Sunday, August 12, 2018

METRONext 2040 Transit Plan Should be Affordable, Adaptable, and Designed for the Future

Today's guest post is from Houston Freeway's Oscar Slotboom as a followup to my recent post on the early draft MetroNext plan.
How can very limited available public transit funds be used to achieve maximum benefit for the Houston area? I suggest that the guiding principle should be designing for the future, not the past.

The Past

Light rail is very expensive and very slow, with new mileage likely to cost in the range of $150-200 million per mile. Commuter rail (expected to be under the authority of an agency other than Metro) is expensive and slow, costing at least $50 million per mile. Both are fixed, inflexible and usable only by trains.

Miles per hour Cost
Metro Red Line 13.6 $143 million/mile
Metro Green Line 12.3 Approx. $154 million/mile (2015)
Metro Purple Line 13.5 Approx. $154 million/mile
USA average light rail speed 15.8
USA average commuter rail speed 32
Houston 2015 commuter rail study
Cost Estimates
$48 million/mile outside the loop
$45-99 million/mile from Northwest Mall to downtown depending on route
Metro 222 Grand Parkway
Park and Ride
(to first stop downtown)
(to last stop)
Northwest Freeway Expansion, including 1 reversible HOV and the massive Loop 610 interchange
($2.5 billion for 38 miles, with $1.27 billion for construction)
$66 million per mile
Typical cost per lane of concrete: $6.5 million/mile
Equivalent cost of 2-lane BRT (pavement only, no stations or buses)
$13 million/mile

This table tells us three important facts
  • Concrete roadway is vastly less expensive than rail
  • The fastest transit service is achieved by bus-on-concrete express bus service with limited stops
  • Light rail is extremely slow, suitable only for short distance travel like 5 miles or less.
The Future: More Job Dispersion

HGAC projections show the percentage of jobs inside Loop 610 will drop to 16.6% by 2045.

Employment, millions (HGAC, January 2018)
2015 2045 Change
Region 3.2 100% 4.8 100%
Inside Loop 610 0.66 20.6% 0.79 16.6% -4.0
Loop-BW8 0.85 26.6% 1.34 28.2% +1.6
BW8-Grand Parkway 1.18 36.9% 1.82 38.2% +1.3
Outside Grand Parkway 0.51 15.9% 0.81 17.0% +1.1

This tells us that:
  • A downtown-centric mass transit system will serve a declining percentage of overall regional travel, and the need to serve so-called long and thin routes (i.e. routes with low ridership) to points outside downtown will increase.  
  • We don’t need more high capacity transit, but instead need more routes that can be affordably operated to more destinations with low rider counts at high service levels. 
  • Transit technologies of the past cannot affordably meet the future need.
Transportation of the Future is Taking Shape Today

While the future of autonomous vehicles and their impact remain speculative, recent reports detail impressive progress.
  • Google’s Waymo test program has logged more than 8 million miles of its vehicles driving in the fully autonomous mode in Phoenix, with around 400 people participating in the program for their daily transportation needs. An excerpt: (emphasis added)
"If self-driving cars make ride-hailing cheaper and more convenient, the research suggests, it could take a wrecking ball to public transportation. Strangely, the head of Phoenix’s public transportation agency agrees with that assessment.
'It will absolutely happen,' says Scott Smith, Valley Metro’s CEO. 'But I’m not scared, I’m excited. There will be a reduction in bus use, in subway use in some areas, but expanded use in others. This is real. We’ve got to be a part of it.'”
  • Wired reports on Phoenix's efforts to keep public transportation relevant with coming automated transportation services
  • Zoox (with impressive video report) is developing an all-electric robot taxi which is potentially highly suitable for transit service. The vehicle travels in both directions and can move sideways with its four-wheel steering. It is being tested in downtown San Francisco, and Zoox is among only three firms (along with Waymo and GM’s Cruise) that are currently known to be well-along in urban testing.
  • At least 6 other major efforts are in progress (see chart), which currently are reported to be less far along than Waymo, GM Cruise and Zoox.
Being Adaptable to Whatever the Future May Bring

While decentralization of employment is virtually certain in the future, the impact of new technology on public transit is unknown but could but be hugely disruptive, potentially substantially reducing demand for traditional public transit. 

That’s why we need a plan which is adaptable to whatever the future may bring.

For future planning purposes and MetroNext, it really does not matter if autonomous vehicles become available in 5 years or decades in the future. Anything built in the MetroNext plan can be expected to be in service to the year 2100 and beyond. MetroNext needs to be ready for autonomous transit, if and when it comes, but also maximize mobility benefits of transit investments if autonomous transit is slow to develop or has a minimal impact.

  • Scenario 1: A future with minimal influence of autonomous vehicles
In this case we need to serve dispersing employment with expanded service to more job centers at an affordable cost. Low-cost designs will maximize the number of these routes.
What we need: Concrete pavement for an expanded network of HOT lanes for buses and HOV
  • Scenario 2: A future where autonomous vehicles and traditional transit coexist, each serving different segments of the market
In this case we can envision traditional transit serving mainly a few high-volume destinations such as downtown, but most other transit will be served with public or private autonomous vehicles.
What we need: Transit facilities designed to be used by autonomous vehicles, as these vehicles may start on regular streets, then enter a dedicated transit guideway for a segment, then switch to a HOT lane, then return to regular streets
  • Scenario 3:  A future where autonomous transit vehicles are affordable and widely available, drastically lowering the demand for traditional public transit
In this case the focus of transportation agencies may totally change, perhaps with public transit agencies subsidizing fleets of autonomous vehicles to serve low-income communities, and perhaps shifting their focus to build and maintain autonomous vehicle guideways to provide premium high-speed service for robot transit taxis.
What we need: Transit investments that won’t go to waste when demand for traditional public transit collapses. We need transit facilities that are readily usable by autonomous vehicles and regular (non-transit) automobiles.
Implications for MetroNext

Metro could have as little as only $1 to $2.8 billion available for capital projects in the next 20 years. If new light rail costs $175 million per mile, that money could be burned up with only 6 to 16 miles of light rail. We can and must do much better.

The need for a transit system which is affordable, adaptable and ready for future leads to these conclusions and guiding principles:
  • Rail-based fixed guideways are totally useless for use by autonomous vehicles
  • Rail-based public transit, particularly light rail, is obscenely expensive and will likely suffer from low ridership, like we’re seeing on the Green and Purple lines
  • New rail mileage should be eliminated or minimized in MetroNext
  • Pavement-based transit is much less expensive to build than rail-based transit, is better-suited to serving future needs, and is adaptable to meet future autonomous vehicle needs
  • All new transit facilities should be pavement-based and designed to be used by autonomous transit vehicles. This may mean design features such as frequent entry/exit points, and through-lanes on bus rapid transit guideways at stations
  • MetroNext Plan B (or similar plan) should be adopted, since it is least expensive and most compatible with future needs and technology  
  • Due to Metro’s limited financial resources, Metro should partner with TxDOT to build key transit links in our future system. TxDOT will do the financial heavy lifting, minimizing the cost to Metro, but full political support from Metro and the City of Houston will be needed.
Partnerships with TxDOT

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  • Interstate 10 Katy Freeway between the West Loop and downtown
Both Metro Plans A and B show BRT on this section. On the west end of this section are the existing Katy Managed Lanes, and on the east side new express lanes are planned as part of the downtown reconstruction project. These two sections of managed/express lanes need to be connected.
This section needs to be expanded, with four new MaX lanes and possibly a separate BRT as included in the Metro plans. I can envision a potential plan where the current westbound lanes are converted to MaX and BRT lanes, with new main lanes built on the north side.
  • Interstate 69 Southwest Freeway, Uptown/Gulfton area to downtown split
Metro’s plan A shows BRT on this corridor and plan B shows a “partnership project”. This section is currently under preliminary study by TxDOT, and this corridor should be widened to add four MaX lanes and potentially BRT.
  • West Loop
MetroNext has no new plans for this corridor, since the Post Oak bus lanes will open soon. TxDOT has proposed four express lanes on this corridor.
The express lanes should be designed to be usable by automated transit vehicles which need to pass through this congested area. This will involve connections at both ends, and possibly a third express lane in each direction for exclusive use by transit and automated vehicles.
Future Vision

MaX Lanes as proposed by Tory are ideally suited to provide the kind of service needed in the future. We can envision a future with buses, automated transit vehicles and HOV using regular streets, MaX lanes and dedicated transit guideways to serve a vastly expanded range of transit routes with high levels of service at speeds much faster than traditional transit.

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