Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Problem, we have a Houston - Houstonians got a free $18k from min lot size reform, METRO 2nd worst for rail crime, The Economist loves Texas, HTX tops std of living, Houston sliding towards zoning? and more

 Lots of good smaller items again this week:

"Most of the nation’s major cities face a daunting future as middle-class taxpayers join an exodus to the suburbs, opting to work remotely as they exit downtowns marred by empty offices, vacant retail space and a deteriorating tax base."

"Firms like to open factories and offices in cities with plenty of skilled workers. When choosing between cities, they typically run an analysis to see how many potential employees live within a reasonable commute of a site. Poor traffic shrinks the radius, and by extension the labor pool, hurting a city’s chances of attracting companies."

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Thursday, March 16, 2023

Transit in crisis, great train robberies, NIMBYs are killing America, why 15-min cities are flawed, and more

 Just clearing out some backlogged misc items this week:

"Much of the national media, in chorus with urban political and economic leaders, have been pushing these train-focused approaches since the days of Jimmy Carter. The stated aim is usually to move Americans away from their supposedly evil and pernicious love of the private automobile. Americans drive not because they irrationally love cars—although some do—but because it is simply by far the best way to get around. 
We know this because for the most part, train-heavy investments have reaped little in terms of riders and virtually no reduction in auto usage. Indeed, even before the pandemic, transit ridership, despite the creation of new lines, was sagging. Since then transit has continued and accelerated its decline. By the end of 2022, the transit market share had fallen 50%. Today, despite the end of the pandemic, that number has barely moved at all. It is into this fading market share that the current administration and much of the political class now wants to throw its money."

“The country can no longer afford this form of “shadow subsidy,” Smith argues. If America continues on this path, standing by the “build-nothing” mindset, then the middle class will slip into “genteel poverty” and America will lose its leading position in the global economy, he claimed indirectly, albeit poetically: “Someone else will build the future on the bones of our civilization.”  

He urged America to slash the “thicket of red tape” around development, and it seems the world’s richest man agrees.”

"If 15-minute cities were so great, we would still be living in them. But as soon as people got cars, they moved out of them and used their new-found mobility to get better housing, better jobs, and a wider variety of low-cost consumer goods.

Every city in America is a 15-minute city if you take automobiles into account. Thanks to automobiles, the typical U.S. urban resident lives within 15 minutes of more than 100,000 jobs, several different supermarkets that compete hard for their business, one or two shopping malls, parks and other recreation facilities, a variety of health care facilities, friends and relatives, and many other potential destinations and activities. Even the densest cities in the world can’t provide that kind of variety and opportunity within 15 minutes on foot."

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Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Texas vs. 'induced demand' and tolls

Today is the official 18th (!!) anniversary of Houston Strategies, with the first post on March 8th, 2005. This is the 1,391st post (again, !!). I had no idea it would go anywhere near this long when I started, and I have absolutely no idea how long it will continue to go into the future. No matter how long that is, one thing I do know is - with the legacy limitations of blogspot - it will still have this old-school 2005 web page format, lol. I just hope my readers focus on the content rather than the aesthetics ;-)

This week I have an excellent re-post from Bob Poole at Reason's Surface Transportation Innovations on induced demand:

Experts Spar Over Induced Demand and Urban Freeway Expansion  

I-35 through downtown Austin is massively congested much of the day. That’s hardly surprising since both Austin and Texas have been growing by leaps and bounds for several decades (with no end in sight), while I-35 through central Austin still has not had a significant expansion since 1974. Trying to accommodate today’s traffic flow with the capacity of 50 years ago is like trying to put 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5-pound sack.

Yet opponents of expanding I-35 in Austin raise the concept of “induced demand,” which some refer to as the “iron law of freeway congestion.” The idea is that it’s pointless to add capacity because the improved traffic flow will (only) lead to more vehicles choosing to use the freeway, yielding renewed congestion.

One of those who raised this argument is professor and engineer Kara Kockelman, who teaches transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. In a recent piece by Kelsey Thompson of KXAN, Kockelman said that roadway improvements can lead to people changing their behavior, such as living further out in the suburbs or making trips during peak periods that they used to make at off-peak times. “By opening up I-35,” she told KXAN, “what we do is increase the attractiveness of that corridor for longer distance travel.” Also, after a long construction period, “There’ll be a lot of pent-up demand just waiting to get onto that road when it fully opens,” Kockelman added. That’s all true, but it’s not the end of the story.

At about the same time, another transportation expert, Steven Polzin of Arizona State University, published an article on Planetizen, “Induced Travel Demand Induces Media Attention.” He points out that in fast-growing states, most new highway demand comes from population growth and new jobs, not from “induced” travel. Second, he notes that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita have leveled off in the past decade, so traffic congestion will likely not grow as fast in coming decades, other things equal. Third, Polzin points out that trips accommodated by an expanded highway can provide a number of benefits, such as:

  • Residents getting access to better jobs and businesses with better selections and lower prices;
  • Businesses having access to a larger labor pool, and larger customer and supplier bases;
  • Enabling emergency vehicles getting where they are needed faster;
  • Pulling cut-through traffic out of neighborhoods; and,
  • Enabling parents to get home in time for family meals and activities.

Some of those benefits might not be long-lasting, especially as places like Austin continue to grow. But neither expert mentioned a way to make the expansion benefits last longer: add market-priced lanes instead of free lanes, so the pricing will enable high-value trips to take place even during peaks when the free lanes are getting jammed. Those can be personal trips (to the airport to catch a plane, getting to day-care in time to avoid late fees), enabling express buses to run consistently faster and more reliably, and letting emergency vehicles get where they’re needed quickly, for example. Kockelman mentions toll roads but not express toll lanes. In Houston and especially Dallas/Ft. Worth, the express toll lanes are popular and much-used. But even there, where they have proven their usefulness and popularity, regional plans for a whole network of express toll lanes have been thwarted by the Texas state legislature, which has banned any new Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) support for tolled projects, and any new long-term public-private partnerships (P3s) financed by toll revenues.

TxDOT’s earlier concepts for I-35 in Austin called for adding express toll lanes (also known as priced managed lanes). But as I noted in the August 2022 issue of this newsletter, due to the legislative ban, TxDOT’s current plan is to spend $4.9 billion of taxpayers money to add “non-priced managed lanes” to I-35 in Austin. In plain language, that means old-fashioned, ineffective high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. Based on past history, if built, those lanes will likely be either too empty (wasting costly pavement) or too full (fam-pools, cheaters). Without pricing, there is no “management” of HOV lanes.

In a recent presentation in Ft. Worth, I pointed out that TxDOT’s current plans to add HOV lanes to I-35 in Austin, I-35 in San Antonio, and I-635E in Dallas total $8.1 billion. On average, revenue-financed highway projects like express toll lanes need only 20% from the state DOT with all the rest financed based on toll revenues. Were those three projects carried out via revenue-financed P3s, TxDOT would save 80% of that $8.1 billion to spend on other projects statewide. That ought to appeal to legislators from smaller cities and rural areas. And it would produce a much more effective and long-term solution for the antiquated I-35 through Austin.

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