Friday, April 04, 2008

Winter 1Q08 Highlights

It's time for the Winter 1Q08 quarterly highlights post. These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument.

Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly twice/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box in the right sidebar. An RSS feed link (Atom) (or RSS 2.0) is also available. As always, thanks for your readership.

February (looks like it was a good month!)
And don't forget the highlights from the first three years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging).



At 9:25 AM, April 07, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So you can use the outdates construction cost of MMP and compare directly to the cost of rail today? You are smarter than that Tori.

At 2:17 PM, April 07, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

OK, throw in a little inflation. A new Minute Maid Park every 2.5 to 3 miles? Is that really any more reasonable?

At 8:49 AM, April 08, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cost of construction materials has exceeded inflation by a large margin.

I use sheetmetal in the products that I design, and it has increased tremendously in just the past year.

Its probably a new MMP every 8 miles. And what does that mean anyways? How many MMP's did I-10 just cost us?

At 9:05 AM, April 08, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

About 10 MMPs for 20 miles without inflation, but to move more than 10 times as many people as the light rail will - an order of magnitude more cost efficient. $50K per rider for rail is just nuts. See

At 10:51 AM, April 08, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I-10 cost 1 MMP every 2 miles also? Interesting, when you compare 2 projects.

"move" is a very subjective term. While I would wait until construction is finished and people change their commute habits before making any assumptions about how many people I-10 will "move"

I think its sad that the managed toll lanes are setting their goals at 45mph... what does that say about the speed the mainlanes will travel at during rush hour?

At 10:56 AM, April 08, 2008, Blogger ian said...

Light rail is a long-term investment. Planning for the short term is, well, just nuts. If we would have started this 20 years ago, we'd be talking about much higher efficiencies than $50k/rider. But you have to start somewhere.

At 1:44 PM, April 08, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> But you have to start somewhere.

Like maybe 1/3 or 1/2 price BRT on the same routes, with upgrades to rail when/if they start to reach capacity?...

At 1:56 PM, April 08, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So only 1 MMP every 6 miles today, but someday in the future, we will have to spend 4 MMP's every mile to upgrade (construction costs will continue to rise).

Seems like a smart idea to me!

(end sarcasm)

At 9:59 AM, April 09, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

$50k per average daily rider is not the same as $50k per rider. This is something the concrete lovers can't seem to grasp. People use rail systems all the time who are not average daily riders. I can't count the number of times I rode rail living in Boston and Chicago, but I was never a daily commuter on them. It significantly enhances a place to be able to get around it smoothly for odd trips without dealing with cars or traffic. People in Houston still seem to be stuck in the view that mass transit is a means of getting to work for poor people - a backward mentality.

At 11:52 AM, April 09, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

And I'm sure you would have been just as happy with BRT in Chicago and Boston if it provided the same service at half the cost, or less.

> People in Houston still seem to be stuck in the view that mass transit is a means of getting to work for poor people - a backward mentality.

That *is* why Metro was founded and given a sales tax subsidy. It is their core mission from the start. The question is how much money they should peel off for service to attract "discretionary" riders, when that money could have gone into better service for the people who really need it.

At 4:26 PM, April 09, 2008, Blogger ian said...

Maybe we should do half-ass jobs on our freeway and roadway construction projects too so we can pass on the savings to improvements in local bus service? I'm sure the needy would appreciate it!

But naah, suburban commuters *need* their 18-lane I-10 mega ultra superhighway! Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to live on once-pristine land at the expense of the inner-city dwellers. Even if those city dwellers are often the poorest and neediest.

At 9:02 PM, April 09, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Freeways don't have a half-price alternative that offers equal service.

From the neighborhood uproars over development and density lately (much more than Ashby), it sounds like the inner city doesn't want any more residents. They'd prefer they stay in the suburbs.

At 7:43 AM, April 10, 2008, Blogger ian said...

Tory, I get the impression that you don't ride much transit. BRT is great, but it doesn't offer equal service. There's a reason for the price differential between BRT and LRT vehicles.

And I'm really, really, really doubting that "half-price" figure. Not if you have any intention of providing service that's anywhere near that of LRT.

Many high-density developments are very appropriate, such as those popping up in the Upper Kirby area. Nobody is complaining about them. Anybody living in a residential area would hate to have an Ashby pop up next door. That's not a dislike of density of suburbanites; that's a dislike disproportionate scale.

At 8:37 AM, April 10, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm curious how you think the service is different. It has the same headways, stops, travel times, and dedicated right-of-way. It doesn't have the same capacity as LRT, but projections for these lines say that capacity is clearly not needed, at least not for a couple decades - and that's very speculative. According to Metro, the old BRT plan was 1/3 of the price of the new LRT one. That's a pretty compelling cost savings. As a transit advocate, wouldn't you prefer more service for the same amount of money? If Metro offered 2x or 3x as many miles with BRT instead of LRT, wouldn't that make a whole lot more sense? What if it let them build the whole 2030 plan today, including lines to both airports?

Actually, I'm plugged into some people involved with this, including at the planning commission. Neighborhoods are complaining about everything, not just Ashby, even normal townhomes and apartment complexes. I think the new projects on Kirby are cool, but many locals lament the increased traffic on an already congested road. The blowback against density is building in Houston, just as it has in every other city in the country (inc. Portland). You and I don't like it, but it is the reality. If Peter Brown gets the public reviews and approvals he wants on new projects, that will be the end of most of them. Then all new growth will be pushed to the suburbs, and probably jobs too.

At 9:08 AM, April 10, 2008, Blogger ian said...

If the choice is between the currently proposed LRT system and 2-3x as much BRT. . .well, I'll admit that would be a hard one. But I doubt we'd get more BRT. Metro's plan -- and it's a good one -- seems to be to link Houston's major employment centers with a high quality transit backbone. That's the low-hanging fruit; anything beyond that would provide drastically diminishing returns. I have a feeling Metro would focus on that goal regardless of technology and cost.

In terms of the service parameters you listed, I'll agree that BRT and LRT are very similar. I was referring more to the quality of the ride -- LRT is simply roomier, more comfortable, smoother, less jerky. These things matter to discretionary riders, and though the transit-captives may not have a say in the matter, I'd assert that they appreciate it too.

But there is a potential future confluence of factors that could drive up transit ridership within the next 20 years. Oil and gas prices are on the rise, and I honestly don't see them coming down again. Unless the economies of China and India suddenly and permanently collapse, demand for these resources is going to continue growing dramatically. That's going to happen whether or not peak oil is a real or imaginary problem. There is some price of gas -- I'll admit, it's probably pretty high -- that many people will refuse to pay. Even if those people don't move closer to town, they'll start riding park and ride buses more, and they'll need some way to get around in town. That could very quickly bump up demand on transit capacities that would warrant light rail.

Second, as Arthur Nelson pointed out at the land use forum, our demographics are changing, and the percentage of our lives spent raising and caring for children is decreasing. I would say kids are the #1 reason for living in the 'burbs. Better schools (currently, although hopefully inner-city schools can catch up soon), big house with rooms for each kid, pool for the kids, cul-de-sac for kids to ride bikes in. When the kids move out -- or before the baby arrives -- I'd say that a good number of people don't care about these things. They want a more urban environment, closer to the action, with more opportunities for spontaneous activity. And transit is very much part of that environment; having lots of people around is fun and essential to "urbanity." But if you try to mix big groups of people with cars, you get gridlock -- it simply doesn't work.

This is turning into an essay, so I'll stop there.

At 9:40 AM, April 10, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Metro does have a longer-term plan beyond these lines ("phase 2"), mainly going to the airports. As bad an idea as I think that is, they could do it all now w/ BRT, or push Phase 2 to 2015-2020 (if ever) if they stick with LRT.

I don't know about the ride differences between BRT and LRT. The BRT would not be diesel, but running off the same electric lines above. It seems like that would generate a very similar, smooth ride.

I agree oil and gas will stay high. That, to me, argues for more commuter bus transit, which is far more expensive for people to drive than short errands around their house. But I also think we'll see a lot technology adaptations in the next 10 years: plug-in hybrids (starting w GM and Toyota in 2010), biofuels, coal-to-liquids - that will alleviate the issue.

I agree on the suburb-family connection. Pre-kids, many people do want to live in the core, in density, and that's great. I hope we keep accommodating them. But Joel Kotkin's research finds that very, very few of them move back to the city after their kids go to college. Not only have they built all sorts of social ties out there (friends, churches, etc.), but they also want to keep a big home that can accommodate their kids' visits, eventually with spouses and grandkids. Hard to do that with a condo.

At 10:01 AM, April 10, 2008, Blogger ian said...

Another point about education: I think it should be one of our principle goals in society to turn historically underperforming, inner-city schools around and get them to turn out world-class students. If we can achieve this and make the inner city schools the best schools, then I absolutely, 100% guarantee you that people will want to live near them, even if the kids have to share a bunk in the condo. They may even ride transit!

Those kids failing the amusingly simple TAKS test are every bit as smart as their suburban counterparts. The trick is to get them and their parents to see it.

At 11:53 AM, April 10, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

I really doubt that BRT would be 1/3 the cost of LRT. You are currently comparing LRT costs from today versus BRT estimates from what, 5 years ago?

Most of the cost is going to go into providing ROW for either mode. If you do BRT this way, it too can cost anywhere from $50-100 million per mile. And we are going to want to do BRT this way - with its own ROW.

Then, operational costs for BRT will actually be comparable if not higher than LRT, as more drivers and buses are required, the buses do not last as long and need to be replaced more frequently, etc.

So, if you can show me 2 current figures for LRT vs. BRT *in Houston* for the same ROW, including projected operational costs, and show me that BRT is still 1/3 the cost of LRT for both capital costs and operating costs, maybe I'll believe you. Until then, I still claim that you are comparing apples and oranges. I'm betting the cost of building BRT lines has at least doubled since the initial estimates were done.

At 2:46 PM, April 10, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Ian: it's a long path, but it's starting to happen. See this news on YES and KIPP in the Chronicle this morning:

Michael: BRT estimates are from 2-3 years ago, I believe. That's when they first announced the switch to save money.

I believe the CoH is providing most street RoW free.

All I can show is that Metro's cost estimates *tripled* when they changed from BRT to LRT. Beyond that, you're welcome to believe what you like.

At 10:17 AM, April 11, 2008, Blogger ian said...

Tory, I'd be interested in reading more on Joel Kotkin's research on the patterns of suburbanities post-kids. Do you have any links?

There are many possible reasons for why suburban dwellers wouldn't want to move back into the city. I have no doubt that some will want to stay near their contacts in the neighborhood, but I'm sure that's not the only reason. After all, people move around Houston all the time, from Katy to Missouri City to Clear Lake and everything in between.

Some people may be reluctant to make the jump, however, because the current inner-city housing stock is relatively light with high prices. In Houston, the type of urban life that appeals to them may not yet exist, or may only be in its infancy. (I consider myself an inner-city, "urban" dweller, but living in my East End, deed-restricted neighborhood, I'm really just as suburban as anyone else. I just live closer.)

Potential urbanites might have founded/unfounded fears of crime. They might feel like certain inner-city neighborhoods have demographics that they aren't comfortable with (could be racial, could be educational, could be related to shared interests and pasttimes). None of these things are inherent to the urban form and can be changed/change naturally over time.

Anyway, I'd be interested in looking into Joel's work to see exactly what he looked at and what factors he accounted for.

At 1:55 PM, April 11, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

ian: I think all your reasons are spot on. Add taxes too, which I think tend to be lower out in the 'burbs. I think the rates go down a bit, but also the values tend to be lower, and therefore the bill.

It was something Joel mentioned to me in conversations, that "the data show only a tiny fraction of empty-nesters are moving back into the city." Don't know any specific links.

At 1:58 PM, April 11, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'd also note, anecdotally, that just about every nearing-retirement couple I meet either wants to stay in place, or move even *farther* out where they can get their dream home on a bigger plot of land. The Hill Country, in particular, is filling up with these retirement homes.


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