Monday, October 28, 2013

The Future of Transit

Last week I attended the GHP State of METRO luncheon and was pleasantly surprised.  The running theme is "Back to Basics" which I heartily applaud.  They are aggressively focusing on improving the core bus network and reversing the massive bus ridership losses of the last few years (from 90m in 1999 to 60m/year today).  Ridership is back on the upswing, and they're working a very promising new initiative to re-imagine the entire bus network.  They've completed a great initiative to convert the HOV lanes to HOT lanes, and they're expanding the P&R network.

Of course, rail is still the big issue.  The 3 new lines have consumed billions, and readers of this blog know I'm skeptical of their value.  To pay off they'll need to lead to a massive redevelopment and revitalization of the north, east, and southeast side neighborhoods they cross.  There is excitement about the Uptown BRT plan, although it won't be connected to the rest of the network until the University Line gets built, which is an open question.  Gilbert Garcia stated that they're studying doing a first phase shortened version of the U-Line "to Greenway Plaza", although it's unclear to me where that would start.   It seems obvious to me that if they're going to do a shortened University Line in the short-term it should connect the new Uptown BRT to the Main St. line - and they can circle back and add the Hillcroft transit center and UH later (UH is already on the SE line, so it would just require some transfers).

One really good idea I heard from an attendee that METRO needs to strongly consider: making the new protected Uptown BRT lanes open to vehicles from the I-10 and 59 HOV/HOT lanes, so a bus could exit directly into those lanes and get their passengers right to their buildings instead of requiring a transfer.  Brilliant.  I'm guessing the mixing of those buses with the BRT could be a little tricky, but I don't see why it would be impossible.

But what I really want to do here is back up and look at the big picture future for transit.  I don't think people truly appreciate how much self-driving vehicles will change things 10 and 20 years from now.  Not only will the capacity of the freeways vastly increase (automatic vehicles can travel much closer together and at higher speeds), but imagine this: waves of automated, driverless, small shuttle buses and taxis wandering the city all the time. You tell your smartphone where you want to go, and the network automatically sends the right shuttle your way to pick you up and take you nearly directly to your destination, with the potential for a few stops along the way to pick-up or disembark other passengers.  Now imagine the capacity of the freeways if they not only have more vehicles much closer together at higher speeds, but they're also carrying multiple passengers each in this manner.  And congestion priced lanes to keep them free-flowing.  Rail can't compete with that, either on a travel time or overall cost basis.  Investments we make in rail over the coming years may look particularly foolish a decade or two from now as these automated vehicles become more ubiquitous. I'm not sure any transit agency today is really thinking about this in their planning.  Houston should be the first.

Ironically, what destroys the viability of rail may actually stimulate higher-density mixed-use/TOD-type development.  What really impedes street-level retail is the lack of easy parking.  But that's not a problem if you can just step out of your vehicle and it can putter off on its own to remote parking.  Later, you just call it up on your phone and have it come right over to pick you up.  This could also reinvigorate retail in downtowns, including Houston, which has been trying desperately for years to do so.

There is growing consensus that this technology is coming.  We need to start integrating it into our planning instead of wasting money on the next wave of rail assets that will soon be obsolete.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Why Texas is America's Future, Keep Houston Ugly, Save the Dome truck, and more

Just a few smaller items this week:
The lower house prices, along with a generally low cost of living — helped along by cheap labor, cheap produce and cheap gas (currently about $3 a gallon) — really matter when it comes to quality of life … Texas has a higher per capita income than California, adjusted for cost of living, and nearly catches up with New York by the same measure. Once you factor in state and local taxes, Texas pulls ahead of New York — by a wide margin.
What it all adds up to is a future where many more Americans live in Texas — and much of the rest of America looks more and more like the Lone Star State.
Among the policies Cowen proposes as we move into this future: cheaper education (to allow workers to upgrade their skills), looser building and zoning regulations (to radically reduce the price of housing across America), and a loosening of occupational licensing at the state and local level (to open up many more low-skill jobs). 
Texas, he writes, is “America’s America,” where Americans go when they need a fresh start. And a little more Texas could go a long way.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Revising the city charter, low CoL = high SoL, peak sprawl, big exports, big data, and save the birds

Getting back to our backlog of smaller misc items this week:
Finally, a small plug for a good cause.  When was the last time you dressed up with the significant other and went to a fun fancy charity gala?  Houston Audubon is having their annual fundraising "For the Birds" gala this Thursday at the Houston Country Club and tickets are still available at $100 - very reasonable compared to most Houston charity galas.  You might even get a sweet deal at their charity auction while you're there.  Do some good and earn bonus points with the S.O. at the same time - two birds with one stone, so to speak, although the actual stoning of birds at the event is significantly frowned upon... ;-)

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Monday, October 07, 2013

Summer 3Q13 Highlights

It's time for the Summer 3Q13 quarterly highlights post of the 9th year of this blog, and we're still on track to hit the 1,000th blog post major milestone towards the end of this year.

These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument; and, last but not least, they've also been invaluable for me to track down some of my best thinking for meetings or when requested by others (as is the ever-helpful Google search). They're not quite as useful as they were when I was still doing multiple posts each week, but still have some value (at least for me).

Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly once/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box in the right sidebar. An RSS feed link is also available in the right sidebar. As always, thanks for your readership.

August - none
July - none

And from Spring 2Q13:

And from Winter 1Q13:

And don't forget the highlights from the first few years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging) and most definitely in the 5th birthday retrospective (which I'm now updating at the end of each year).