Sunday, April 13, 2014

METRO considers making rush hour traffic even WORSE, real housing affordability, the gentrification problem, and more

  • It just makes no sense to me that METRO is considering charging for Park & Ride parking. So as Houston's sustained economic boom leads to rapidly increasing traffic congestion, we're going to *discourage* people switching to the Park and Rides?!?!  How much sense does that make?!  This is an incentives problem.  Metro is getting too much demand on the Park and Rides and can't move fast enough to meet it, so they're going to discourage demand with parking fees and keep cars on the freeways at rush hour that would otherwise use transit.  Does anybody else think this is a really bad idea?  The Mayor and County Judge need to represent the interests of the city as a whole and put pressure on the METRO board to make Park and Rides as affordable as possible and ramp up to meet that demand.
  • An engineer looks at options for Houston's transportation future (hat tip to Jessie).  Unfortunately, he just falls into the same old trap of advocating a NYC-like rail system as the answer, despite our very decentralized, multi-polar set of job centers instead of a single mega-CBD like Manhattan.  And no, you can't just lump downtown together with the med center, Greenway, and Uptown and just pretend they're one big CBD - they're too far apart for a centralized commuter rail focus.  The answer is high-speed HOT/managed lanes with nonstop express bus service from every neighborhood of the region to every major job center.
  • There are plenty of stats showing Houston's median housing costs are much cheaper than the big coastal cities, but what gets missed is also how many more square feet you get in Houston for that money.  This chart compensates for that, showing how many square feet of house a million dollars will buy across the country, ranging from a very expensive 1,502 sq.ft in San Francisco (or 650 in Manhattan!) to your own private apartment complex of 83,333 sq.ft in Detroit.  Houston came in at the very affordable bottom of the list at 10,753 sq.ft (have fun cleaning and air conditioning that puppy), surprisingly substantially more than Dallas (7,042) or Austin (5,128).  How's this for a tag line? "Houston: all the coolness and weirdness of Austin at half the cost"
  • On the other hand, yet another ranking that says Houston isn't so cheap if you factor in transportation (hat tip to Josh). I still don't buy it.  They’re not equalizing on a per sq.ft basis, not considering taxes for transit, and not considering higher-end cars as a luxury good (not a basic “cost of transportation”).  The ACCRA data standardizes for all that and finds Houston *much* cheaper to live in.
  • Is gentrification good or bad? I think gentrification is not as controversial in Houston because we are less regulated and there are plenty of other low-cost areas residents can move to.  Where land use regulation is strict, like San Francisco, you get riots and street protests, because there are no alternatives for existing residents as they're driven out by rising costs.  And here's a hand grenade of a quote from the article: "As California political writer Joseph Perkins (who is black) once said, “smart growth is the new Jim Crow.” "

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At 9:04 AM, April 14, 2014, Blogger C Neal said...

It's funny how basic market principles fly out the window when it comes to parking. Park-and-rides are getting congested, and they're not free for METRO to own and maintain. Charging a fair price is a good way for METRO to cover costs, encourage ridesharing, and ensure available spaces (a.k.a. balancing of supply and demand) in the lots. The status quo of free parking for everyone — in other words, giving away government-owned real estate for free for the storage of privately-owned automobiles — is textbook socialist land policy. Not something I'd have expected to see advocated in a Houston blog about "serious strategies for making a better city."

At 9:37 AM, April 14, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

METRO is already one giant tax subsidy, with the farebox covering less than 20% of costs. We've already decided as a society we want to tax subsidize transit. We also waive tolls for high-occupancy vehicles to encourage ridesharing. Why wouldn't that extend that subsidy to encouraging more people to ride transit instead of clogging freeways at rush hour? In fact, might it be cheaper to subsidize P&R fares even more to encourage ridership so we can spend less on freeway expansion?

At 7:57 AM, April 16, 2014, Anonymous Neil said...

The housing market data was sourced from Movoto and Zillow, so it is pegged to municipality, not MSA. As you know, Dallas is actually two cities, one of which, like Chicago, has gotten so expensive that it manages to skew the whole statistic (and to do so more than in similarly divided Houston because there are only 300-some versus 600-some square miles of Zillows being pegged).

At 9:58 AM, April 17, 2014, Anonymous awp said...

I once heard that the commuter routes were the only ones that made money. If so, was the cost of the parking lots included into that calculation.

"We've already decided as a society we want to ... subsidize transit."

That is unbecoming of you, and doesn't make sense on a blog that primarily discusses economics and policy issues. You often argue that we should be following a different policy than the one that exists. Should we just respond that "society has made its choice."

At 11:31 AM, April 17, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That raises a good point: if Metro is 80+% subsidizing local bus fares, why are they charging full price or making money on HOV commuter routes? Especially when the freeways are so congested we need to put every possible rider on those buses?

My point is that METRO is not a market-based entity. It is inherently subsidized to a massive extent. The debate is over where to apply the subsidy. And my main point is that's what's easiest for METRO - raising prices to reduce inconvenient P&R demand they can't meet - is not necessarily what's best for the region as a whole.

At 3:36 PM, April 21, 2014, Anonymous Dom said...


I think it's a bit disingenuous to not lump together our major employment centers in the core. They are within 6 miles of downtown and are our densest.

Express bus and P&Ride are great ways of getting suburban commuters into the core, but light rail can fill the "last mile" problem.

At 4:11 PM, April 21, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I used to think that too, but actually, it really can't. Even the shortest connection, downtown to TMC, would easily add 15+ mins to a one-way commute (remember that throughout history people budget about a half-hour each way for a commute). Trying to connect from downtown to Greenway or Uptown would easily add a half-hour or more (each way!). Remember, these light rail lines only go around 17mph net with stops, and there's transfer time as well. The end-to-end ride time from the north end of the line to Reliant is *almost an hour*, and that's without any transfers! Now imagine downtown to University line transfer (if it ever gets built) to Uptown line transfer. Ugh.

At 8:39 PM, April 21, 2014, Anonymous Dom said...


Almost zero commuters would need to ride the rail from end to end. There are transit centers throughout the line that prevent that type of wastefulness. Also, if Metro expanded it's P&R and added Express Bus, then that would only make the light rail most important for that last mile.

The reason why the Main St line is one of the more successful lines is because it connects two major employment centers with parking scarcity. This will only grow as Houston's inner employment centers and major educational centers grow. Hopefully, Mayor Parker can somehow get more federal funding the University Line in her last term.

At 11:49 PM, April 21, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

While I agree the Main St. line is a good line that connects a lot of strong destinations within a short distance (including two major job centers), it makes much more sense to just offer dedicated nonstop P&R bus service to each job center (with local circulation) rather than have them offload and force a transfer to rail with the extra transfer and ride time plus probably a longer walk to their final destination (vs. a circulating bus at the job center after it exits from the express lanes).

I am not optimistic about U line funding anytime soon. They should have prioritized it before the 3 lines they're building now - it connects much many more high traffic destinations.

At 1:01 PM, May 02, 2014, Blogger Michael Higgins Jr. said...

I think this may be my first comment on your blog and that is a shame given I've grown to be a somewhat consistent reader. Doesn't mean I agree with a lot posted, but I am interested in the anti-zoning experiment Houston has become.

Now let me say this, because I don't think it is implied often if at all by your commenters. Someone once told me that the state of a city is not only an economic issue but a social one. And for what little I know of the city, it is very easy to see the difference between a prospering west side of the city and a stagnating east side. The true feat Houston may accomplish where others have failed is to be bring these communities into the fold, but that doesn't seem like a very Texan way of doing things.

At 1:29 PM, May 02, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks, Michael. Houston is recognized as a tolerant and diverse city. Every city has their rougher and lower income neighborhoods, including Houston - and you're right, mostly on the east side. If you're saying that the new rail lines might help integrate them more - I'm not sure. I do think it may cause them to gentrify, whatever your feelings are on that.


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