Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Answering Mayor Turner's call to re-imagine Houston's transportation future

Last week the Chronicle published a piece of mine on addressing Houston's mobility challenges with the future in mind, including the rise of self-driving cars.  I'd like to re-post it here for posterity and to catch any of my readers that might have missed it over there.

How to fix Houston traffic? Let's talk MaX Lanes.
Connected, beefed-up HOV lanes would move the most people, the fastest
By Tory Gattis, for the Houston Chronicle, February 16, 2016

Houston's new mayor, Sylvester Turner, recently called for the Texas Transportation Commission to re-think its approach to mobility in large cities like Houston, saying – in essence – that it's time to shift focus from vehicles carrying only one person to other ways of getting around. Freeway widenings are reaching their limits and congestion is still increasing. Wisely, he left open to discussion what exactly that new approach might look like. How can Houston be similarly thoughtful in its approach going forward?

The first step is learning from what has and hasn't worked for other cities. Rail investments in other decentralized, Sunbelt cities, such as Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver, and Atlanta, have been disappointing. Los Angeles in particular is a cautionary case. With $9 billion spent on new rail lines in a city with twice the density of Houston and perfect walking weather year-round (unlike our summers!), they have seen overall declines in transit ridership and worsening traffic congestion. Rail is incredibly expensive — typically over $100 million per mile — and just not well suited for spread-out Sunbelt cities built around the automobile in the post-WWII era.

The second step is understanding the ramifications of coming new technologies — specifically self-driving cars. While the general vehicle fleet will take decades to turn over as people slowly replace their cars, we can expect extremely rapid adoption among taxi services as soon as these vehicles are available in the early 2020s. The economics are simply too compelling: Almost 80 percent of the cost of a ride is the driver. One estimate has the typical ride dropping to $3.25, with shared rides going for $2.43 or even as low as $1 with SUVs carrying up to six passengers at once along a shared route.

Customized SUVs could be made with private individual compartments, so that passengers traveling in generally the same direction could share a ride without interacting. When vehicle pulls up, an indicator could tell you which door to enter for your compartment, then alert you again when it's time for you to get out based on the destination you put into your smart phone. A private ride combined with shared prices and efficiency: the best of both worlds.

The impact on traffic congestion could be dramatic, as fewer vehicles carry more riders. Analysis by MIT, Stanford, and others estimate that shared rides could reduce the number of vehicles needed to carry the same number of trips by 70 to 90 percent. Quite the silver bullet to reduce traffic congestion! Then there's the icing on the cake: Automated drivers are expected to dramatically reduce crash injuries and space required for parking, which will free up a tremendous amount of much-needed land in our cities.

All indications are that these super-cheap, point-to-point autonomous taxi services will essentially replace most bus and rail transit: Most trips would be much faster and more direct at nearly the same cost. In fact, transit agencies like METRO may switch  their fleets to such vehicles, providing better service to their customers. Helsinki's transit agency is already a pioneer of this transition, offering on-demand mini-vans available via smart phone app.

In this new era, rail will only make sense in the very densest cities in the world, like New York and Tokyo. And cities investing billions in rail projects now may find themselves with substantial white elephants on their hands in the near future — a fate Houston should definitely try to avoid.
So if freeways are reaching their limits, and traditional rail and bus transit face obsolescence, what's the right answer for Houston right now?

Consider Managed eXpress Lanes — MaX Lanes, for short — which aim to move the maximum number of people at maximum speed (a phrase recently adopted by TxDOT's Houston office). These lanes are the next generation of METRO's very successful HOV lanes: lanes that are restricted to high-occupancy vehicles, such as buses, carpool vans and cars carrying more than one person. HOV lanes are much less crowded than regular lanes, so — as Houston commuters know well — their traffic usually moves far faster.

If we create a comprehensive, connected, two-way network of these freeway lanes across the metro area — including our loop freeways, like 610 and Beltway 8 — then multi-occupant vehicles (self-driving or not) can offer fast, nonstop, point-to-point service between any neighborhood and any job center.

The lanes will transition naturally to self-driving vehicles. When the technology is mature, these lanes can be reserved exclusively for auto-piloted vehicles, instantly increasing the lanes' capacity two to four times as the cars flow more smoothly, closer together and with less braking. 

MaX Lanes are also perfect for serving a spread-out city of multiple job centers (fewer than than seven percent of Houston's jobs are downtown). If the mayor is serious about shifting trips with more than one occupant in the vehicle — aiming to go from 3 percent to 15 percent and beyond — MaX Lanes are best strategy to reach that goal.

In his address to the Transportation Commission, Turner also called for greater inter-agency cooperation. MaX Lanes are the perfect application of such cooperation, with a single vision bringing the city together with TxDOT, HCTRA, and METRO. The lanes give the mayor an opportunity to be the leader who sets the stage for the next era of Houston's growth.

Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and writes the Houston Strategies blog.

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Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Houston model wins again (twice), understanding NIMBYs, the politics of home affordability, and more

First, on this Valentine's Day, I'd like to re-declare my love for Houston! ;-)

Second, repeating last week's quick announcement: my Center for Opportunity Urbanism is having a free luncheon event near Uptown this Friday Feb 19th on America's Housing Crisis.  Details and RSVP here - hope to see you there!

Lots of items this week:
"Recent trends suggest that metropolitan areas can make progress toward growth, prosperity and inclusion at the same time. However, strong performance on all three outcomes at once is exceptional. From 2009 to 2014, only nine large metropolitan areas performed above the average of all large metropolitan areas taken together on growth, prosperity, overall inclusion, and inclusion by race.... But only two performed above average over the short term, the medium term, and the long term: Houston and San Jose."
"In the absence of zoning restrictions on the number of housing units in a neighborhood, neighborhood amenities would be a public good. Zoning converts neighborhood amenities from a public good (a partially non-rivalrous, non-excludable good) into a "club" good (a partially non-rivalrous, excludable good). Because "club" membership is bundled with home ownership, zoning causes the value of neighborhood amenities to be capitalized into home prices. NIMBYism can be thought of as the practice of objecting to development in order to protect the value of "club" membership."
Let us again be thankful for the wisdom of our predecessors not bringing zoning to Houston... 
"There’s little argument that inequality, and the depressed prospects for the middle class, will be a dominant issue this year’s election. Yet the most powerful force shaping this reality—the rising cost of housing—has barely emerged as political issue.
Following our current path, we can expect our society—particularly in deep blue states—to move ever more toward a kind of feudalism where only a few own property while everyone else devolves into rent serfs. The middle class will have little chance to acquire any assets for their retirement and increasingly few will choose to have children. Imagine, then, a high-tech Middle Ages with vast chasms between the upper classes and the poor, with growing dependence—even among what once would have been middle-class households—on handouts to pay rent. Imagine too, over time, Japanese-style depopulation and an ever more rapidly aging society. 
Yet none of this is necessary. This is not a small country with limited land and meager prospects. A bold new approach to housing, including the reform of out of control regulations, could restore the fading American dream for tens of millions of families. It would provide the basis for a greater spread of assets and perhaps a less divided—and less angry—country. Rather than waste their time on symbolic issues or serving their financial overlords, candidates in both parties need to address policies that are now undermining the very basis of middle-class democracy."
Finally an unpaid personal aside and recommendation: amazingly, the January electric bill for my loft was $5.52 (about two cents per kWh!) after the $25 monthly low-usage credit on the optimized electricity plan I got through My Best Plan, run by a fellow Rice alum.  They optimize your electric plan among the dozens or even hundreds available based on your historic seasonal usage profile. I can't recommend them highly enough if you find the electricity market overwhelming or excessively complex and time consuming.

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Monday, February 08, 2016

An oil tax that would draw Republican support and re-energize Houston

First, a quick announcement: my Center for Opportunity Urbanism is having a free luncheon event near Uptown Friday Feb 19th on America's Housing Crisis.  Details and RSVP here - hope to see you there!

You may have read about President Obama's "dead on arrival" budget proposal of a $10/barrel oil tax.  How could it be modified for bipartisan support? Change it to an import tariff, just as the Chronicle recently proposed:
"Ed Hirs, a University of Houston energy economist, has pointed to an oil import tariff or quota as a way for the United States to stabilize prices and avoid the economic hit that comes with global price swings. A healthy price floor for domestic oil, or even a price agreement with Canada and Mexico, would ensure steady business for oil producers without hurting downstream refiners or your routine gas station fill-up. 
"It is protectionist," Hirs told the Houston Chronicle editorial board. "But it is a net gain for us." 
Politicians who have a gut instinct for free markets need to check that feeling when it comes to oil. Global prices are literally controlled by a cartel, and right now it looks like OPEC nations are dumping their product below cost in a fight for market share. That's not a free market, that's a trade war. 
Thanks to the fracking revolution, the United States is producing oil at rates not seen since the 1970s. Changing facts led Congress to change the law about oil exports at the end of last year. The next step logical step would reinstate oil import regulations. After all, import restrictions successfully bolstered the domestic oil industry from 1959 until 1974 and the Arab Oil Crisis.
It is clearly true that Saudi Arabia is dumping oil to destroy the U.S. oil industry, just as China did with steel at one time.  Why are we ok with this?!  An import tariff would support a higher oil price for increased domestic production.

Here's what the Democrats get:
  • Increased cost of oil which reduces usage and carbon emissions to meet the new Paris climate treaty goals
  • A funding source for alternative clean-energy research (btw, here's one that would save Houston's oil industry too: a new technology to pull the carbon off of fossil fuels)
  • Domestic jobs
  • Stick it to OPEC
Here's what the Republicans get:
  • Domestic jobs in red states (Texas, North Dakota, and others)
  • A revitalized domestic oil and gas industry (major funders of the Republican party)
  • Domestic energy security and self-sufficiency (which is also a military priority)
  • Stick it to OPEC in general and the Middle East in particular
Oh, and if there are WTO or other restrictions that limit tariffs, then call it an oil unloading fee or whatever creative designation it needs (hat tip to Cary).  Or make it a general oil tax with offsetting credits for domestic production.  As far as branding, call it an OPEC Tax - that will be popular!

It's hard to imagine there's an issue that both the left and the right might agree on in these days of polarized politics, but this definitely seems like one of them.  Maybe a few congressmen from both parties in Houston could get together to sponsor a bill through Congress?  As always, please forward this post along if you know the right people (or even just to your congressman).

UPDATE 2/21/16: The Chronicle calls for an OPEC Tax!

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