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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At 8:22 PM, October 28, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I'm moving back to Houston after spending a few years monitoring Metro here in DC so this was a good recap/primer!

At 9:16 AM, October 29, 2013, Blogger Emily Covey said...

Self-driving vehicles? This sounds Jetsons-ish. Is it realistic?

At 11:51 AM, October 29, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Google already has a driverless car that has over 300,000 miles accident free

At 1:34 PM, October 30, 2013, Blogger Michael said...

How do you get vehicles traveling at much higher speeds and much closer together just because they are automated? You still are going to have accidents, and you still need time to decelerate in anticipation of accidents. Also - 1 accident on 610 NB near 59 interchange that takes out 2 right lanes is still going to happen, and still going to backup traffic for potentially hours. This sounds like the same thinking that computers would run the stock market without any negative consequences, and instead we end up with 700 pt drops in split-seconds, and billion dollar losses because someone fat-fingers something on their keyboard.

Also - ice, sleet, and snow are still going to happen. And cars with drivers in them will still crash into driverless cars. Also cars will still crash into pedestrians and bikes.

Rail does not for the most part have these issues if it is grade separated, and it can still co-exist even with automated cars or personal rapid transit as you are describing. If you want to get from Sugar Land to downtown Houston in 30 minutes guaranteed at rush hour, your best bet is going to be grade-separated rail, not an automated car - for the next 100+ years. Unless you are super-rich and have your own helicopter / landing pad a la Sao Paulo.

To think otherwise is Jetsonian fantasy.

At 2:20 PM, October 30, 2013, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

What if I am not going from Sugarland to Downtown? What if I am going from Westchase to the Airport. Most traffic leaving Sugarland is not going downtown.

At 3:01 PM, October 30, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, less than 7% of our jobs are downtown and it shrinking (jobs are still growing slowly downtown, but much faster elsewhere in the city). Why build a multi-billion $ rail system for such a small group?

The crashes should shrink radically, even for non-automated cars as they keep integrating collision avoidance technology. It can detect and react infinitely faster than a human.

But it all will work best if there are dedicated lanes for the automated vehicles. I think we should be building out the HOT lane network and then switch it over to automated-only when the time is right, probably once the buses are automated.

Studies say they could triple freeway capacities:

At 3:26 PM, October 30, 2013, Blogger Michael said...

>>Yes, less than 7% of our jobs are downtown and it shrinking (jobs are still growing slowly downtown, but much faster elsewhere in the city). Why build a multi-billion $ rail system for such a small group?

As the Chronicle recently reported, we should be considering our entire Medical Center + downtown + uptown as effectively "downtown". The percentage of jobs in these areas is much higher than 7%. Suburbs should have commuter rail into downtown including options where possible to connect to Med Center + Uptown.

Just imagine a line from Katy into downtown Housston could serve the energy corridor, connect to Uptown, and hit downtown all with generally 1 transfer. Similarly Sugar Land commuter rail could have a stop for Uptown, and Pearland rail line could have stop for the medical center. Houston connections to Galveston could stop at UH + Clear Lake + Hobby.

Airports should also be connected to rail transit.

Of course the idea is once you spend billions of dollars on this infrastructure, it is up to consumers + businesses to take advantage of it. Witness the plethora of construction along I-10 since its expansion. This will also happen if you develop the appropriate rail infrastructure. So 7% of jobs in our legacy downtown could arguably be 15-20% if you already had the appropriate infrastructure - companies are choosing to locate outside of downtown partially because of the lack of good mass transit today, and the excellent freeways that have been constructed out in the suburbs.

As for what if you are going from Westchase to the airport? Nobody said rail should cover 100% of use cases. It should cover a significant portion of use cases. But if you are going from Westchase to IAH at rush hour today using a car, be prepared to leave 3-4 hours ahead of time to catch your flight. I would argue that an effective rail + bus network could compete with those "worst case" times that everyone driving a car must now plan for, even if it involved 1-2 transfers and going from Westchase to 1-10 to downtown to IAH, for instance.

Where I see automated cars fitting into this is perhaps getting you from Westchase to I-10 - where you would hop on the rail. Or Westchase to Uptown, where again you would switch to rail. Ultimately even if automated cars / aka personal rapid transit are 3x more efficient than what we have now (which - I will believe it when I see it) - there are still corridors that are going to benefit from mass transit. A Houston region of 10 million+ people should be investing in rail in order to complement other technologies that may one day be more prevalent. Rail will always serve the purpose of serving the high capacity routes better than any alternative. PRT actually enhances this because it solves the existing "last mile problem".

At 4:05 PM, October 30, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> companies are choosing to locate outside of downtown partially because of the lack of good mass transit today

Dallas shows this doesn't work. Downtown Dallas has only 65% occupancy even with a huge light rail network focused on it. All of the job growth is much farther north and west.

As you pointed out, the core of the problem is the last mile. Rail can't solve that. But express buses in protected high-speed HOT lanes can, circulating through job centers to get people where they need to go after they exit the protected freeway lanes. That's the right solution for a dispersed city like Houston.

At 4:14 PM, October 30, 2013, Blogger Michael said...

>>As you pointed out, the core of the problem is the last mile. Rail can't solve that.

Rail doesn't solve it, but automated transportation or personal rapid transit (PRT) does. Imagine using a service on your cell phone that coordinates a Personal Rapid Transit vehicle to meet you in 10 minutes at Westheimer and Post Oak (a heavy rail stop), but you need to go Voss and San Felipe. The car is there waiting for you when you arrive, and takes you to your final destination. Rail serves maybe 50-75% of your trip - the most congested part (ie replacing your commute on 59 and 610 for example). You still rely on PRT / bike / automobile / walking to get to and from the rail stop.

At 4:31 PM, October 30, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

But why pay billions to create the rail at all if automated vehicles can do the entire trip?

At 6:01 PM, October 30, 2013, Blogger Michael said...

Because the main arteries like 610 and I10 will otherwise be clogged for the next 100 years. In other words I buy that PRT may come to fruition and may help replace taxis and bring down costs for the last mile, but I do not believe claims that 610 traffic will be getting better by 300% any time in my lifetime.

At 6:05 PM, October 30, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That's the need for protected HOT lanes, including on 610 and BW8.


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