Monday, December 26, 2005

Transit safety and county growth

A couple good articles of interest today in the Chronicle.

One is on similar safety problems between Houston and LA for in-street transit, whether light rail or bus rapid transit. It really points out the extreme difficulty making transit work in today's cities: Normal surface-street buses have too many stops and get stuck in traffic, making them too slow. Give bus or light rail a dedicated right-of-way for speed, and safety becomes a problem at intersections, with a lot of pretty nasty collisions with cars. Slow them down for safety, you get back to the same speed problem. Put them in a traffic-separated right-of-way - like an old freight rail line - and all of a sudden they're generally not where anyone wants to go or live, sucking out the ridership that might be generated along a high-density retail and residential street. Put them under ground in a subway or try to elevate them, and the cost skyrockets beyond all reason - $300M up to a cool billion per mile. About the only transit solution that is pretty cost-effective and fast are express buses in HOV or HOT lanes, which are fine for long-distance commuters but don't solve the local short-to-mid-distance transit problem.

The other article regards the H-GAC population growth forecasts for the county and the resulting loss of open space.
Throughout the region, the H-GAC's experts are forecasting a population increase from 5.3 million to 8.8 million by 2035. In Harris County alone, the forecasts predict growth from 3.8 million to 5.8 million residents. All of those people will need schools, office buildings and places to shop. Houses and businesses will spring up on prairies and rice fields.
The Grand Parkway takes a hit later in the article because it can "influence the form and direction of local growth." The implication is that it encourages sprawl, but I would disagree. The sprawl will happen regardless, but there are two alternatives:
  1. Loop freeways that encourage traditional Houston sprawl in roughly concentric circles, staying tighter to the core and helping to keep jobs in the core.
  2. No loop freeways, so the sprawl moves out farther along spoke freeways, with development gaps between the spokes. Think of a starfish shape. This can be seen in metros like Atlanta and DC. People get strung out so far along the freeway spokes that employers feel pressure to move out closer to them. Whatever loop has been built (a single one in Atlanta and DC, for instance), gets completely jammed, so people feel constrained to jobs along whatever spoke they choose to live on. Suburb-to-suburb mobility is extremely limited. Some spokes become "winners" and some become "losers" depending on where people, money, and jobs choose to locate - rather than a more even development that is possible when people can move between the spokes on loop freeways.
As you might be able to tell, I'm partial to option one over option two. That said, I'm sensitive to the need for some denser development and open space/park preservation. From the article:
The hundreds of people who attended the workshops generally expressed support for a linear park system along bayous with no development in flood plains; more "town center" style development with housing close to jobs and shops; and a combination of transportation services to improve mobility and reduce commuting times, said Heidi Sweetnam, executive director of Blueprint Houston.
I think all of those are good ideas, with some caveats. I don't think we can force the denser development if the market doesn't want it - we just need to make sure we get major impediments out of the way. Maybe a few incentives around rail/BRT stops, but I'm wary of zoning or heavy-handed regulations. I think the city is working on a pretty well-balanced plan in this area.

As I've said before and agree with above, the key on transit is reducing commuter total travel times, which express buses can do (and cost effectively), and heavy commuter rail can't.

I think there is a widely acceptable solution on the open space/linear parks/flood plain problem if the right people got together and worked it out. The article mentions that large-scale developers like to include open space in their developments anyway to increase their value. I also think the market may naturally limit building in the worst flood plains just because of prohibitive insurance costs. And the Willow Waterhole project is clearly a shining role model for linear park open space that doubles as floodwater retention. Maybe we need some sort of banking system where a developer buys enough flood retention park land to offset any additional runoff from their development? They could put it within their own development in certain cases, or elsewhere downstream in other cases. More parkland, more floodwater retention, more open space - everybody seems to win at a (hopefully) small additional cost to the developer. I understand systems like this have been developed in other cities, we just need to adapt the best elements of them to Houston and Harris County - and sooner rather than later.


At 11:29 PM, December 26, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

-- About the only transit solution that is pretty cost-effective and fast are express buses in HOV or HOT lanes--

(except your origin and destination need to be close to and connected by a freeway)

one article in the Chronicle and you are pulling the plug on BRT?

At 8:15 AM, December 27, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

BRT seems to be the best option of a bad set of short-to-mid distance local transit choices, but it does have the safety problems mentioned in the article. Maybe, given enough time, drivers will get sensitive to it and the accident rate will drop off.

At 11:19 AM, December 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're right with the concentric circle approach: our whole economy will reap greater benefit. With regards to your second to last sentence, the developer will adapt to what the market demands at the lowest cost possible, period. The developer will determine his own cost/benefit. We will be disappointed if we expect or hope any more out of any business. If there is something we are hoping for, we'd better quit fooling ourselves and address it right now.

At 6:52 AM, December 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your idea of banking water recharge land for developers is an extremely good one. I'm not an engineer so I wouldn't claim to know the best method for flood control, but it seems more aesthetic to have one large wetlands area over myriad drainage "ponds" encircled by chain link fence. It would also encourage density in developing areas because you wouldn't need as much land.


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