Monday, February 27, 2012

Fixing U.S. transportation, top rankings, how the poor commute, and more

Time again to catch up on the smaller items:
  1. Let users pay
  2. Implement congestion pricing
  3. De-federalize transportation spending
  4. Institutionalize maintenance funding
  5. Promote public-private partnerships
  6. Split up the NYC Port Authority
  7. Cherish the bus
That last one is my favorite. The excerpt:
"CHERISH THE BUS: There is an old joke that 40 years of transportation economics at Harvard can be boiled down to four words: “Bus Good, Train Bad.” The many advantages of the bus were first illustrated in the classic text, “The Urban Transportation Problem,” by John Meyer, John Kain and Martin Wohl. (Meyer and Kain were both mentors of mine). Buses are flexible, cheap and can move almost as fast as urban trains if they operate on a dedicated road or a private tunnel. Perhaps the most positive transport innovation of the past decade has been the enormous competition of private buses plying the roads of the Eastern Seaboard.
Cars can’t be the only answer for urban commuters, especially for poorer Americans during an era of high gas prices. Buses can be a pleasant alternative, with televisions and Wi-Fi connectivity. Buses can move quickly if they are given enough space to drive. Instead of chasing the quixotic dream of high-speed rail in Texas, public-transit aficionados should start agitating for better bus service, with plenty of private competition."
Houston increased its number of private-sector jobs by more than 230,000 between 2001 and 2011 — 75,000 more jobs than any other U.S. city’s increase.
“Everyone is looking at Texas for opportunities, quality of life and affordability, and Houston is off the charts for every one of those items.”
Finally, I thought we'd end with a little humor I picked up from the City of Houston Planning and Development department's Facebook feed:

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, February 20, 2012

Metro, please fix the HOV pricing and hours

This has been a long time in coming.  The first HOV to HOT conversion has opened on 45S, allowing single-occupant vehicles to pay more to join the buses, vans, and HOV cars in the underutilized lane.  The other HOV lanes will make the same conversion over the next year.  This is a fantastic amenity for the city.  Yes, few people will want to lay out the money on daily basis, but at least you will have the option to use it when you really need it: to catch a flight, to pick up your child before late fees kick in, to attend an important meeting or event when you're running late - whatever.

The other benefit: top executives at downtown firms who can afford the high tolls will feel better about keeping their companies downtown, instead of pulling an Exxon and consolidating everything to a far suburban campus.  That keeps Houston's core, and tax base, healthier.

But there is a major flaw:
Inbound lanes will be available to solo drivers Monday through Friday, between 5 a.m. and 11 a.m., except for the 7-8 a.m. hour when the lanes will remain open only to drivers with passengers due to anticipated heavy congestion, Metro said. 
Outbound HOT lanes will be available weekdays from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., except between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Solo drivers who try to avoid paying the HOT lane toll face a $75 penalty. Single drivers who use HOT lanes when designated for HOV use only will be issued a citation and required to appear in court. The current fine is $170.
This is a major problem.  First, it removes the option right when people might most need it at the peak of rush hour.  Second, it just pisses off the previously mentioned executives, pretty much on a daily basis.  Third, if you're running a few minutes late around 7am/4pm (or a few minutes early around 8am/6pm), you just went from a $4.50 toll to a $170 ticket and a court date!  That's just vicious.  I understand capacity is tight at those hours, but why not just price it appropriately to keep demand down, even if that's $20 each way?  $20 will certainly sting if I miss my timing, but it's a heck of a lot better than $170 citation and a court date.  And just wait until the first accidents happen as people slam on their brakes - or even back up! - to avoid entering the lanes when they're closed (not unlike what happened at the red-light camera intersections).

Metro, you've got a great thing going here.  Just tweak the hours/pricing a little bit and you've got a home run.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, February 13, 2012

Pros and cons of city-county consolidation

The Urbanophile recently had an interesting post on the pros and cons of city-county consolidation, or, as he prefers to put it, "big box" vs. "small box" municipal government.  This is particularly relevant to Houston because of the talk from time to time about Harris County vs. the City of Houston.  Here's his opening:
I haven’t read all the academic literature on city-county consolidations, so won’t make any strong claims about the benefits its promoters have touted. But I will make two observations. One, I’m not aware of any city that has gone through a city-county consolidation that has become a civic failure, or which has a severely under-performing region. Most of the ones I’m familiar with seem to be doing ok or better. Two, if you look at the Midwest region, the metros that are doing well almost all feature a core city that either underwent a consolidation or has managed to maintain its ability to annex new territory (certainly this has been a benefit for Houston over its history). Minneapolis-St. Paul is an exception, but it has regional revenue sharing. (Landlocked and unconsolidated Chicago has a thriving core, but the regional numbers are lagging). So my gut tells me that big box solutions at a minimum don’t hurt and probably have some benefit to a region. 
But they do come with downsides, and one of them is that it can make neighborhood redevelopment more difficult. The root of the problem is that with a single city covering a large area, there is only one mayor, one city council, etc. These have a large area to concern themselves with and cannot physically devote significant time and attention to each neighborhood. They inevitably spend most of their time dealing with the biggest and most visible challenges, which often means downtown development issues.
Houston's solution to this issue has been the creation of independent management districts to focus on improving specific districts like Uptown, Upper Kirby, TMC, Midtown, Downtown, and many more.  We also have smaller city council districts and the super-neighborhoods to help with this issue.

His case study is Indianapolis, specifically two neighborhoods, Midtown (part of Indy) and Bexley (its own city, like West U or Bellaire).  Some key observations:
[Bexley] This keeps land prices high, which preserves a largely affluent and exclusive resident base. This has pros and cons. Of course it means the city can be kept nicer. But it also denies the experience of that to those who can’t buy in. And the overall regional tax base misses out on one of its most affluent areas. This is the problem of all upscale suburbs. Midtown, Indianapolis, whatever its faults, has many well-off homeowners who pay significant money towards the broader community, including the city schools. And it is a much more mixed income area. 
Bexley also has its own municipal authority, while Midtown does not, with the implications discussed above. 
But another thing occurs to me. Because Midtown is part of a much larger city, it suffers from the problem of a diffusion of responsibility. That is, it can assume the rest of the city will carry the load in some respects. This manifests itself in a strong anti-development NIMBY contingent that is opposed to urbanization. Any proposed development of any kind is greeted by wailing and teeth-gnashing by opponents, who’ve been known to do things like pull their kids out of school to serve as props at mid-day zoning hearings where commissioners are told neighborhood kids will literally die if new apartments are approved. 
I don’t know what the sentiment is in Bexley, but they’ve certainly implemented more actual urbanization than Midtown. I suspect one reason is that Bexley knows it has only its own tax base to rely on. If its residents want to keep quality schools, they can either approve more commercial and intense development, or watch their residential property taxes go up significantly over time. That focuses the mind wonderfully
So I also hypothesize that in addition to making redevelopment more difficult for reasons of the structure of government, big box government also inculcates an anti-development mindset to a greater degree than small box government.
Houston seems to have mostly avoided the NIMBY mindset, Ashby high-rise and a few other projects aside, of course.  I think the lack of zoning and its associated bureaucracy and process has helped a lot here.  There's no easy way for NIMBYs to fight a development in Houston.  I actually think NIMBY-ism is a bigger issue here in the smaller cities like West U, Bellaire, and the Villages.

His conclusion sums it up nicely:
I think the lesson here is that there are always, always trade offs to be made in governance. The trick is to understand the trade-offs you are making and take steps to try to mitigate the inherent problems with the model your city and region operate in. 
Based on this and the previous post, we might say at high level that for big box government, the pros are stronger civic consensus and cohesion, generally stronger regional and downtown growth, a fairer tax base, and a general lack of totally failed central cities and suburbs. The cons are a weaker city neighborhoods, redevelopment challenges outside of downtown, weaker urban identity, and lower quality development. 
For small box government is is basically the inverse of this. The pros are a strong central city and urban identity, higher quality development, more redevelopment opportunities. The downsides are civic fragmentation and lack of consensus, the potential for a failed central city, some failed suburbs, and possibly weaker downtown growth.
I think we have a good balance here.  We have a large, strong, dominant central city, but also many smaller cities to compete as well as the unincorporated county areas around it, not to mention the benefits of the management districts.  Dallas may be starting to tip in the wrong direction, with the City of Dallas representing an ever-smaller part of the DFW metro (in population, tax base, jobs, and power).  My impression is that Austin and San Antonio are more trying to follow the Houston model and avoid being landlocked by suburban cities.

I don't sense any appetite for merging Harris County and the CoH, but there is still the issue County Judge Emmett raised about what to do with the now very large northwestern suburbs in the unincorporated county.  Form a separate city?  Have Houston annex them?  Keep them as they are?  BTW, keep in mind that Harris County now has almost as many people outside of the City of Houston as inside of it.

You can read one of my older posts on the pros and cons of Harris County-City of Houston consolidation here.

Labels: ,

Monday, February 06, 2012

Selling trees, LA traffic tech, best performing city, diversity shifts, and the best USA map ever

It's another week of smaller items:
"Repeated studies since the 1990s have found that travel times fall by 15% near connected signals and motorists make 20% to 30% fewer stops, massive improvements for a cost of about $150,000 per intersection."
"The Milken Institute's annual survey of Best-Performing Cities reveals that, for the second year in a row, other states can't mess with Texas.
San Antonio led the list of 200 large metro areas, and Houston was first among the 10 biggest. In fact, Texas metros occupied four of the Top 5 positions (vs. three last year), and nine of the Top 25 (vs. 11 in 2010)."
  • From New Geography: "Houston, the nation’s energy capital, has enjoyed the fastest growth in per-capita income in the past decade. No reason to expect this to slow down much this year."
"Houston's total personal income (TPI) grew at an annual rate of 5.69 percent between 2000 and 2010. That was the fastest pace set by any of America's 75 major metros, according to an On Numbers analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis."
  • Some cool maps from Aaron Renn showing the shifting diversity of the country. Relative to the rest of the country, Houston has been losing proportional Black and Hispanic population concentration, and gaining Asian population concentration and children. Sort of surprising (this was in the decade of the Katrina evacuation of New Orleans).  Obviously we're gaining tons of population overall, it's just that Black and Hispanic population concentrations have grown nationally faster than they have in the Houston metro.  
  • Federal rules are getting a little more logical for funding mass transit. Hat tip to Nathan.

    "Transit projects should be built where it’s cheapest to serve the most riders. This principle can and should stand on its own."
    Finally, check out the coolest USA map ever created. A guy spent a solid two years full-time making it.  Highly recommended, especially if you have children and you want them to learn some geography. I ordered two, including one as a gift (you can buy it here). Just got it up on my wall yesterday, and it looks amazing. Just beautiful.

    Labels: , , , , , , , ,