Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Houston getting our own "Energy SXSW" conference!

Four years ago I started calling for Houston to develop its own version of Austin's globally-popular SXSW mega-conference, except around all types of energy technology, including alternative energy (arguments here and here).  It would be an incredible economic development, city branding, global PR, and tourism asset for the city while cementing our status as the Energy Capital no matter how the technology shifts.  And if we didn't do it, somebody else would, and we'd be kicking ourselves for not seizing the opportunity when we had the chance.  Over the years I've brought it up with various officials, but the Parker administration and others finally pushed it forward and last week we had the announcement of the Total Energy USA conference for October 2012 (they even picked good weather!).  It'll start small and hopefully grow quickly from there, but I'm really excited to see it finally getting off of the ground.

Oddly, I can't find the original press release online that was emailed to me, so I'm including it below, including the informative FAQ at the end.  Hat tip to Andy and Josh (and Annise! - most first names are semi-anonymous, but maybe not that one...  ;-).  Thanks guys.

New energy tradeshow to launch in Houston in 2012
June 23, 2011

HOUSTON—The nation’s energy capital will host a groundbreaking new tradeshow next year bringing together professionals from the full range of energy industry sectors to discuss the current and future landscape of this evolving field.

Total Energy USA is expected to draw approximately 7,500 attendees to Houston October 16-18, 2012 for the largest tradeshow of its kind in the country.

Unlike other industry events that have a narrower focus or may be aligned to certain interests, Total Energy USA will provide a balanced forum with an opportunity for all energy sectors—fossil, nuclear, renewables, and cross-cutting sectors like energy-efficiency—to be represented. The resulting mix will create new business opportunities for participants as they discuss how to balance locally available resources, economics, reliability and environmental impact when making important energy decisions.

“For more than a century, Houston has been the hub for petrochemical production and innovation,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker. “The creation of Total Energy USA puts us one step closer to being the world’s energy capital—not just in traditional fuels but in the future of alternative energy.”

Total Energy USA is being produced by VP International. Partners in the initiative include the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, Greater Houston Partnership and the Houston Technology Center.

“Total Energy USA is based on the principle that addressing our nation’s energy challenges will require that we consider all energy options, conventional and non-conventional, along with energy efficiency and reducing energy use,” said Vinnie Polito, managing director for VP International, the event’s producer. By opening up the field and collaborating with associations, media and organizations across the renewable energy spectrum, Polito believes that Total Energy USA will answer the need for an industry event that “elevates the dialogue, broadens the opportunities and paints the complete energy picture.”

“This event represents a unique opportunity for Houston to capitalize on our knowledge base in the energy industry,” said Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Energy is the backbone of our economy and Total Energy USA will offer our local companies a home-field advantage for networking and deal-making with firms from around the world.”

"To meet our energy needs we must look at all options - fossil fuels, nuclear and renewable sources of power - as well as harnessing the power of smart energy to empower consumers to make informed decisions about how they purchase and use energy," said John Ragan, NRG Energy regional president, Texas. "By bringing all of these together, Total Energy USA will help build understanding of sound, energy-related decisions."

What is Total Energy USA?
Total Energy USA will be an annual trade event that will bring together all of the energy sectors to provide a comprehensive look at the overarching, integrated industry. This business-to-business tradeshow and educational conference will be the largest of its kind in the United States.

What's unique about this event?
Total Energy USA is the only event in the U.S. that brings traditional fuels and energy efficiency together with clean and renewable energy technologies. Furthermore, unlike other events that focus on a particular segment of the industry, Total Energy will offer a balanced forum for delegates to make their own decisions and for sponsors to showcase their products on a level playing field.

When and where?
The inaugural event will take place October 16-18, 2012 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston.

Who's involved in creating Total Energy USA?
VP International is producing Total Energy USA. Partners in the initiative include the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, Greater Houston Partnership, the Houston Technology Center and the Technology Transition Corporation.

Who will be the exhibitors at Total Energy USA?
The event is expected to draw approximately 400 exhibitors affiliated with the energy industry, including associations, builders/architects, component equipment suppliers, equipment manufacturers, project developers and operators and professionals in fields such as renewable energy development, solar design, wind services and more.

Who will attend?
An estimated 7,500 energy professionals, leaders, researchers, academics and others interested in our energy future including architects, builders, community leaders, developers and energy consultants, government officials, power producers, landowners, large energy users, media, oil and gas suppliers and more. Total Energy USA is designed specifically for those working in the energy industry. Attendance estimates are based on the performance of similar tradeshows previously held around the world.

Why is this happening in Houston?
Houston has a long history in the petroleum industry. But today the nation's fourth-largest city and nucleus of the energy sector is focused on the total energy landscape, from petrochemicals to wind power. No other city offers the combination of energy-related expertise, resources and technology—or the commitment to leveraging opportunities for development, commercialization and networking.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fixing Metrolift

This week we have an excellent guest post by fellow TEDx Houston attendee Katrina Moore, a long-suffering rider of Metro and the Metrolift system, with her insider's perspective and personal story of what's wrong and what's needed to fix it.

I have been a member of a unique class of Houston citizens for well over a decade. In the hustle and bustle of daily commutes, I am one of the forgotten plenty. If you have ever ridden the Houston Metro system for an extended period of time, especially outside of the inner city, then you have a pretty good idea of what I am talking about. Now stretch yourself a little and imagine the daily life of one of Houston’s disabled, often elderly, pedestrians. I am here to tell you that the story can be pretty complicated and bleak.

I will use myself as an example, though I know there are many worse scenarios. I finally qualified for services from Metrolift about eight years ago. Though legally blind and unable to drive, I was initially turned down because I did not appear ‘blind’ enough in my interview. Services entail the following: free Metro bus pass, access to Metrolift buses and discounted cab service. Receiving these services was definitely liberating and I was absolutely grateful to have them.

Four years ago, I was offered a job teaching photography at a local private school. I was absolutely terrified to take the job because, until that point, my experience with my Metrolift services had been difficult to say the least.

Option 1 – Metrolift Buses
There was a long waiting list for the Metrolift subscription service, which provides prescheduled transportation to passengers who are going to the same place every day. Non-subscription service was not a feasible option either. While there is no waiting list, these buses are notoriously late for pickup and drop-off, and being a teacher, I kinda had to be there on time, every time. Not an option.

Option 2 – Discounted Cab Service
The discounted cab service is an interesting set up. Metrolift pays the first $8 of your cab fare, which gets you about 1 ½ miles from your front door. To get to my job, the remainder of my fare would have been $7, which came to $14 a day. Since my job was very part-time, the cost analysis did not hold up. Not an option.

Option 3 - Free Bus Card
Free is good, don’t get me wrong. If you are an Inner-looper, you may not know that outside the loop, the bus routes can get a little hairy. This was my daily commute. Walk to the bus stop, only a few blocks away, no big deal. Wait for a bus that was often up to 20 minutes late. Take a bus 15 minutes to 34th and Antoine, home of the methadone clinic and a sketchy neighborhood, to say the least. Stand at the corner for 20+ minutes. Take another ten minute bus ride. Walk for 6 minutes. Get to work. Repeat.
I spent close to 2 hours a day commuting to a job that required my presence for 2 hours a day.

The next three years came with a shift in paradigm. My schedule became less part-time but required me to get to work much earlier in the morning. As I am a mother, my priority was to get my daughter to school in the morning, before going to work. Option 3, no longer an option. I, then, was forced to turn to Option 2, a discounted cab fare. With more hours came more money and a $200+ monthly cab bill.

Many of you spend at least this much on gas a month, so the expense may seem justifiable. The issues with the discounted cab idea are numerous. Cab drivers are not employees of Metrolift, of course, but rather private entrepreneurs hired by various cab companies. They sign up to be Metrolift providers but are not required to accept Metrolift fares. This means that if a better offer comes up on the board, they will choose that fare. I have been told by a plethora of drivers that most Metrolift customers just want to go to the grocery store. This means that compared to an airport trip, these customers are small potatoes. This also means that if a convention is in town or, God forbid, the Rodeo, Metrolift customers may wait up to an hour+ to get a cab. This has happened to me an unspeakable number of times.

Metrolift cab users also have some strange rules that make life even harder. For some reason, you are not allowed to put in an order in advance, a privilege for other cab riders. This puts you in constant, direct competition with every other fare. You are also not allowed to request a specific driver; you take what you can get. I am not sure why these arbitrary rules are in place at all. Also, none of the drivers are screened or trained to help you. Imagine that you are blind and going somewhere you have never been. You finally get into your cab, and the driver asks, “So, how do you get there?” You then sit quietly in a parking lot while the driver searches through a Key Map, often with the meter running.

After working for three years in the same location, I was able to work out some of the kinks. Some of the most amazing cab drivers memorized my ID number and did their best to scoop me up whenever they saw my trip. I still made sure to call in my trip 1 hour and 15 minutes early to get to work on time and to put my daughter in the car of a neighbor 1 hour and 15 minutes before her school actually began. I also often waited for over an hour to get a cab to go home. All of this while teaching Middle School and suffering Houston traffic.

The reason I am telling you all of this? Recently, I have been hearing a lot about development in Houston. The potential for this city is seemingly limitless in the eyes of many. I admire all of the work being done to make this city cutting edge in so many ways. We, the forgotten plenty, also want to be able to join in, be a part of Houston culture, and take advantage of what Houston has to offer. The scenario I have described is only to meet a need, to work, but what about to live? What about the 1 ½ hour wait at the grocery store while meat goes bad or ice cream melts? What about getting to the theater or local galleries or to a doctor’s appointment?

I see only two options: either a complete reform of the existing Metrolift system or the development of a private enterprise outside of Metro’s seemingly incompetent hands. Imagine a website, with an online scheduler and calendar, where patrons can plan and pay for trips in advance: a system where those who need assistance can communicate with a caring and professional staff and be driven by trained and vetted drivers. In a city such as Houston, bursting with possibility, is it truly so hard to envision?

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Katy tolls underpriced? plus anti-BRT bias and TED

My TEDx Houston presentation went incredibly well.  Thanks to everyone for their support.  There should be a video available within a few weeks, but until then you can download a pdf of my TEDx slides here or they're also permalinked in the right-side Links column.

I'm crunched for time this week, so just a pass-along of a couple of interesting items from Reason's Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter.  Highlights mine.  Bottom line: we should be doing a lot more cost-effective signature bus and BRT instead of light rail, and congestion-priced toll lanes are adding a lot more value to society than we've been assuming - and we need a lot more of them.

New BRT Report Pulls Back the Veil

I’ve been a fan of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) for many years now, ever since learning of the very impressive system in Curitiba, Brazil (and years later, the equally impressive BRT system on Bogota, Colombia). What has continued to surprise me since then is how infrequently U.S. metro areas opt for BRT, going instead for far more costly and less flexible rail transit systems. So I’m delighted to introduce you to the best report I’ve seen on BRT possibilities in the United States. Released last month by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, it’s called “Recapturing Global Leadership in Bus Rapid Transit.” (www.itdp.org/documents/20110526ITDP_USBRT_Report-LR.pdf)

Let me first caution you that, as the term is used in this country, there are two different forms of BRT: BRT-lite and BRT-heavy. The former is often called “rapid bus” and is exemplified by LA Metro’s highly successful Metro Rapid: limited-stop service using specially marked buses in mixed-traffic lanes on major arterials throughout Los Angeles County (like Metro's signature lines). At very modest cost, Metro Rapid has achieved large gains in bus ridership in numerous L.A. corridors. The new ITDP report is about only BRT-heavy—express services using specialized buses operating mostly on bus-only right of way, on arterials or freeways, with stations rather than just bus stops and many other special features (off-board fare collection, high-level boarding platforms, etc.). The report makes a good case that even though this kind of BRT is far more costly than BRT-Lite, it is less costly than light rail and far more flexible. The report presents a point-scoring system to rate any BRT-heavy system as to how close to “world standard” it is, and also provides profiles of five currently operating U.S. BRT-heavy systems.

While all that is good, some of this has appeared in other BRT reports in recent years. What is unique about the ITDP report is its Chapter V: “BRT and the Feds.” For years I’ve wondered, for all BRT’s advantages and the Federal Transit Administration’s recent encouragement of BRT, why nearly all FTA transit grants go to rail projects. Chapter V lifts the veil and explains why. One problem, already pretty well known, is Congress’s tendency to earmark favored transit projects, even when they score poorly in FTA’s evaluation process. But far more serious are the flaws in that evaluation process, which the report discusses under the heading “Leniency of Federal Funding Criteria Towards Dubious Rail Projects.” Local agencies are required to conduct an “alternatives analysis,” but they are allowed to rig the game. One way is to not include a BRT alternative at all, only the required “no-build” alternative. Another is to use “mode-specific constants” when comparing BRT with rail—an arbitrary factor that builds in an assumption that BRT will attract lower ridership per route-mile (or other parameter) than rail. Other techniques are simply wildly over-optimistic ridership estimates and the selection of weak alternatives. The report illustrates these kinds of “deck-stacking techniques” as used for the Woodward Avenue corridor in Detroit, the Purple Line project in Maryland, and the Dulles Corridor in Virginia (West Falls Church to Dulles Airport).

In addition to criticizing the FTA for allowing that kind of deck-stacking, the report also notes with dismay the watering down of FTA cost-effectiveness criteria in recent years, most recently FTA’s consideration of adding additional environmental or development factors, which would further reduce the weighting given to cost-effectiveness. And the authors add that “further complicating the appraisal process is only likely to make it even less transparent. This could invite further gaming of the assessment process by project proponents in favor of politically desired outcomes.”

After all these words of praise, I do have one objection. As near as I can tell, the only place in the whole 80-page report where priced lanes (HOT or express toll lanes) are mentioned is in the Introduction, on page 7. Everywhere else in the report, the discussion is always about the necessity of having bus-only lanes for BRT, even if this means taking away existing general-purpose lanes. Yet as Ted Balaker and I pointed out six years ago in a Reason Foundation study, variably priced lanes such as HOT lanes are the virtual equivalent of exclusive busways, offering enormous potential for BRT-heavy service without requiring transit agencies to pay the large capital (and political) costs of acquiring and building exclusive bus-only guideways. (http://reason.org/news/show/virtual-exclusive-busways)

This is a point the FTA still does not appear to appreciate. In a report whose authors were willing to speak truth to power and make strong pro-BRT recommendations, their failure to urge the FTA, state DOTs, and local officials to act on the synergy between BRT and priced lanes is an enormous missed opportunity.

Are Managed Lanes Under-Priced?

The question of how to price congestion-relief toll lanes is still a live issue. An important new paper adds to our knowledge of how heterogeneous people’s value of time savings may be in congested expressway corridors. Unlike previous studies of this issue, which have relied primarily on the 15-year-old 91 Express Lanes in California, this new research is based on people using the relatively new managed lanes on the Katy Freeway (I-10) in Houston, opened a couple of years ago. The paper is “Variation in the Value of Travel Time Savings and Its Impact on the Benefits of Managed Lanes.” The authors are Sunil Patil (RAND Europe), Mark Burris and Douglass Shaw (Texas A&M), and Sisinnio Concas (Center for Urban Transportation Research, University of Florida). (http://ssrn.com/abstract=1808035)

Patil, et al. understand that revealed preference surveys typically yield low average values of time for commuters, yet they appreciate that those choosing to use managed lanes (MLs) may have much higher values of time for the trips they decide are worth paying for. So they set out to test the hypothesis that people’s value of travel time savings (VTTS) would be higher for what they defined as “urgent” trips. They administered an on-line survey to thousands of people who use the Katy Freeway and have a choice to use its two MLs in each direction. A total of nearly 3,000 people answered all the questions. Among other things, each was presented with a randomly selected pair of questions about mode choice, under ordinary conditions and in an “urgent” situation. There were six of the latter, including travel to an important meeting or event, running late to an appointment or meeting, being worried about arriving somewhere on time, etc.

The complete survey data were analyzed using both a multinomial logit model (MNL) and a mixed logit model. The full methodology is explained in the paper, but here I will focus on their findings. Overall, they found that the estimated value of travel time savings “is much higher for all of the six urgent trip situations than for non-urgent situations.” The highest values were obtained for the “running late to appointment or meeting” situation, where the VTTS ranged from $27.90/hour to $47.50/hour. Those values are 3.8 to 5.5 times greater than the implied average VTTS for an ordinary situation (holding all other factors, like time of day, direction, etc. constant). They also found, consistently, that the VTTS for urgent trips was actually higher for lower-income drivers (household income less than $50,000/year) than for middle-income drivers ($50-100K/year). In fact, their results show that “many of the travelers from the medium and low-income groups who are on urgent trips will have VTTS greater than that of travelers from the high-income group on ordinary trips.” The authors guess that this “might be attributed to the fixed-schedule constraints associated with lower-paying jobs,” which strikes me as plausible.

The implications for DOTs and toll road companies planning managed lanes projects are profound. Their traffic and revenue projections should not assume that all ML users are engaged in ordinary trips; doing so could significantly understate the travel time benefits of the MLs. The authors illustrate this with a few numerical examples, and suggest that in some corridors “it is possible that the majority of ML travelers are on urgent trips.” While it may be difficult to accurately estimate the percentage of ML customers who will be making urgent trips, failing to take this into account may leave significant money on the table. This research also suggests that instead of merely analyzing variable toll rate structures that will maximize either throughput or revenue, ML traffic and revenue studies should also look into maximizing the economic value of the project. To be sure, this will end up being about the same as maximizing revenue, but the assumptions used in the arriving at that value will be different, seeking to factor in the extent of urgent-trip usage in the MLs.

From a macro perspective, it seems to me that the more we learn about how heterogeneous travelers’ value of time really can be, the stronger the case becomes for premium-priced express lanes—as opposed to charging an average peak-period toll to all expressway users.

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Thursday, June 09, 2011

"World city" status not saving Chicago, great stats, DART falling, and more

Sorry about the late post this week - I was in New York for a conference.  Continuing the smaller misc items from last week:
  • Dallas DART transit ridership continues to fall, even with rising gas prices.  Extensive light rail is definitely not working for them, yet we refuse to learn from their lesson.  Hat tip to an anonymous commenter.
  • Pretty slick tool for mapping how far you can reach on transit within a given time, including for Houston.  Sadly, I think you'll find the zone very small for most peoples' one-way commute tolerance of a half-hour.
  • Some great ranking data on Houston's economy vs. the other top 25 metros in the last decade from HAIF:
1. From 2001 to 2009, the Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX MSA's portion of GDP grew from about $233 billion to about $363 billion (56%). This was the highest growth rate of the MSA's examined. 
2. Houston's population grew by 1,231,393 from 2000 to 2010, the most of any MSA examined. Second was the DFW MSA, at +1,210,229. Also, Houston's population grew by 126% over this period. This is the third-highest growth rate of the MSA's examined - behind Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA (130%) and Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ (129%). 
3. Houston's share of the total US GDP has grown from 2.54% in 2001 to 2.88% in 2009. The latter is the fifth highest of the MSA's studied. Also, the increase in this share - +13.29% - is the highest of the MSA's studied. (Washington was second, with an increase of +12.57%.) 
4. Houston's per capita GDP (i.e., attributed GDP divided by MSA population) ranked 6th of the largest MSA's in 2009, at about $62k. The top 5 were: San Francisco ($78k); Washington ($74k); Seattle ($67k); Boston ($65k); and New York ($63k). Other peer cities to Houston in terms of population are: Philadelphia (#11 -- $56k); DFW (#12 -- $55k); Atlanta (#16 -- $48k); and Miami (#18 -- $46k). 
5. Houston fell in the middle of the pack (11 of 25) in terms of its per capita GDP growth from 2001 to 2009. This figure grew by 29% over this period. Compare this to the top 5: San Diego (+41%); Washington (+39%); San Francisco (+36%); Los Angeles (36%); and Baltimore (+35%). Five large MSA's exhibited per capita GDP growth of less than the total inflation rate of 21% from 2001 to 2009: Riverside-San Bernardino; Dallas-Fort Worth; Phoenix; Atlanta; and Detroit.
Why are Dallas and Houston so divergent on GDP per capita?  Two words: Energy industry - including the port activity. The energy boom has definitely pumped up our GDP per capita and incomes. DFW has a more diffuse set of companies/industries that more reflects the national average. All the cities that are shrinking GDP/capita just means lots of low income people are moving in looking for jobs - which also diluted the Houston numbers down to the middle of the pack. Those cities with the highest GDP/capita gains represent high cost-of-living cities that are driving out the poor and not attracting new ones (CA) or, IMHO, the largess of federal govt spending and pay increases (DC, Baltimore).
Clearly, Chicago needs to continue focusing on expanding the size of its Loop economy and ensuring that it remains a top global city destination in the future. But unlike some other places that can hang their hat on that if they want, Chicago has to go beyond just being a global city and also be something more. After all, Chicago does not enjoy a “lock” on any industry, like New York with finance and media, or even Houston in energy, the Bay Area in technology or Los Angeles in entertainment. In almost every major business category it is not the lead player, which allows for greater economies of agglomeration and, perhaps even more importantly, a powerful and enduring global signature.
A critical aspect of the challenge here lies with improving the state and local business climate, recently rated as one of the worst in the country by Chief Executive magazine. If you're a hedge fund partner, architect, or celebrity chef, things are great. But for bread and butter type businesses and workers, which constitute the vast majority of the economy, things are quite different. That's why everyone from the CEO of Caterpillar,based three hours from the city, on down is publicly complaining and threatening to move.
Fixing this means finally rooting out the corruption that undermines confidence in local government, restructuring state and local finances to provide more certainty to investors, continuing to focus on education, addressing the infrastructure investment deficit, and radically reducing the red tape that plagues small and medium sized businesses. 
None of these are sexy or easy. In fact, the CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce recently said he's not putting any faith in claims by Rahm Emanuel, the new mayor that red tape relief is on the way, reflecting the level of skepticism in the local business community right now. Today businesses in the city literally need a city ordinance passed in order to do seemingly simple things like add an awning or get a sidewalk café permit – something that is totally at the discretion of the alderman. The Chicago Reader recently reported that this sort of “ward housekeeping” accounts for over 95% of city council legislation. Clearly this approach is toxic to business. That’s why these items are absolutely mission critical items to creating a regional economy that can actually generate employment and pay the bills going forward. Glamor jobs and prestige employers downtown just aren't going to cut it by themselves anymore.
In the immortal words of Jim Goode, "You might give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars you're in Texas."

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