Sunday, April 28, 2019

MetroNext's bold moonshot opportunity

A few interrelated items this week leading to a new opportunity for MetroNext 2040.

First, this CityLab article implying that Houston is reaching a size (7m metro) where it is in significant danger of tipping into much lower or even negative growth like the NYC, LA, and Chicago (see the graphs).

Kinder argues we're already there with recent slower growth compared to Dallas, but I think that may be more a matter of temporary factors like the most recent oil crash + Harvey.  In any case, continuing to grow is going to get harder and harder for Houston.  From CityLab:
"For large, dense places, the key is to deal with the diseconomies brought on by density by alleviating traffic congestion through investments in mass transit or congestion pricing; or by reducing housing prices by eliminating land use restrictions, building more housing, and providing more affordable housing."
We're doing the latter reasonably well but need more of the former.  LA is headed this direction as well:
“Los Angeles imagines transforming itself from a carpocalypse into a transitopia, with free public transit gliding past traffic in dedicated bus lanes.”
This fits with an aspirational goal I've been pitching to Metro, where its organizational mission would be to offer half-hour or less express trip times from every park-and-ride and transit center to every major job center and both airports using a network of MaX Lanes in collaboration with TXDoT and HCTRA (with vehicle size and frequency tailored to demand).  It's a very big goal - Metro's Moonshot, if you will.

What's exciting now is that at the last MetroNext board workshop (which I was able to partially attend), Metro showed a new alternative Hobby airport light rail plan that consolidates two lines into one and saves about $400 million which would be available for new investments.  That money could go a very long way towards reducing fares to attract new riders from their cars - especially to the P&R commuter buses - and reducing congestion (I'd propose either free or $1 rides systemwide). That money could also be used to ramp up the service to meet the increased demand and work towards the Moonshot goal.

It's my sincere hope that Metro seizes this amazing opportunity to think big and outside the box to pursue this bold moonshot with the newly available resources.  It's not exaggerating to say that Houston's future depends on it.

UPDATE 6/19Estonia makes public transit free and gets a 10% reduction in congestion. Since fares account for less than 9% of Metro's revenue (vs. sales tax, etc.), it's definitely an affordable option for Houston to try.

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Sunday, April 21, 2019

HTX population crosses 7 million milestone, smart growth is dumb about commuting, BRT beats LRT, and more

Happy Easter! This week's items:
  • We're at 7 million people in the Houston metro area folks!  Yes, I realize the official number is 6,997,384 on 12/31/18, but it also says we're adding 229 new residents a day, so we crossed 7 million around January 12th of this year. Still 5th-largest metro in the country behind NYC, LA, Chicago, and DFW, but this should also put us ahead of the combined San Jose + San Francisco Bay Area, which is split by the census into two separate metros for some reason, while Dallas and Ft. Worth are combined into one. Makes no sense to me either.
  • This Grace Rodriguez interview has some good insights on Houston's entrepreneurship scene - both challenges and opportunities. My favorite excerpt:
"The challenge in Houston is trying to be shiny and polished. And, to me, shiny and polished is Dallas. No one in Houston wants to be Dallas. Let's accept the fact that we are an R&D city. We are a city that researches and develops and experiments new things. Let's lean hard into that and not say we're going to be perfect, and if we do that, then the need to try to appear perfect can go away. Being transparent on the things we are trying makes us become a role model for other cities. I feel like the feeling that we have to be polished and perfect for the rest of the world to be interested in us is the biggest hindrance to our progress. I already know the rest of the world is interested in us."
Here's the specific report excerpt with the broader context:
“US cities generally search for the sweet spot in the demand-to-capacity ratio and try not to provide service frequencies that are so high that their vehicles run empty. Thus, since LRT vehicles are larger, in order to justify providing LRT capacities that are similar to a BRT, LRT tends to operate at lower frequencies. As mentioned above, due to the perceived capacity constraint of BRT there are currently no cases in the US where LRT should be favored over BRT.”
Now we just need MetroNext to go from 70% embracing this principle to 100%...
"Building more market rate housing sets off a chain reaction supply increase that reaches low income neighborhoods. Households moving into new market rate units move out of other, lower cost housing, making it available to other households; the propagation of this effect produces additional housing supply in lower income neighborhoods."
"To achieve higher economic productivity, they recommend fostering speedier rather than slower commuting; more rather than less commuting; and longer rather than shorter commutes. 
These policies would expand the opportunity circles of employers and employees, enabling a more productive urban economy. But these are exactly the opposite of the policy prescriptions of smart growth, which generally seek to confine people's economic activity to a small portion of a larger metro area.
A less extreme version of smart growth says that we should discourage car travel and shift resources heavily toward transit. People should be encouraged to live in high-density "villages" where they can easily obtain transit service to jobs elsewhere in the metro area. The problem with this vision is the inability of transit to effectively compete with the auto highway system. 
Simply put, cars work better for workers. A 2012 Brookings study analyzing data from 371 transit providers in America's largest 100 metro areas found that over three-fourths of all jobs are in neighborhoods with transit service—but only about a quarter of those jobs can be reached by transit within 90 minutes. That's more than three times the national average commute time."

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Sunday, April 14, 2019

HTX most diverse city in America, attracting millennials, congestion pricing, bus vs. rail, Tokyo's affordable housing supply

Some good stuff this week:
"What’s frustrating is that the last 25 years have shown—in Los Angeles and other cities— that expanding bus service increases transit ridership while expanding rail service decreases transit ridership. Further, bus is almost always cheaper than rail. Even premium express bus and bus rapid transit services cost one-third to one-ninth as much as the most cost-efficient light rail lines. Yet L.A. leaders, who should know better, continue to push for rail. 
Unfortunately, this is true in many places across the country. When Houston built a multi-billion-dollar light-rail network, total transit ridership (including bus) declined. A few years ago, Houston redesigned its bus network for a minimal additional cost, which led to an increase in bus ridership. The redesign, which included adding service on weekends, helped transit-dependent riders reach jobs they could not previously access on weekends. Yet Houston politicians have responded by calling for more rail funding."
"Congestion pricing is premised instead on the notion that public roads are a valuable and scarce resource. And we should pay in some places to use it not primarily to gin up revenue, but to help manage access for everyone.
In reality, the government is a monopoly provider of road space, and the government has largely chosen to give it away. It’s no surprise, then, that the vast majority of American commuters drive to work alone, or that all those lonely commuters (plus taxis, Ubers, buses and delivery trucks) cause congestion. 
When the government holds down the price of something people value, Mr. Manville said, we get shortages. And congestion is effectively a shortage of road — one that occurs at the peak times when people want to use it most. 
If we had that problem with other kinds of infrastructure or commodities, we’d charge people more for them. If airline tickets were particularly in demand, their prices would go up. If there were a run on avocados, grocers wouldn’t respond by keeping them as cheap as possible."
Hear, hear! 
"Meyers Research, which studies housing markets, asked Millennials where they wanted to move to. Their top five choices were Denver, Portland, Seattle, Washington, DC, and New York City 
Then Meyers asked where should Millennials want to live, based on the factors millennials said were most important: job opportunities, affordability, and lifestyle. The answers were Dallas, Houston, Austin, Phoenix, and Orlando. Although Denver and Seattle were both in the top ten, neither of the top-five lists had any cities in common. 
Perhaps a more pertinent question is: where are Millennials actually moving? According to a Brookings Institution analysis of American Community Survey data, the top seven destinations for millennials have been Houston, Denver, Dallas, Seattle, Austin, Charlotte, and Portland — which is more-or-less a combination of Meyers’ two lists.
Brookings also found that Millennials are leaving New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, and Miami. That pretty much kills the myth that Millennials prefer density, as those urban areas all have much higher than average densities (4,000 people per square mile and above). Numbers six and seven are Boston and Philadelphia, which also have very dense cores although their overall urban areas are less dense."

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Wednesday, April 03, 2019

HTX #1 for economic freedom and now an Alpha global city, Metro gets pragmatic, Houspitality food scene, and more

Before getting to this week's items, I have to mention a great new book just published by my good friend Anne. It frames a 16 question test for strong organizations that I think was at least partially shaped by the time she spent in Houston, and I do think it's something that's also a part of Houston's character and identity. How does your organization stack up on the test? Definitely worth checking out!

The Fabric of Character: A Wise Giver's Guide to Supporting Social and Moral Renewal

Hope you enjoyed the April Fools post earlier this week ;-D I got some pretty positive feedback on it. Moving on to this week's items:
"Between 1980 and 2016, L.A. passed three major transit sales tax measures and built 110 miles of rail. Yet ridership on L.A.’s transit system has been slipping for years, while the number of miles traveled in private cars is rising. Other American cities that have passed major transit measures are facing the same conundrum.
Thus, few Angelenos viewed transit as an amenity that directly benefited them. People voted for Measure M as an expression of their political beliefs, and in support of a broader social good—someone else will use this public service and improve congestion, just not me."
"There’s an abundance of pride here in the state’s brief history as a nation, its superior way of life and, yes, its gas stations."
"Nearly three decades later, Houston is not just the hottest food city in Texas — it owns a growing brand as one of America’s great culinary capitals. The city’s nebulous image as a sprawling energy boomtown and space nexus has crystallized into something far more tangible and inviting.
....chef David Chang, who has pronounced Houston “the most exciting food city in America.” 
Chang — the multiple Beard Award-winning founder of Momofuku restaurant group and host of Netflix’s “Ugly Delicous” — says he’s been high on the Houston food scene for about eight years now. The diversity, the culinary talent, even the city’s lack of zoning — all conspire to make a great food destination, he believes. 
“There’s great produce, the abundance of the Gulf of Mexico, a confluence of ethnic groups, and really lax governance,” he said. “You have Texas barbecue and Tex-Mex culture, you have Vietnamese and Indian. You have all that there and you have space — you have so much land.” 
People say Austin is weird, but I think Houston is way weirder than Austin,” Chang said. “Nothing makes sense. And that’s amazing.”

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Monday, April 01, 2019

Mayor Turner and firefighters agree to compromise on Prop B

After several months of negotiating, Mayor Turner and the firefighters finally reached a compromise on implementing Prop B to get pay parity with the police.  Given the City's tight finances, the creative solution involves substantially more paid time off instead of actual salary increases.  The City saves money, and the firefighters work fewer hours for the same pay.

To make up for the reduced hours, firehouses will drop from 3 to 2 shifts a day covering 6am to 10pm daily.  Fires reported between 10pm and 6am will be gotten to first thing in the morning.  The City is recommending that all households add a good couple of garden hoses to their usual emergency supplies so they can keep any nighttime fire outbreaks contained until morning.

The limited hours will also affect emergency ambulance and EMT service.  Nighttime emergencies will get service first thing in the morning, but after-hours 911 dispatchers are prepared to help citizens by Googling WebMD as well as finding good relevant YouTube videos to help them self-EMT.

Firefighters hailed the compromise, saying they're looking forward not just to the extra paid time off, but the improved quality of life from finally being able to get a regular good night's sleep. I'm personally pretty excited to stop having fire engine and ambulance sirens screaming down West Gray at all hours of the night!

Police were less enthusiastic, asking why they couldn't get the same hours?  They're now considering their own version of Prop B for the November ballot to match the firefighters' paid time off and shifts...

Hope you enjoyed this year's April Fools post ;-D 
Here are previous years if you missed 'em and would like a chuckle: