Monday, August 19, 2019

Flooding plan, faster cheaper Ike Dike, new MetroNext video, bad fad road diets, good gentrification, and more

A lot of items in the backlog this week, and I'm on vacation next week so probably won't have time to post, so here's your two-weeks worth! ;-)
"Houston is a top U.S. city for STEM grads and engineering talent with more than 300,000 educated millennials and 240,000 STEM workers. STEM talent powers some of the largest industries in Houston, from energy to life science and manufacturing. 
Houston also offers these UHD and other STEM students a top-tier job market. According to the American Enterprise Institute’s Housing Center, Houston is the second best U.S. metro area for STEM workers. 
Technology, in particular, is thriving. According to the Partnership's most recent edition of Houston Facts, with more than 223,000 tech workers, Houston has the 12th largest tech sector in the U.S. Nearly two-thirds of Houston’s high-tech workers are employed in industries other than computers and software."
"The Cascade Policy Institute released a detailed study of a road diet plan whose effects include worse traffic congestion, less transit service, and no significant increase in bike and pedestrian traffic that had been projected. The study, “The New Sellwood Bridge: Promises Unfulfilled,” is a valuable case study of how the local politics of transportation and smart growth led to unfortunate outcomes."
  • The age of winner-take-all cities. Cool graph of metros by GMP. Houston is 5th largest metro by population in the country, but drops to #7 ranked by GMP, getting edged out by DC and SF.  Interesting fact: even with substantially fewer people, if you combine SF and San Jose's GMP they're notably larger than Chicago. That's the power of tech. 
"The top 25 metro areas (out of a total of 384) accounted for more than half of the U.S.'s $19.5 trillion GDP in 2017, according to an Axios analysis of Bureau of Economic Analysis data."
Finally, I wanted to end this week's post with Metro's new MetroNext plan overview video, which I think is pretty well done getting it all packed into only two minutes. In particular, they do a good job explaining the MetroRapid BRT rail-like benefits, which the public isn't familiar with. Last week they officially approved the bond referendum for this November's ballot.


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Saturday, August 10, 2019

Benefits of the I-45 Expansion and the High Cost of Electric Buses

This week's post is a guest post by Oscar Slotboom

North Houston Highway Improvement Project (IH 45 expansion)
Recent Chronicle reporting on the North Houston Highway Improvement Project has been somewhat one-sided against the project. The Chronicle gave heavy publicity to the "boondoggle" report by a special interest group. On July 14 Tory posted a link to the response by Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation debunking the biased report. On July 14 the Chronicle featured an anti-project op-ed in the first page of the Sunday opinion section, which at 1818 words was far longer than the usual 700 word limit.
To bring some balance to the issue, I submitted a pro-project outlook op-ed and the Chronicle kindly published it this past week on August 3 (online) and August 8 (print). In short: I enumerate the extensive benefits this project will provide for mobility, downtown improvement and enhancement of adjacent neighborhoods, concluding that the project is a vital investment in Houston's future.
  • HoustonChronicle.com   Houston needs the I-45 expansion
  • PDF of online version (permalink, login not required)
  • PDF of print version, abridged from online version (permalink, login not required)
67% of weekday peak-period traffic on downtown freeways is passing through downtown, not originating from or going to downtown destinations. These trips are virtually impossible to serve with traditional public transit, since they are coming from dispersed locations and going to dispersed locations. The value of 67% was derived from the 2014 official traffic study, and is summarized below.

Freeway % Through Traffic Lanes
Approaching
Downtown
Existing
Through Lanes
NHHIP
Through Lanes
45 SB 62% 4 2 (50%) 3 (75%)
69 SB 72% 5 2 (40%) 3 (60%)
10 WB 71% 4 2 (50%) 4** (100%)
288 NB 76% 4
69 NB 50% 5 2 (40%) 4 (80%)
10 EB 69% 5 2 (40%) 4** (80%)
45 NB * 4 2 (50%) 3 (75%)
Average 67% 45% 78%
*Available data is not consistent with other freeways **IH 10 express lanes (2 each way) counted as only one each way due to one-lane entrance/exits

The capacity percent for through lanes is a simplification since in some cases connections occur before the narrowest point, but it is a good indicator for comparison. The existing downtown freeways have around 45% through capacity, compared to 67% of travel demand. The NHHIP will increase through-capacity to around 78%, well above 67%.

Due to the insufficient downtown through capacity, nine of the top 20 most congested freeways in Texas are included in the NNHIP or are immediately adjacent to it. The #1 most congested freeway segment in Texas is the West Loop between IH 69 and IH 10. Of course, plans to add lanes to the West Loop were canceled in the early 1990s, and this is the result - tens of thousands of people suffering in more severe traffic every day because of that bad decision.

Rank Freeway Limits
1 610 West Loop I-69 to I-10
2 IH 69 Southwest Freeway West Loop to SH 288
5 IH 69 downtown SH 288 to IH 10
10 IH 45 North Freeway Loop 610 to Beltway 8
11 IH 45 downtown and Gulf Freeway IH 10 to Loop 610 South
12 SH 288 South Freeway Loop 610 to IH 45
16 IH 10 downtown IH 45 North Freeway to IH 69 Eastex Freeway
17 IH 10 West (inside Loop) West Loop to IH 45 North Freeway
18 North Loop West IH 45 North Freeway to IH 10 Katy Freeway
20 IH 45 North Freeway IH 10 to Loop 610
Electric Buses
A couple recent articles about electric buses caught my attention.

The Dallas Morning News recently analyzed an implementation of 7 electric buses run by DART and concluded that the initial cost and overall lifetime cost of the electric buses is much higher than conventional diesel buses. Our million-dollar bus doesn't add up. We did the math
"The buses gobble up vast quantities of electricity for very little distance. Between seven buses recharging 34 times every weekday, the city spends about $1,000 per day on power for the electric buses. The city also spent over $800,000 on the new charging stations alone, which will need upkeep of their own over the years. ...Given all these costs, a simple net present value calculation shows that we'll spend nearly half a million more for a single electric bus over the course of its lifetime — or, the cost of a new diesel bus."
An article in Wired, Why Electric Buses Haven't Taken Over the World—Yet, explains why a conversion to electric buses is going to be difficult and expensive. In short, the entire workflow and infrastructure for servicing buses is going to need to be rebuilt, at a very high cost.
"But charging stations are expensive—about $50,000 for your standard depot-based one. On-route charging stations, an appealing option for longer bus routes, can be two or three times that....Then agencies also have to get the actual electricity to their charging stations. This involves lengthy conversations with utilities about grid upgrades, rethinking how systems are wired, occasionally building new substations, and, sometimes, cutting deals on electric output."
My conclusion from these articles is that there's no need for Metro to be an early adopter of electric buses. It's just going to cost a lot of money, and any air quality benefit would be negligible with a small percentage of electric buses in the fleet. Thankfully, it appears that Metro is proceeding slowly on electric buses, mainly due to concerns over the ability of electric bus air conditioning to meet summer needs.

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Sunday, August 04, 2019

Atlanta is a cautionary tale for Houston

Aaron Renn recently wrote an excellent piece in the City Journal describing the challenges facing Atlanta, and it holds some cautionary lessons for Houston.

First, here are his excerpts related to Houston:
"Though still growing rapidly, Atlanta’s fortunes have taken a hit in the new century. From 1980 to 2000, metro Atlanta grew in population by an astonishing 82.3 percent, outdistancing Dallas–Fort Worth and Houston. But in the 18 years since 2000, its population growth rate was only 39.6 percent, which trails its Texas peers. Since 2000, the population gap between Houston and Atlanta more than doubled, rising from less than 500,000 to more than 1 million. And growth has continued to slow. From 2000 to 2010, Atlanta’s average annual population growth reached only 2.13 percent, and that has fallen to 1.45 percent since 2010.
...
Migration to Atlanta has significantly slowed. The city welcomed fewer domestic migrants than much smaller Charlotte and Austin did last year, and it’s drawing far fewer immigrants than Dallas, Houston, and even Philadelphia.
...
Atlanta also has huge transportation challenges. Its freeways are among the nation’s widest but also the most congested. Atlanta failed to rearchitect its freeway network as it grew, retaining its sixties-era beltway-and-spoke system. By contrast, Houston is working on its third beltway. The net result: Atlanta outside its I-285 perimeter is by far the most developed urban area in the world without non-radial freeways, according to demographer Wendell Cox. The metro area has the nation’s third-lowest share of jobs accessible to the average commuter in 30 minutes or less
The highway problems may be unfixable. Regional planners have been pushing transit expansion into the suburbs, but in the highly dispersed Atlanta region, transit has no chance of making a dent in mobility needs." 
I’ve been warning Houston for years about the risk of underinvestment in transportation infrastructure leading to employers leaving the core for the affluent suburbs like Exxon did.  Now I can point to an actual example of that happening in Atlanta (especially a lack of loop freeways), based both his piece as well as the comments there and at his blog.  There people discuss the jobs boom in the suburbs - not the core - because of congestion. Employers will move to where their employees want to live if they can't reach them within a reasonable commute time.

When a metro region gets too hard to get around – like LA and Atlanta – it fragments into an archipelago of isolated, zero-sum winner and loser “islands” rather than being a single cohesive labor market.  Houston faces the same risk if we don't invest in projects like the 45N expansion and connecting up a regionwide MaX Lanes network.

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