Sunday, February 04, 2007

Reason on congestion, amenities, transit, and Houston

There have been a lot of interesting items out of the Reason Foundation and their Out of Control blog lately, which has a major initiative going on urban mobility. I thought I'd roll highlights from several items into a single post today.
  • A point I've made for a while is that mobility directly affects a city's ability to support diverse amenities (like theaters and exotic restaurants) and charities. When people have a hard time getting around, they stop supporting these entities, and the city is a poorer place for it. Los Angeles now seems to be facing these exact consequences of nation-leading congestion.
  • The latest stats from the feds on highways and transit, and Reason's conclusion:
"Bottom line: In spite of decades of spending far more on transit per user than on roads, transit carries less of the traveling public every year. New York is the only urban area where transit carries enough people to make it a really significant part of the system. The painful thing is, this is caused by bad transit policy. We spend absurd proportions of our transportation dollars on transit systems designed not to served transit users, but to try to get people out of their cars--especially light rail projects. By every meaningful empirical measure, this has not worked. Transit's niche in urban travel and transit riders would be far better served by high quality bus transit services that include bus lanes that keep express busses out of traffic. To whit, virtual exclusive busways using a HOT lanes network, integrated with quality network buses services. The billions spent on light rail projects could deliver very nice, attractive, efficient, high quality bus transit and make everyone better off."
(I personally still support most of Metro's core L/B/GRT network for a whole host of reasons that have been discussed here before, but believe Reason is dead-on when it comes to express buses and HOT lanes instead of commuter rail for the modern, decentralized city)
  • They've recently released a book titled "The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think And What We Can Do About It" By Ted Balaker and Sam Staley, with an overview and list of 10 steps to congestion relief posted here. I'm happy to say Texas and Houston are pursuing most of the measures listed, although I would like to see us try more creative construction (like tunnels), more cash-out parking, more telecommuting, and more one-way streets in Uptown like downtown.
  • Finally, Sam Staley, one of the co-authors of that book, said some nice things about Houston in a recent interview on "Decongesting America" for the Pittsburgh newspaper:

Q: Where are the success stories in other cities or other countries that have cut traffic congestion in smart, efficient ways?

A: The most effective and the most important example in the United States is Houston, Texas. Houston has had rapidly increasing congestion as a large result of its rising population growth. It has added new capacity (by widening freeways), but more importantly it has added new capacity by converting high-occupancy-vehicle lanes to tolled lanes that also allow single-occupant vehicles. So what they are able to do is begin to guarantee free flow on certain lanes and they can do that through the toll.

Houston is also an important example because in adding capacity and actually reducing congestion, they have also created a more competitive and viable environment for mass transit. It's one of the few metropolitan areas where we have seen highway capacity has improved, congestion has declined but transit opportunities have increased as well. So the idea that road building has to be done at the expense of transit is not true and we see the proof of that in Houston.

Nice to see that somebody is finally recognizing our efforts.


At 4:31 PM, February 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it ironic that we are getting kudos for having reduced traffic congestion by converting HOV lanes into toll lanes before we have even made those lanes operational. Given what I've seen on the Katy Freeway, the major difference between the current HOV lane reality and the managed lanes concept will be that we get some money from the HOV lane users who currently cheat. Personally, I'd like to see the Mayor's Safe Clear and off-peak/telecommuting programs get the press they deserve.

At 9:46 PM, February 04, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, we also get more overall utilization out of the lane capacity. And hopefully the money can go into providing better transit service.

I agree those two programs are high-impact (Safe Clear already, and the potential for off-peak/ telecommuting), but not getting enough publicity.

At 8:03 AM, February 05, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know that Reason is a idealogical think tank, not a research group, when they say this:

"New York is the only urban area where transit carries enough people to make it a really significant part of the system"

How about Washington, D.C.? Chicago? San Francisco? All would essentially shut down without transit.

The Houston comment reflects the same kind of "conclusions first" analysis. The impact of tolling HOV lanes in Houston will be limited because the corridors that would most benefit from extra capacity -- 290, I-45 north -- are those where the HOV lanes are already at capacity. These is spare capacity in the HOVs in other corridors -- 59 north, for exmaple -- but those tend to be the corridors where the mainlanes aren't congested either. The HOV lanes have been a big success, and it's exactly that fact that limits the impact of adding SOVs. But Reason "knows" that all HOV lanes are under-utilized, so they "know" what will work here.

Their transit numbers are more of the same. Local bus (slow, unreliable, often infrequent) is one thing, high quality transit (be it light rail or BRT or streetcar) is another. And ridership on those services is growing. HOT lanes -- Reason's solution for all transit needs -- are not a solution for urban transit, because urban neighborhoods aren't built around freeways. So even if I can see their point on suburban commute needs, urban mobility is a different issue, and it has a different set of solutions.

At 8:28 AM, February 05, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, they are definitely a think-tank with a libertarian bent, but my experience is that most studies/reports are very professional and academic, but on their blog, they express their personal opinions in more blunt language.

I wasn't aware that the HOV lanes were that full (although maybe there's more capacity in the earlier and later parts of rush hour), but maybe it gets the public used to the concept, and then, when prices are outrageous, they demand more congestion free lanes, either through reversible lane expansion or maybe conversion of existing left lanes.

I agree about urban vs. commuter transit, although I'm sure they're more firm that it should all be more cost-effective BRT instead of LRT. In limited cases, I think the LRT is worth the upgrade.

At 8:55 PM, February 05, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


I'd take D.C. off of that list. Only 16% of D.C. residents use transit. That's a large percentage for the U.S., but not enough to where the entire city would shut down without transit. The biggest effect would be with interns and low-paid government workers.

(I'd also note that D.C. transit had a larger commuter share before it built the subways -- and that share has declined in every decade since).

At 9:00 PM, February 05, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


Another thing... You say:

"Their transit numbers are more of the same. Local bus (slow, unreliable, often infrequent) is one thing, high quality transit (be it light rail or BRT or streetcar) is another."

I wouldn't group streetcars with light rail or BRT. Streetcars are more like regular buses -- they stop for red lights. Moreover, since streetcars are an older technology, they actually tend to go slower than regular buses. For this reason, streetcars are almost solely for nostalgia.

With that exception, though, I'd say the ability to hold up traffic is the only thing that makes BRT and light rail "high quality." You're basically just talking about giving transit priority over regular traffic.

At 6:00 PM, February 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Having lived 6 years in Washington DC and being someone who took Metro everyday from VA to DC, I can tell you that DC would (and does) shut down without Metro. When there is a major snow and Metro has to shut down to clean the tracks, the city shuts down. Same thing occurs on accidents. DC is dependent on Metro and the regional commuter lines.

At 6:47 AM, August 15, 2012, Anonymous Attorney Guss said...

For what its worth here is a graph (data from google data via world bank) showing the declining number of passenger vehicles in the US since 2003

Wondering if anyone can point to data showing public transport usage over the same period?


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