Sunday, July 16, 2006

Improving Metro's LRT/BRT network plan

I'm going to keep today's post short, because I'd like you to spend most of the time you'd normally dedicate to reading my post to instead read Christof's excellent recommendations for substantially improving the connectivity and convenience of Metro's proposed plan. It's a long one, but very well thought out with some really creative options for Metro to explore. FYI, the blog post is a condensed version of a longer pdf paper, which you may want to read instead if you're looking for the complete picture.

Originally, this was going to be "Branding Houston" week at Houston Strategies, but I realized two things today: 1) I need more time to develop those posts properly, 2) there's too much transportation news that needs to be covered this week. Not only is there Christof's post, but Metro will release new University Line info on Tuesday (I'm planning on attending), and I'm going to need to write up some comments on Bruegmann's sprawl op-ed in today's Chronicle. So this will now be "Transportation Week" at Houston Strategies, kicking off with Christof's post and a good Reason essay on why boulevards usually can't (and shouldn't) replace expressways, a popular fad in some cities. Boulevards are slower, with substantially less capacity, far more dangerous for both pedestrians and drivers (almost double the fatalities), and do more to block cross-neighborhood pedestrian traffic than grade-separated freeways.


At 9:06 PM, July 16, 2006, Blogger Max Concrete said...

The Bruegmann article is a classic, thanks for the link.

Luckily for Houston, we didn't get caught in the trap that has been choking Los Angeles since their highway program was drastically curtailed in the 1970s. Still, imparting this knowledge to political officials and hardened anti-highway forces is always a challenge, often impossible.

Now, if Breugmann could only explain what he means when he talks about "new modes of transportation that combine the adaptability and personal comfort of the auto with the efficiency of the train or bus "

At 9:08 PM, July 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only snag in Christof's analysis is that METRO will immediately shunt/eliminate as many essential bus routes as possible that were serving the poor, minority, elderly and handicapped bus transit dependent riders so as to artificially boost the Richmond rail boardings, as they did for the Toy Train on Main.

One can envision where METRO will terminate a bus route at the Main Street Tram platform Downtown, force the hapless citizens to board the tram to the Wheeler Station, transfer to the University boondoggle tram to another platform, and transfer to a bus to complete the formerly single-boarding bus trip.

METRO will strangle the existing businesses on Richmond, as they did on Main Street.

At 9:36 PM, July 16, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Max on Bruegmann: I think he means these hypothetical networks - I've forgotten the name of them - but they involve small elevated tracks with hundreds of small 2-4 passenger vehicles running around on them. You go to a station, get in the next one to come along, and tell it where you want to go. Kind of like a driverless taxi. I think he's off base on their practicality.

Tom: the point of Christof's article was to create as many "one-seat"/no-transfer rides as possible on the network. Even with some new bus-to-rail transfers, many riders may actually be better off, depending on their ultimate destination.

At 9:39 PM, July 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, if you actually looked at the METRO system map, you would find it hard to imagine, since they are not doing it now. The 9 and 25 run down Fannin and up San Jacinto. No transfer needed. Here's another neat METRO fact. It takes the bus 10 minutes to get from one end of Downtown to the other, versus 6 minutes for the Toy Train. Taking the train saves time! Crazy!

Huh, imagine that.

At 10:11 PM, July 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to take a poll. Does anyone who reads this blog also hold my position of being both anti-new freeways and anti-rail?

Don't get me wrong, I think that some highways should exist and if they are going to exist they should be periodically redesigned to maximize traffic flow with new technology, but I think that new freeways (and tollways that don't pay for themselves) are an inefficient use of resources. The KSEV mantras of Toy Trains aside, according to my analysis roads, buses, and trains are all subsidized with unrelated taxes.

I think that the real science to transportation can only be gleaned by charging a price for each type of transportation and see which ones are profitable or the least costly. Would people choose to always drive if they had to pay a toll? Would people take the bus if their $3 ride became the $7 or the $0.50 it actually costs? Does the train actually cost $1 for me to ride? Is it less is it more? Would lower cost options like private bus/van services exist if Metro buses weren't subsidized and freeways weren't free?

At 10:36 PM, July 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The term for the concept Breugmann is describing is "Personal Rapid Transit" or PRT.

At 11:35 PM, July 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frequent reader, occasional commenter. From a theoretical point of view, I'm in total agreement with the notion of strict user-fees in funding highways and trains. There's one caveat -- I'd advocate some sort of pigovian tax on carbon emissions on auto usage.

Of course, in practice, people would burn down your house if you advocated tolls for 610, 59, or 45 for highway maintainance and/or expansion (outside of HOT lanes).

Again, interesting thought/economics experiment. Not too interesting given the constraints in actually carrying out such an experiment.

Really, is there any concerted anti-highway lobby in Houston? We're building the Great Parkway, and we're expanding 10.

At 7:10 AM, July 17, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thomas: thanks for jogging my memory.

Brian: I think most tollways are designed to pay for themselves, or the toll road authority would go broke. Ridership doesn't always match projections (i.e. Hardy), but sometimes they exceed expectations (i.e. BW8), and the overall portfolio of toll roads does well. In general, most roads are covered by user taxes through gas taxes. Not all though, and I've argued here before that some use of property taxes is ok: every piece of property must be connected to the road grid for freight/package deliveries, fire service, ambulance service, police service, mail service, etc. - even if the property owner never drives, it's fair to make them pay for part of the street grid that services them.

With the rise of EZ-tag technology, I think you will see a very slow transformation of all freeways to toll-based. Free freeways are an artifact of having high-speed car technology 50 years before electronic toll collection technology. Public resistance will make it an extremely slow transformation though - starting with select HOT lanes, but gradually expanding as the public gets used to it.

The transit network cannot survive without substantial subsidies. Very select commuter services might survive - like the Woodlands Express - but the basic network would be wiped out, inc. rail. It's a public service we as a society have decided to provide for those who can't drive for whatever reason: poverty, age, health, disabilities, etc.

Rail, IMHO, is mostly an artifact of federal funding, which separates pots of money into roads and transit. So cities that don't go after the transit pot are "giving their money away to other cities". If the feds just gave transportation block grants to the localities or states, politically and on a cost-benefit basis, I think you'd see a lot fewer rail projects.

At 12:58 PM, July 17, 2006, Blogger Adam said...

Users fees (ie tolls) area pretty good idea for most things, but two issues come up:

1. If we build a freeway to keep 18 wheelers from driving down say, Alabama, with me, don't both of us benefit by his being somewhere else? Why is he the only one paying? What if all the truck drivers decide its not worth paying for the entire cost of a highway (or one couldn't be financed just on the anticipation of their toll revenue). Non-user fee revenues, ie general taxes, get around those problems.

2. What if we want to do something that is definitely not supported by current use levels, but we hope it might be someday? (I think light rail is in this category). It's infrastructure built for policy goals. The ship channel, the hospital district, and schools are all things that could never be paid for unless we forced people people to chip in a lot of money.

So Clarence, I guess my point is, why should we assume the amount of revenue captured by tolls, or fees, or whatever is in any way related to the societally optimal spending level for the activity we are charging fees over?

At 8:54 PM, July 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On an unrelated note, congrats to Sugar Land for being the #3 best place to live according to Money Magazine.

Welcome news with all the stuff going on in Houston nowadays...

At 9:56 PM, July 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I see what you're saying, but I don't think the existence of light rail systems is merely an artifact of the separation between federal highway funds and transit funds. If all those transit funds were to be eliminated tomorrow, people would demand light rail, and the funds would come back in some shape or form. Rational or not rational, the simple fact is, people like trains.

This includes people who only use them a few times a year, on "weekends on the town" or when they have company in town. They like knowing that they're there, and they don't particularly care if it makes as much sense dollar for dollar as freeways for everyday transit. I know many conservative suburbanites who fit this description.

At 11:19 PM, July 17, 2006, Blogger Max Concrete said...

Really, is there any concerted anti-highway lobby in Houston?"

There are active anti-highway lobbies right now, with some concerted effort and some meaningful influence. The Citizens Transportation Coalition and the Gulf Coast Institute are ongoing, regional efforts. The Katy Corridor Coalition and the West Alabama Quality of Life coalition have been active recently, and Save Our Spring (anti Grand Parkway) remains active. These organizations have not scored a major win, but they have been well organized and could prevail at some point.

In 1992 a coalition led by then-councilmembers Sheila Jackson Lee and Jim Greenwood forced cancellation of plans to expand the West Loop. In the mid 1970s protest was instrumental in the cancellation of the Harrisburg Freeway.

Overall, anti-highway efforts have been sporadic and not sufficiently sustained to do serious damage to Houston. With one change in the political environment (Judge Eckels), the local climate could change substantially, however.

At 8:26 AM, July 18, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Anon: saw that in the paper issue of Money I got yesterday, and sent it to a friend that lives in Sugar Land. Thanks for the link, lots of interesting data on the web site. May be worth a post.

Mike: Plenty of people say they want rail in polls, but even more say they want roads improved and congestion reduced. Roads provide *much* more mobility per $ spent (esp. because they always go where you want, when you want, and the citizen covers the cost of the vehicle). Add up the number of people inside the loop and outside the loop, and guess which group is going to have more political power to get their mobility concerns funded?

At 10:30 AM, July 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm not sure what you're responding to. You said that rail is an "artifact" of the separation of federal transit and highway funding. I said that people generally-speaking want rail, and do not particularly care about the dollar for dollar transit effectiveness of a couple of signature lines. If you took away the transit funding, people would want it back.

This includes people outside the loop. I know a lot of suburbanites who drive their cars to work every day who don't mind the pittance that it costs them per year for this city to have rail. They like knowing that it's there, and don't have the sky-is-falling mentality that certain people have about mass transit.

I think that you will find that a substantial majority of Houstonians favor a modest rail system that would connect major employment centers with cultural institutions and tourist destinations. They see it as something that enhances the attractiveness and enjoyment of their city, and don't mind if it doesn't transport as many people per dollar as roads.

At 10:42 AM, July 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You and Bruegmann both seem to think that if LA had just kept building enough freeways, they would not have today's congestion problems. Assuming this were possible, what would the cost be aesthetically? How wide would the 405 have to be for there to not be congestion? How wide would our own west loop have to be for there to not be congestion?

As is apparent, you love freeways. You wrote a book about them. Other people love things like trees, parks, and quiet neighborhoods. The "hardened anti-highway forces" are simply people who can see a problem with a 24-lane freeway running through the city's greatest park.

Out of curiosity, how close to a freeway do you live?

At 2:18 PM, July 18, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Mike: what I'm saying is that if the money were simply a block grant for transportation, local politicians would rapidly carve it up for road projects in their districts, and there would be little or none left over for transit. People will say they want rail in polls, but they don't vote based on it, and they're pretty happy when their local politician improves a local interchange, freeway, arterial, or highway.

Yes, freeways have negative impacts in their immediate zone (which is why commercially-lined frontage roads are a good idea), but they have very positive net regional effects on mobility. Nobody wants to live next to a sewage treatment plant or landfill either, but we have to put them somewhere, for the benefit of the region as a whole.

As far as the West Loop, they should have carved a few dozen feet off of Memorial Park and widened it more. The net impact on park patrons would have been close to zero. Because they didn't, Uptown office vacancies are high, and the jobs are moving west to Westchase and the Energy Corridor and even Sugar Land. And I don't think that will change no matter how much rail Metro builds to try and compensate.

The answer to your other question is, IMHO: an analysis needs to be done of expected density and car trips based on the generally valid assumption of half-hour commutes at roughly 60mph (what most people are willing to tolerate), and that will tell you the density of the freeway grid you need to accomodate it. The freeway grid should be sustainable as the metro grows as long as density and commute tolerances are roughly stable. Of course, at this point, we're stuck with what has been historically built. We should maximize what we can within a reasonable right-of-way acquisition, and then congestion price where needed.

At 9:14 PM, July 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


People do vote based on rail. The 2002 and 2004 mayoral elections were largely based on rail. You will remember the 2004 televised debate, when rail was basically all the three candidates talked about until the very end. As far as I can tell, if it wasn't for his anti-rail position, Sanchez probably still loses to White because of all the money White was spending on ads, although the margin would be a lot closer, but he definitely beats Brown in 2002, as rail was just about the only reason anybody voted for Brown (besides race).

And of course another example of people voting based on rail would be that 2004 Metro referendum where voters approved a 78 mile rail system.

I'll say it again: most people do not care if roads move more people per minute than rail. They like having a modest rail system in their city. They like knowing that it's there.

Have you seen the mural of Houston above the stairway at Hobby Airport? There's a prominently-featured light rail train going across the bottom. Whatever artist did that mural obviously saw it as a nice symbol for the city, to show off to guests. This goes back to that image thing we spend so much time worrying about. My guess is that a 24-lane freeway would not have made the mural.

At 6:57 AM, July 19, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm not disagreeing on the image or polling of rail. Just that the dedicating of federal funds for transit/rail creates much more of it than would occur if the money were a general transportation block grant. Once that money went through the state transportation and political bureaucracy, far, far less of it - if any - would get applied to rail. It's not just the reality of cost effectiveness, but the nature of politics. To simplify our complex overlapping political structure, image a grid of reps covering the metro area, each with their fantasy list of transportation projects in their grid square. How many of them outside the Loop do you think would give up a good chunk of "their share" for rail inside the Loop? When was the last time you heard a politician willingly give up something in their district for the "greater good"? They don't think of that money as "their share" right now because it's earmarked for fixed transit, and they know that won't work in their suburban district, so they support it for the urban core. It would be a whole different ballgame if they thought they had a shot at that money for themselves.

At 11:12 AM, July 19, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If push came to shove, and Joe Suburbanite had to decide whether his money should go to maintaining the National Parks or widening the road he has to take to work everyday, he would probably go for the road. That doesn't mean we should get rid of the National Parks.

Your whole argument rests on the idea that this is just about transportation - just about moving as many people as possible as fast as possible. My argument is that it isn't. There's more to transit than just numbers. It shapes the whole image of our city, the whole experience of being in town.

At 7:19 PM, July 19, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sugarland is the third best place to live in the US? My brother lives out there and the place is so boring the kids have to go out, waste fuel and kick up mud with their big engine pickup trucks for amusement (where that poor child got shot.) Acres of cookie-cutter McMansions, fake feng shui, no culture, and precious little social awareness. I wonder what Money's #1 place was--Kingwood?

At 7:34 PM, July 19, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Wolverine: Ft. Collins, CO.

Mike: I'm agreeing with everything you're saying (National Parks, image, experience), just that political *realities* would intrude on theory. I agree that we *need* national parks, but *if* park block grants were given to the states, and they could choose to support National Parks (outside their state, of course) with that money, or their own state parks, I'm pretty sure very little money would make it to the National Parks. A variant on "tragedy of the commons".


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