston has the stats to actually qualify for both tables, with the per capita GDP and income to qualify as a Quality city, but with the affordability, population, and job growth of a Quantity city - the best of both worlds.  No wonder we're winning so many awards and rankings.  Not a bad place to be...

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Thursday, August 05, 2010

More raves for Houston, Jane Jacobs re-think, buses vs. rail, and more

Sorry for the late post this week.  I was doing a little traveling to the Hill Country.  Just a few small items.
  • Interesting transit concept from China: tall buses (trains?) that allow cars to travel underneath them.  Creative concept for very tight rights-of-way, but I think the number of accidents would be astronomical as cars accidentally merge into or collide with the moving supports - esp. at cross streets or exits, or anytime the road is wider than 2 lanes.  It seems like you might as well just put an elevated bus/railway over the road.  Hat tip to Chris.
  • Kiplinger says Houston is one of 10 great cities for young adults.  Of course Austin is on it too, but for those of you keeping score on in-state rivalries: no Dallas (but to even things out, Forbes says their football team is worth more).  Somebody pointed out on HAIF that it's amusing that Austin has reasonable commutes at 23 minutes, but Houston has bad traffic and commutes at 26 minutes.  3 minutes makes all the difference.  Here's their blurb on Houston:
Metro population: 5,867,489 
Cost-of-living index: 91
Median monthly rent: $775 (average is $819)
Average annual wage: $41,074
Unemployment rate: 8.3%
Percentage of Gen Y residents: 23.9%
Top employers: Wal-Mart Stores, Memorial Hermann Healthcare System, Administaff, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Continental Airlines, Kroger, Exxon Mobil
Like its rival Austin, Houston offers great job prospects and exciting big-city amenities at a price so low, even struggling grads can afford it. Diversity is one of its unsung strengths. More than a million of Houston's inhabitants were born outside of the U.S. H-Town's economy is varied as well: The city has strong energy, manufacturing, aeronautics, transportation and healthcare sectors, and 25 Fortune 500 companies have headquarters here.
PROS: A small-town cost of living in the country's fourth-largest city, rents well below the national average, one of the country's best restaurant scenes, vibrant nightlife, an hour from Gulf Coast beaches
CONS: Oppressive heat and humidity, infamous bumper-to-bumper traffic (the average commute will last 26 minutes), heavy air pollution, a crime rate well above the national average
"...the Greenwich Village she held out as a model for city life has become some of the highest-priced real estate in New York City—it's no longer the diverse, yeasty enclave she treasured. Ultimately, many of the policies she advocated blocked real-estate development—causing prices of existing housing stock to rise and pricing out all but the wealthiest residents."
Discovery Green also gets a (positive) mention. My own thoughts on re-thinking Jane Jacobs for the modern city built around the car can be found here and here.
"Too many American transit enthusiasts, especially outside our largest cities, harbor a deep hostility to buses for some reasons. There’s been an interesting alliance for light rail between transit advocates who pooh-pooh buses and the traditional rent seeking interests that brought us things like many local stadium boondoggles. Especially for smaller cities, light rail is, like pro sports teams, just another accoutrement of the “big league city” that they need to have in order prove they are one."
 Can I get a "Hallelujah!"?...

In that context, I'll repeat the FTA administrator's quote from last week's post:
“One [simple truth] is this—paint is cheap, rail systems are extremely expensive. Yes, transit riders often want to go by rail. But it turns out you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a ‘special’ bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.” In addition, once you have the special buses, consider busways: “Take that paint can and paint a designated bus lane on the street system. Throw in signal preemption, and you can move a lot of people at very little cost compared to rail.”

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