Monday, May 18, 2009

Surface transportation innovations for Houston

I was recently able to catch up on a stack of Surface Transportation Innovations newsletters from the Reason Foundation, and thought I'd pass along some of my favorite items:
Rather than pouring billions more into rail transit lines that will serve only a small fraction of urban trips, it would make better sense to add highway infrastructure that does double-duty by providing motorists with a congestion-relief alternative and transit agencies with high-performance guideways for region-wide express bus (Bus Rapid Transit) service. A network of Express Toll Lanes added to the freeway system would do just that.

Sound familiar?
"The basic concept calls for converting the left-most lane of a freeway (whether it's HOV or general purpose[GP]) to HOT, and simultaneously converting the right shoulder to a peak-period-only travel lane. Thus, no "free" lanes would be taken away, and the HOT lane would represent a net addition of peak-period capacity."

The study also shows that the benefits are substantially larger than the costs, and that tolls should be able to cover costs. This idea is absolutely perfect for Houston, and the prime first candidate would be the 610 loop, which lacks HOV lanes and absolutely needs the relief. If you know the right person, please pass this along.
"...AASHTO Highway Capacity Manual's standards for expressway design are based largely on two underlying assumptions: these roads must be safe for travel at high speeds, and they must all be able to carry mixed traffic, including large trucks. They then ask the logical question: if urban expressways are congested much of the day so that only a small fraction of their daily traffic can operate at high speed, should we still design to standards based on those high speeds? And also, should we design every major roadway to accommodate large trucks?

In the paper Ng and Small then explore the trade-offs involved in narrower lane and shoulder widths (which result in lower design speeds) to make possible an additional lane in each direction, on both expressways and major arterials, within the same total width. For approximately the same construction cost, the expressway or arterial with more lane capacity wins out in most cases where peak-period traffic volumes are much greater than off-peak volumes. The "narrow" designs are strongly favored in all cases in which there is appreciable queuing—i.e., serious congestion. That's because the slightly lower free-flow speeds of the narrow designs pale in comparison to their much greater ability to handle traffic before flow breaks down.

The other important comparison Ng and Small make is between a full-blown expressway and a super-arterial with grade separations (overpasses) instead of signalized intersections. Here they compare roadways with equal capacity but different costs to construct. They find that the unsignalized arterial is more cost-effective than an expressway of equal capacity under most scenarios, "because the difference in travel-time cost is relatively small while the difference in construction cost is much higher."


...a good network of six-lane arterials, Swenson proposed converting some of those arterials into a new kind of managed-lane facility. "Queue-jump" overpasses would be constructed at major signalized intersections, with four lanes on the overpasses and two retained at grade (plus turn lanes). Electronic tolls would be collected from those using the overpasses, but no one else. Thus, the concept would not violate the accepted Florida principle of charging tolls only for new capacity, not on existing roadways.

Swenson developed cost and traffic estimates for one such corridor that would involve building six queue jumps. Preliminary calculations suggest that the costs could be recovered via toll-revenue financing."
Essentially, they're arguing that we convert more of our arterials to be like Allen Parkway, which everybody I've talked to seems to think is a fantastic idea. It could certainly take a lot of the load off the freeways. There are many great candidates for such a treatment: outer Westheimer and 1960/Hwy6 immediately come to mind. Nominate your favorites in the comments.

A final note
: I'm on vacation for the rest of the month, and may or may not be able to post from the road. However it works out, posting should be back to normal the first week of June.

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At 9:24 PM, May 18, 2009, Anonymous Jessie M said...

I love talking transportation. Will have to read more when I have the time.

I will admit, LRT is cool, but BRT just makes sense!

I agree with the GM from the Houston Rockets who says (paraphrasing), "every company should have a VP of Common Sense." If TxDot, Metro and the CoH had one, they'd say..."are y'all stupid, it's BRT all the way, it's not even close!!"

At 8:39 AM, May 19, 2009, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

As always, the question boils down to what BRT are you talking about? I suspect that the folks at Reason (given their raison d'être) are talking about providing bus service for suburbanites down highways in center lanes (shared with others who pay to use the lane) while providing basically regular ole' bus service to people within the urban core but for some fancy new name, coloring and marketing.

Here's a news flash - mass transit is about more than simply bringing your suburban downtown worker from his cookie cutter home in the burbs to downtown and back. Houston actually has a pretty decent system for that (from what I can tell). Houston's big weakness is that it lacks a real urban transport system and walkable, dense neighborhoods that (with the right policies and regulation) come with it. Of course, Reason, doesn't have the sense or the "reason" frankly to truly understand such practical solutions to such problems because they are blinded by ideology.

At 9:30 AM, May 19, 2009, Anonymous Jessie M said...

ARP - The BRT I'm thinking of is the kind Metro initially intended to use for the North and East lines in Houston. (not BRT for the 'burbs)

An LRT is basically just a fancy bus, but it's on rail and it costs way more.

If the speed is the same, it can feel and look the same inside and gets you where you want in the same amount of time, why spend more?

I think it's pretty obvious the reason we have LRT is simply because it's cooler than LRT.

If I'm wrong, please tell me why, and saying it's more friendly to the envioronment is not a good argument in my opinion.

At 9:39 AM, May 19, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think Reason would argue for what you describe for commuters, and either buses or BRT for different routes in the urban core, depending on capacity needs on each route. I think LRT can make sense as a high-capacity + upscale/splurge amenity on very limited core backbone routes, like Main St. and the University line.

At 10:36 AM, May 19, 2009, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

Well, I actually don’t have that much of a problem with “BRT” to supplement the core lines. Most urban transit systems in other cities with better infrastructure development have such a system (heavy rail, is supplemented by light rail, is supplemented by grade separated bus lines - what I would describe as “BRT” - and which is then supplemented by regular bus service. Houston (like many US cities) just didn’t want to invest in the infrastructure for such a system. This city (and state frankly) would rather just build more highways to support the suburbs.

Anyway, the problem is that many supporters of “BRT” never describe what this system really entails. Is it a grade separated system where “bendy-buses” have their own lane, separated from traffic? Or is it something akin to what we already have in downtown, a right-hand lane that is ostensibly for “buses” but doesn’t work well in practice and simply serves as a veneer for “real transit?”

Grade separated bus lines would be great for Houston to supplement a core rail system. The problem with Houston right now is that the system is simply so sparse. For decades, the city essentially did nothing. If such lines could be implemented faster and, engineered in a smart way, if such line could be upgraded later, that might be a good fit for Houston.

See, many of the most vocal supporters of “BRT” are really not supporters of transit at all. Many use the argument for “BRT” as an excuse to simply build a sorry system on the cheap and frankly, continue more of the same. This, at least in my mind, is the heart of Reason’s argument – more of the same with slight tweaks on the edges.

At 1:51 PM, May 19, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm not speaking for Reason, but I'd assume BRT to not mean a specific technical approach, but rather an acknowledgment that buses are far more cost effective than rail, and can be as fast and even faster. Each route should be customized to the needed demand and speed. In some cases they will need their own RoW, and in others maybe a rush-hour diamond lane is sufficient, and in others normal buses with traffic may make the most sense. Or maybe signature lines like Metro wants to do on Bellaire, with fewer stops and higher speeds (and maybe signal prioritization).

At 5:19 AM, May 20, 2009, Blogger engineering said...

Reasons Foundation has its own agenda or understanding of the issues, thus information is good for discussion.

Comment on what type of BRT made by ARP is superb. I think BRT can be as inexpensive as a bus route and as expensive or more than LRT.

For those of us who pretend to know the topic, perhaps the discussion should not be about the modes but quality of service provided.

I took a bus in San Juan, Puerto Rico to catch the Tren Urbano. One particular observation was the horrible pavement surface making the bus ride very uncomfortable. Ok, never mind the fact that in a hot climate the bus stops had a post only. The concept of user friendly system or comfort level is of little consideration.

Another item for those of us who get in the transportation conversation.

1. TxDOT builds highways. It is not in the business of mass transit.

2. The city of Houston can build streets but it is not in the business of building highways nor mass transit.

3. Houston METRO is the designated agency to provide mass transit services in its regional territory.

If we can understand these the discussion could be more clear and help others to understand what agency is responsible for what.

Transportation should be left alone to market forces. If an entity can make money at providing transportation service between the suburbs and downtown so be it.

Finally, we should understand better financing of transportation systems in particular mass transit. For example, about 30% of gasoline tax is diverted to fund mass transit systems like light rail. Mass transit systems in the US (most if not all) are not sustainable but paid by some other tax. Houston METRO gets funds through the federal government and through sales tax. If transit users had to pay the actual cost of the service it might not work.

One very anti toll road argument is that highways are "free" thus added tolls are double taxation. Similar logic could apply to mass transit. Mass transit service, whether buses or light rail, is already paid for by tax payers; thus why should we be required to pay to use it? Isn't this double taxation as well?

Transportation is a fascinating topic. Talked about by many but understood by few. :)

At 5:34 AM, May 20, 2009, Blogger engineering said...


Two items.

First, in my opinion the concept of HOV is flawed. The nation is trying to transform a flawed system into an efficient one. I think the HOV system needs to be scrapped and start all over.

Second comment makes reference to your statement:

"Essentially, they're arguing that we convert more of our arterials to be like Allen Parkway, which everybody I've talked to seems to think is a fantastic idea. It could certainly take a lot of the load off the freeways. There are many great candidates for such a treatment: outer Westheimer and 1960/Hwy6 immediately come to mind. Nominate your favorites in the comments."

This is a topic I addressed when proposing the I45 tunnel/parkway concept but it went way over everybody's heads. There is a significant difference between regional access and local access, meaning limited access.

The idea to make Westheimer a beautiful parkway is nice but how practical could it be?

By the way, the other day driving midtown thinking about your thought of placing 527 underground. Originally my counter was cost but from the point of view of efficiency and quality of life I think your thinking was very good. So I take my negation back, Spur 527 could transform midtown if it was out of sight and out of mind. Also it could have provided a direct connector to I45 (I think you made a case for this as well).

By the way, have you read that the governor of Washington state has signed into law the reconstruction of the Seattle viaduct into tunnels? It is a superb project worth I think $4 billion. While Houston debates quality of life others make progress towards it.

At 10:41 AM, May 20, 2009, Anonymous Mike said...

How could outer Westheimer and 1960/Hwy 6 be made like Allen Parkway? Wouldn't that require cutting off access to a very great number of businesses, apartments, and neighborhoods? Unless you made frontage roads, which is essentially making it a freeway...

At 6:52 PM, May 20, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

If you follow the link, they describe the concept. Essentially tolled overpasses at intersections for half the lanes.

At 12:19 PM, May 21, 2009, Blogger ian said...

Please, tolled underpasses and I'm sold. Allen Parkway wouldn't be Allen Parkway with a bunch of roadway overpasses.

Mike, I see this as a "mini-freeway," maybe having more in common with a "multiway" than freeway (or, tollway, rather). Keep it to reasonable design speeds (40-50 mph) and you won't need huge ramps everywhere, and it can also be very compatible with surrounding neighborhoods and pedestrian facilities.

My other thought: make those tolls variable to match congestion levels, and then run a BRT line in the tolled lanes.

At 4:23 PM, May 28, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...


The concept is called RTRO (right turn-in right turn out). A super street would not remove driveway access, but left turn lanes/center turn lanes would be removed to allow for better traffic flow. If you want to turn left, you exit the next exit on the right, then u-turn and go back to your destination. Picture a freeway without feeder roads and drive ways connected to it. If you want to see a good new example, drive US 90A from the South Loop to the Beltway on the south and southwest side of town. Speed limits are lower, but you don't have to deal with people slowing down to turn left. The far outside lane is usually a slower lane to allow for people turning off or onto the road.

FM 1960, SH 6, and Westheimer would be good candidate. Westheimer would be limited to intersections at the Beltway and SH 6 most likely which means most left turn lanes would remain. SH 6 and FM 1960 are better candidates to have the center turn lanes removed.

At 4:41 PM, May 28, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...


The comment about Seattle putting a roadway in a tunnel is a little misleading.

The roadway currently is called the Alaskan Viaduct. In the vicinity of downtown, it squeezes as a double deck freeway between the harbor and downtown. The reality is that when they put this road underground, they will really be putting on natural ground. Much of downtown Seattle is actually about 1-2 stories above the original natural ground. Much of it in the area of this project is in the 2 stories and more range.

Seattle after a great fire (don't most large cities have great fires?) made the decision in the rebuilding process to elevate the entire town (which is currently downtown). Just Google "underground Seattle history". You'll get a pretty could Wikipedia article and the website for underground tours.

The project became viable because of how this unique history affected the design of much of the project. The southern and northern extents of the project are more traditional tunnel projects.

At 5:13 PM, May 28, 2009, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

I think the point about mentioning the proposal to bury the existing Alaskan Viaduct is that such action is a quality of life improvement. The existing structure is old, falling apart, extremely ugly and effects the downtown waterfront of Seattle.

Seattle may be blessed with an underground system because of the fire (Seattle is blessed with a lot of things btw), but that doesn't negate the fact that Seattle is going to bury that highway and get it out of the way of locals downtown. This will give way to additional parks, open space, etc.

Seattle is willing to invest a little more in their infrastructure in order to lesson the negative effect such structures have on the quality of life of its citizens. No wonder it is consistently ranked as one of the greatest places to live in America.


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