Sunday, January 17, 2016

METRO improvements, MaX Lines, UT vs. UH, Houston > Toronto, regulation trying to solve over-regulation

This week I got to attend a blogger lunch meeting at METRO (pic here) to get an update on things over there, which are definitely on a strong upswing (note to the new Turner administration: please be careful not to screw it up with bad board changes).  The good news:
  • Ridership is already up 10% since the redesigned bus network started a few months ago. Transit agencies all over the country are asking how they can do it too.  Nice to see Houston a real innovative leader here rather than a follower.
  • Low-demand neighborhoods like the new "flex routes" once they get used to them.
  • They are continuing to tweak routes to improve service, including a new set of changes this week.
  • They're simplifying transfers with unlimited transfers in any direction for 3 hours, which will even allow people to do short errands round trip with one ticket.
  • They now offer a Park-and-Ride lot at Space Center Houston as I suggested long ago, allowing tourists downtown (or connecting from elsewhere) to use transit to visit our most popular tourist attraction.
  • Better technology options, including texting for next-bus timing, service alerts, and a better phone app.  Ticketing on your mobile phone is coming soon.
The not-so-good news:
  • They still struggle with inter-agency coordination, especially road construction/closures (although improving) and getting popular transit destinations like new health, education, and government facilities located along major arterial routes instead of far back on side streets.
  • The ongoing "squeaky wheel" problem where a vocal few push the board to make changes that are better for them but make service worse for the majority across the broader transit network.  This "death by a thousand cuts" is part of how the old bus network got so out of whack.
I also had a good conversation with Christof Spieler of the METRO board about a vision for expanding a more comprehensive MaX (Managed eXpress) lane network across region in collaboration with TXDoT, HCTRA, and H-GAC, and then unifying the branding for different commuter services (like METRO's P&R express buses, Woodlands Express, etc.) under something like "MaX Lines" with unified ticketing, service maps, coordination, etc.  I think it would be a huge asset and benefit for the region to have such MaX service connecting all parts of our metro area to our multiple job centers.  If you know someone with any of those agencies, please pass it along...

A few smaller items I'd like to respond to this week:
  • UT closes on 100 acres in Houston, plans to buy 200 more.  UH is definitely not happy - HAIF debate here.  I think the simple answer from a Houston perspective is that more is better. That's certainly the case with the Texas Medical Center - why not other higher ed institutions? UT is going to deploy the resources from that $25 billion endowment somewhere in the state - why not try to maximize the amount coming to Houston?  UH should negotiate Big 12 entry and a no-faculty-poaching agreement (which should actually be policy between all Texas public schools - it just raises faculty costs for taxpayers with no added benefit to the state) and get back to focusing on their own improving trajectory rather than worrying about any potential competition.
  • This Chronicle op-ed calling for more prescriptive urban planning in Houston to be like Toronto. Ugh. Long-term readers know my feelings on this.  First, the million-dollar lifetime savings estimate for using transit is a joke once you consider how much more expensive housing is under such a regime (it also ignores the costs of actually riding the transit).  Second, there's nothing stopping anybody in Houston from living within easy walking or transit distance of any of our job centers - it's just that people are making value trade-offs and choosing not to.  The value equation in the suburbs (housing, neighborhoods, schools, crime) is just too compelling for most.  Third, our downtown is growing and developing just fine - why would we want to mess with success?
  • WSJ: Turning the Twin Cities Into Sim City (hat tip to George) As much as I sympathize with opportunity and the problems of zoning, I can see all sorts of ways this federal and regional regulatory hammer can go very, very wrong (like it already has in Portland and California).  More regulation isn't going to solve over-regulation.  It's sort of like a car that isn't going anywhere because you've got your foot on the brake plus the parking brake engaged, and thinking the answer is just to push down harder on the accelerator until the car moves, when a lot better answer is to just release the brakes - i.e. reduce regulations and let free choice and free markets solve the problem. 

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At 10:46 AM, January 18, 2016, Blogger George Rogers said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10:48 AM, January 18, 2016, Blogger George Rogers said...

I have blogged about this topic

At 7:25 PM, January 19, 2016, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I like it - good analysis of the cost tradeoffs of urban vs. suburban living.

At 10:55 PM, January 19, 2016, Blogger George Rogers said...

Got the ownership prices off of tco tool. The point is that I am being an idiot choosing such a nice car but still I end up spending less money.


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