Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Houston should learn from the future of public transit in Las Vegas

This week we have an excellent guest post from Houston Freeways author Oscar Slotboom.
Tory and I regularly post about the painful reality of traditional public transit: the extremely high cost of rail facilities, low and declining ridership, susceptibility to events like Covid, and the ongoing need for more subsidies from taxpayers.
Of course, we're not the only ones to notice the poor results of large public transit expenditures. Entrepreneur extraordinaire Elon Musk has established The Boring Company, and its first project at the Las Vegas Convention Center has been operational since June. The firm is now poised to proceed with a large 100% privately financed Las Vegas system that is expected to provide a monumental improvement in public transit service quality, which should also bring increased ridership.
For those not familiar, the Boring Company will build tunnels and move transit customers through the tunnels with autonomous electric Tesla vehicles. The key features are on-demand service, private vehicles, and high-speed point-to-point express service. Regular readers know that Tory and I are supporters of a regional express lanes network for Houston which has the potential to provide this same level of service.
Here is a map of the proposed Las Vegas Loop transit system
Here is a photo of a station at the Las Vegas convention center
The Las Vegas Review Journal reported on the plan for the Las Vegas system on October 20 and Oct 14. The improvement over traditional public transit is so large it's mind-boggling. Here are some key points from the articles.
Point-to-point service will provide a drastic speed improvement over traditional public transit. Metro's light rail lines have an average speed of 14 miles per hour.
"The system is planned to be a point-to-point system, so passengers won’t have to stop at each station along the way. A rider could get picked up at the Las Vegas Convention Center, for example, and be directly transported to Allegiant Stadium without having to stop at each resort along the way.
Davis said a 3.6 mile ride between the Las Vegas Convention Center and Allegiant Stadium would take 4 minutes and cost $6 per vehicle."
That's 54 miles per hour!!
Metro's annual report does not directly report a cost per transit trip, but we can get an average value by using overall numbers. For Metro's most recent fiscal year not affected by Covid (2019), Metro reported 89,951,217 boardings, transit fares of $75,294,678, scheduled service operating expenses of $420,755,621 and total operating expenses of $854,335,088. So pre-Covid, Metro was collecting 84 cents per boarding but spending $4.68 per boarding in direct operating cost and a shocking $9.50 overall cost per boarding. So the reported Las Vegas vehicle fare (not person fare) of $6 is well below Metro's fully-loaded cost per trip, especially if multiple riders share a vehicle. However, most Metro customers are on trips more than 3.6 miles long.
The Las Vegas service will be on-demand. No more waiting for a bus or train, or needing to be concerned about getting to the stop on time.
"[You] walk into a station and the vehicle is waiting for you. And go directly to your (destination) station, you can really solve the traffic problem."
The capacity of the planned 15 mile system is very high. In September 2021 Metro served 151,000 weekday trips, down from 303,000 weekday trips just before Covid.
"Once fully operational, Davis said the system is expected to handle 57,000 riders per hour."
We all know how the entrepreneurial culture of SpaceEx has empowered the SpaceEx Dragon launch system to outperform the competing Boeing Starliner, which is plagued by delays and technical problems. The Boring Company's new thinking about transit has the potential for massive gains in financial performance. The entire 15-mile dual loop system is slated to be built in 3 years at no cost to taxpayers. No more waiting decades to get infrastructure built. And while tunnels built by public transit agencies are now absurdly and obscenely expensive, typically $500 million to $1 billion per mile, the smaller and simple tunnels used by the Boring Company can keep the cost feasible.
"The entire system will be funded privately, with no taxpayer money used to construct it.
Boring will have three years to complete construction or have at least a portion of the system that is in the county’s right-of-way in operation."
The system has the potential to be a source of revenue for local government, instead of being the ongoing money pit of traditional public transit. Remember, once upon a time (1950s and before) public transit was a private, for-profit activity in most U.S. cities and did not require taxpayer subsidy.
"Boring would be required to pay the county a quarterly franchise fee dependent on how much revenue is generated each quarter.
Quarterly gross revenue less than or equal to a threshold of $17.5 million would result in a 0.5 percent quarterly payment of that gross revenue to the county. If quarterly gross revenue surpassed $17.5 million, Boring would pay the county 0.5 percent of the first $17.5 million and 5 percent of any revenue in excess of that."
Sure, the Las Vegas Strip is a special case due to the high demand for service on the corridor, and we can't expect Houston or other low-density cities to match a Las Vegas system. But the key takeaway is the three features for providing successful transit service in the future: on-demand service, private vehicles, and high-speed point-to-point express service. With the revolutionary service improvement provided by these features, we can expect increased transit patronage and the associated benefits for regional mobility.
Houston's future transit system should strive to achieve these goals, and as technology advances it should become feasible to provide this level of service on non-tunnel dedicated or shared facilities, such as bus rapid transit facilities and managed MaX lanes. By using BRT facilities and managed lanes, the construction cost will be lower and the average trip cost should also be lower. I can envision a hybrid system, where tunnels are used in high-congestion areas like downtown, Uptown, and the Texas Medical Center, while lower-cost surface or elevated guideways are used elsewhere.
While Houston may not be able to command a concession fee like Las Vegas, we can envision a public-private partnership where public funds may be used to contribute to construction costs, lower trip costs, and/or provide fare relief for low-income customers.
Let's hope Houston's leadership will closely follow the developments in Las Vegas and position Houston to become a leader in public transit of the future.

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Monday, November 15, 2021

Carbon capture subscriptions, climate entrepreneurs, CA moves to HTX more than Austin, and more

Big idea of the week on Houston adapting to climate change: what if automakers sold a subscription with their cars that reported back monthly gas usage and sequestered that much carbon? Great new product for oil & gas companies to sell automakers... 

Moving on to some smaller items to catch up on this week:

"This was cheap housing, but that didn’t just mean cheaper rents. It meant the opportunity for ownership. A key characteristic of many of these neighborhoods was what Husock labels “owner presence.” Even in crowded neighborhoods, apartment buildings like the Boston triple-decker or Chicago two-flats allowed residents to buy the building and live in one unit, while renting out the other to earn income. A surprisingly high share of people who rented in these places lived in buildings where the owner was also living. The owners accumulated wealth in the form of equity in their real estate that was a key to their ability to move up economically.

One common factor in these places was a tolerance for housing that reformers judged substandard. Tenements on the Lower East Side, for example, often lacked baths. Levittown houses were tiny, identical boxes on concrete slabs. But the policy response to the legitimate problems of some of these neighborhoods was a cure often worse than the disease. Mass slum clearance and the construction of huge high-rise public housing projects are the most infamous examples.

The replacement of “slum” housing with public housing was not only a quality-of-life disaster, it also locked its residents into permanent rentership. Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood may have been segregated, but it gave Black residents the opportunity to own real estate and own and operate businesses. In public housing, Black residents could do neither, cutting off critical avenues of wealth creation."

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Monday, November 01, 2021

What the Katy Managed Lanes tell us about the NHHIP 45N expansion project

This week we have a great guest post on the effectiveness of managed lanes and why they're so critical to the 45N expansion plan from Oscar Slotboom, author of Houston Freeways. (highlights mine)
Managed lanes are one of the more controversial features in the North Houston Highway Improvement Project. The current HOV lane uses 25 feet of width in the center of the existing freeway where there are no interior shoulders, and 41 feet of width where there are interior shoulders. In the NHHIP design, the managed lanes require 82 feet and the interior shoulders (with pylons) require 25 feet, for a total of 107 feet. So the extra width required for the managed lanes is 66 to 82 feet, which is about 37% of the needed new right-of-way north of Loop 610. The rest of the needed right-of-way is for buffers outside the frontage roads (27 feet on each side), wider frontage roads including a 15-foot-wide shared lane, more space between the main lanes and frontage roads, and auxiliary (merging) lanes for the main lanes.

The City of Houston proposal, which is endorsed by Harris County, would remove the managed lanes entirely and also remove the existing reversible HOV lane. Other opposition groups want more public transit emphasis and no right-of-way acquisition which would eliminate the managed lanes.

Of course, we already have a managed lane facility in Houston, the Katy Managed Lanes. Let's take a closer look at its performance, before and after Covid. Data sources: Metro and HCTRA.

Attention NNHIP Opposition: Managed lanes have demonstrated substantial transit ridership
In 2019, prior to Covid, Metro's bus routes using the Katy Managed Lanes served 9,105 weekday public transit trips, more than the $756 million Red Line north extension and the Green or Purple Lines, which together cost $1.4 billion. The original Red Line, which has strong ridership, had 42,385 weekday trips.

HOV and Ridesharing provide even more SOV reduction
Metro bus service is only part of the reduction in single-occupant vehicles provided by managed lanes. The main purpose of the Katy Managed Lanes, which require only 2 persons per vehicle for free use, is to promote carpooling and ridesharing. In contrast, most managed lanes facilities outside Houston require 3+ occupancy for free use, and privately owned managed lanes are operated to maximimize toll revenue. While there is no readily-available data for HOV traffic count, Metro's 2018 Highlights publication (p.28) states the following
"METRO provided 7.7 million Park & Ride commuter bus rides in 2017"
For all HOV/HOT lanes except the Katy Freeway managed lanes (which is operated by HCTRA), Metro reports
"An additional 25.4 million people used HOV/HOT lanes operated by Metro in 2017."
Even excluding the heavily-used Katy managed lanes, the ratio of HOV/HOT users to bus riders is 3.3 to 1. There's no information on the number of HOV vs. HOT vehicles, but the pre-covid Katy Managed Lanes bus ridership of 9,105 trips per day probably translates to HOV trips of at least 20,000 per weekday, which (assuming 2-person HOV) was taking at least 10,000 SOVs off the road.
Managed lanes serve vanpools, and Metro reports (for all its HOV lanes)
"METRO facilitated 2 million vanpool rides and more than 700 active vanpools in 2017."
The 2018 report also states
"HOV/HOT lanes maximize the utility and value of existing freeway lanes by allowing riders and vehicles to move faster and bypass heavy traffic."
That statement should put a smile on Tory's face, since his brand name for managed lanes is MaX lanes. (editor's note: It does! :-)
Impact of Covid
Metro's overall ridership dropped by around 55% for most months since April 2020. Park & ride customers are not transit dependent, so they could switch to their cars for safety, and they are mostly professional so many or most could work from home. Consequently, park & ride service was hit much worse, with Katy corridor ridership down around 88%.
Metro's downtown routes (221, 222, 228, 229) were down 95% in the year after Covid hit (excluding the uptick in recent months). However, ridership on Metro route 298, which provides service to the Texas Medical Center, was down only 53%, which is consistent with the overall loss in Metro ridership. Assuming route 298 riders don't have the option to work from home, this suggests that (95-53)/95 = 44% of the downtown route ridership loss was due to working from home. Of course, folks working from home will no longer be Metro customers in the future. Recovering these riders will depend on how many continue to work from home.

Revenue Generation
In 2019, the Katy Managed lanes generated $20.7 million in toll revenue, below its 2018 peak of $22.5 million. We can expect a rebound from the 2020 value of $8.9 million, but it may take years to get back to $20 million.
Managed lane toll revenue is low by HCTRA toll road standards, as HCTRA collected $855 million in toll revenue in 2019. The adjacent section of the Sam Houston Tollway to the south (to the Southwest Freeway) generated $116 million and the section to the north (to the Northwest Freeway) generated $98 million.
However, $21 million is substantial in the context of Metro's systemwide total farebox revenue, which was flat between 2013 and 2019 in the range of $72 million to $76 million, and was $75 million in 2019. Farebox collections for FY 2020, which ended in September with only 6 months affected by Covid, dropped to $43 million. Just completed FY 2021 (no data available yet) was fully affected by covid and will be much lower.
Metro's park & ride bus service also generates substantial farebox revenue due to its high fares. In the 15 months prior to Covid, the Grand Parkway endpoint was the most-used park & ride lot in the Metro system, averaging 2,977 daily trips. The fare for Grand Parkway service is $4.50, compared to $1.25 for regular service, which is diluted by discounts. Using an average fare of $4.25 for Metro park & ride service using the Katy Managed Lanes, we can estimate those routes generated 9105*52*5*4.25= $10.0 million in fares, which is 13% of 2019 Metro systemwide total farebox revenue. Adding together the toll and farebox revenue is $30.7 million, which is 41% of Metro's systemwide total farebox revenue.
dollar values in millions 2019
Toll Revenue $20.7
Bus Fares (estimated) $10.0
Katy Managed Lanes Total $30.7
Metro 2019 systemwide farebox revenue $75.3
Katy Managed Lanes revenue, percent of Metro systemwide farebox total 41%
Managed Lanes: more services provided = less risk of obsolescence
Suppose rail transit had been built instead of the managed lanes along the Katy Corridor. Rail would serve only commuters using public transit, and demand for that service was down 88%. Of course there will be a recovery, and there has been an uptick in recent months, but it remains to be seen how much of the lost ridership can be recovered. Due to work from home, demand for commuter transit will likely be suppressed indefinitely.
In today's money, rail infrastructure for the 19 miles from the Northwest Transit center at Loop 610 to the Grand Parkway would cost at least $1 billion for commuter-style trains, and at least $2 billion for light-rail style service. (Of course, the trains would have terminated at the Northwest transit center and required a transfer, which would lower ridership.) With the dramatic drop in commuter ridership, rail infrastructure would now be a very expensive and very underutilized asset.
Managed lanes provide multiple services, including ridersharing, vanpools, and express toll service. This lowers the risk of the investment. While these services were also down (toll revenue was down 57%), these services continued to be served, with toll users at a much higher level than commuter bus.
This underscores another major benefit of flexible, adaptable, and less expensive managed lanes. If consumer preferences shift, the lanes can easily adapt and won't become a costly "white elephant".
Managed Lanes: a crucial feature of NHHIP
To summarize
  • Pre-covid, the Katy Managed Lanes demonstrated strong transit ridership, higher than much more expensive recent light rail expansions.
  • Pre-covid, the Katy Managed Lanes demonstrated strong revenue generation, both tolls and bus farebox.
  • Ridesharing on managed lanes provides substantial SOV reduction, probably exceeding pre-covid transit.
  • With the onset of covid and the collapse of demand for commuter transit service, the Katy Managed Lanes continued to provide multiple services, underscoring its adaptability to shifting needs.
Managed lanes are the most important feature of NHHIP north of downtown, providing an adaptable transportation asset that will serve Houston's future needs, whatever they may be: bus rapid transit, commuter bus, HOV, vanpool, technologies of the future such as automated vehicles and potentially toll service. (Current plans don't include tolls, but would optimize the lanes for transit and ridesharing.)
Strong performance, low cost, and adaptability are reasons why Tory and I support the NHHIP managed lanes and are advocates of a managed lane network for Houston, as described in the MaX lanes report and as proposed in the TxDOT REAL plan.

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