Sunday, October 20, 2019

Proposing an autonomous transit service for Houston

This week we have a guest post from Nikhila Krishnan on a potential autonomous transit future for Houston. You can also hear her presentation at a Houston Tomorrow H-GAC lunch event this Wednesday and on the HT website here, including links to more detailed documents.
A recent post discussed that Texas was ranked near the top for residents that feel their state is the best place to live. I would go so far as to say Houston is one of the best cities to live in, but there is one thing holding Houston back from taking the top slot as the best city:  effective public transit. The Houston readers can commiserate with the feeling of boredom and frustration when stuck in stand-still traffic during rush hour. We Houstonians have to make sacrifices due to limited public transit options including:
  • 10 days wasted per year in the car 
  • thousands of dollars spent each year on gas and vehicle maintenance
  • thousands of kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted annually
With the upcoming Metro Next Plan vote, there has been much discussion about future transit systems in Houston, but one key transit possibility has been absent from the discussion: autonomous vehicles (AVs).  

Autonomous vehicles are advantageous for the following reasons:
  • Transform system from small number of large vehicles to large number of small vehicles
  • Switch from fixed-route, fixed-timetable to demand-responsive system
  • Address the first/last mile problem
  • Point A to point B system
Because autonomous vehicles do not require a driver (or a driver’s salary), Houston would be able to better afford a larger fleet size of smaller vehicles. This means that there would be frequent services that reduce commute times and increase convenience. In addition, autonomous connected vehicles can communicate with each other and the passengers to create demand-responsive routes which would be more convenient for riders and would lead to higher vehicle load factors. To increase connectivity, autonomous vehicles can be applied to the first mile/ last mile problem of public transit that excludes some populations from using a transit system. Many opt-out of using public transit due to limited connectivity between their initial location and the transit pick-up or between the transit drop-off and their intended destination. AVs can fill in the gaps of existing transit, helping to create a fully integrated and accessible system that can get a user from point A to point B. The advantage of private cars is that one can hop in a car and get wherever they want whenever they want. If a public transportation system is comprehensive so that commuters can get from anywhere to anywhere with short wait times, it can challenge the dominance of cars and thus change the face of Houston transit.

I recently finished a Masters course at the University of Cambridge in which I wrote a dissertation (alternate link) postulating the use of autonomous vehicles as a means of delivering a public transport service in Houston. The results from the dissertation suggest that autonomous transport systems have great potential in Houston with regards to social, financial, and environmental performance. Houston needs a forward-thinking solution when planning transit that will be in place for the upcoming decades. Autonomous vehicles are that solution and Houston can be the leader in pioneering autonomous systems for public transit. 

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Sunday, October 06, 2019

Ten worst things about Houston, best state rankings, economic diversification, and SF vs. TX homes

Just a few quick items this week.  October is a big work travel month for me (South Africa, Morocco, Barcelona, Connecticut), so posts may be sparse.  Should be back to a more regular weekly schedule in November.
"Texans Most Likely to View the Lone Star State as the Very Best 
Although Texas trails Montana and Alaska in terms of its residents rating it as the best or one of the best places to live, it edges out Alaska (27%) and Hawaii (25%) in the percentage of residents who rate it as the single best place to live. 
Texans' pride for their state as the single best place to live is not surprising when viewed in the context of other measures. According to Gallup Daily tracking for 2013, Texans rank high on standard of living and trust in their state government, and they are less negative than others are about the state taxes they pay. The same is true for Alaska and, to a lesser extent, Hawaii, which had relatively average scores for trust in state government and state taxes, but ranked high for standard of living. The three also have distinct histories, geographies, natural resources, and environmental features that may contribute to residents' personal enjoyment and pride in their locale."
"Taken literally, the argument to diversify says that it would be a good thing if your biggest industries got smaller (that would make you more diverse).  But would Seattle really be better off if Amazon, Microsoft or Boeing was half the size it is today? 
Fourth, the key lesson of clusters is that firms draw competitive business advantage from having other similar and related firms nearby.  By attracting talent, developing specialized suppliers, and promoting intense competition and benefiting from specialized knowledge spilling over, you get stronger, better firms, and a healthier economy.  Specializations are seldom static: one specialization often provides the knowledge base for new specializations: The process of economic development is often about related diversification:  being good in one technology at one time sets the stage to be good at generating the next technology at the next time.  The important thing is this isn’t random:  its path-dependent."
I'll end with a fun video on the Top Ten Worst Things About Houston. I question some of the facts quoted (3 to 1??), but it's pretty amusing.  My favorites are
  • #3 no zoning (starts at 1:40)
  • #6 affordable housing (starts at 4:00)
  • #8 people (starts at 5:38)
Spicy language warning, especially near the end.  Hat tip to George for the find.

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