Monday, September 30, 2019

Should you vote for MetroNext 2040?

Back in January, I wrote an op-ed in the Chronicle giving Metro's draft 2040 plan a grade of B-, with the primary penalty being too many miles of extremely expensive, low-ridership light rail, including two redundant lines to Hobby airport.  Since then, they've made some good improvements to the plan, the most dramatic being consolidating two light rail lines to Hobby down to one and saving hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.  BRT to Hobby would have been even more cost-effective, but would have forced an awkward transfer to the existing LRT lines halfway along, so I understand the choice of light rail for Hobby.

The new $7.5B plan includes approximately 16 additional miles of light rail ($2.1 billion), 75 miles of BRT (bus rapid transit) service ($3.23 billion), 110 miles of new HOV lanes ($1.56 billion, the best investment in the plan), 290 miles of BOOST network for high-ridership, frequent bus routes offering speed and reliability ($179 million), 21 new or improved park-and-rides, and additional service enhancements ($414 million). 

On Tuesday November 5th, you'll have the option to vote to authorize Metro to issue $3.5 billion in bonds to execute this new plan. The Greater Houston Partnership business community supports it, but other opposition has formed. While it's not my dream plan, I do support it and hope you will as well.  On balance, it is a cost-effective, pragmatic plan, which is very rare when you look at other transit agencies nationally.  There has been some truly crazy stuff happening out there (like LA, Seattle, Denver, and Nashville), and Houston should count itself lucky to have a plan like this.  Even if you find yourself averse to parts of it, I strongly encourage supporting it, because honestly - based on what I've seen happening around the country - there's a real risk of something much worse coming forward in the future if we reject this one.  This will lock Houston into a solidly good plan for the next 20 years while other cities light bonfires of tax dollars on ineffective rail projects. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Unfortunately, I couldn't convince Metro to add the moonshot aspiration or commit to transitioning to free fares (yet). The farebox is only 4.9% of their budget, so it's totally affordable, and Commissioner Radack called for free fares last week to help reduce congestion.  Kansas City might beat us as the first major city to move to free transit, and Forbes and Aaron Renn have argued for it as well. But Metro is at full capacity during peak hours, so they can't handle the extra demand free would generate.  Instead, I'd advocate for free fares during off-peak hours immediately, along with a multi-year plan to ratchet fares down to zero while increasing capacity to handle the new demand.  The advantage of going to off-peak free fares immediately would be that it could attract flexible riders that would otherwise take their trip during peak hours, and that frees up those peak hour seats for new riders. I'll discuss more on the advantages of free fares in a future post.

After the election, I'm also hoping Metro will study what Indianapolis is doing to see how they're doing BRT for $10m/mile instead of our $40m/mile.  I think part of our extra cost is dedicated right-of-way, but there might be aspects of their approach we can learn from or even apply to certain routes where the cheaper approach can be effective, thus allowing us to get more miles of BRT for the same money.  More on Indy's plan at CityLab.

Final grade: A-, but solidly worth your vote!

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Sunday, September 22, 2019

What Hawaii can learn from Houston, our tourism niche, metro population racing, and more

Just a few items this week:
  • Very cool animated "bar race chart" of metro areas adding the most population between 2011 and 2018.  As you can see, Houston was #1 much of it while oil boomed and the rest of the country struggled to get out of the 2008 crash.  But then the rest of the economy took off, oil faded, and Harvey happened but we're still resilient enough to be #3, just getting edged out by Phoenix as California baby boomers cash out of their inflated houses and retire somewhere much cheaper but with easy access to kids and grandkids they leave behind in CA.  Watch NYC, LA, and SF all drop like a rock as they become increasingly unaffordable.
  • New Geography: On the Houston Chronicle editorial crusade against fossil fuels.  I've always felt the Chronicle was pretty fair about publishing opinions on all sides of an issue, but there have been a lot of personnel changes over there in recent years. I hope that's still the case.
  • Houston with kids: A far-out adventure in Texas. The reason I post this is because it directly supports my tourism strategy for Houston:  a "Washington DC/Smithsonian of STEM" aimed at families inspiring their kids into STEM fields (more here).  It's a niche no other city can lay claim to yet, and we already have a ton of strong assets here.
  • Houston Strategies from 2006 on Chron Wayback machine. As you can see it hasn't changed, lol.  My design is sort of stuck, and that's because I have a legacy Blogspot template that can't be upgraded to a newer design without either a lot of work outside my expertise or losing my archive of old posts.  Hope you don't mind the old format.  I'm kinda assuming the content matters more to my readers than a slick modern design ;-) Hat tip to Rich for the catch.
Finally, a video of my half-hour interview on Hawaiian TV last week about what Hawaii can learn from Houston’s lack of zoning as well as opportunity urbanism.  Horrendous housing supply and cost problem in Hawaii with 95% of the land protected from development.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Ivy League studies Houston, new left urbanists want to control your life, improving Houston's flood resilience, and more

A whole bunch of backlogged smaller items this week:
"These activists have big dreams. They want local governments to rebuild the urban environment—housing, transit, roads and tolls—to achieve social justice, racial justice and net-zero carbon emissions. They rally around slogans such as “ban all cars,” “raze the suburbs” and “single-family housing is white supremacy”—though they’re generally white and affluent themselves, often employed in public or semipublic roles in urban planning, housing development and social advocacy. They treat public housing, mass transit and bike lanes as a holy trinity, and they want to impose their religion on you. 
“The residential is political,” wrote new left urbanists David Madden and Peter Marcuse in 2016. “The shape of the housing system is always the outcome of struggles between different groups and classes.” By dictating how cities build new housing, the logic goes, urbanists can dictate how people live and set right society’s socioeconomic, racial and moral deficiencies.
Activists use euphemisms like “transportation alternatives” and “transportation choices,” but at heart their vision is about control."
“It’s too easy to drive in this city,” said Phil Washington, the chief executive of LA Metro. “We want to reach the riders that left and get to the new ones as well. And part of that has to do with actually making driving harder.”
 “Sometimes you have to tell people what’s good for them,”
As you would expect, the piece lead all sorts of reactions:
"According to the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies, the average Los Angelean can reach 50 percent more jobs in a 20-minute auto drive than a 60-minute transit ride...
So tell me again, Mr. Washington, how is transit so good for people that it is worth slowing down the 90 percent of them who don’t ride it just to fill a few more bus seats?"
"Transit agencies (and reporters) need to recognize that they exist to serve people; people don’t exist to serve transit. If transit is no longer providing the service that people need, then it is time for the agencies to reduce their services, not to increase taxes."
"Yet like the famous Soup Nazi in “Seinfeld,” if you want to drive, own a house and live a middle-class lifestyle in L.A., no soup for you!"
"Houston’s living costs are 5.5 percent below the nationwide average and 22.8 percent below the average of the nation’s 20 most populous metropolitan areas, ranking it third most affordable among its peers (only Tampa and St. Louis are less expensive)."
And I've argued in the past that if you combine our high incomes from the energy and other industries with our low cost of living, we enjoy the highest standard of living of any major metro in the US and probably the world.
"The four strongest large metropolitan areas for job seekers, with nonfarm employment up by at least 3% in the 12 months ending in July are Orlando, Florida; Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas; Seattle, Washington, and; Houston, Texas. The top four large metropolitan areas with more than a million nonfarm workers are in states without an individual income tax.
The three Texas metros accounted for 247,300 new jobs over the past 12 months, penciling out to 948 jobs added for every workday in a typical year in the Dallas, Houston and Austin areas. Texas’ big three produced more than 1-in-3 jobs created in the top-15 metro areas."
Finally, if this week's rains are making you nervous about flooding, come out to this Houston Stronger event Oct 2nd to learn more about what's being done to make us more resilient (click the graphic to enlarge).

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Sunday, September 08, 2019

Response to Jeff Speck's anti-45N expansion op-ed

I had a whole host of smaller items for this week, but all of that has to be put on the back burner to respond to a lot of flawed arguments in Jeff Speck's anti-45N expansion op-ed featured in the Sunday Chronicle today.  So let me take them one by one:
  • $7 billion: yes, it is expensive, but he fails to mention that this is *state money* that will go somewhere else in the state if we don't use it. Houstonians are being essentially offered $7 billion in free transportation infrastructure - are we really going to turn that down??
  • Lost businesses and jobs: these businesses, jobs, and economic activity don't evaporate, they just move.
  • Our lack of competitiveness: then why are we consistently at the top of the metro rankings for population and economic growth?  Why are people choosing with their feet to move here?  And why are the top cities he lists - SF, NY, Chicago - all out-migrating?
  • Freeways don't benefit downtown: if we tore down all the freeways going into downtown, I'd be willing to bet a *whole* lot more companies would be moving out than new residents would be moving in.  Those freeways are the lifeblood of those major downtown employers bringing their employees in from the suburbs that offer the quality of life (and schools) they want for their families.  If those freeways are gone, those employers will be moving out to them (like Exxon did), not vice-versa.
  • Induced demand: this is exactly what we should want! It means the government built transportation infrastructure that is in high demand, and that's exactly what taxpayers should want! Would you rather they built transportation infrastructure noone wants to use? (like a lot of rail lines built in the US these days...) My favorite example that makes this clear: if an airport built a runway, and no new flights used it, that makes it a boondoggle waste. But if it fills up with new flights, that's the definition of success!
  • The Katy expansion was a mistake: ask just about anyone that used to drive on the old 6-lane Katy freeway, and they'll all agree it's *way* better now. Nobody wants to go back to what it was before.  And it has enabled nothing less than a boom out there, including the Energy Corridor. Here's the most-liked online comment that points out the flaws in his numbers:
"What a truly garbage article, even though I agree with the premise that the I-45 expansion isn't being done correctly. All I had to do was look into the claim that "the PM commute on the Katy was up 55% since before construction". That's not true. Opening the link, that 55% rise was since 2011 - freeway construction was complete in 2008. There was no analysis of the commute times before the construction. 
Making fraudulent claims like that, Mr. Speck, completely undermines your argument. And you really think getting rid of the sections of 45 where you're speeding along at 70 MPH inches away from a concrete wall will somehow decrease safety? You really don't understand that per vehicle PM emissions are higher when the vehicle is idling in traffic (and thus has its engine on) longer? No discussion on the population and economic growth in West Houston since the expanded Katy opened? 
This is exactly why I got out of urban planning - unbelievable hypocrisy and ignoring of facts that don't fit your agenda. No the 45 expansion is not perfect, but leaving the freeway configured the way it is now in perpetuity is unacceptable. Go away please."
  • Safety: in addition to the comment above, he ignores the fact that when freeways are congested, people cut through local streets, and that is *way* more dangerous than keeping that same car on a freeway.
  • Air pollution: see comment above.  What causes more pollution than cars zipping down a freeway? Cars stuck in congestion on a freeway, or continuously idling on surface streets.
  • Future vision: he pretends like these are mutually exclusive, but they are completely compatible and both are doable and actually happening. The project includes removing the Pierce between downtown and midtown and sinking it in Eado and the Museum District, which enhances rather than detracts from his walkable vision!
"If I-45 is widened, it will be remembered that, in the decade prior, Houston enjoyed a brief glimpse of a better future. Downtown and Midtown have been reborn, lifted on a demographic shift that favors urban living. Regional bike trails grace the Bayou Greenways, and a brilliant Beyond the Bayous plan lays out an ambitious path for sustainable growth. Transit ridership is up, thanks to investment in light rail and a redesigned bus network. The mayor, members of city council, and county commissioners all sing the praises of a more walkable Houston. Sadly, all these trends will be reversed if Houston doubles down on its nation-leading commitment to fossil-fuel infrastructure."
I'll also point out what I've said before: personal and commercial vehicles are never going away. They may run on fossil fuels or electricity or fuel cells or whatever, but the basic vehicle is now a foundational element in our society.  These freeways will accommodate plenty of non-fossil-fuel vehicles in the future. 
  • Congestion-based pricing: finally, one good idea in here! And good news: the 4 new MaX Lanes down the middle of 45N will almost certainly have it (as well as supporting huge transit improvements in MetroNext!). But unfortunately, congestion pricing the whole thing is not politically feasible (nor federal or state-allowed, I believe).
I'll conclude by saying I applaud TXDoT's extensive efforts to respond to community input and mitigate impacts (and hope they continue to do so), but I also wish they would commission a regional poll on support for the project, which I'm sure would show overwhelming support and quash this illusion that the public is opposed to it.  Then we can get past this "do it/don't do it" debate and just focus on the "how do we make it better?" debate.

Previous posts on this project:
UPDATE: Great new online comment with additional points showed up under the article by LogiBoom:

"Why does the Chronicle print this garbage and give it the prime location in the Sunday op-ed? It would take a very long post refute all the nonsense in the Speck op-ed, but here are a few points.
  • Most new lanes on I-45 are managed lanes, which will be a critical part of future public transit options
  • Downtown will be greatly improved by removing the Pierce Elevated, sinking around 2 miles of I-69 below ground, and reducing the number of freeway structures on the west side of downtown
  • The expansion and improved single-occupant vehicle mobility will be most beneficial to people in blue-collar and mid-skill jobs, since those jobs are outside of downtown (warehouses, industrial sites, construction, medical, etc) and the only way to get to those jobs is to drive
  • The idea that the growth and revitalization of downtown will be reversed by this project is absurd. Downtown Houston interests help design this project and are highly supportive. When construction of the project starts, we'll see new development as developers anticipate the improvements.
  • Speck's solution, congestion pricing, will disproportionately impact the lower-income population. It's ridiculous to compare Houston to NYC. NYC has extensive public transit (mostly built 100+ years ago) and people can switch to transit. That's not an option in Houston, or just about any city outside of NYC."

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Monday, September 02, 2019

TX beats CA, bike lanes backlash, tops for middle class and startups, clever flood protection for homes, TXDoT drop, place-based visas

I'm finally back from vacation with lots of items to catch-up on:
"Many struggling American communities are, among other things, losing people. Meanwhile, many millions more people would like to move to the United States of America than the country is prepared to allow in. 
Three economists have called for leveraging the latter into a solution for the former, allowing both communities and immigrants to opt into a special program that would allow communities experiencing population loss to issue temporary visas to skilled foreigners that would allow them to live and work in places that want more workers."
"Texas continues to rank ahead of other states that have multiple large metro areas, like California and Florida. 
In safety and performance categories, Texas ranks 1st in structurally deficient bridges, but is 33rd in urban Interstate pavement condition, 37th in overall fatality rate, and 43rd in traffic congestion.  On spending, Texas ranks 27th in total spending per mile. 
“Texas has the largest highway system in the country and could do the most to improve its overall rankings by reducing traffic congestion on urban highways, improving the pavement conditions on those urban Interstates, and lowering fatality rates on rural and urban highways. Compared to nearby states, the report finds Texas’ overall highway performance is still better than Louisiana (ranks 34th) and Oklahoma (ranks 41st), but just behind New Mexico (ranks 21st),” said Baruch Feigenbaum, lead author of the Annual Highway Report and assistant director of transportation at Reason Foundation. “Texas is doing better than comparable highly-populated states like California (ranks 43rd) and Florida (40th).” 
Texas’ best rankings are structurally deficient bridges (1st) and rural arterial pavement condition (13th). Texas’ worst rankings are in traffic congestion (43rd) and rural fatality rate (38th). 
Texas’ state-controlled highway mileage makes it the largest highway system in the country."
Finally, a very clever tech solution for home flooding protection. Check out the cool video. What I don't quite get from the video though is how it keeps water from seeping underneath it. More on the company here.

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