Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The real answer to Houston's traffic congestion

The Chronicle editorial board recently argued that light rail is key to combating Houston's traffic congestion problems.  But if you look at the three cities with worse traffic congestion than Houston - DC, Chicago, and LA - they have much more transit, including tons of light rail in LA.  Transit clearly hasn't solved the problem in these cities.  These people aren't stuck in that traffic because they like it - it's because the transit doesn't go where they need to go or isn't timely.  This is especially true with the rise of dispersed job centers in those cities where the trains don't go or don't provide good connectivity to the suburbs where people live.  Let's see, in Houston we have downtown (<7% of jobs), uptown/Galleria, the med center, Greenway, Greenspoint, the Energy Corridor, Ship Channel, and NASA - among others.  If that's not a dispersed set of job centers poorly suited to rail connectivity, then I don't know what is.

It's absurd to argue a light rail network focused inside the 610 Loop is going to do anything to relieve congestion or provide relief to commuters from the vast suburbs outside the loop.  The solution is not doubling down on our multi-billion dollar LRT network, but instead scaling it back (University line only, IMHO) and instead spending the funds on a radical increase in express bus commuter services connecting all suburbs to all job centers with frequent nonstop 60+ mph transit using high-speed HOV/HOT lanes.  Imagine driving to your local suburban transit center (which might just be a mall parking lot) and finding regular, frequent express buses (of all sizes) serving every major job center in Houston.  These buses could have amenities like wifi and laptop trays.  They might even be run by private operators (with subsidized fares) competing on routes, schedule, reliability, service, and amenities.  And after they get to the job center, they can circulate to get you right to your building - no long walks in heat, cold, or rain.  Finally, all of this is a single-seat service without annoying and time-consuming transfers from bus-to-rail or rail-to-bus (or even rail-to-rail).

It's a much more practical solution for a city like Houston, but one that requires innovating 'outside the box' as a transit agency rather than parroting the "more rail" mantra that every other transit agency in the country repeats endlessly.

For more details, see these previous posts:

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34 Comments:

At 8:16 PM, February 08, 2011, Blogger lockmat said...

You're getting better and better and manifesting your thoughts on this. I love it and hope Metro does some real soul searching.

 
At 8:44 PM, February 08, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks! My hope is there will be a moment of enlightenment if Congress kills funding for new rail projects...

 
At 9:45 AM, February 09, 2011, Anonymous Mike3 said...

You measure the success of rail by whether it helps auto traffic. I don't understand this.

The point of rail is not to improve traffic. The point of rail is to give people the option of avoiding traffic.

 
At 9:53 AM, February 09, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Actually, the Chronicle made the original assertion that it would help traffic. But I also point out that cities with more rail transit options actually have worse traffic, meaning that the rail transit is NOT giving them helpful options for avoiding traffic.

 
At 2:22 PM, February 09, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

>>But I also point out that cities with more rail transit options actually have worse traffic, meaning that the rail transit is NOT giving them helpful options for avoiding traffic.

They may have worse traffic, but more people are avoiding this traffic by taking public transportation in these cities. So fewer people care that there is horrible traffic because they can avoid it.

 
At 2:47 PM, February 09, 2011, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Torry,

Here's a very interesting blog posting dissecting "How Houston Commutes". It breaks the city up into its census tracts and then breaks out the modes of commuting utilized by single driver, carpooler, walkers, etc.

http://gregsopinion.com/?p=9995

The analysis is fully complete and the blogger plans on updates based upon new data as it's available.

 
At 3:56 PM, February 09, 2011, Anonymous Martin said...

Tory,

When I lived in DC, I had a pretty "helpful option for avoiding traffic." It was called my Metro stop. I could take it almost anywhere I really wanted to go and thus, gave me a VERY helpful option for avoiding traffic. In Houston, I have no comparable option to avoid traffic and thus, to me, Houston traffic is MUCH worse.

Have you ever lived in a city with a real, comprehensive transit system?

 
At 7:06 PM, February 09, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

DC is a special case in that it not only has a dictatorial Federal govt forcing most of the jobs downtown, it also allocated many billions of Federal tax dollars to build a system for the nation's capital. And yet it's still worthless for serving almost any of the mass of private businesses along the Beltway, thus the insane traffic.

 
At 7:38 PM, February 09, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since Houston is a dispersed, polycentric city, it should consider a transport system that is well-suited to this urban form.
One possibility that is promising is called Personal Rapid Transit or PodCars. There are three market-ready systems currently available, one in the U.K., one in the Masdar eco-city in Abu Dhabi and one in Sweden and S. Korea. Details are provided at http://faculty.washing.edu/jbs/itrans/prtquick.htm Lots more bang for the buck, much more connectivity for far less money.

 
At 4:12 AM, February 10, 2011, Anonymous Mike3 said...

Concerning your point that "cities with more transit options have worse traffic," doesn't every large city in the U.S. have more transit options than Houston? So cities with more transit options have better traffic as well, right?

Case in point: New York. Thrice the size of Houston (metro pop.), more rail, better traffic.

 
At 7:03 AM, February 10, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, and New York developed well before the car with almost all jobs concentrated in central Manhattan - perfect for rail.

 
At 1:58 PM, February 10, 2011, Blogger Alon Levy said...

A dominant CBD should generate more traffic, not less. Much easier to build roads to an edge city with 100,000 jobs than to a CBD with 2,000,000.

Add the TTI's estimate of congestion cost to the estimate of mass transit congestion savings, and New York tops LA for worst traffic - maybe even per capita, I'm not sure.

 
At 1:59 PM, February 10, 2011, Anonymous Mike3 said...

Then take Dallas and Atlanta. Or any of the other cities with less traffic and more rail than Houston.

Btw, almost all jobs in the New York Metro area are NOT in Manhattan, in fact only a fraction are. But if a 20 million metro can get to their jobs with less traffic delay than in 6 million Houston, then maybe it's a model worth emulating?

 
At 4:40 PM, February 10, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

OK, so give me an example of a post WW2, car-era city that has successfully forced most of its jobs into the CBD and built a substantial rail network to support it? (other than the DC example with the heavy hand and money of the Federal govt)

 
At 4:45 PM, February 10, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

BTW, Atlanta and Dallas only have marginally less traffic than Houston, and it's because they have even weaker downtowns with more jobs spread out to the hinterlands - not because of their small and weak rail networks.

We're in a bit of an odd situation in that we've got a strong core city that's held on to a lot of the jobs - thus concentrating our commuter traffic - but they're still spread among multiple centers outside the CBD (TMC, Uptown, Greenway, Ship Channel, etc.), making speedy rail service from the suburbs (without multiple slow transfers) very problematic.

 
At 5:48 PM, February 10, 2011, Blogger Paul said...

I would like to see more competition with private companies. I recall the park n' ride buses years ago having a fixed schedule that simply didn't work for my long hours. I would have loved to take the bus more often.

Fortunately and unfortunately, I've solved the problem for myself--I don't live in Houston anymore LOL.

 
At 6:19 AM, February 11, 2011, Anonymous Mike3 said...

That's not the scenario you set up, Tory. You used the three cities that have more traffic than Houston as examples to prove your point that rail doesn't help traffic, because all three of those cities happen to have rail systems. For some reason, all three of those cities are worthy evidence, but none of the cities with less traffic that have rail are worthy evidence.

No city has most of its jobs in a CBD. Consider all the jobs of a city: all the car mechanics, the dry cleaners, the gas stations, the housekeepers, the yard maintenance, etc., etc. Only a fraction of a city's jobs are even office jobs to begin with.

The point is not to "force jobs" into a CBD, it's to provide an alternative mode of transportation so that employers and commuters who like the idea of getting around the city by something other than cars and buses can do it.

 
At 6:30 AM, February 11, 2011, Anonymous Mike3 said...

Looking at my last post, it sounds more contentious than I intended. But I think you're unfairly dismissing all the cities with rail that have less traffic than Houston, and ignoring the point that rail does not exist to improve car traffic, but to provide an alternate option.

 
At 8:44 AM, February 11, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, I understand that most jobs are not office jobs - but a big chunk of the long-distance commuters at rush hour are. And there's not much you can do about those jobs in any case (they're going to be by car or local bus). NYC has managed to focus over 2 million jobs on the tiny island of Manhattan - perfect for rail. Houston not only has the spread out non-office jobs, but multiple concentrations of office jobs. The only way to effectively serve them is express point-to-point transit.

"The point is not to "force jobs" into a CBD, it's to provide an alternative mode of transportation so that employers and commuters who like the idea of getting around the city by something other than cars and buses can do it."

Actually, that's not the point. The point is to get people from where they live to where they work as fast and efficiently as possible. If express buses can do that faster and more cost effectively than rail, then that's the right answer. Govt is not obligated to provide you a different mode because you don't like the modes they're providing.

 
At 8:46 AM, February 11, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Sorry - my answers are also not meant to be contentious. Just tight on time and wanted to get an answer up.

 
At 10:15 AM, February 11, 2011, Anonymous Mike3 said...

Have you ever thought that maybe our office jobs would be less spread out if we had a convenient rail system to take people downtown? If you admit that car transport is not an optimum way to get people to a central location, you must also concede that our central location is probably not as developed as it would have been if we hadn't gone fifty plus years with car as the only option.

The energy industry, with its large corporations and the large banks they work closely with, naturally lends itself to large masses of employees working in close proximity. The fact that we have over 150,000 office jobs downtown despite having only road transport shows a strong gravity in that direction, which has been hindered by the huge traffic problems created when so many people try to drive and park there.

Government is obligated to provide me the combination of modes that I want it to provide. I'm not ruling out buses, but I like riding trains better than buses. I'm not seeing this as the conservative vs. liberal battle that you are. I just want options.

 
At 1:58 PM, February 11, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> Have you ever thought that maybe our office jobs would be less spread out if we had a convenient rail system to take people downtown?

Unfortunately, history has shown this not to be the case. Even in cities with strong rail to large, concentrated downtowns, those downtowns have lost significant job share to the suburbs over the last few decades.

Our downtown has done well with the park-and-ride system (used by over a third of the employees is the stat I heard). I'd just like to see the same services extended to the other major job centers.

 
At 4:58 PM, February 11, 2011, Blogger Alon Levy said...

There aren't any postwar cities in the US with much rail, other than DC, but there are a bunch in Canada and Australia. Calgary doesn't have most of its jobs downtown, but neither does New York - and Calgary's downtown job share is actually higher than New York's. Calgary got this way by repealing all downtown parking minimums after light rail opened, building over former parking lots, and restricting downtown parking. Houston, with its unusually stringent parking minimums, should go for the deregulatory bits of this plan and not force massive setbacks and parking, especially not at transit-accessible locations.

 
At 5:53 PM, February 11, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I would definitely agree with some parking deregulation. My understanding is that Canada and Australia have a more British system of heavy land-use regulation over whole regions, making it easier to force what they want in terms of rail and jobs/towers/zoning/housing. They can prevent development outside their municipal boundaries, unlike in the US. But that has also lead to extremely high housing costs, esp. in ANZ.

 
At 7:23 PM, February 11, 2011, Anonymous Kevin said...

"Have you ever thought that maybe our office jobs would be less spread out if we had a convenient rail system to take people downtown?"

Wow the "if you build it they will come" case. Such speculative ventures should not be done with public funds.

 
At 8:10 PM, February 13, 2011, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Australia doesn't really have cities the way we think of them. What people think of as a city is a statistical district consisting of a lot of different municipalities - a few comprising the urban core, and a lot of suburban ones. The only major Australian city with a big municipal core is Brisbane; the rest have core municipalities in the 100,000-200,000 population range. The reasoning is that those cities dominate their respective states' populations, so there's no need for any level of government between local community and state.

Canada is different, but its land use regulations are also quite weak, as a result of which there's immense sprawl around Toronto, whose exurbs have growth rates that wouldn't shame the Houston suburbs. Calgary can in principle regulate growth in its municipal borders, but in reality its development pattern is standard Sunbelt, just with transit-friendlier rules downtown and near light rail.

A bigger difference is that planners in Western Canada and Australia built smaller freeway networks than in the US (or Toronto). All these cities have a bunch of arterials, some grade-separated, but very little that's Interstate-grade penetrating the urban core. In Calgary it was a deliberate strategy to reserve corridors for grade-separated arterials with light rail. In the other cities, I don't know.

 
At 5:24 AM, February 15, 2011, Anonymous Mike3 said...

No Kevin, the case is more like, "if the public demands that something should be built, it should be built."

If Tory can argue that those cities that were built in the 19th-century would be less centralized if they had just had cars, I can argue that Houston might be a bit more centralized if we had a rail system.

 
At 9:36 AM, February 16, 2011, Anonymous llrekjjw said...

There might have been some mention of this but I did not find it. Part of the appeal of rail is that it encourages dense development along the lines through permanent and predictable transportation infrastructure. I am not saying that rail is the ultimate and only solution to Houston's traffic problems, it is only one piece of the puzzle and there can be multiple systems/solutions happening at the same time. The rail tickets sold do not pay for the rail lines, but with the possible exception of toll roads, the roads we all drive on do not pay for themselves directly either. The government's role in transportation is always about creating an infrastructure that the private sector will then be able to take advantage of, and my belief is that rail in the already dense inner city will promote further density (5 years out, 20 years out?) that will give our citizens more options like some of the older cities, and will provide an option to sprawl.

People who think that rail can/should drop everybody off at their doorstep do not understand the way it works in an auto-centric city like Houston, but I think that people who are anti-rail are often short sighted in their view for the development of the city.

 
At 4:37 PM, February 16, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Some thoughts on your comment:

- there has been a clear failure of dense development in Midtown along the Main St. line, which everybody strongly expected. If Midtown can't do it, I don't have much hope for the north or east sides.

- the gas tax does cover highways (but not the basic street grid, which is considered a non-optional utility like water and sewer hookups)

- I think the Main + University lines would provide enough opportunities for dense development for decades - IF the market demand is there.

 
At 2:32 PM, February 17, 2011, Blogger Alon Levy said...

The gas tax, collected from all roads, including local streets, covers highways only. If you compare the total gas taxes generated by the traffic on a highway with the total cost of the highway, those particular gas taxes rarely cover even half of the cost.

 
At 9:18 PM, February 20, 2011, Blogger Rail Claimore said...

Tory, with respect to Midtown, the rail line is still only a few years old. It takes a while for development to catch up. That doesn't mean development will happen wherever rail is built (I agree with you on the North Line extension and east-side lines), but the fact that the Main Street line already connects two major business districts with Midtown being the only gap does make it much more likely. A similar phenomenon occurred when MARTA was built in Atlanta. The north line was built as a subway through Midtown, and that area really started developing as a true extension of the CBD a few years after it was built. If you look at where the main skyscraper clusters are in that particular part of the city, they're all in the immediate vicinity of a MARTA station.

The only thing that will keep dense, highrise development from spilling over into Midtown Houston is covenant restrictions and NIMBYism. Otherwise, I can easily see that particular neighborhood as a natural extension of Downtown.

 
At 10:40 PM, February 20, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

It's been *seven* years since it was completed (before the 2004 Super Bowl) - over a decade since it was officially put in motion and the landowners knew what was coming (not to mention a long real estate boom up until 2008), and yet there has been almost no development along it in Midtown nor any announced (to my knowledge). West Midtown (many blocks from the rail line) continues to thrive, but it's like a dead zone near it (with precious few exceptions).

I do think it's a good line with the destinations it connects, but if it can't spur development, I don't give any of the other lines much chance.

 
At 8:55 AM, February 21, 2011, Anonymous Martin said...

Tory,

First off, part of the problem is the bus station. There is a lot of petty crime and problems on that side of Midtown. I've lived in Midtown for some time and I should know. Part of the problem is also there are a lot of abandoned buildings in and around that side of Midtown. The owners do not keep the properly clean and the abandoned buildings become a haven for homeless and drugs. In most other cities, the city would hold the landlord responsible for this and possibly condemn the property. Apparently here the city lacks the political will and the legal mechanisms to take such actions because of the general lassez faire attitude towards the property market here. And finally another reason is because of the minimum parking requirements and other stupid development regulations like set backs. Yes they have waivers but part of what makes a place urban is consistency and you are never going to have a consistent urban environment when the default is a sprawling strip mall. That is the case even on the westside of Midtown.

The point is that the reason we don't have as much TOD development in Houston along the rail line like pretty every other major city in the country is because of Houston. The problem is regulations (too lax in some cases and too strict in others), and the particular quirks of a city that has been ignored for decades and decades in favor of sprawl. It has absolutely nothing to do with rail transportation in general.

 
At 8:22 PM, February 21, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

>>I do think it's a good line with the destinations it connects, but if it can't spur development, I don't give any of the other lines much chance.

I don't know if it has exactly spurred development in Downtown and the Medical Center, but those areas haven't been hurting for lack of new construction. And seems like many people in the Med Center use the rail lines. It seems awfully difficult to say that there is a direct correlation between the improved transportation and increased construction, but definitely seems to be some correlation IMHO.

And if you had the same attitude about highways you'd have been saying that the SE quadrant of Beltway 8 and I-10 was underutilized and underdeveloped for what - decades? Look at that area now though.

Also, as with highways, the value of the rail network increases exponentially as the network size increases. So it is difficult to judge things based on one starter line. That would be the equivalent of Houston having 8 miles of I-10 going through downtown connected to nothing else.

 

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