Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Freeze the East End line!, real higher-ed success, WSJ on Ashby, and more

Last week the METRO board decided to move forward with a controversial overpass plan to extend the East End line to the Magnolia Park Transit Center at an additional cost of $27-$43 million and 3 years, not to mention the tens of millions more to continue extending the line.  My question is this: why not just freeze the end of the East End line where it is, move the Transit Center to that point as part of the bus system redesign they're currently undergoing, and save the $100m+ to apply to much higher priority University Line, which is stuck in budget limbo.  The board gets to back away from an overpass that the community hates and move forward on a much higher priority project for the city - win-win.  And down the road, they can revisit it if they want to extend the line and the budget money becomes available.  It makes total logical sense, which is why, sadly, I'm guessing it won't get much play in a political bureaucracy like METRO which will just heads-down bull-ahead on the existing plan, as outdated, unpopular, and wasteful as it is.

UPDATE: I have to rescind this recommendation after discovering that METRO has already built the East End line beyond the proposed bridge, which just seems crazy to me.  We will now have a dead segment of rail (including stops) that will sit for 3 years while a bridge is constructed.  Wow... just... wow.

Continuing with some smaller items this week:
Finally, I want to end with this *must-watch* 9-minute video on educational success in the new economy, with a very strong case that we're sending way too many young people to 4-year universities vs. the job availability, while sending too few for technical certifications that are in high-demand and are highly-paid while requiring far less debt.  One of the numbers that really jumped out at me was that for every one job requiring a professional graduate degree, two will require a bachelors and seven will require a simple technical certification - yet for some reason we are pressing every kid to go to a four-year school where they often take far longer than that to get a degree (if they graduate at all) and end up underemployed with six-figure debts.  Why do we think this make sense?

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Thoughts on Bill King's traffic solutions

Over the last couple of weeks Bill King has published an excellent trilogy of Chronicle op-eds on traffic congestion and rail in Houston, and given that that is a very common topic here I felt I should chime in with my own reactions and thoughts to the series as well as key points I'd like to highlight.

The series started with his high-impact/low-cost first suggestion on reducing traffic congestion - and so obvious I can't believe the county hasn't already done it:
"...expand Houston's Safe Clear program to the entire region. As part of Safe Clear, a program started by Bill White in 2005 while he was mayor, wreckers are pre-positioned along the freeway corridors so they can rapidly respond to disabled vehicles. This allows the resulting traffic snarls to be cleared as soon as possible. The Harris County Toll Road Authority system has a similar program for its roads that is in some ways even a more robust incident-management system. 
Most traffic engineers estimate that up to half the congestion in a typical urban system is caused by impediments to the system's design capacity. The typical impediments are collisions, disabled vehicles and lane closures resulting from construction or repair projects. Collisions are particularly problematic and have dramatically increased in the past two years (smart phones, anyone?), according the Houston-Galveston Area Council transportation guru, Alan Clark. If we could figure out ways to more efficiently handle such incidents, those solutions could be some low-hanging fruit in trying to reduce congestion."
In his next piece, he laid out three solutions for easing traffic congestion, including:
  1. Adjusting tolls upward at peak times to reduce demand and push people to take their trips at alternate hours.
  2. Getting major employers to stagger work hours so employees come and go at different times.
  3. Improving connectivity and management of the HOV lanes.
I'm very skeptical on #2, although there might be some opportunities for fixing very local congestion hotspots where one or two employers dump out (or bring in) a ton of employees all at once.  #3 is a no-brainer and should be very affordable (more below).  #1 is the real opportunity in my opinion.  It's really quite simple: toll roads should be dynamically priced to maximize throughput.  Period.  The goal is to get the most vehicles/people though in a period of time.  When they're not moving fast, they're certainly not doing that.  Engineers need to calculate what that maximum throughput speed is and set dynamic pricing of the tolls to hit it, at least at rush hours (btw, higher speed is not always better because cars space themselves more at higher speeds, so there is an optimum - I think in the 50-60mph range).  That might even include some discounts off the normal rates at off-peak hours.  Not only should you pay more at peak, but you should get a discount if you can shift your trip off-peak.

Finally, he ended with a great op-ed on why rail doesn't make sense for Houston and wouldn't reduce traffic congestion, echoing many of the arguments I've been making here for a long time.  Not only do cities with rail have worse congestion than us and it costs an absolute taxpayer fortune (see below), there are a couple of other core problems with commuter rail in Houston:
"How do you design a rail system that goes from hundreds of different neighborhoods spread out over a couple of thousand square miles to a dozen or more employment centers? 
Then there is the climate. For commuters to be willing to use transit, researchers generally agree that there must be a stop within about half a mile. Now walking half a mile for most people should not be a problem - at least, not if you live in a temperate climate. But we do not. You try walking half a mile here in August. You are either going to end up with a heat stroke or, at a minimum, perspiration-soaked clothes."
The answer for decentralized city with multiple employment centers and a tropical climate is simple: a comprehensive network of managed lanes offering nonstop express bus service from every neighborhood to every major job center, with bus circulation at job centers to avoid long walks in the heat.  We've already got the beginnings of it with the downtown-centric HOV network - we just need to expand and connect it to serve every job center (that means lanes on Beltway 8 and 610).  Not super-cheap, but certainly an order of magnitude cheaper than a rail network while providing much faster 65mph nonstop service.

I'll end with some (not-so) fun rail facts from Channel 13 that should turn your stomach (hat tip to Jay):
"Houston transit agency METRO has spent $587 million in taxpayer cash for 3.3 miles of track on the city's East End, and the route is not even complete. The money spent so far on this single section of rail line comes to $3,000 per inch, records show. That's enough to hire 10 limousines to drive the route every day, 24 hours a day for the next 89 years."

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

METRO's reimagined bus system a big winner

Last week METRO released their proposed plan to overhaul the bus network, and it is mighty impressive. Atlantic Cities is enthusiastic and has an excellent short article with an overview of the improvements: "Houston's Plan to Get an Amazing New Bus System for No New Money".  It contains 3 very compelling graphs:
  1. A map of how much the frequent network has expanded with service every 15 minutes or better (bigger version here). There is another graph here showing how much bigger it is than Dallas, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Salt Lake, Denver, and Portland.  Definitely an impressive feat to beat all of those cities.
  2. A graph showing how the new network connects a million people to a million jobs on the high-frequency network, a improvement of 50-100% over the existing network.
  3. A graph showing how many more potential riders are closer to higher frequency service.
Overall, METRO is hoping the new plan, if implemented, will increase ridership 20% over the next two years, something they definitely need after years of declines.  Let me throw a few more stats on the plan at you from Christof's excellent Twitter feed:
  • UH to Greenway Plaza, current system: 65 min. Proposed network: 40 min
  • Analyzed 870 trips across system: 58% are 10 minutes or more faster, including 28% more than 20 minutes faster.
  • Current boardings within 1/4 mile of frequent service — today: 49% weekday, 25% weekend. Reimagined: 73% weekday, 73% weekend.
  • Every route will run on Saturday and Sunday — and "frequent" means every 15 minutes, 15 hours/day, 7 days a week.
I especially like that last point.  If people know it will always be there, 7 days a week, they're more likely to use it.  I also liked that they simplified and straightened the routes.  Even in a world of Google Maps routings, it's better have a simple system people can wrap their heads around so they can easily imagine how they would get from one point to another.  

METRO also deserves kudos for thinking outside of the box, like this solution:
“Another major change is proposed for certain little-used bus routes, notably in the northeast part of the city. Under the plan, rather than running on fixed routes, buses in designated "flex zones" would circulate around the neighborhood and carry passengers to a spot within the zone or to a point of transfer to another bus line. Riders would call in and the bus would collect them. Smaller buses that Metro began operating last year would likely run the flex routes, officials said.”
A few final items:
Kudos to METRO, Christof, and everyone involved over there for putting the needed hard work into this high-value but not-very-flashy project.  Getting the basics right is just as important (if not more so) than the high-profile ribbon cuttings for things like new rail lines.  Now it's time to push this thing past the change-resisters and get it implemented ASAP.

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Sunday, May 04, 2014

Ashby and the z-word, TX Toyota, happy Texans, big Houston, and more

An assortment of smaller items this week:
"The researchers say Los Angeles has lost 3.1% of its employment base since 1990, more than Cleveland (-0.2%) and Detroit (-2.8%). Job growth over the same period has exceeded 50% in Phoenix, Orlando, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas.
The study says that flourishing metro areas like Houston and San Antonio with low-educated workforces make up for their skills deficit by being far more hospitable to business. San Antonio and Houston received an overall grade of A+ on the 2013 Thumbtack Small Business Friendliness Survey. Los Angeles County got a D. (Tax code D+; licensing D; regulation D; zoning D; ease of starting a business D+.) L.A.'s hostile business environment harms the poor and middle class far more than the affluent."
Speaking of which, let's hope this zoning talk after the Ashby high-rise ruling dies a quick death.  The new ordinances are already in place to separate high-rises from residential - give them a chance to work (Ashby was grandfathered under older rules).  To paraphrase Nancy Reagan, "Just say NO to zoning!"  It's a bad path to go down, kids.

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