Monday, February 02, 2009

Houston resilience, transportation stimulus, and energy conservation

For those of you who didn't catch the PBS town hall forum last week, here's the video online. I think I did ok, making points about the difficulties of commuter rail in a city like ours, some deceptive transportation cost stats, and the win-win benefits of water retention parks. I'm still not sure I'm much of a fan of the TV format. There's not enough time for nuanced views - it really favors simplistic sound bites - and then there's the whole realtime problem where you can't edit out your screw-ups like you can in a blog... ;-)

The backlog of smaller misc items has been building up, so I'm going to pass along a few of them tonight:
  • A good approach to energy conservation we should adopt in Houston by tapping peoples' natural competitive instincts to at least keep up with - and maybe surpass - their neighbors. Are you listening, Centerpoint?
  • A nice pass-along from a NYTimes blog of businesses that are actually doing well in this economy. Hat tip to Brian. His comment:
    "It is a list of around 30 types of business that are actually doing well. When you think about what kinds of businesses are common in Texas and especially Houston it is little wonder why we are fairing better. This is not just oil. From the medical center, to NASA, Waste Management, to all the ugly industries that Houston has a large footprint in, but most people ignore."
  • Another good pass-along, this time from Reason:
    Transit Trips Take Longer Than Car Trips in 272 of 276 Metro Areas
    Reason Foundation's Director of Urban Growth Sam Staley testified before the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit on Tuesday. Staley urged Congress to prioritize transportation solutions that increase our mobility and decrease traffic congestion. Staley suggested that Congress keep transit's role "in context" in the stimulus bill and upcoming transportation reauthorization bill. Staley finds: "Despite recent gains in ridership, public transit remains a relatively small part of the overall travel equation in most major urbanized areas in the U.S. Notably, higher gas prices contributed to a reduction in road travel by 100 billion vehicle miles traveled in 2008, according to the Federal Highway Administration, a fall of about 4 percent. Public transit experienced an increase of about 5 percent. Yet, because transit carries a very small portion of travel, transit was able to capture just 3 percent of the overall decline in road travel. In addition, the kinds of policies that will be necessary to fundamentally change land use to boost transit ridership significantly would require a dramatic and largely involuntary relocation of people and families into housing they do not want. The single-family, detached house would be an option only for the wealthier income brackets in our major urban areas, effectively inverting the existing distribution of home options and choices. A policy that focuses largely on shifting travelers out of cars and into transit will reduce mobility. An examination of work trip travel times in 276 metropolitan areas found that the length of public transit trips exceeded those for private automobiles in 272 of those areas. On average, public transit riders spend about 36 minutes traveling to work while private automobile travelers commute about 21 minutes."
It's not about being anti-transit or pro-road - it's about making pragmatic spending choices with the best cost-benefit ratios. And Obama has said he is all about pragmatism - how to make government actually work - not ideology.

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At 4:35 PM, February 03, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...


That's an interesting story regarding the encouraging of energy conservation by telling people that they are more wasteful than than the Joneses.

What is at play here is that this is a method of appealing to people that works in the here and now. Compare that to appeals to the common (or world) public good, such as that you must conserve energy because of more abstract causes such as global warming or that your great grandchildren will live in a world of depleted fossil fuel resources.

The difference is that trying to appeal to more abstract or distant causes will not motivate people. I could care less whether there will be any fossil fuels left in 100 years time, or whether the earth's temperature will be 10 degrees hotter in 100 years time. That is because my time horizon does not extend 100 years into the future, and for that matter neither does anyone elses! What matters to me today (and tonight) is that I can heat my home to a temperature setting that I like at a price I can afford. Ergo, it follows that your signals should be set so that people can respond today and take care of today's realities and let the future unfold as it comes.


At 11:23 AM, February 04, 2009, Blogger kennethjulikiera said...

Roads are a scarce resource. The only way to make people use a scarce resource effectively or efficiently is to impute a cost to its use. Currently, there is no cost imputed to the use of roads. To most users, roads are free. Granted we all pay for them through sales and property tax. But there is absolutely no correspondence between our usage of roads and what we pay for them. Does anyone think, "well, I paid $4000 in city and county taxes and $5000 in state sales tax; I drove 12000 miles on state and county roads; that means I am paying 75 cents a mile?" Nope.

What people usually think is this: "My taxes paid for this road, this road is mine and I will use it as much as I want to. I don't care if that's efficient or not. I don't care if that slows other people down or not."

That kind of thinking doesn't happen on tollways. What people think about tollways is thus: "How fast is the tollway right now? How far do I have to go? How much is it going to cost?" Sometimes they think: "Do I even have to make this trip?"

Which method of financing a scarce resource creates greater efficiencies. Which method of financing requires less coercion to get people to do the correct thing?

At 2:14 AM, February 05, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As much as I love the Reason foundation, I really get tired of these oversimplifications and causation/correlation sleight-of-hands.

Transit trips are longer because the people who tend to take transit work in dense, urban areas. If you live in Cinco Ranch and work at Shell you have no need for transit. If live in Kingwood and work in the Woodlands you have little need for transit. If you live in Kingwood and work at the medical center you have a HUGE need for transit.

Then there's the whole travel time vs. reliability thing - would you rather have a guaranteed 55min train ride, or a 40min auto commute that has a 20% chance of being twice as long?

Then there's the dilution thing: because all the transit ridership is confined to a few corridors and destinations, the "transit represented X% of trips in so-and-so metro" is rendered meaningless. What matters is the percentage of corridor trips, and even in a city like Houston that number can approach 20%.

Finally there's that whole "forcing Americans to live how they don't want to" thing. Yeah, we all idolize single-family - but the large-lot, giant useless front yard thing has more to do with government regulation and developer conservatism than market forces. Take off the lot size requirements and you'll get a crapload of cottages, townhomes, rowhouses... actually, that's kinda like Houston, now that I think about it.

At 2:00 PM, February 05, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Rail Antichrist"??? What an ass. Don't be afraid to speak up next time, regardless of the limitations of that show's format.

At 2:38 PM, February 05, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

You're the second person to mention that term ("rail antichrist"), but I can't find who made that reference or where. Do you have the details or a link?

(and thanks for the support)

At 2:50 PM, February 05, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Ahh. Found it on my recording. Mr. Frank Wilson, CEO of Metro. I missed it when he said it. Slipped right past me. Guess I should have caught it and jumped on him, but that would have changed the whole cordial, respectful tone of the event.

At 7:49 PM, February 05, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting! Love to hear it! =)

At 9:41 PM, February 05, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Go here:

My thoughts on rail are in the first video, about the 16:52 point, and his response is in the second video, about the 15:25 point.

At 11:21 AM, February 06, 2009, Blogger ian said...

HAHAHAHA!!!! I can't believe he said that!! You're notorious, Tory!

Or should I say. . .noTORYous? Eh? Eh??

At 10:56 PM, February 08, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"involuntary relocation of people and families into housing they do not want" ??

So rational choice theory only applies to those benefitting from freeway subsidies, I guess.

At 8:41 AM, February 11, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, you're too polite. Frank Wilson was the one who changed the tone from cordial to nasty. Even if he does have a big stake in rail being built in Houston, that's no reason to act like that. CEOs of other companies are generally able to act like adults and be cordial.


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