Monday, February 19, 2018

Two choices for Houston's transit future (Chronicle op-ed)

The Houston Chronicle featured my op-ed as the lead in their Sunday edition Opinion section yesterday.  Since I've had problems with the reliability of the Chronicle archives in the past (especially after a few years pass), I've included the full text below.  Looking forward to your thoughts in the comments!

Two choices for Houston’s transit future

As both H-GAC and Metro prepare new long-term transit plans, Houston is facing a critical decision point between two paths that will determine our transportation future for decades to come – and whether we continue to thrive and grow as a global city or we become another gridlocked, unaffordable LA.

The first path - sometimes called for by local officials - is the traditional approach of adding rail as cities grow beyond a certain size, with New York, Washington DC, Chicago, and San Francisco being the largest examples.  This is not only extremely expensive to build – New York is spending $2.7 billion per mile on the Second Avenue Subway – but expensive to maintain, with massive maintenance backlogs causing well-publicized chronic service problems in New York, Washington DC, and San Francisco. Even worse, it turns out adding rail to sprawling Sunbelt cities built in the automobile age has been a costly failure almost everywhere, including recent bad press on Dallas DART’s high costs and low ridership, Denver’s $4.7 billion FasTracks, and LA’s $9 billion rail investment leading to overall transit ridership declines If LA - with twice our density, far worse traffic congestion, and perfect walking/waiting weather - can’t make massive rail investments pay off, what chance does Houston have?

Beyond these issues, traditional transit is facing the same technological disruption as many other industries with the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles.  Shared ride services like Uber and Lyft are already causing broad transit ridership declines across the country, and estimates are that their prices could drop even further to $0.35/mile once they go autonomous in the 2020s. Despite the high risk of building obsolete and costly white elephants with taxpayer dollars, some cities continue to plunge obliviously into this technological buzz saw with obscenely expensive old-school rail plans like $54 billion in Seattle, $5.2 billion in Nashville, and $10+ billion in Honolulu ($10,500 per Oahu resident!).  And we’re not immune to the insanity: some of the rail plans under consideration for Houston could easily run into several tens of billions of dollars.

So what’s a second path that rides this disruptive technological wave rather than drowns under it? There are hints of it in the Chronicle’s recent coverage of Metro’s commuter bus expansions and the Downtown Management District’s ‘Metro MAX’ proposal of two-way HOV-lane bus service connecting more than a dozen major job centers.  Houston is a dispersed city with many major job centers besides Downtown – like Uptown, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway, Energy Corridor, Westchase, Memorial City, etc. - needing commuter services that would be poorly served by a downtown-centric rail network feeding less than 7% of the area’s jobs.

Taking it to the next level would be our proposal of an expanded network of two-way Managed eXpress (MaX) freeway lanes connecting every job center to every neighborhood.  These lanes would be explicitly managed to move the maximum number of people at maximum speed, including converting to autonomous-only when the technology becomes available.  At that point, vehicles can run safely at much higher speeds while platooning more closely together to increase capacity. These lanes are far more cost-effective and flexible than rail, and we estimate that such a network could support a million commuters to a million jobs Houston’s core job centers – more core jobs than any other city in the country outside of Manhattan.

But what’s the experience like for the actual commuter?  With rail, it’s infrequent service (big capacity = longer waits to fill) with many intermediate stops, averaging 25-35 mph dropping you far from your workplace and requiring time-consuming walks or transfers in all sorts of weather.  With MaX Lanes you may be in a comfortable public or private Park-and-Ride bus or a smaller shared commuter vehicle that picks you up along with others in your neighborhood going to the same job center (such custom vehicles may even have private compartments).  As they enter the MaX Lanes, they go into autonomous “auto-pilot” mode (if they’re not already) and accelerate to high speeds – possibly as high as 100+mph! (can you imagine the global publicity for Houston and our image if we’re the first city on the planet to offer affordable 100+mph daily commuter services?!)  They then go nonstop to your job center wherever it may be, where they exit and circulate to get you right to your building – no transfers and no risk of walking or waiting in summer heat or downpours.  A faster, better experience at a far lower cost – it’s no contest.

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.  We should continue that iconoclastic tradition and publicly embrace the next generation of transit instead of chasing flashy, over-priced, ineffective rail projects like other cities (and put the savings towards flood control!).

Two paths forward – one looking to the past and one looking to the future. The choice is ours.

Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and writes the Houston Strategies blog.  His report on MaX Lanes for Houston can be found here.

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At 7:12 AM, February 21, 2018, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has there ever been any thought of drone taxi like service from a park and ride to downtown Houston. I've read that Dallas was selected as a choice for testing this service by Uber. The benefits would be overwhelmingly for Houston, mainly no expanding freeway and less vehicles on roadways and less pollution. Here is link to article

At 11:36 AM, February 21, 2018, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Pretty cool! Although I'm assuming the capacity will be smaller and the cost per passenger mile much, much higher than an autonomous bus or shuttle. Something that might work for hundreds or even thousands in Houston, but probably not hundreds of thousands or millions? (at least not for a long while)

At 10:52 AM, March 06, 2018, Blogger George Rogers said...

Houston Number 2 in Corperate Relocations

At 11:35 AM, March 06, 2018, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Love this! Great blog material when I get time for new posts. Thanks for the heads up George!


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