Answering Mayor Turner's call to re-imagine Houston's transportation future
Last week the Chronicle published a piece of mine
on addressing Houston's mobility challenges with the future in mind, including the rise of self-driving cars. I'd like to re-post it here for posterity and to catch any of my readers that might have missed it over there.
How to fix Houston
traffic? Let's talk MaX Lanes.
Connected, beefed-up HOV
lanes would move the most people, the fastest
By Tory Gattis, for the
Houston Chronicle, February 16, 2016
Houston's new mayor, Sylvester
Turner, recently called for the Texas Transportation Commission to re-think its approach to mobility in large cities like
Houston, saying – in essence – that it's time to shift focus from vehicles
carrying only one person to other ways of getting around. Freeway widenings are
reaching their limits and congestion is still increasing. Wisely, he left open
to discussion what exactly that new approach might look like. How can Houston
be similarly thoughtful in its approach going forward?
The first step is learning from what
has and hasn't worked for other cities. Rail investments in other
decentralized, Sunbelt cities, such as Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver, and
Atlanta, have been disappointing. Los Angeles in particular is a cautionary case. With $9 billion spent on new rail lines
in a city with twice the density of Houston and perfect walking weather
year-round (unlike our summers!), they have seen overall declines in transit
ridership and worsening traffic congestion. Rail is incredibly expensive —
typically over $100 million per mile — and just not well suited for
spread-out Sunbelt cities built around the automobile in the post-WWII era.
The second step is understanding the
ramifications of coming new technologies — specifically self-driving cars. While the general vehicle fleet will
take decades to turn over as people slowly replace their cars, we can expect
extremely rapid adoption among taxi services as soon as these vehicles are
available in the early 2020s. The economics are simply too compelling: Almost 80 percent of the cost of a
ride is the driver. One estimate has the typical ride dropping to $3.25, with
shared rides going for $2.43 or even as low as $1 with SUVs carrying up to six
passengers at once along a shared route.
Customized SUVs could be made with
private individual compartments, so that passengers traveling in generally the
same direction could share a ride without interacting. When vehicle pulls up,
an indicator could tell you which door to enter for your compartment, then
alert you again when it's time for you to get out based on the destination you
put into your smart phone. A private ride combined with shared prices and
efficiency: the best of both worlds.
The impact on traffic congestion
could be dramatic, as fewer vehicles carry more riders. Analysis by MIT,
Stanford, and others estimate that shared rides could reduce the number of
vehicles needed to carry the same number of trips by 70 to 90 percent. Quite
the silver bullet to reduce traffic congestion! Then there's the icing on the
cake: Automated drivers are expected to dramatically reduce crash injuries and
space required for parking, which will free up a tremendous amount of
much-needed land in our cities.
All indications are that these
super-cheap, point-to-point autonomous taxi services will essentially replace
most bus and rail transit: Most trips would be much faster and more direct at
nearly the same cost. In fact, transit agencies like METRO may switch
their fleets to such vehicles, providing better service to their customers.
Helsinki's transit agency is already a pioneer of this transition, offering
on-demand mini-vans available via smart phone app.
In this new era, rail will only make
sense in the very densest cities in the world, like New York and Tokyo. And
cities investing billions in rail projects now may find themselves with
substantial white elephants on their hands in the near future — a fate
Houston should definitely try to avoid.
So if freeways are reaching their
limits, and traditional rail and bus transit face obsolescence, what's the
right answer for Houston right now?
Consider Managed eXpress Lanes — MaX
Lanes, for short — which aim to move the maximum number of people at maximum
speed (a phrase recently adopted by TxDOT's Houston office). These lanes are
the next generation of METRO's very successful HOV lanes: lanes that are
restricted to high-occupancy vehicles, such as buses, carpool vans and cars
carrying more than one person. HOV lanes are much less crowded than regular
lanes, so — as Houston commuters know well — their traffic usually moves
If we create a comprehensive,
connected, two-way network of these freeway lanes across the metro area —
including our loop freeways, like 610 and Beltway 8 — then multi-occupant vehicles
(self-driving or not) can offer fast, nonstop, point-to-point service between
any neighborhood and any job center.
The lanes will transition naturally
to self-driving vehicles. When the technology is mature, these lanes can be
reserved exclusively for auto-piloted vehicles, instantly increasing the lanes'
capacity two to four times as the cars flow more smoothly, closer together and
with less braking.
MaX Lanes are also perfect for
serving a spread-out city of multiple job centers (fewer than than seven
percent of Houston's jobs are downtown). If the mayor is serious about shifting
trips with more than one occupant in the vehicle — aiming to go from 3
percent to 15 percent and beyond — MaX Lanes are best strategy to reach that
In his address to the Transportation
Commission, Turner also called for greater inter-agency cooperation. MaX Lanes
are the perfect application of such cooperation, with a single vision bringing
the city together with TxDOT, HCTRA, and METRO. The lanes give the mayor an opportunity
to be the leader who sets the stage for the next era of Houston's growth.
Labels: autonomous vehicles, congestion pricing, MaX Lanes, Metro, mobility strategies, rail, transit