Tuesday, May 30, 2023

BRT Should Use Shared Not Dedicated Lanes, HTX #1 real estate market, college grads flee the superstar cities, cutting zoning reduces housing costs, and more

A few smaller misc items this week: 

  • BRT Should Use Shared, Not Dedicated Lanes. Everything in here absolutely applies to the planned METRO Universities BRT line, especially on Richmond inside the loop. 'Lite BRT' would be a great option for that line.

"Dedicating two of the six lanes on major streets in Chandler, Mesa, Scottsdale, and Tempe exclusively to buses would be a complete waste, says a new report released last week by the Arizona Free Enterprise Club and two other groups in the Phoenix area. Each of the lanes that Valley Metro would take for buses typically move roughly three to four times as many people per day as would have taken the bus before the pandemic, and bus ridership has fallen by 50 percent since the pandemic. ...

Instead of dedicated lanes, the report recommends the Valley Metro experiment with “lite BRT,” which means running frequent buses in shared lanes and coordinating traffic signals so everyone can minimize the number of stops they have to make. If these modest improvements significantly increase ridership, Valley Metro could experiment with other improvements, but if they don’t, “then it is unlikely that . . . dedicated lanes and traffic signal priority would do any better.”

"In 2004, Denver voters approved spending $4.8 billion building six new rail transit lines, and the first line opened ten years ago. This was soon followed by four more to the gushing praise of various outsiders.

Inside Denver, however, people are beginning to realize that the whole thing was a miserable failure, suffering massive cost overruns and never attaining its ridership projections. The West line, which had its tenth anniversary last week, never carried as many passengers as were projected in its first year. It’s too bad that the reporters who are questioning this now weren’t asking the same questions in 2004."

"Policymakers have debated whether allowing more market-rate—meaning unsubsidized—housing improves overall affordability in a market. The evidence indicates that adding more housing of any kind helps slow rent growth. "

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Monday, May 15, 2023

Is the 18yr rebuild of 45N actually a good thing or will it kill downtown? Plus what's wrong with NYC?

 A couple items this week:

  • Chronicle: Nearly two decades: The long, long journey ahead for $9.7B rebuild of I-45. It is a crazy long schedule (see graphic below). What I can’t tell from this schedule is if the extended length is specifically because TXDoT wants to minimize disruption? Generally speaking, faster projects are more disruptive with more lane closures. Maybe they’re stretching it out so they don’t have to do that? If they’re not, that would be my advice to TXDoT: commit to keeping all existing lane capacity open throughout the construction process, even if that requires stretching the schedule. One silver lining of the rise of remote and hybrid work during the pandemic is that it may actually help employers endure the construction without moving because their employees can be more flexible about what hours and days they come in. If that can help reduce and stretch out rush hours, it can minimize the pain. I got quoted in this one:

“Past freeway projects typically only affected one or two spokes at a time, and downtown employers just dealt with it since it only affected a portion of their employee base,” said Tory Gattis, a senior fellow at the Urban Reform Institute, which advocates for business-focused downtown development. “But with the normalization of remote and hybrid work, as well as this project affecting all the freeways coming into downtown, it could definitely be the tipping point to major employers following Exxon to the suburbs or just going more remote so their employees won’t have to fight their way downtown as often.”

  • NYT: What’s the Matter With New York? Krugman keeps writing defensive articles about failed Blue city policies, but they’re not very convincing. He does support my case on housing though:

“For the middle class, however, living in New York really is hard to afford — not so much because of taxes, but because of housing costs. Here’s a very rough indicator (I’m sure that experts can produce a more accurate measure, but the conclusions surely won’t change): Zillow says that the median apartment rent in New York is $3,500, about $1,500 more than the median rent in, say, Dallas. Since median household income in New York is about $70,000 a year, the “housing tax” middle-class families pay for living in New York is on the order of 20 percent of their income, several times as large as the difference in actual taxes. And if you want to buy a house, the price gap is similar: Dallas is about 40 percent cheaper.


A major reason developers don’t build more housing in the New York area, and hence the reason living here is expensive, is that they aren’t allowed to thanks to zoning, land-use restrictions and — especially in the suburbs — community opposition.

In other words, never mind the lurid right-wing fantasies: NIMBYism, not crime or taxes, is the New York area’s main problem."

Krugman argues the high NY taxes are manageable, but the most upvoted comment strongly disagrees:

"Former Prosecutor, NYC:

I beg to differ Mr. Krugman. Taxes are killing NY and in a big way. You see, my wife and I are senior citizens in upstate NY about 1.5 hours north of NYC. Forty years ago we built our house and raised our 5 children. We love our home. We want to die here. But, NY State has made that impossible. Our property and school taxes are out of control. Yes, we do receive enhanced STAR but it is not enough. Our pensions and savings are not enough to keep up with the rising costs of taxes here in NY. In January we get our property tax bill that included the town, county and fire taxes. Then in September, the dreaded school tax bill comes and it’s a killer. Every senior citizen I know has moved out of NY and headed to Florida, Tennessee and the Carolinas. We worked hard, paid out taxes and are being forced to sell our dream home. Is that right? Is that American? Is that constitutional? It sure doesn’t feel like NY is trying to save Seniors. AND, the poor young people who want to buy our home or live in the area are burdened with the same problem, taxes. Lots of taxes. We don’t own a mansion. We don’t live large. We don’t have fancy cars. We live a modest life and want to stay near our children and grandchildren. I love NY Mr. Krugman but NY doesn’t love me or any senior citizens who want to stay, contribute and live out our lives in the state we love. But, its impossible. Other states are way more affordable and unfortunately, we are being taxes out of our home and must move. Un American"

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Sunday, May 07, 2023

Update for METRO's Inner Katy BRT plan

This week we have another excellent guest post from Oscar Slotboom.
In January Metro received a Categorical Exclusion (CATEX) determination for the Inner Katy Bus Rapid Transit project from the Federal Transit Administration. The document can be downloaded here.
A CATEX means that no additional environmental study is needed, meaning that neither a very extensive (multiple-year) environmental impact statement nor a less-extensive environmental assessment is needed. This is good news, saving both time and money, because it will allow the project to proceed to construction as soon as plans are ready which could be as soon as later this year (with project completion in 2027) according to the presentation at the March H-GAC meeting. The CATEX is somewhat surprising, since even the most minimal road projects such as adding two more lanes to Westpark in existing right-of-way in west Houston required an environmental assessment.
At the March H-GAC meeting (Item 11) it was reported that Metro and TxDOT have resolved the remaining design issues. The design will accommodate TxDOT's planned four managed lanes when TxDOT is able to proceed with the Inner Katy managed lanes. The updated video is posted on Metro's project page.
From the West Loop to Washington Avenue, the BRT will initially run in the center of the freeway. When TxDOT proceeds with the managed lanes, a separate structure will be built for the BRT on the south side of the Katy Freeway.
Metro added a station at Memorial Park. In August 2021 I blogged that data in Dallas suggests that a park station will have low ridership, but the good news is that only one new station was added on the Inner Katy section (excluding downtown), for a total of three stations which is an acceptable number to maintain a decent average speed.
From Studemont into downtown, option 2 is the selected design and the BRT will be entirely separate from the managed lanes, requiring a new structure on the south and west sides of the freeway. The CATEX document (page 28) reports that option 2 requires 3.41 acres of new right-of-way, with 0.75 acres specifically for option 2. I don't know the legal implications of the CATEX, but hopefully Metro can now proceed to acquire all the property it needs.
The CATEX (page 24) reports that option 2 will cost $565 million in 2021 dollars. However, construction cost increases have far exceeded the CPI since 2021, with the highway construction cost index up an alarming 48% since December 2021. An updated cost estimate was not provided at the March H-GAC meeting, but we can be sure the updated cost will be much higher than $565 million. The Metro representative said, "we hope to return for increased funding consistent with TPC policy".
As Tory recently mentioned, the cost of light rail in other cities has escalated out of control, reaching an average of $384 million per mile, so the four-mile-long elevated BRT should still be well below half the cost of a street-level light rail.
Estimated Ridership
Page 24 of the CATEX reports that "Preliminary estimates suggest that the projected 2045 daily passenger trips carried on the Inner Katy guideway would be 42,000, including 12,000 from Inner Katy BRT service and 30,000 from Regional Express and Express bus services." These numbers are ridiculously high, considering that all Metro Park & Ride services had ridership of 32,444 in the year before Covid and are currently 13,163. The Silver Line BRT has averaged around 850 weekday riders.
TxDOT's Inner Katy Managed Lanes
TxDOT is soliciting consultants to continue work on the Inner Katy managed lanes. This is good news, since it suggests the project could possibly proceed to construction in the 2020s. As Tory and I have mentioned, the Inner Katy managed lanes are the most critical link in a future managed lane network for Houston. It is unclear if a design option for the managed lanes has been selected.


Monday, May 01, 2023

Flawed approaches to Vision Zero

This week I want to repost this note from Reason's Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter which explains how dogma rather than data is driving flawed approaches to Vision Zero. The case study focuses on Denver, but Houston is definitely at risk of falling into the same trap. Highlights are mine.

How is Vision Zero Doing in Denver?

By Baruch Feigenbaum

As cities across the United States grapple with traffic fatalities, many have adopted the Vision Zero concept. Vision Zero was started in Sweden more than 25 years ago. It is an effort to reduce traffic fatalities to zero by some future date. Unfortunately, most of the U.S. cities that adopted the policy don’t have good before-and-after data, so it is difficult to determine whether Vision Zero works.

Denver, in contrast, has robust data. The city adopted Vision Zero in 2017 and set a goal of zero traffic fatalities by the year 2030. Yet a new report by Randal O’Toole for the Thoreau Institute examining the impacts of Vision Zero policies on traffic fatalities in Denver found that the city’s plan has so far failed to meet most of its goals.

The report begins with an analysis of Denver’s 48-page Vision Zero Action Plan. The plan seems to be full of platitudes instead of policy solutions. In the third section, titled, “What We’re Doing,” two of the three pages discuss what steps the city is taking, such as:

  • Adding flashing lights to alert motorists of a pedestrian crossing;
  • Reducing speed limits on a street that had seen several accidents; and
  • Changing a traffic signal to include a protected left turn to minimize conflict between pedestrians and automobiles.

The report’s biggest criticism of the action plan is that while it does list the changes the city is pursuing, the plan does very little to show that these changes will reduce traffic fatalities, especially by enough for the city to meet its 2030 target of zero fatalities. In addition, the vision does little to address motorcyclist safety, despite motorcyclists being the most at-risk group on Denver streets.

The report delves into traffic fatality trends in Denver. While there were zero bicycle fatalities in 2020, the report stresses that that’s not necessarily thanks to Vision Zero changes. Denver also had zero bicycle fatalities in 2006, 2009, and 2013. O’Toole found that a five-year average is a far better indicator of actual trends. Likewise, the report notes that the 33% increase in fatalities during the five years ending in 2020, has not been caused by Vision Zero. The real problem is that Vision Zero is not addressing the factors that lead to fatalities.

Next, O’Toole breaks down fatalities by mode of transportation. The report found that pedestrian fatality rates were 50 per billion pedestrian-miles, bicycle fatality rates were 25 per billion bicycle-miles, motorcycle fatality rates were 130 per billion passenger-miles, and automobile fatality rates were 1.3 per billion passenger-miles. Motorcyclists are 100 times more likely to die in traffic accidents than auto users, pedestrians are 40 times more likely, and bicycle riders are 20 times more likely. O’Toole stresses that these are “rough approximations.”

To provide a fuller picture, the report reminds readers of the benefits of the automobile. From the automobile “democratizing mobility” thanks to the affordability of Henry Ford’s Model T, to the increased number of jobs accessible to workers, automobiles brought a host of benefits to the country and the world. The development of highways and streets also has benefits that aren’t just for automobile users. Roads are essential for emergency services and freight, but the former is most relevant to Vision Zero’s goal of saving lives. O’Toole cites a University of Colorado-Boulder study, which found that “for every pedestrian whose life is saved by slowing of auto traffic, 85 people would die due to delays in emergency services.

In order to reduce pedestrian fatalities, we need to understand that most such fatalities happen at night because pedestrians are intoxicated, cross away from crosswalks, or are among the homeless suffering from mental illness.

O’Toole offers specific suggestions for policies that Denver’s Vision Zero Action Plan fails to include. Each of the suggestions is based on Denver data, and most rely on separating different modes from one another, via methods such as pedestrian barriers to discourage crossing away from crosswalks, separate bicycle boulevards, and a law mandating that motorcyclists wear helmets.

Most critically, the city should start to use a data-driven approach based on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality and Injury Reporting System Tool, which would prove invaluable as a means of finding where Denver’s problems lie.

Automobile users have become something of a scapegoat for traffic fatalities. Both the report and Vision Zero advocates are right that roadway design is an important aspect of any move to protect non-automobile users; but O’Toole is also right when he says that Denver’s attempt at Vision Zero seems like little more than an attempt to get fewer people driving. Cities that try to encourage a modal shift for citizens often accomplish little more than creating an automobile-hostile environment.

The city of Denver has a lot of work to do to come anywhere near its goal by 2030 since its current Vision Zero approach is not going to reduce traffic fatalities to anywhere near zero.