Monday, February 21, 2011

Fixing traffic, census, entrepreneurial education, rankings, and more

Some smaller items this week:
"In many cities, roadways are lined with sensors or cameras that feed information to traffic-management control rooms. Houston has one that looks almost like the one NASA used to run the moon missions—except it's bigger—and it is run by Houston TranStar, the multi-agency consortium that manages the region's traffic.
Traffic relief doesn't have to involve cutting-edge networking technology or pricey fast lanes. Hiring more tow trucks to clear wrecks and stalled cars faster can generate big gains at a moderate cost. Houston spends about $5 million a year to assure that there are roughly 100 tow trucks cruising the major commuting routes. 
The Texas Transportation Institute's Mr. Lomax estimates Houston's tow truck army saves $25 million to $30 million in congestion costs and about $30 million in collisions that could have resulted from chain-reaction pileups."
And passing along some interesting items from the Houston Digital Ambassador email newsletter:

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Giving the "New Metro" credit where it's due

Today Metro held a blogger luncheon with senior Metro people (Chairman, CEO, board members, managers) at the Rail Operations Center south of Reliant.  It was an informative event with a lot of good two-way Q&A.  And it included an impressive tour of the facility, which, btw, is not air conditioned in the main maintenance bay.  Let's just say it was the right time of year for a tour and I'm really glad I don't work there in the summer.  The facility is doing its job though: Metro claims to have the highest operational uptime for rail cars in the country.

Sometimes in my push for increasing commuter bus services and cutting back rail, I fail to give credit to a lot of good work that is going on at the "New Metro":
  • They really are a lot more open and transparent, and are really trying to do the right things.  
  • There's been a lot to clean-up, and they've done a good job (although CEO Grenias says it will take another 2-3 years to completely turn around the organization).  
  • They've also done a good job continuing to reach out and create collaborative agreements to provide commuter bus services outside of their service area (like Baytown and Pearland).
  • They've fixed the poorly performing Airport Direct service, price and route-wise.
  • They shifted to a cash basis for the General Mobility Program instead of increasing debt.
  • They fixed their broken relationship with the FTA.
There was a lot of good talk about improving express commuter bus services to TMC, Greenway, and, most importantly, Uptown.  I pitched them on expanded HOV/HOT lanes (like the 610 Loop) and laptop trays and wifi on the commuter buses, which are under consideration.  They have a very high percentage of downtown commuters - 30-40% - and claim a pretty high number for TMC - 20-30% - but that includes people who park in Smithlands and ride the rail, which I don't consider a true commuter solution (it's not doing anything to reduce freeway congestion).

Ultimately, they're trapped by the voter referendum and the federal money process to keep pursuing a rail plan (and line prioritization) that really doesn't make a lot of sense given the new fiscal reality since the referendum was passed.  It will make even less sense if the Republican House guts rail funding.  But at least they're taking steps to "firewall" the rail plan financially so it doesn't end up stealing from critical local and commuter bus operations.  I may not agree with the overall strategic direction of the agency, but they do have good people doing good work within the constraints of the game they're forced to play.

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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The real answer to Houston's traffic congestion

The Chronicle editorial board recently argued that light rail is key to combating Houston's traffic congestion problems.  But if you look at the three cities with worse traffic congestion than Houston - DC, Chicago, and LA - they have much more transit, including tons of light rail in LA.  Transit clearly hasn't solved the problem in these cities.  These people aren't stuck in that traffic because they like it - it's because the transit doesn't go where they need to go or isn't timely.  This is especially true with the rise of dispersed job centers in those cities where the trains don't go or don't provide good connectivity to the suburbs where people live.  Let's see, in Houston we have downtown (<7% of jobs), uptown/Galleria, the med center, Greenway, Greenspoint, the Energy Corridor, Ship Channel, and NASA - among others.  If that's not a dispersed set of job centers poorly suited to rail connectivity, then I don't know what is.

It's absurd to argue a light rail network focused inside the 610 Loop is going to do anything to relieve congestion or provide relief to commuters from the vast suburbs outside the loop.  The solution is not doubling down on our multi-billion dollar LRT network, but instead scaling it back (University line only, IMHO) and instead spending the funds on a radical increase in express bus commuter services connecting all suburbs to all job centers with frequent nonstop 60+ mph transit using high-speed HOV/HOT lanes.  Imagine driving to your local suburban transit center (which might just be a mall parking lot) and finding regular, frequent express buses (of all sizes) serving every major job center in Houston.  These buses could have amenities like wifi and laptop trays.  They might even be run by private operators (with subsidized fares) competing on routes, schedule, reliability, service, and amenities.  And after they get to the job center, they can circulate to get you right to your building - no long walks in heat, cold, or rain.  Finally, all of this is a single-seat service without annoying and time-consuming transfers from bus-to-rail or rail-to-bus (or even rail-to-rail).

It's a much more practical solution for a city like Houston, but one that requires innovating 'outside the box' as a transit agency rather than parroting the "more rail" mantra that every other transit agency in the country repeats endlessly.

For more details, see these previous posts:

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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Why Houston grows faster, rail vs. $, faith-based planning, and more

Continuing last week's list of smaller items:
  • You probably saw this article in the Chronicle on how Fed funding for the Metro North and SE lines is at risk, as I predicted.  If the funding does disappear, I hope Metro has the guts to go in a new direction: replace N and SE lines with much cheaper signature bus and focus on the much more important University line (with or without Fed funds).
  • Just a pass along: America 2050 has released a new report on high-speed rail in America (full report, Texas section).  It specifically recommends focusing on the DFW-Austin-SA corridor while connecting Houston with a leg to the mid-point (i.e. the Texas T-bone plan, not the Texas Triangle), which would of course add a lot of time and distance to most trips from Houston.  While there is some interesting analysis here, with the House on a cut-spending warpath, I wouldn't expect to see any progress on infrastructure investments of such marginal utility.  Hat tip to Kuff.
  • Aaron Renn, the respected Urbanophile blogger, makes a good case for more roads vs. the current transit/walking/biking fads.
  • "Faith Based City Planning - Exorcising the Suburban Dream"  Great stuff - bitingly funny.  An excerpt:
"Over the past two decades, our city planning has become faith based. A new preacher has evolved in the form of the Architect or Planner who evangelizes to the congregation that they can all live in serenity if they have faith in the teachings. Their sermons of architectural commandments introduce dimensional ratios that can deliver a utopian existence, promising a wonderland for families.
To enforce faith, you of course need an evil entity to oppose. The evil entity in the faith of land planning is The Suburbs. Those that believe in the suburbs are inherently evil and must be converted or they may spend eternity dammed to a cul-de-sac. The automobile is sacrificed on this altar, with the chant "Space – Space – Space".
Converts to this faith include many if not most, politicians (not just liberals), architects, planners, environmentalists, movie stars, and many in the press. Those that have not converted yet include land developers, builders, city council and planning commission members, and the majority of the home buying market."
He goes on to dismantle the 'religion' tenet by tenet.  Of course, I think some interesting and very nice communities are being built with these principles - it's when it shifts from a market choice to good vs. evil religion that things get out of hand.
"A rich body of research shows that regulation, which is intense in the Northeast and California but lax in the Sun Belt, explains why housing is supplied so readily down South. The future shape of America is being driven not by quality of life or economic success but by the obscure rules regulating local land use."

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