Sunday, January 31, 2016

Opportunity over inequality, Vision Zero, policing for mental health, peak transit, and more

Several items to get to this week, but first I'd like to highlight this excellent piece (alternate link) by fellow, uh, Fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, Anne Snyder.  Fantastic and emotionally powerful story that Harris County and the City of Houston can definitely learn from (please pass it along if you know any relevant people).

Policing With Velvet Gloves
This is the story of how San Antonio’s police department helped divert 100,000 people away from jail and ERs, and moved them into mental-health treatment—one 911 call at a time.

Moving on to this week's items:
"If you have a population increase and you don’t increase housing, people will get pushed out," says Beyer. “If Miami decides to get tight on its land use regulations like New York, then Miami will have the same problems. Right now, regulatory burdens and the process of getting new buildings in New York approved is so lengthy that it doubles the cost of a unit. Consider Houston. Houston has a faster growing population than New York City and San Francisco, but it’s affordable because they have rapid construction rates.”
I finally got to read the new Vision Zero plan, and here are my thoughts: Do I support improved safety and think there's a lot of room for improvement? Absolutely. Do I want a city of 25mph speed limits, road humps everywhere, and police pulled from real crime to writing streams of traffic tickets? Absolutely not.  The problem lies where the safety goals gets mixed up with the anti-car vision of many urbanists - "if we can just make driving a car painful enough, people will be forced into density and transit" - as articulated here.  Improved safety is great, but we can’t co-opt peoples’ real mobility and economic productivity.

What would my #1 solution to traffic safety be? It would be at the federal level: require all new cars to require a breathalyzer test to start after 10pm at night, when the vast majority of drunk driving accidents happen (these sensors can be very low cost at scale).  But it's also probably less than 1-2% of total trips, so most people most of the time would not have to use it.  And I know this is unpopular and politically impossible, but I'd also support bringing the red light cameras back to reduce intersection collisions, which are some of the most dangerous (but only to enforce intersection crossings, not right turns on red where there is a lot more room for judgement on turning safely).

My final item is a response to Chris Tomlinson's column in the Chronicle questioning Houston's reputation as a city of opportunity:  I think a few things are getting mixed up here.  Houston has high inequality because we have high-paying industry clusters like energy and medical, as opposed to a more average big city like Phoenix or Tampa.  That's most definitely a good thing - if we lost those industries, that would certainly be a bad thing, but inequality would drop.  We also haven't driven out the poor by making housing unaffordable - like the coastal cities - so our inequality stats will look relatively worse.

What makes Houston a city of opportunity is not low inequality, but 1) having a ladder of middle class and working class jobs, including industrial and manufacturing ones - as opposed to coastal cities that tend to be a barbel between high paying jobs and low paying service jobs with nothing in the middle, and 2) having affordable housing, so a middle and working class family can afford a home and build equity, as opposed to being lifetime renters (like, again, the expensive coastal cities).  The question is not "does Houston have a lot of poor people?" - we absolutely do, because opportunity cities attract the poor who want to move up, especially immigrant populations - but "do they do well and move up once they're here?"  Based on Klinberg's Houston Area Survey's consistently high scoring optimism around working hard and doing well in Houston, I'd say we do well on that score - the residents certainly seem to think so.

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At 10:22 AM, February 03, 2016, Anonymous Mike said...

Do you think we should slow down our road spending in anticipation of self-driving taxis in 5-10 years?

At 11:32 AM, February 03, 2016, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I don't think so. Reduce parking requirements, yes, but self-driving taxis may actually increase trips. Hopefully they will mostly carry multiple passengers on linked trips (like UberPool) to reduce overall traffic, but I don't think we can know that yet.

At 1:24 PM, February 03, 2016, Anonymous Mike said...

So if overall traffic doesn't decrease (and may actually increase), doesn't it still make sense to build rail? The point of rail being to get us out of traffic...

At 1:28 PM, February 03, 2016, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That's where the MaX Lane network I keep talking about makes more sense. It will inherently encourage multi-person vehicles, including self-driving vehicles pooling multiple passengers. They also estimate that lanes with only automated vehicles could handle 2-4x as many vehicles because they can ride much closer together at higher speeds.

At 2:09 PM, February 03, 2016, Anonymous Mike said...

So then it sounds like we can decrease our road spending due to the advent of MaX Lanes combined with self-driving vehicles. Although I'm still not sure... are people who were unwilling to use park and ride buses before now going to give up their cars for self-driving carpools?

At 2:20 PM, February 03, 2016, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I believe they will because of the on-demand schedule flexibility, as well as more convenient pick up and drop off locations. The cheap self-driving taxis also mean they can get around the core easier during the day without a car if they ride transit in on their commute.

As far as road spending, I would re-focus it on MaX Lanes rather than reduce it. When a freeway corridor is pretty much fully built out - like 59, 10, and soon 290 - then we should declare them done and stop expanding them. But we should max out freeways within available right of way, and when we do it the MaX Lanes should be incorporated.

At 2:34 PM, February 03, 2016, Anonymous Mike said...

But this only really covers the in/out suburban commuter traffic. For getting around the core, if as you say the traffic isn't decreased, it seems like rail will be in as much demand as before.

At 2:40 PM, February 03, 2016, Anonymous Mike said...

Also... you are telling me that so many people will be attracted to these self-driving MaX Lane carpools that it will eliminate the need for rail, but it won't reduce the need for road spending one iota? How is the need for road spending not reduced if suddenly all these people are carpooling, and the cars are driving closer together?

At 3:11 PM, February 03, 2016, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

We might be able to reduce road spending, but we have to wait and see. Can't confidently predict it now. There is also the fact that we're adding about a million people a decade to the metro area, so we have to account for that. I imagine road spending will stay the same but we will be able to accommodate more growth within it with less congestion.

As far as urban rail in Houston (not NYC), I think it would be a mistake to add more given this future. Other than the original Red line, they're pretty underutilized now. I think transit use will decline radically once cheap on-demand self-driving taxis are available. Even if there is some surface street congestion, the point-to-point nature will just make it faster than any kind of rail trip with connections and waits on each end. There won't be enough riders to justify the expense.

At 3:55 PM, February 03, 2016, Anonymous Mike said...

So we shouldn't reduce planned road spending unless we know for sure, but we should cancel planned rail spending (i.e. Metro Solutions)? This seems a bit slanted.

The Universities line would not be underutilized, nor would any line going through the West End/Heights area. I'm as confident about that as you are that there will be self-driving taxis everywhere in 5-10 years.

At 6:30 PM, February 03, 2016, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

See the LA Times article above. They keep building rail, and their overall ridership keeps dropping. Maybe Houston should take the lesson before spending the money?


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