Friday, February 02, 2018

Embrace the Uncool: more thoughts on Amazon HQ2 + Houston and LA transit

There are some follow-ups to my last two posts on Amazon HQ2 and Houston transit, including addendums/updates at the end of both posts you may want to check out, including the news that Texas Monthly backed up our creative "think big" Astrodome Amazon HQ2 idea vs. dismissal by City officials!

Amazon HQ2

A new thought since my last post: Amazon's rejection of Houston for HQ2 could have been as simple as bad PR optics: it just looks bad to squeeze a city for big incentives that just went through the most expensive natural disaster in history.  They probably imagined future nightmare stories in the media: "well, we would have spent all this money on new flood control infrastructure, but we had to give it to Amazon instead."

Other good reasons for us to be glad to be out of this extortionary beauty contest have come out in the media:
"While there are real benefits like this NYT profile to making the Amazon cut, I don’t think cities that didn’t make it should beat themselves up too much. We really don’t know the factors that went into deciding who was in and who was out. Some of the people who are in may have been put there for pure misdirection for all we know. Maybe even Indianapolis. And being left off the list may not be reflective of the city as a whole. Cleveland, for example, has many problems, but is also one of the few place with an actual HQ2 scale entity locally in the Cleveland Clinic. In that health care space, Cleveland has proven it can attract the best talent in the world at scale. That’s just not relevant to Amazon. So while those who did make the list should feel good about it, I don’t think those who didn’t should wallow in undue negativity. As the New York Times notes, even the “losers” are potentially in line for future Amazon investments."
Houston transit

First, to set the stage, two different pieces on the failure of rail in LA, which has invested billions while losing overall ridership, even with twice the density, worse traffic congestion, and perfect walking/waiting weather vs. Houston.
"He soon soured on rail transit, however, because he didn’t believe that it actually worked. “What we have seen in the United States is right from the start rail transit didn’t add anything at all to transit [ridership] in the United States. It didn’t reduce automobile use at all…By the late 1980s, after having left the commission about four years before I had come to the view that it wasn’t something we ought to be doing…I became very critical of spending billions of dollars to achieve less than we promised we would achieve.” 
Indeed, the LA Times reported a while back that despite billions in rail transit investments in LA, overall transit ridership had fallen. And it is falling as we speak.  There are many possible explanations for these declines. Bus ridership is falling in many markets, and LA is still very heavily skewed towards buses. Uber and Lyft are eating into market share. 
I’m not ready to pronounce the death of transit in LA by any means, but the clearly underwhelming results for rail in LA despite very large investment in new lines, a relatively dense environment, and horrible traffic congestion, is something that transit advocates need to seriously confront."
Those lead me to conclude with this great Facebook post defending Houston's practical and cost-effective bus-based approach to transit by my friend Packy Saunders (who approved the reprint here):
Last night someone was whining on a food group about being towed. They didn't explicitly blame the restaurant, yet they were leaning in that direction. Someone piped up about our non-existent public transportation. That annoyed me and I commented. People in Houston are snobs about riding the bus. Not so much the rail, but they wouldn't be caught dead on METRO buses. 
As expected, I got the typical pushback that Houston's system isn't as good as other big cities. Usually this indicates some confirmation bias when I hear it – because most Houstonians I know haven't been on a bus as an adult. Here’s where I’m going to disagree with the average Houstonian: Adjusted for population density-weighted service, Houston might have the best bus service of any major city
I ride the bus often. The route improvements made in 2016 (shout out to Christof Spieler) helped tremendously
Houston is a driving city due to low population density. The bus system serves it accordingly. NYC has 27,500 people per square mile. SF has 17,000. Boston 13,300. Chicago 11,800. Houston? A paltry 3,400. 
We are almost twice as scattered as the very fragmented LA. Of the top 10 cities by population, Phoenix has us beat with about 2,800 people per square mile. It also has what I think is superior public transportation based on the fact that the rail is more useful as it connects downtown and beyond to the airport. Phoenix costs more to ride, though. As does pretty much every other major city. Most big cities are $2-$2.50 with stingy transfers. Houston is $1.25 with a three-hour all-way transfer window. 
It’s far from perfect, but pretty much every major arterial has a bus coming in 10 to 15 min. Minor ones are 20-30 min. That’s about the same as Chicago CTA – probably my favorite system in the country after DC. I do wish we had a more useful rail system like Chicago. But 100 years ago there were 2.7 million people in Chicago proper and cars were new tech. They built accordingly. There’s not even that many in Houston proper right now, and we had about 5% of that a century ago. And we built accordingly too – a city that came to life after cars were common with roughly a third the density
The snobbery that ignores the actual performance amuses me. It's simply not cool to ride the bus in Houston."
Historically, Houston has always been comfortable ignoring the conventional wisdom and going our own pragmatic way - like being the largest city in the country without zoning and building an extensive HOV/HOT bus lane network instead of costly, inflexible, and slow commuter rail.  Maybe it's time we continue that tradition and publicly embrace "uncool" transit like buses (and MaX Lanes) instead of chasing flashy, over-priced, ineffective rail and streetcar (ugh) projects like other cities?

Labels: , , , , , ,


At 9:09 PM, February 02, 2018, Blogger George Rogers said...

Wendel had a great interview on urban planning

At 7:18 AM, February 03, 2018, Blogger JC said...

Good bit! Repeal the anti jitney ordinance of ... 1918?

At 9:45 AM, February 03, 2018, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks! Good idea!

At 4:42 PM, February 03, 2018, Blogger George Rogers said...

Patrik Schumacher has interesting ideas about cities

At 4:57 PM, February 03, 2018, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Love this! Thanks for the heads up, George!

At 4:57 PM, February 03, 2018, Blogger George Rogers said...

One of the reasons for the oil industry being so innovative is that Houston is cheap, unlike other industry capitals.


Post a Comment

<< Home