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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At 2:09 PM, May 20, 2014, Blogger Michael said...

>>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.

Oh boy, the old "Houston has terrible weather" canard.

I don't think we should design our systems for the worst-case scenarios. Granted - August would probably not have the highest transit ridership all else being equal. But 8-9 months of the year Houston is perfectly fine at all hours of the day, and almost all 12 months it is tolerable in the evenings. That should count for something.

This is like arguing that we should not build highways because "You try driving by the Galleria on Loop 610 when there has been a major accident! You will either end up 2 hours late for you meeting, or needing a coronary after your traffic-induced heart attack!" But of course we still need loop 610, and Beltway 8, etc. We also need more rail and commuter rail options. If you personally don't want to take it, fine. You also may want to avoid 610 near the Galleria at rush hour.

At 2:59 PM, May 20, 2014, Anonymous awp said...

I always hated that "argument" too. Allow me to attempt to improve upon your analogy.

"You try driving by the Galleria on Loop 610 when there has been a major accident, BETWEEN THANKSGIVING AND NEW YEARS! JUST TRY DRIVING A HALF MILE. You will either end up 2 hours late for your meeting, or needing a coronary after your traffic-induced heart attack! ROADS AND HIGHWAYS WILL NEVER A TRULY VIABLE OPTION IN HOUSTON."

At 4:56 PM, May 20, 2014, Anonymous awp said...

You were right about the size of UT. Now I wonder where I got my number.

At 7:12 PM, May 20, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Now I know who awp is! But please forgive me if I forget in any future communication - my memory is bad enough for names and faces, much less names and comment handles! ;)

I think you had a UT system number.

At 3:36 AM, May 25, 2014, Anonymous Rich Robins said...

Buses are much tougher for some folks to board than rail. Passengers have to wait while the elevator does its thing (at times for folks who merely pretend to be handicapped so they can keep receiving Social Security Disability benefits). Buses also have to stop for traffic, and they require mechanics' maintenance endeavors (while their combustible engines pollute the air we breathe). Cars are even worse. Now how about rail?

As the most recent post at the unofficial Houston Metro Rail Development FB page:

documents, the American Lung Association continues to rank Houston in the Top 10 of the USA's most polluted places to live (despite Houston's favorable flatland conditions and Gulf Coast winds which help alleviate air pollution). Soot-laden lungs seem better suited for a Charles Dickens novel than for this former nation's capital city, wouldn't you agree?

While we're on the subject of rail, is it more expensive to construct than highways? Here's some interesting recent data:

"Texas spends twice more on new road construction than any other state. Greater Houston spends $330 per capita on roads, most of the ten largest U.S. metros. The granddaddy of recent Houston road projects is the $2.8-billion expansion of the Katy Freeway, Interstate 10 heading towards San Antonio. This 23-mile highway widening cost more than twice the initial estimates for the 73-mile, five-line light rail system. It is Culberson's signature achievement."

What can we learn from countries where rail construction & expansion are more economical? The more the merrier (rail & cost-savings).

At 8:10 AM, May 25, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Clean-burning natural gas buses solve the pollution problem. Metro has some, but I don't know if they're committed to converting the whole fleet.

Yes, roads are expensive, but they move 10x+ more people than a rail line (actual movement, not capacity). Run those numbers per daily passenger miles enabled for the Katy freeway vs. one of the new rail lines.

At 8:11 AM, May 25, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Oh, and I think those initial estimates for the rail network have been shown to be off by a factor of 2 or more. I think they're hitting more than $100m/mile.

At 9:42 AM, May 28, 2014, Blogger Dave said...

Ever noticed how much better traffic moves when school is out? If you could find a way to stagger school starting times it would seem to have a much bigger impact than targeting large employers.


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