Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Is Traffic Congestion a Con?

Since I'm traveling this week, I'm just going to pass along this excellent section from a recent Surface Transporation Innovations newsletter from Robert Poole at Reason: (highlights mine)

Is Traffic Congestion a Con?

Last month, INRIX issued a new report on urban traffic congestion worldwide, with new rankings for U.S. metro areas. Based on a revised method of assessing commuter traffic (counting trips to more than just the central business district of each metro area—finally) it identified Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia as having the highest amount of delay hours per driver, worse than Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Due to their much greater size, the New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago metro areas are ranked as first, second, and third in the total cost of congestion, which is quite plausible.

These numbers are based on 2019 INRIX traffic data, whereas the well-known data in the most recent 2019 Urban Mobility Report (UMR) from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute are from 2017. Despite INRIX having worked with TTI on that report, its delay and cost numbers are very different, with INRIX now reporting an average delay per driver nationwide of 99 hours per year compared with 54 hours per year in the 2019 UMR. Even more startling, the UMR estimated total U.S. congestion cost as $179 billion a year, while the new INRIX report’s number is a mere $88 billion. Due to TTI’s more sophisticated methodology, I’m inclined to accept their congestion numbers.

Meanwhile, about the same time as the INRIX report reached my inbox, Transportation for America (T4A) released a new report called “The Congestion Con.” Its thesis is that our main national strategy for dealing with congestion is expanding freeway capacity—and that this has utterly failed. The report uses data from the 2019 Urban Mobility Report together with Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) highway statistics and census bureau data in an attempt to demonstrate its case—and utterly fails. An excellent rebuttal, well informed with data and reasoning, is Randal O’Toole’s response, “The Induced-Demand Con.”

The T4A authors use some odd measurements to make their case. First, they compare the percentage growth in freeway lane-miles with the percentage growth in population between 1993 and 2017, finding that the lane-mile increase was generally higher than the population increase. O’Toole points out a major problem with this. FHWA highway statistics reveal that large amounts of exurban freeway mileage that already existed in 1993 were outside the 1993 definition of urbanized areas, but are included in their 2017 boundaries. He plausibly estimates that “well over a third of the 30,511 [lane-miles] that T4A implies were built in that time period already existed in 1993.”

A second problem is that the percentage increase in congestion is a poor basis for comparing metro areas. O’Toole notes that low-congestion metro areas (like Bakersfield, CA) still have low 2017 congestion but may have had a high percentage increase since 1993. By contrast, a highly congested area like Los Angeles typically has relatively small percentage increases in its already enormous traffic congestion. He suggests a better metric would be to compare freeway vehicle miles of travel (VMT) per lane-mile over time. That metric allows us to discern differences among metro areas that did and didn’t add a lot of freeway lane-miles.  For example, neither Portland nor Seattle added many lane-miles between 1993 and 2018, but their freeways got increasingly clogged: VMT/ln-mi. up 84 percent in Portland and 44 percent in San Francisco. By contrast, the increases in metro areas that added a lot of capacity are much lower: VMT/ln-mi. up only 21 percent in Houston and 14 percent in Phoenix.

T4A’s assertion that adding capacity has failed to reduce congestion is also falsified by data that used to be included in TTI’s Urban Mobility Reports but has been omitted since their 2012 report. With TTI’s permission, I reproduced a graph from that report in my book, Rethinking America’s Highways (page 258). It shows that 17 metro areas that had capacity growth within 10 percent of traffic growth actually had a declining trend in congestion increases between 1998 and 2010, compared with strong and ongoing congestion increases from 1982 through 2010 for 84 metro areas that added far less capacity.

Another major problem is that T4A continues to put forth the “induced-demand” thesis: that it is futile to add freeway capacity because new lanes will simply fill up, and congestion will soon get back to what it was before. If that were literally true, as O’Toole and others have pointed out, every freeway would have high levels of congestion, yet, for example, Los Angeles freeways are overloaded with 23,000 VMT per lane-mile per day, while Pittsburgh freeways (for example) breeze along with just 9,000. In my book, I devoted several pages to a critique of the most-cited source on induced demand, the 2011 paper in American Economic Review titled “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from U.S. Cities.” If you don’t have my book, you can read a condensed version of this sidebar here.

The bottom line of T4A’s report is that America should stop expanding freeways and radically reform land-use policy to discourage or prohibit outward expansion of metro areas (which they deride as “sprawl”). National policy, they urge, should reorient the federal surface transportation program away from reducing delay to encouraging better “access.” By that, they mean the densification of urban areas, on the premise that people could, therefore, walk, bike, or use transit to get to “jobs” and other destinations. The fallacy in all of that “access” research is that it treats jobs as generic—as long as you can get to some kind of a job, problem solved. But as researchers like Alain Bertaud of NYU (Order Without Design, MIT Press) and others have shown, this is a recipe for reducing the productivity of urban areas. Urban agglomeration effects only come about when people and companies are able to find each other and engage in positive-sum transactions—individuals finding the best jobs and companies finding the best people. This is what happens in urban areas that enable fast commutes over long distances—exactly the opposite of what “smart-growthers” like T4A recommend. A growing body of research finds that metro areas with fast, region-wide transportation infrastructure have significantly higher economic productivity.

P.S: I will give T4A credit for two good points in their 2020 policy agenda (and included in this new report). I agree that federal and state political considerations have led to a serious underfunding of highway maintenance. Also, I agree that road pricing is underused, and could make a real difference as part of reducing traffic congestion. But a lot of that requires new construction, such as adding priced managed lanes to congested freeways, which T4America does not support.

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Sunday, June 14, 2020

HTX most affordable high-growth metro, couple chooses Houston, TX winning vs CA, airport rail fail, modern innovative transit, and more

I've got a long road trip coming up so posts may get infrequent for a while. This is my attempt to clear out as much of the backlog as possible before leaving:
  1. Houston is home to more than 500 oil and gas exploration and production firms.
  2. Houston houses hundreds of firms that provide supporting activities to the oil and gas industry.
  3. Houston is home to nine refineries that process 2.3 million barrels of crude oil every day (which makes it one of the biggest crude oil producers in the world).
  4. The Energy Corridor, which stretches for 7 miles along Interstate 10, encompasses many businesses engaged in energy operations.
  5. Houston may soon end up with a second energy corridor due to the continuing expansion of local businesses.
  6. Houston houses more than 4,600 energy-related companies.
  7. The city alone employs around 1/3 of the jobs across Texas in gas and oil extraction.
  8. Houston is the center of foreign investment in energy.
  • Governing on TX vs. CA: A Leg Up in the Search for Prosperity: Economic Freedom - Despite their very different attitudes toward the role of government, California and Texas have both found success. But the Lone Star State's small-government/low-tax model gives it an edge. Some excerpts:
"Texas is best understood as a place where the private sector prevails over the public sector. Among the 50 states, it ranks near the top in economic freedom, a measure of fiscal and regulatory policy, and near the bottom in overall tax burden. It's a state known for building, with Dallas and Houston routinely among the top metros in new home permits and Austin first in the nation for permits per capita since 2004. But state and local government spending per capita is the 11th-lowest of any state, according to data from the Tax Policy Center.  ...
 And it's not just people. Businesses are leaving California too, at an estimated annual clip of over 1,000. For 12 straight years Texas has been the biggest recipient of businesses leaving California. Texas has long sought to capitalize on and accelerate that trend, even running ads in California touting Texas' business friendliness. 
More than data, though, it's the feeling of what can be accomplished in a state that emphasizes freedom versus one strangled in red tape and high taxes. Houston ended veterans' homelessness in part by cheaply building large supportive housing projects; California cities have spent billions fighting homelessness, but still have tent cities because it costs so much to build affordable housing there. Dallas has, over three decades, built the nation's longest light-rail system, and a private company is planning high-speed rail between there and Houston. California metros have struggled to add capacity to their transit systems, and last year the state's high-speed rail project lost federal funding due to ongoing delay. Perhaps most damning is an annual survey by Chief Executive magazine asking CEOs nationwide to rank state business climates. Texas has been first for 15 straight years, and California in last place for five."
"Indeed, Houston’s infamous lack of zoning could end up being one of its greatest assets in pursuing climate goals. Without all of the anti-density baggage that comes with zoning — from apartment bans to an onerous approvals process — there is relatively little standing in the way of a rapidly densifying Houston and all of the environmental benefits it brings."
"The best-performing newer systems in our database, such as Minneapolis, Seattle, and Houston, are all compact, serving urban areas near downtown. By contrast, larger light rail systems that stretch into low-density suburban areas tend to underperform.  ...
Houston has taken a step in the right direction by abolishing parking minimums in the Downtown, Midtown, and East Midtown neighborhoods, all of which are served by light rail. ...
In Houston, the cornerstone of a recently approved light rail system is a line to Hobby Airport through industrial and low-density residential areas, estimated to cost $167,000 per daily rider. ...
Another form of overexpansion comes from the tendency of light rail planners to overvalue airport service. It’s easier to form a broad political coalition for airport service than for run-of-the-mill transit improvements. City power brokers like to impress out-of-town visitors with airports, and suburban residents who do not use transit regularly imagine that a train for their occasional airport trips would be convenient. 
Airport connectors, however, tend to perform poorly. Airports are usually in remote locations, so light rail to airports requires extensive capital construction; the slow speeds of light rail relative to freeways matter more for long-distance trips from airports to downtown. Moreover, businesses that surround airports, such as industrial suppliers and distribution centers, demand large amounts of land and are difficult to access on foot, making them low-value destinations for transit ridership. Finally, airport noise and pollution make the surrounding areas less desirable for the sort of redevelopment that might improve ridership."
Finally, I wanted to end with one of my most popular tweets ever about walking through a random neighborhood near Midtown and boom - this awesomeness suddenly appears. Think a zoned city would allow this?! Gotta love Houston!

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Sunday, June 07, 2020

Klineberg plugs Houspitality, cool IAH-BeSomeone t-shirt, HTX outbuilds NYC, escape from New York, and more

Still working through the backlog of smaller items - almost caught up! But first, if you're looking for something new to read during this lockdown, I wanted to suggest a new book from Rice's Stephen Klineberg: The Prophetic City - Houston on the Cusp of a Changing America, all about how we've evolved over recent decades through the lens of his annual Houston Area Survey. Houston Strategies and Houspitality get a mention! (you can search inside the book at Amazon)
"Physical distancing will cut transit capacity to 15-25% of normal, but use of PPE could increase capacity to 40%."
  • NYT: The Agonizing Question: Is New York City Worth It Anymore? For many, the call of an easier, safer and more affordable life beckons. But die-hard New Yorkers find the city more appealing than ever.  The new Escape from New York... 420,000 already gone in three months is a staggering number! Obviously many are temporary.  But there are also probably tons of people still there that have decided to leave but are waiting out their leases.  
“New Yorkers have been fleeing for months. But the fear some residents have of the violent reactions to the protests here is adding a new challenge to those asking themselves whether they can hack the city. Many are deciding not to return. 
It’s a decision that must be made individually and privately, one that some 420,000 New Yorkers with the resources to do so had already made between March and May in reaction to the pandemic, according to cellphone data analyzed by the Times.”
"For some, it’s a chance to be closer to family, which feels more urgent in the midst of a global health scare. For a large swath of people in the country’s most expensive cities, it’s a way to get more living space and be closer to nature, something increasingly made possible by the growing trend of remote work. And for many others it’s not really a decision at all, but a necessity in the face of growing job losses and still sky-high rents. 
… And people in cities hit hard by the pandemic — New York, San Francisco and Seattle — are searching for remote work opportunities significantly more than the rest of the country, LinkedIn data shows. Some real estate data suggests many are already considering or making a move to a smaller town or suburb. Real estate company Redfin said page views of homes in small towns more than doubled during the last week of April compared with last year. 
... She said she’s hearing from mostly young families — professionals with small children — who want to trade the confines of a locked down New York City for houses with home offices and yards. 
“It’s no longer temporary. People are saying, ‘I’m not going back. This could happen again and we don’t know when it’s going to end,’” said Bernstein. 
“New York doesn’t feel worth it anymore,” he said."
"Houston and NYC both issued around 61k permits in 2019. But metro New York City is nearly 3 times bigger than metro Houston, meaning its construction activity in 2019 (30.4 permits per 10k residents) was much less than Houston’s (88.3 permits per 10k)."

Click to enlarge
  • Cities With the Most Self-Employed Workers. Houston is #15 by percentage, but #3 by total numbers with 330,415, behind NYC and LA.  Miami is #1, I assume because drug smugglers are considered "self-employed" (just kidding! watched too much Miami Vice as a kid, lol ;-)
  • Cool new IAH T-shirt with the awesome Be Someone bridge graffiti on the back. The 'Be Someone' sold me! The shirt will help remind you there used to be these things called "planes" that took us to and from places called "airports" before the pandemic...🤔
  • City Combined Taxpayer Burden Report 2020. Houston has a combined local government debt burden of $25,800 per taxpayer, which is the 4th lowest of the top ten cities, and far better than NYC at $83,600 and Chicago at a whopping $122,100! Looking at their math, they have ~681k taxpayer households for Houston, which sounds about right for a city of 2.3m. Hat tip to Charles.
Finally, I wanted to end with a short video from the KAS Strong Cities 2030 project that I've been involved with the last couple of years.  They put together clips of how different cities are dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, including yours truly at the 1:49 point (albeit recorded a couple of months ago and a bit dated at this point).

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Monday, June 01, 2020

Our pandemic performance, post-pandemic transit and offices, remote work reducing rents, and more

Still working through a big backlog of smaller items this week:
"In contrast, areas with greater car usage—like Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston and even Los Angeles—have had dramatically fewer cases and fatalities. For example, Dallas County has 60% more residents than Manhattan, but at least 90% fewer fatalities. Houston’s core Harris County has three times the population of Manhattan and also at least 90% fewer fatalities. Los Angeles County has 20% more residents than the city of New York, yet also has at least 90% fewer fatalities than NYC. At the same time the rate of infections in nearby Orange County, where car usage is even greater and single family homes more prevalent, is barely one-seventh of that in Los Angeles County."
“In a May survey of 2,800 tech workers in Northern California, New York City and Seattle, 66% said they would be willing to work remotely and relocate out of those urban areas. 
That remote working trend is “compounding the job losses and putting significant downward pressure on rents” in the Bay Area, Georgiades said. “You have all these CEOs talking about how productive their teams are working from home and questioning whether they need to return to the office.”
“Maybe soon-to-be-defunct Malls could offer satellite space with a food court.  Malls are changing, maybe there is a synergy there.”
  • NYT: C.D.C. Recommends Sweeping Changes to American Offices - Temperature checks, desk shields and no public transit: The guidelines would remake office life. Some may decide it’s easier to keep employees at home.  Tons of comments saying this makes NYC impossible. Excerpts:
“The C.D.C. recommended that the isolation for employees should begin before they get to work — on their commute. In a stark change from public policy guidelines in the recent past, the agency said individuals should drive to work — alone. 
Employers should support this effort, the agency said: “Offer employees incentives to use forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others, such as offering reimbursement for parking for commuting to work alone or single-occupancy rides.”
"The result is that over 1,000 businesses are estimated to leave California each year, with Texas being the biggest recipient state from California for 12 straight years."

Finally, I'd like to end with a video interview I did with Charles Blain, CEO of our think tank, Urban Reform Institute - A Center for Opportunity Urbanism: What Urban Transit Might Look Like Post-Pandemic

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