Monday, January 25, 2016

Vote for mobility solns, defending the Katy expansion, H-GAC cool tools, and more

A few quick small items this week followed by my response on debate about the Katy Freeway expansion:
  • The Mobility Houston traffic solution forum was launched this month (background here) to crowdsource solutions to Houston's mobility problems, and I'd like to request up-votes for my proposal on MaX Lanes as well as this proposal for intersection improvements.  I know it's a slight hassle to register to up-vote, but there's not that many votes on the site, so yours can really make a difference and help good ideas get in front of public officials.  Thanks in advance for your support.
  • Today I attended an impressive H-GAC presentation by Jeff Taebel on new mapping tools for figuring out which parts of the city are the best for investing to create dense mixed-use neighborhoods.  One tool makes it easy to identify neighborhoods that have the right density and street connectivity, and the other has impressive data on commuting patterns.  They are extremely slick tools, and wide open to the public, so try them out - I'm pretty sure you'll be impressed.  I really like and support their approach, which acknowledges the car-centric spread-out nature of our region, but rather than trying a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all, top-down approach to planning, they figure out targeted neighborhoods to prioritize investments (like bike and pedestrian amenities) where they'll have the most impact and do the most good.  An interesting data tidbit that came out of the presentation: average commute times have actually dropped in Houston since 2000, and at ~28 mins are only the 11th-worst in the country - not bad for the 5th largest metro area.  I'm guessing you're incredulous at that stat, but there's a good reason: as we added more than a million jobs, all of those newcomers tried to pick housing near their new jobs (including all of those recent college grads inside the Loop), thus lowering the overall average commute times for the region.  
  • How much salary do you need to live comfortably in Houston? Not much is the short answer: around $50k, vs. well into six figures for cities like SF, San Jose, NYC, LA, San Diego, and Seattle.
  • Joel Kotkin in Forbes on America's Next Boomtowns.  Houston is #6, although that's dependent on oil coming back to a more reasonable price.  Really nice picture of the Chevron buildings and circular skywalk downtown.
Joe Cortright responded to my post a couple weeks ago defending the Katy freeway expansion, but strangely chooses not to address the core points of not getting proper before and after congestion data (the expansion opened in 2009, not 2011 or later, so his data just shows the added congestion of the oil boom after it had already opened) or that more employers would have given up on the core city for the suburbs.  He does make a point about properly valuing external impacts like pollution, but that's not the role of transportation planners - that's the role of gas tax policy, CAFE mileage standards, and pollution control regulations (set those and then let people make choices).  He raises the alternative of investing in denser housing (the private free market does this, not government - and they're free to build as much as they like wherever they like, and they do wherever there's demand) or transit - but by any measure an equivalent spend on transit would have moved far, far fewer people for the tax dollars invested.  His data chart is actually a fantastic argument for Houston's freeway-heavy transportation spending: peoples' commute time tolerance is pretty much the same all over the world (roughly a half-hour), but in Houston (and DFW) they're able to go 12.2 miles during that time vs. much shorter distances in other cities.  That means they were able to access a better value house in a better neighborhood with better schools while still staying within a reasonable commute of their work.

Restricting freeways has three obvious consequences: 1) housing gets much more expensive, since there's less of it within commuting range of employers, 2) employers give up on the city and move to the suburbs with better value houses, neighborhoods, and schools for their employees (reducing the tax base), and 3) a city/metro becomes less of a unified economy and more of a series of fragmented, disconnected islands where people have limited employment options without moving.  I have no problem with dense or transit-oriented neighborhoods (see H-GAC bullet point above), and we have those options that people are welcome to choose.  But the fact that we build freeways and they fill up mean that the majority of people are making different choices based on weighing up their own values.  Since we live in a democracy, it seems reasonable for our elected representatives and their transportation planners to respond to those market choices rather than trying to force some socially-engineered alternative.  I stand by my original point: the government invested in a piece of infrastructure that has proven extremely popular and highly utilized - isn't that what we want from government investments of tax dollars?

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At 8:11 PM, January 25, 2016, Blogger Notsuoh Photography said...

12 of America's Biggest Highway Boondoggles
When Texas expanded the Katy Freeway in Houston a few years back, the expectation was that making the massive road even wider would relieve traffic. Some $2.8 billion later, the 26-lane interstate laid claim to being the “world's widest freeway”—but the drivers who commuted along it every day were no better off. More lanes simply invited more cars, and by 2014, morning and evening travel times had increased by 30 and 55 percent, respectively, over 2011. A new U.S. PIRG report names names. Link to article:

At 8:16 PM, January 25, 2016, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, I completely disagree with that, and it's the reason I wrote my original post.

At 9:26 PM, January 25, 2016, Anonymous Derek said...

Your argument that "the government invested in a piece of infrastructure that has proven extremely popular and highly utilized" is just a bit disingenuous (and I agree that Cortright's argument is as well). All of your arguments against urban planning and non-bus mass transit stem from your belief that, all things being equal, people choose low density because it's inherently the best choice and therefore results in the most societal good - that any other government mandated alternative would be forcing people into a lifestyle they don't want.

Here's a quick thought experiment that I think you might appreciate with your background in IT. Let's say that back in 1993, a few upper-level government officials convinced the government to provide everyone with Macintosh computers with OS 7 installed. Over time, everyone buys apps for Mac, learns how to use the system, invests in peripherals for Mac hardware, etc. If you were to ask someone in 2016, "ok, we all need to be able to open Excel files bigger than 2MB, so the government can either upgrade your RAM for $50 per person, or buy a new PC for $2000 per person and you'll all have to learn a new system and buy new apps and peripherals." Which option sounds more reasonable? If you're only comparing the opportunity cost of each option's price, there really is no comparison.

But that's the problem, the government has essentially mandated one option - low density sprawl enabled by automobiles, and it didn't start out because 90% of the populace wanted highways, it was because a few elites decided they wanted to be able to drive to work as quickly as possible ( - it's sad how the preferences of a few in River Oaks led to a top-down plan of razing low-income housing along the parkway's route). Over time, a feedback loop of road/automobile availability, destruction of public transit, and housing/lending policy led to our current automobile-dominant city layout. In fact, the top-down regulatory structure in place makes good high-density city design impossible.

Not only is there massive historical inertia for low density, but no one considers the non-direct monetary costs of car-oriented low density when deciding transportation policy. If we start to consider problems like accident fatalities, economic lock-in, and pollution, the calculus starts to change.

If TxDOT were to actually start setting more money aside for public transit that actually reflected the interest of the public for it, I think we'd have a much more robust funding source for a lot of public transit projects.

So the debate isn't just roads being cheaper to improve incrementally, it's whether we want to start investing a good alternative to automobiles because of a holistic set of factors. But it could just be the case that there is support for more even funding

At 9:44 PM, January 25, 2016, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I wish I could find the stat, but I read something recently about how, when the car became an item affordable to the masses in the early 20th century, the country flipped to mass car ownership incredibly rapidly. The road investments followed the mass car ownership, not vice versa. It had nothing to do with elites - the masses wanted cars, bought them, and then demanded roads to drive them on.

Yes, sunk costs can suck, but they have to be considered. We can't start from a clean sheet and rebuild a city around transit. I would argue that is even more foolish now that automated cars/taxis are coming - they will be a death blow for most transit service. Everything has to happen in increments, including mixed-use higher density neighborhoods, which are definitely growing around Houston.

I don't give transit polls credibility. When interviewed, people imagine either 1) everybody else switching to transit so their drive is easier, or 2) that they will have the perfect faster and easier transit ride from where they live to where they work. When those things don't happen, they don't use it. We have real numbers from real transit investments with real ridership, and the cost-benefit ratios are pretty horrible, often even in high density transit cities (note the $2 *billion* *per mile* 2nd Ave subway project in NYC).

At 10:28 AM, January 27, 2016, Anonymous awp said...

"He raises the alternative of investing in denser housing"

I always find it funny when planners bring up this point in the context of Houston when Houston is essentially the only city in the country where it is legal to build denser housing.

"I don't give transit polls credibility"

1) Would you like to have a shorter commute?

Everyone wants dense inner city housing.

2) Would you like to have more space separating you and your immediate neighbors?

Everyone wants to live in suburbia.


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