Friday, September 18, 2009

Critiquing Gene Locke's Transportation Plan (and HRG, NPR)

Today I attended mayoral candidate Gene Locke's transportation briefing, during which he unveiled his transportation plan, which had the usual stuff (improve regional coordination, get more state and federal money, etc.) but also introduced a few novel items (including the cute C.H.O.I.C.E.S. acronym).

I also had the opportunity to attend the Quality of Life forum last evening, in which all the major mayoral candidates contributed their particular policy dish to a political buffet intended to appeal to the most democratic palette possible. Over the course of the evening, the mayoral candidates spoke about parks, trails, trees, water, visual blight, etc. So this one is easy to sum up: "We all support improving quality of life within tight city budget constraints." No news there.

Here are some of the Gene Locke plan points that jumped out at me, most of which I support:
  • Creating a "City Department of Mobility" and a Director of Mobility. Long overdue.
  • Syncing traffic lights across the city as well as regionally. Fantastic idea. Although, good luck with cities like Bellaire, West U., and the Villages, which seem to revel in making it as slow as possible to cross their cities. Of course, their motivation is understandable: they don't want the Houstonians' traffic. But then, we do control their water supply, so we might have some leverage there...
  • Expanding HOV service, which would mean longer hours, more Park-and-Ride centers, and, most importantly, increased service to business centers outside of downtown like Uptown/Galleria, Greenway Plaza, the Medical Center, and the Energy Corridor (a tough one because of widely spaced destinations).
  • Getting real-time bus status online. Locke mentioned an iPhone, but I think any plain cell phone should be able to text a stop number to Metro and instantly receive a text reply with the bus routes headed to that stop along with their estimated times of arrival.
  • Bring back the downtown trolleys. (And maybe also in Uptown and the TMC-Rice Village area.)
  • "Reducing bus fares to increase ridership." That one's a direct quote from the plan, which went on to say that the city would "also look at a pilot program to eliminate bus fares at certain times" (like rush hour). Similar to Bill King's op-ed, this concept could substantially increase ridership, reduce cars on the road, and speed trip times (no fumbling for money).
  • Promoting transit-oriented development, or "TOD," which can help accommodate growth without adding much traffic. Significantly, Locke does not support government planning to dictate how or where to build. "Let the market figure it out." Huzzah!
  • Accelerating commuter rail. My long-time readers know I have mixed opinions when it comes to commuter rail. Some lines may make sense in narrow circumstances, but economics tend to force the shutdown of any express buses that even remotely compete with the rail line, often leading to longer commutes for riders (more stops and transfers, slower net speeds, longer walks to their final destination).
In Q&A, Locke endorsed continuing Mayor White's Safe Clear program, a very successful program recently backed up by a study. As far as what to do with the 25% of Metro's revenue that they turn over for "general mobility" (i.e. street improvements), he believes that decision will be decided by the voters. Personally, he would like to see some flexibility in how it's spent to improve regional mobility. I don't see any of Metro's member cities wanting to give it up, including Houston Public Works, despite Metro's desire to redirect it to transit/rail.

Overall, a pretty good plan.

Speaking of mayoral candidates, Houstonians for Responsible Growth came out with their endorsement yesterday of both Annise Parker and Gene Locke, while, not surprisingly, taking some shots at Peter Brown. Chronicle coverage and Brown response here. Even though some people believe HRG = "evil developers against neighborhoods," they're really a broader collection of well-intentioned people that want to preserve the strengths -- including vibrancy, competition, and affordability -- of Houston's historical free-market approach to development. That includes reforming and strengthening deed restrictions to protect neighborhoods. And don't forget that developers transform underutilized land into better and higher uses by increasing property value, which adds to the city's tax base to support public safety, schools, libraries, parks, flood control, and infrastructure investment and renewal.

Finally, if you haven't heard already, NPR is doing a series of stories on Houston this week (hat tip to Mark). This is the lead story, which contains links to the others. Two stories so far will particularly appeal to readers of this blog: this one on our approach to growth (including great comments by Rice prof Stephen Klineberg and Harvard professor Edward Glaeser), and this interview with Mayor White, which include discussion of energy efficiency, Ashby, light rail, and TOD.

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At 12:58 AM, September 19, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Meh. Yes, if Houston wants to cut down its pollution and emissions levels, it needs to promote smart growth - Calgary is a good model here.

But at the same time, any city whose economy is fueled by oil extraction and heavy manufacturing is going to emit vast amounts of CO2. Excluding the car-dependent US, Canada, and Australia, the lowest GDP-per-emissions countries in the developed world tend to be those with the most mining and heavy industry: South Korea, Singapore, Norway; South Korea is performing even worse than the US and Canada, and the industrial areas of Singapore have pollution that makes Los Angeles look pristine. The highest GDP-per-emissions countries either are deindustrialized (France), never had much industry (Hong Kong, Ireland), or have light, high value-added industries (Switzerland, Sweden). If Texas wants to cut emissions, it should orient its economy to create more Texas Instruments and fewer Exxon-Mobils.

At 8:33 AM, September 19, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

"Reducing bus fares to increase ridership."
Finally someone who says something intelligent. If he doesn't win the mayor's office, METRO should hire him.

METRO actually thinks raising bus fairs will bring revenue. It's like people that think raising taxes will bring in more revenue. Just plain dumb on economics.

As for GDP/CO2 emissions, that is false way to compare us to other countries. What should also be brought into that number is how that CO2 references to production. The US and Canada pretty much feed the world with our grains. Over producing food (and CO2) because other countries will just buy our food versus generate the CO2 to produce theirs. This concept can be pushed on all kinds of goods and services we produced for the rest of the world from our extra CO2 production. It's not a an even trade where every developed country should be at about the same GDP/CO2. It also the same case with the canard that we over consume energy (oil) compared to other countries. The same comparison to our food, goods, and services production output balances it out. In the end, our supposed over use in energy or our over production of CO2 is actually the rest of the world over use and production also.

The GDP/CO2 comparison was created by environmental groups that see it as a way to cripple developed countries economies and to pretty much demonize the US.

At 4:10 PM, September 19, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

But... GDP/CO2 is on average higher in developed countries than in developing ones. And Hong Kong, Ireland, and Switzerland, three of the most free-market countries in the world, all rank close to the top.

Agriculture isn't carbon-intensive. The most agriculturally productive areas of the US - California and the Corn Belt - actually have below-average emissions. The highest emissions are in areas dominated by mining and manufacturing, like Texas.


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