Sunday, December 30, 2018

Houston 2020: From freeways to scooters, transit will get disrupted

The Houston Chronicle Sunday editorial section today was dedicated to Houston forecasts beyond 2019, and I was honored to be featured for transportation (on the COU website here)  I'm going to include the full text below for posterity on the blog:

The transportation future’s so bright, we’ll have to wear shades
From freeways to scooters, transit will get disrupted by construction and technology
By Tory Gattis

In most ways, 2020 transportation in Houston will only be incrementally different from today: the completion of the U.S. 290 expansion, new toll lanes down the middle of Texas 288, the extension of the Texas 249 toll road beyond Tomball toward College Station, the next segments of the Grand Parkway 170-mile mega-loop. And of course there’s the one constant in Houston over the last 70 years: the never-ending widening of the Gulf Freeway.

The great redevelopment of Interstate 45 and the tangle of downtown freeways will only have just begun, and although Texas Central originally forecast 90-minute high-speed rail service between Dallas and Houston in 2020, that date has almost certainly slipped since construction has not yet begun.

On a smaller scale, we’ll see the completion of 50 new miles of high-comfort bikeways as well the redevelopment of Bagby Street downtown into a “complete street” with enhanced pedestrian and biking amenities connecting the theater district with parks and City Hall.

Rapidly growing dockless bike and scooter services will likely come to Houston, making it much easier to make short distance urban trips and increasing demand for these bikeways and complete streets.

What’s far more exciting is that 2020 will kick off the greatest decade of transportation technology disruption since the invention of the car itself. We’ve already seen the beginnings with the rise of Uber and Lyft shared rides, which have been challenging transit ridership nationally. Autonomous vehicles will make these services even more affordable and transform cities in all sorts of ways with increased safety, less congestion, lower parking needs enabling all sorts of urban densification and redevelopment, and increased exurban development as long commutes become more tolerable (even more radically, Uber has begun testing autonomous drone air taxis to allow us to soar over what congestion remains — at a price).

Houston TxDOT is already preparing for this autonomous future with a strategy of next-generation HOV lanes called MaX (Managed eXpress) Lanes moving the maximum number of people at maximum speed from across our region to all of our major job centers, including high-speed autonomous buses from METRO.

In the commute of the future, you’ll be able to take a nonstop autonomous ride safely at high-speed (possibly up to 100-plus-mph) in protected MaX Lanes directly to your job center where it will circulate you right to your building, while autonomous shared-ride services will get you around for short trips during the day. And unlike driving, you’ll be able to be productive or entertained on your phone, tablet or laptop the whole time. To paraphrase the immortal Timbuk 3: the transportation future’s so bright, we’ll have to wear shades (probably with augmented reality).

Gattis is a founding senior fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

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Monday, December 24, 2018

The Good, Bad, and Ugly of the METRONext A+ Plan

Earlier this month METRO released their new "A Plus" plan through 2040 at a board workshop you can watch here (Dec 11) and review the documents here (Chronicle coverage here, Metro promotional video here).  My thoughts on their previous round of plans are here, as well as Oscar Slotboom's take here, including some great stats, and all of which still applies to this plan.  The new plan is more than double the cost of the previous A plan: from $3.5 billion to $7.5 billion.  Overall, Metro is continuing their refreshing pragmatism and financial prudence, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be even better.  In the past I've used a good/bad/ugly framework for reviewing Metro services, and that framework will work well again here.

The Good
  • Substantial BRT and HOV service expansions, including two-way service in most corridors.
  • Speed improvements to HOV service to get through downtown, midtown, and the med center
  • Express bus/BRT to IAH airport at only $11million a mile!
  • Dropped the high-cost/low-ridership LRT line from the Astrodome to Hobby.
  • Converting the major east-west Universities line from LRT to BRT.
  • Great leverage of TXDoT money on MaX Lanes.
  • BOOST Network of local bus routes with frequent, high-quality service at the bargain price of only $53 million!
  • Faster and more reliable trips between activity centers.
  • Expanded access to opportunity within commute time constraints (see their Greenway Plaza Access map on slide 17).
The Bad/Concerning
  • BRT is still a not-cheap $42 million/mile (although a bargain vs. $150m/mile LRT!), so we need to be selective about where those routes go vs. more affordable BOOST/Signature bus service.  For example, does Gessner really justify BRT vs. good signature bus service?
  • I am still concerned about the slow commuter transfers to/from the Inner Katy BRT and the I10+290 HOV lanes, as described at the bottom of my first analysis.  MaX Lanes with commuter buses making a quick stop at the NW transit center then continuing downtown makes far more sense, and those same lanes can provide all-day express service connecting downtown to the high-speed rail terminal.
  • Strongly disagree with their assessment (in the table) that the Regional Express Network has "Low" economic growth potential.  As mainlane congestion increases, these commuter bus services will be *huge* in determining whether major employers stick it out in the core or move out to the suburbs like Exxon did.
  • General concern about congested and unsafe intersection crossings across the Universities line, especially Buffalo Speedway, Kirby, Shepherd, Montrose, and Midtown/Main/Richmond/Wheeler.  This really needs to be modeled out before going ahead so we don't end up with pure chaos on our hands (like Dallas did with their LRT downtown).
  • The priorities in this plan seem to give short shrift to the recent LINK report calling for more equitable transit serving more low-income populations.  A lot more resources could be shifted from flashy, expensive, low-ridership LRT projects (see below) to improving good basic bus service in more neighborhoods that need it.
The Ugly
  • Metro is still low-balling LRT estimates, assuming $122m/mile when all of the more recent extensions were closer to $150m/mile.  They're estimating $2.45B for LRT when it will probably be closer to $3B.
  • Even if you assume their cost estimates are right, we're talking about spending $2.45 billion for only 18,900 daily riders. That's $130k per rider! (and remember they're mostly not even new riders, but existing bus riders switching to rail)  Yes, we could buy every new rider a very nice new high-end Porsche for less money!
  • Extending the Red Line north 5.9 miles to Acres Homes at an eye-popping cost of $634 million(!).  There are some arguments about the benefits of connecting to a transit center up there, but it still seems a steep price for only 9,000 additional daily riders (most of whom are probably already riding the bus).
  • The near-criminality of spending $1.8 billion to extend both the Green and Purple lines to Hobby with only 7,200 riders a day! That's a quarter-million dollars per rider! The BOOST network is already shown connecting Hobby in the same directions at a tiny fraction of the cost! Isn't that good enough? But in both cases, I'm guessing it will take a solid hour to go from Hobby to downtown.  Who's going to ride that?! Why not just do an express bus service in the MaX Lanes like they're doing to IAH that's far faster at a tiny fraction of the cost?! (it could even hook in UH with a stop just like the IAH service has a couple of intermediate stops).
    • Airports are not as great connections as people think: the slow trip times and hassle of hauling baggage are discouraging vs. family or leisure travelers getting picked up or dropped off by friends/family or parking or using Uber/Lyft, and business travelers are usually happy to expense a faster taxi/Uber/Lyft ride (or rent a car depending on how much they're getting around).  Here's the question I ask everyone when they suggest rail to the airport: Metro needs to put limited resources where it will do the most good. With that in mind, how many times per year do you commute to work vs. commute to the airport? (probably 100-to-1 for the average person)  Connecting job centers makes far more sense than airports.
Here are a few opportunity cost thought experiments: with the $2.45 billion being spent on a negligible 20 miles of light rail, the plan could instead offer:
  • 58 more miles of BRT, or...
  • 197 more miles of additional commuter bus HOV service, or...
  • 4,900 more miles (!!) of better BOOST and signature bus service, or...
  • Provide free fares for all riders for 38 years, increasing ridership and reducing traffic congestion in the bargain! 
As Metro goes through the public feedback process, I hope they consider some of these alternatives with far, far higher benefit-to-cost ratios.

Hat tip to Oscar Slotboom for some of the observations in this post.

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Monday, December 10, 2018

Bush and Houston, #1 take-home pay, Europe's rail fail, increasing access to jobs, zoning as crony capitalism, transit's decline, Houston beats Austin and Dallas for affordable housing, and more

Apologies for the long gap between posts due to travel.  Catching up on many smaller items:
"So Dallas has decided to legalize the granny flat — subject to enough rules and regulations to ensure that this has approximately zero impact on the housing market. The political mind at work again: Dallas studied Austin’s granny-flat liberalization program, which over the course of several years saw 200 units come onto the market, some of them new construction but mostly the rental of properties that hadn’t been rented before. Austin has almost 1 million people. Dallas copied the Austin model — on purpose, knowing that it would produce negligible results
Let’s summarize: The city, having prohibited a common form of affordable housing, decided to reverse that prohibition in the hopes of bringing back some of that affordable housing by following the example of another city whose efforts produced basically no affordable housing. Ingenious! 
Down the road a bit in Houston, they’ve had some success with a radically different approach: building houses."
"For decades transit planning agencies and public officials (including when I served on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission) have claimed that new transit rail systems can materially reduce traffic congestion. The development of access metrics should put an end to such misconceptions (Note 3). 
Regional planning agencies, transportation agencies and public officials should use the access metrics to direct funding to strategies that improve 30 minute access throughout cities. That principally means attention to improving the highway system. It’s time to develop a metric for urban transportation investments to address the fundamental goal of improving access, specifically the cost per new percentage point of job access. Getting people more access is critical to strong economies and reducing poverty, and deserves an assessment based on facts, not wishful thinking or mythology."
"Five cities—New York, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco—accounted for a third of all Fortune 500 headquarters and half of Fortune 500 firms’ profits last year"
Finally, a moment of remembrance for a great Houstonian, George H.W. Bush, whose statue I was admiring at the airport just hours before his death hit the news.  And a quote I love from the NYT piece talking about his relationship with Houston:
"Mr. Bush and Houston — both a little quirky, a little square, a little misunderstood — were a natural fit. "

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