Monday, February 15, 2010

My advice to the Metro committees

Most of you may have heard that Mayor Parker appointed transition committees to take a hard look at Metro, and she wants them to think outside the box, including the possibility of free fares (farebox revenues make up only 20% of Metro's budget - the rest is their 1% sales tax). My regular readers know I've written a lot on Metro and transit over the years, so I thought I'd try to sum up my advice to the committees in a single post. If you know anybody on the committees, please consider forwarding this over. Thanks.
  • Transit agencies all over the country have consistently overestimated revenues and underestimated costs, esp. for rail projects, eventually leading to a fiscal crisis with bus service for the poor and transit-dependent held hostage to a taxpayer bailout. Don't let it happen here. Here's a counter-example about a prudent transit agency.
  • Don't let federal subsidies over-warp your thinking about what the right answers are and are not for Houston. Chasing federal money often leads to bad decisions and boondoggle projects.
  • Given current fiscal realities, it is unreasonable to expect the Metro communities to give up their 1/4% sales tax for general transportation improvements.
  • If we simply can't afford the Metro Solutions rail plan, and it must be stretched out or even canceled, the low-cost alternative is to replace those lines with frequent, free signature bus service. I've heard that the FTA wants to spread limited funds around and they will only strongly subsidize a single major project in each city. If we can only afford one line, make sure it's the east-west Universities line, which connects the most important destinations in central Houston not already connected by the Main St. line. More here: Adapting Metro Solutions to the new realities
  • On the long-term Metro Solutions plan: Why rail to the airport doesn't make sense
  • Commuter rail rarely works in a post-WW2 car-based city. Old cities in Europe and America were built with dense cores for the primary mobility mode of the time: walking. Rail allowed people to move to the suburbs and still commute to the single dense core of jobs (like Manhattan or downtown Chicago). Newer, mostly post-WW2, car-based, Sunbelt cities like Houston have decentralized jobs spread over many different centers, like Downtown, Uptown, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza, the Energy Corridor, Westchase, Greenspoint, Clear Lake, and more. Less than 7% of our jobs are downtown. Trying to connect commuters to these job centers with rail would not only be astronomically expensive, but would lead to impractically long commute times with multiple transfers and long walks for people to reach their final destination buildings. The better solution: express buses. They whisk commuters nonstop at 65mph directly to their job center and then circulate to get them right to their building. No transfers, no waits, and no walking in our unpredictable weather. They also compliment technology trends to be the ideal commute of the future.
  • Push the conversion of all HOV lanes to HOT lanes, and add HOT lanes to the 610 Loop (see the fourth point here on how).
  • Open up the express commuter bus/shuttle market to private competition by offering a flat subsidy per passenger-trip + per passenger-mile and letting private companies compete on service, routes, schedules, and amenities (like wi-fi). Let them use the existing Park-and-Rides or cut deals with private parking lots like churches and malls. This is the fastest way to not only improve commuter service, but also maximize ridership to reduce rush hour congestion.
  • To encourage more dense inside-the-loop living (i.e. transit-oriented development) and reduced congestion, make Metro buses and rail free inside the loop (with high-frequency service). It might also make sense to eliminate all fares at Metro, but this could be a good first step in that direction.
  • Wherever we do decide to build rail, listen very carefully to Christof to get the details right.
Some more principles, ideas, and details here: A Pragmatic Approach to Houston’s Future (part 1, part 2)

Thanks for your time and consideration.

Update: Thanks for the backup Tom, Cory, and Evan. Much appreciated.
Update 2: A relevant classic post from my first year that the committees should definitely read: A hypothesis on the deeper psychology of rail

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At 5:09 PM, February 15, 2010, Blogger lockmat said...

Tory, don't mean to hijack the post, just want to get it in the open. But what do you think of Medina's plans if elected? Had a chance to look into it?

Maybe you can talk about it in a future post.

At 5:20 PM, February 15, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

METRO should look at private solutions in Houston and see how they do a MUCH BETTER job at providing a service.

A good example: The Washington Wave Jitney service. A simple idea has become so successful as a business model that they are going to expand service. Think of it as a park-n-ride for night time. They have a simple fare system and locations where people want to go.

A similar version would be nice to bring back to downtown for daytime use particularly in the lunchtime hours from 11-2

At 5:37 PM, February 15, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I have not looked at Medina's plans in detail. I've heard a few things in passing that sound interesting, but I don't think she has a realistic chance of getting past the primary. If she does, I'll definitely take a deeper look.

I didn't mention the downtown shuttles, but I've heard good things about them and Metro should strongly consider bringing them back.

At 10:32 PM, February 15, 2010, Blogger Unknown said...


The "Free Fares" option is not realistic.

If I did not send you the update of the current sales tax revenue, then I will after this post.

Besides not generating any fare box revenue, while the sales tax revenue is declining, the tram and buses will quickly evolve into mobile homeless shelters. The stinking bums will panhandle the men and leer at the women.

Ridership will continue to plummet.

At 12:15 AM, February 16, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

What is the unlimited monthly discount on METRO? I'm asking because a high discount is a common way of reducing fares for regular users, as well as giving people an incentive to buy tickets once a month rather than twice a day.

At 1:00 AM, February 16, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

By the way: with respect, I don't think Houston is like Miami, where the entire concept of employment center doesn't really exist anymore. Houston's edge cities are more like La Defense - away from downtown, but dense and close to the CBD. La Defense to downtown Paris is marginally shorter than downtown Houston to Uptown. Downtown, Uptown, Rice, UH, and the Medical Center form a nice cross-shaped system.

The Sunbelt growth pattern of Houston shouldn't matter too much for transit ridership, either. Perth has a higher rail ridership per capita than Chicago, and is seeing double-digit percentage increases in rail ridership per year. Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary, which have had the same postwar growth rates as Los Angeles, are approaching the rail ridership per capita of New York.

At 7:06 AM, February 16, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think free fares are realistic if the rail plan is scaled back. The homeless solution is requiring the bus to completely empty at each end of its route.

Canada has a much stronger British/French planning and control scheme for their cities than America (and especially more than Texas). You can argue whether that's good or bad, but it has shaped their cities since WW2 (and before).

Houston does have a core set of job centers, but I still believe those are far better served with 65mph point-to-point express buses in HOT lanes than net-45mph commuter rail to a LRT transfer and then a painfully slow 17mph ride in the core, only to then have a long walk in unpredictable/uncomfortable weather to their final building.

At 4:03 PM, February 16, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Also throw in that Toronto, Calgary, and Perth all have rough weather seasons to get people into rail transit.

Toronto and Calgary have fairly brutal winters and Perth has very hot summers with winter being the rainy or monsoon season.

Another note about Perth (and common to mass transit throughout Australia) is that the cost of using mass transit is considerably higher (i.e. the poor don't use it in high numbers). So much so that many travel gurus tell you to avoid it even if it delivers you from point A to B with no walking or transfers. Cabs are simply a lot cheaper for the traveler. Employers in downtown areas of several Australian cities have to compensate for this to get workers in their offices unless they want to relocate to the suburbs.

Vancouver is similar to New York in that is it is trapped with very little room to grow geographically and politically. Add on top that there is very little available roadway to get to the core of the city efficiently like Houston. The edges of Vancouver are typical freeway suburbia, but the center is pretty much off limits to freeways. This lack of infrastructure lends well to making transit work (still can't pay for itself though). Houston has the infrastructure in place to handle not needing rail for many years to come. As long as local agencies just reserve the paths for commuter rail (as planned on the US 290 project), we can go many years until implementing rail in that corridor.

At 8:53 AM, February 17, 2010, Anonymous Houston Auto Accident Attorney said...

Either way, this still seems to me like a big problem without a proper solution.

At 10:37 AM, February 17, 2010, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

I think that if you want to ration a good in a rational or efficient manner then you need to charge a price for it. The higher the demand for the good then the higher the price you should charge. This system works very well when allocating scarce goods like food and electricity. I think it would work equally well with roadways and railways.

Subsidizing a product like roadways and railways will reduce the cost to the user and will likely increase demand, but it does not follow that subsidizing roadways and railways will decrease congestion or improve mobility. If your goal is merely to inflate demand then subsidize it but if your goal is to improve mobility and decrease congestion then don't subsidize it and, better still, have the end user pay for it.

At 12:03 PM, February 17, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't mean to be off point but there's another problem that's developed since I've posted here last. That "problem" is that for all practical purposes, for those living North of Houston, i.e., Spring/Klein/Woodlands, the commute has become virtually intolerable and appears to be only getting worse each year. Then of course there's the 610 Loop. Where does it work? certainly not the west or north sides and I'm unsure of the east side. Ah, Beltway 8; obsolete and a literal parking lot in the evenings. Then of course there's that triumph of planning, Hwy. 290, obsolete before it openned.

And so....."HOT" lanes will fix this mess? I dunno; I'm not being argumentative; what I'm trying to point out is that a huge portion of the freeway system is broken mess. I mean, you could write a country western song about the evening commute on 45 north. "Accident at Cavalcade; oveturned load of pipe at the loop; breakdown, left lane at Airline". Same song, different day. And look, this is during an economic downturn! God help us one and all if the economy were to suddenly turn around.

I just don't see any solutions to these problems. Apparently Exxon found one.........consolidating out an away. And, maybe that's the way things will go.

At 12:44 PM, February 17, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That's exactly what we have to avoid - companies and their jobs and tax base leaving the city - and the way to do it is with better express bus commuter transit options.

At 7:18 AM, February 18, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, (me again), you're quite correct, we need better express bus options. I've waxed poetic here before on the virtues of Metro's Park n' Ride service. It works; it works great. Wish I could use it. The "problem" is that the bus system works well as long as you don't have to transfer. Example; take the Spring 204 P&R to Downtown....20 minutes on a good day; then try to get to the Galleria. I can almost walk it as fast. (and I'm no "Spring" chicken, no pun intended). I've recently taken up bicycling again; love it. I've even considered that insane proposition from DT through the park. But only a person with a serious death wish would attempt Post Oak on a bike. Man, do we need bike paths?????

One observation I've made is that if you drive about the "Loop", North and particularly North East, you see a truth and that is that the combination of no zoning, lots of cheap land and cheap lumber have resulted in a hop scotch development pattern. Check 59 out of Downtown. So, the CBD area is surrounded by literally thousands of acres of dilapidated, old, dangerous, wood frame homes. Yea, they are home to someone. I'd say, someone who needs a new house; and that's particularly true for the poor elderly people we read about every winter who end up being incinerated in these old houses from misuse of old gas floor heaters. My profound wish for Houston is that in addition to a better, maybe, electrified, Express bus system, (and they should try running down the medians instead of the right lanes, i.e., think St. Charles Ave. in NOLA), Houston gov't and private developers could find a cost efficient way to re-develop the near north side/east and northeast end of this city. We realy need affordable, modern, energy efficient, housing here.

Keep up the good work.

At 8:18 AM, February 18, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I totally agree we need many more P&R nonstops to job centers other than downtown, and they need a HOT lane to use on 610.

The Houston Hope program is doing exactly what you describe:

At 10:54 AM, February 18, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...


The link below is to the new Forbes ranking of the 10 most miserable cities to live. Chicago and New York make the list...

The reasoning behind the rankings is pretty good since it's based on what what citizens really care about.

At 1:35 PM, February 18, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks. No Texas cities on there!

At 2:19 PM, February 18, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

KJB434, is this really what people care about?

The metrics include taxes (both sales and income), commute times, violent crime and how its pro sports teams have fared over the past two years.

At 9:45 PM, February 18, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>The metrics include taxes (both sales and income), commute times, violent crime and how its pro sports teams have fared over the past two years.

They'd need to include property taxes en lieu of sports for Texas cities to make the list I guess. And I don't think Houston will be helping itself after the Astros upcoming season :).

>>I still believe those are far better served with 65mph point-to-point express buses in HOT lanes than net-45mph commuter rail to a LRT transfer....

I don't believe buses are net 65 mph, unless they are going 90 on the HOT lanes. Once they get to the Galleria or downtown or the Med Center they are going to have to sit in traffic and wait at lights (sometimes the same light 2 or 3 times) just like everyone else. Unless you are suggesting that all point to point buses also have MIRT capabilities - that could be interesting. But still, until you have an HOT network *everywhere* 65 mph seems pretty far-fetched. Eventually 610 will have HOT, and eventually we will all have our own jet packs, and traffic will be a thing of the past, but until then commuter rail seems like it should be on the drawing board along with better bus options.

At 9:29 AM, February 19, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think commuter rail IS on the drawing board, but I think it's also reasonable to evaluate transit alternatives to it. I hope they reserve the 290 and Westpark corridors for rail, but do we absolutely need it now? Maybe, maybe not.

I think if we had Uptown <--> Downtown, Downtown <--> Med Center, Med Center <--> Uptown (and maybe a few Greenway routes thrown in there), it would have the potential to get regular riders, encourage some development along these routes, and maybe set the stage for rail, whether LRT or commuter. For example, I think a Galleria <--> Med Center rail route would be infeasible at this point, but in the future, the demand could be there. Maybe 20 years from now a Bellaire to Med Center rail line will be built; there's already a "blue line" or whatever it's called because of the demand. BRT was even proposed as an alternative to LRT, which could be upgraded later. Why not express buses?

At 9:47 AM, February 19, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

kjb434, I can buy the climate argument for the Canadian cities, but I'm not sure I do for Perth. They are a bit wetter than Houston in the winter, but warmer. Perth has hot summers, but they are not as humid as Houston's.

Incidentally, the heat is often what some people, including Tory, say is the reason why people tend NOT to use transit in the South (people don't want to sweat while walking the last few blocks or while waiting outside for transit). So I'm not sure ...

Is the thinking that it's drier so people are hot in Perth but don't sweat as much and therefore don't show up at work drenched in sweat?

Alon, do you know of any other reasons why transit has high ridership in Perth, but not other places? I think I remember Perth having some pretty strict growth boundaries which forced the density issue. Downtown Chicago is dense, but it does have some distant suburbs and exurbs.

At 10:10 AM, February 19, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...La Defense to downtown Paris is marginally shorter than downtown Houston to Uptown. Downtown, Uptown, Rice, UH, and the Medical Center form a nice cross-shaped system."

And I think that's a good reason among others to keep the Universities line on schedule for construction.

However, connecting Greenspoint, the Energy Corridor, Westchase, and other smaller employment centers is probably only achievable with the given infrastructure.

On top of that, it's not just employment centers that need to be connected to each other, but employment centers to where people live. A prime example which is not a radial route and does not pass through downtown would be The Woodlands to the Energy Corridor. Even though these are only 2-3 axle vehicles, I bet HCTRA could charge $30 per vehicle per booth, and the bus company would still make money.

The challenge for this particular route would be that businesses are spread out in the Energy Corridor. If you had either a circulator, or a bus for the north side of I-10 and one for the south side, it might work.

At 12:34 PM, February 21, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Alon, do you know of any other reasons why transit has high ridership in Perth, but not other places?

It's a national issue, really. Within Australia, like in any other country, the largest cities have the highest transit ridership. Perth's transit use is much lower than Sydney's and Melbourne's, but because Australia has higher transit use than the US, it still outperforms most American cities. (But by no means all - Perth isn't Calgary.) I brought it up because it's the only Australian city whose postwar growth is comparable to that of the US Sunbelt.

I'm not sure why Australia has more transit ridership than the US, though. I want to say that it's because its rail transit is predominantly electrified S-Bahn-style commuter rail, but I don't know specifics.


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