Monday, January 28, 2019

No-AC Astrodome ok, Houston winning tech jobs, NZ learns from Houston, funding tech startups, and more

My MetroNext op-ed made a big splash last week and got a ton of positive feedback (very much appreciated everyone).  Numerous smaller items this week:
"The Market Urbanism stance on affordable housing:
Deregulate land. In hot markets, this will lead to rapid construction & price stability. Take Houston: since 2010 it's #2 in population growth, but #1 in permits - maintaining price medians below the US average."
"But it goes much further. Even the metropolitan areas of Texas have comparatively high residential densities, despite their reputation for urban sprawl. A seminal analysis by the Brookings Institution characterized Texas metropolitan areas as having “an unparalleled openness to growth and development.” Indeed, Brookings named the Texas land use category, “Wild Wild Texas,” noting that “Wild Wild Texas presents the closest thing the United States has to land use deregulation.” This reflects the most market oriented land use regulations in the United States, and as every planner seemingly from Adelaide to Berlin seems to have been taught, “Houston has no zoning.” 
In fact, the four largest Texas metropolitan areas, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin each have median lot sizes of from 0.18 acres to 0.25 acres, small or smaller than Philadelphia, Boston or Washington. The market orientation of Texas land and residential development have not resulted in less efficient use of land."
  • Vision Zero, a ‘Road Diet’ Fad, Is Proving to Be Deadly: Emergency vehicles get stuck on streets that have been narrowed to promote walking and bicycling.  To be clear, I support Vision Zero efforts when it's about pragmatic accident reduction at problematic intersections, but not when it's a smokescreen for anti-car efforts shrinking roads, reducing speed limits, and adding speed humps.  Excerpt:
"It’s noble to want to make America’s streets as safe as they can be. But government officials shouldn’t impose projects on communities that don’t work, inconvenience residents, hurt businesses and impede emergency responders in the process."
Finally, new County Judge Lina Hidalgo has put out a survey to the public to help set the priorities for her administration. I encourage all my readers to fill it out here.

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Monday, January 21, 2019

Getting METRONext 2040 from B- to a real A+ (Chronicle op-ed)

Sunday the Houston Chronicle published my op-ed on the METRONext 2040 plan as the lead feature in the Outlook section (alternate link, UPDATE: also now at New Geography and discussed by the Chronicle editorial board here).  They were forced to trim it down to fit, so I'm publishing the full-length original version here:

Getting METRONext 2040 from B- to a real A+
By Tory Gattis

METRO's proposal - Click for full size
(more details of Metro's plan here)

METRO recently released a draft $7.5 billion 2040 transit plan they’ve labeled “A Plus” (the previous “A” plan plus some additions), but unfortunately it’s more like a B- when it comes to addressing Houston’s real transportation needs over the next two decades.  It has some wonderful, cost-effective local and express bus improvements – including bus-rapid transit (BRT) at less than one-third the cost per mile of light rail – but continues to throw mountains of good money after bad on wasteful new light rail extensions.

The A+ plan proposes to add 20 miles of new light rail for $2.45 billion, or a third of the overall plan cost, to serve only a tiny 18,900 trips per day at a pricey $130,000 per daily rider – about the same as buying each rider a Porsche Cayenne Turbo SUV. The two redundant light rail routes to Hobby airport will serve a trivial 7,200 boardings per day at a projected cost per rider of a quarter-million dollars (like a Ferrari for each rider!), totaling $1.8 billion or around $129 million per mile, which is probably low since the Green and Purple lines cost $154 million per mile when completed in 2015.  Why is the ridership estimate so low? It might have something to do with the fact that the 13mph light rail is so slow it will take almost an hour to get from Hobby to Downtown!  Why couldn’t that be replaced with far cheaper and faster express lane BRT service like Bush Intercontinental airport is getting?

Unfortunately we're already all too familiar with low ridership on light rail. The $1.4 billion Green and Purple lines have dismally low patronage, with only 5,077 weekday boardings on the Green Line and 7,416 weekday boardings on the Purple Line. For comparison, the Main St. Red Line has 53,412 weekday boardings, and the Katy Freeway near Beltway 8 served 366,000 vehicles carrying a half-million people per day in 2017.

Beyond the wasteful cost-inefficiency, rail is also at significant risk of technological obsolescence as autonomous vehicles and shared-ride services like Uber, Lyft, and Google’s Waymo continue to evolve.  The impact of new technology on public transit is unknown but could 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.  Practically, that means concrete guideways with rubber-tired vehicles that can evolve as the technology does.

Bus rapid transit guideways substantially reduces the risk of obsolescence, since concrete can accommodate the potential autonomous transit vehicles of the future. But we also need to be cautious with BRT: yes, it is much less expensive than light rail, but $42 million/mile is still not cheap, and it’s no bargain if it causes traffic chaos at intersections.  METRO needs to complete the Uptown BRT, optimize it, and study its impact and effectiveness before building more of it, especially the Universities line along Richmond that will cross many congested intersections like Kirby, Shepherd, Montrose, and multiple key thoroughfares in Midtown.  In some cases, Signature Bus service may be good enough, less disruptive, and far less expensive. Existing bus service on Gessner receives 6,879 boardings per day, about half of the daily volume on Westheimer (slated for Signature service) and less than the daily volume on Bellaire, Beechnut, and Richmond (all slated for enhanced BOOST service). Why spend $793 million on Gessner BRT when much less expensive Signature Bus or BOOST service is likely to be sufficient?

How should METRO redeploy that $2.45 billion light rail budget instead? They should focus on three priorities:
  1. Faster commutes: METRONext makes substantial regional express improvements to the HOV lane network, including two-way service and service between job centers, but it is still too downtown-centric and fails to provide regional service from all areas to all major job centers. The Texas Medical Center, Greenway, Uptown, Westchase, and the Energy Corridor all get express service from only limited parts of town, some requiring time-consuming transfers.  H-GAC predicts jobs will continue to disperse with less than 17% of the region’s jobs inside the 610 Loop by 2045. METRO, in partnership with TXDoT and HCTRA, needs to serve more of the other 83% with interconnected express lanes stitching together the entire region (including connecting around downtown).  We don’t need more high capacity transit, but instead need more routes that can be operated affordably to more destinations with low rider counts at high service levels.  The major economic risk is that more employers will give up on being in Houston’s congested core and move to the outer suburbs like Exxon did, draining our tax base and vitality.
  2. Equity: LINK Houston recently released a report estimating almost a million Houstonians need better basic bus service.  The METRONext plan calls for 241 miles of BOOST network bus service with higher frequencies, better reliability, and sheltered stops for the bargain cost of only $53 million ($220k/mile).  Why not dramatically expand that to more of the city?
  3. Increased ridership and reduced congestion: To buck the national trend of shrinking transit ridership, METRO needs to go big and eliminate fares entirely.  Metro’s revenue is mostly sales tax, with less than 9% coming from the farebox. $1.3 billion of that $2.45 billion saved from light rail could provide free fares for the next 20 years, and it would actually cost less than that because of the internal cost savings from no longer having to collect, process, and enforce fares.  That also makes boarding and trips faster.  Free fares and faster trips means more riders and less traffic congestion – a win whether you ride transit or not.  As a bonus, the boost to Houston’s national reputation would be substantial as well.  Additionally, METRO could use the savings to improve the rider experience with more shelters and better sidewalks, making Houston more pedestrian-friendly in the process.
METRO is planning a multi-billion-dollar bond referendum in 2019.  If we learned one thing after the 2003 referendum, it’s that METRO will doggedly stick with voter-approved plans even in the light of changing circumstances and shifting cost-benefit ratios.  Whatever gets passed in 2019 is likely to shape Houston transportation for better or worse for decades to come amid rapid technological change, with a high risk of obsolescence and white elephants.  It’s a plan we really need to get right. I encourage every Houstonian to get involved through the METRONext website and public meetings to help make it a truly A+ plan.

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

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Great quote on Houston, Complete streets not adding value, planning problems, NYT love for HTX, and more

Quite the backlog of smaller items this week:
"After adjusting the two sets of data to make them comparable prior to the time when one group adopted Complete Streets, they found that “Complete Streets policy has no effect on house prices, and therefore we are unable to find a positive amenity value from a municipality-level commitment to Complete Streets.” 
"State DOTs should be far more cautious in agreeing to requests from municipalities to convert arterial routes to Complete Streets treatment. Most of the information provided by New Urbanists consists of anecdotes, rather than careful analysis such as Vandegriff and Zandoni have provided."
Rebounding bigger and better after a hurricane

"After Hurricane Harvey, the city is back on its feet and showing off the everything-is-bigger-in-Texas attitude. Four food halls opened in 2018, including Finn Hall, which features up-and-coming chefs including the James Beard-nominated chef Jianyun Ye with a downtown outpost of his Chinese hot spot Mala Sichuan and a taqueria from the local favorite Goode Company. The five-diamond Post Oak Hotel opened in March 2018 with a two-story Rolls Royce showroom, art by Frank Stella and a 30,000-bottle wine cellar. The Menil Collection, known for its eclectic art ranging from Byzantine antiques to 20th-century Pop Art, underwent a seven-month renovation of its main building and opened the 30,000-square-foot Menil Drawing Institute. The low-slung white steel-and-glass building with a trapezoidal roof is the first addition to the Menil campus in 20 years and the first freestanding museum dedicated to modern drawing in the United States. The city’s museum boom continues with a massive expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to be completed in 2020, a newly built location for the Holocaust Museum, which will move in the spring of 2019, and a restoration of the Apollo Mission Center that will open in time for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in July." 
"Transit riders are more sensitive to frequencies than to whether a transit vehicle runs on rubber tires or steel wheels. A bus carries fewer people than a train, but that’s a virtue, not a flaw, because it allows for higher frequencies. If Ft. Worth had used buses rather than rails for this route, it could have run those buses every 10 or 15 minutes (instead of hourly), attracting a lot more riders."
"Houston is a city of immigrants and engineers. Function trumps fashion with this no-nonsense crowd that expects to work hard and earn rewards based on merit. Looking at demographics and migration patterns, people voting with their feet consider the Bayou City the most egalitarian of the Texas metro areas."
Finally, I wanted to end with a longer set of excerpts from an excellent piece by Nolan Gray in CityLab: "How Cities Design Themselves"

"Sometimes when I read the papers of my fellow urban planners, I get the sense that they think cities are Disneyland or Club Med. Cities are labor markets. People go to cities to find a good job. Firms move to cities, which are expensive, because they are more likely to find the staff and specialists that they need. If a city’s attractive, that’s a bonus. But basically, they come to get a job.
Urban planning has an important role to play. With the exception of fire and safety regulation, planners should focus much less on what people do on their plot or in their apartment, and much more on the management of the public spaces, like streets and parks.

Insomuch as urban planners deal with land uses and densities, they should closely monitor trends to be aware of what’s happening. For instance, in New York, household size has plummeted over the past 30 years. Urban planners should be aware of that and address rigidities that prevent the city from accommodating those demographic changes.

An area where urban planners should play a much more active role is mobility, mainly by adapting existing systems to emerging trends. Urban mobility is the key to housing affordability. Improved urban transport makes more land available for housing and therefore allows low-income people to live in areas that are both affordable and accessible to most of the city.
In my book, I talk a lot about income distribution curves. Every time urban planners do something, they should ask: Who is going to pay?"

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