Thursday, March 15, 2018

My interview on Houston's transportation future, our traffic is better and housing more affordable than you think, and more

Apologies for going almost a month without a new post.  The big new item is my interview with KPRC Channel 2 on Houston’s transportation future that finally aired this week, promoting MaX Lanes of course.  I start at the 2:29 point after Kyle Shelton from the Kinder Institute at Rice. On camera is not my strength, but I think it came out ok.  Oddly, they also included a separate 5m video with my complete raw interview (including some stuff that honestly should be outtakes), but the benefit is it includes many more of my points, as awkward as it is.  It was quite loud next to the freeway, and they were yelling questions from a good distance away.  Kyle also has his 26m raw interview video where he makes some great points.

Ok, getting to the backlog of smaller items:
"Any rail system we build will not stop at the corner of McKinney and Main," said Metro board member Christof Spieler. "We are talking about a service that is better than commuter rail."
"Eventually, driverless cars are going to completely replace transit. Until that happens, it makes sense to only spend money on transit buses, which are inexpensive, flexible, can start new service tomorrow, and don’t require 30 years of debt payments. That’s a lesson most major American cities have yet to learn."
"You Can Build Your Way out of Congestion 
Los Angeles is still the most congested urban area in the world, according to the latest INRIX traffic scorecard. However, what is more interesting is that congestion seems to be declining in several fast-growing cities in Texas, thanks to construction of new highways
Dallas is twice as big as Seattle and Houston is three times as big. The Dallas and Houston urban areas are both growing nearly twice as fast as Seattle’s, but Seattle is concentrating its growth in the city while Dallas and Houston allow more people to settle in the suburbs. INRIX found that congestion was worse in Seattle than either Dallas or Houston, which was a direct result of Washington’s growth-management policies. 
Moreover, while INRIX’s congestion index for Seattle — and most other cities — grew worse since last year’s scorecard, the congestion indices for Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso all improved."
              That's enough for this week - more next.

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              Monday, February 19, 2018

              Two choices for Houston's transit future (Chronicle op-ed)

              The Houston Chronicle featured my op-ed as the lead in their Sunday edition Opinion section yesterday.  Since I've had problems with the reliability of the Chronicle archives in the past (especially after a few years pass), I've included the full text below.  Looking forward to your thoughts in the comments!

              Two choices for Houston’s transit future

              As both H-GAC and Metro prepare new long-term transit plans, Houston is facing a critical decision point between two paths that will determine our transportation future for decades to come – and whether we continue to thrive and grow as a global city or we become another gridlocked, unaffordable LA.

              The first path - sometimes called for by local officials - is the traditional approach of adding rail as cities grow beyond a certain size, with New York, Washington DC, Chicago, and San Francisco being the largest examples.  This is not only extremely expensive to build – New York is spending $2.7 billion per mile on the Second Avenue Subway – but expensive to maintain, with massive maintenance backlogs causing well-publicized chronic service problems in New York, Washington DC, and San Francisco. Even worse, it turns out adding rail to sprawling Sunbelt cities built in the automobile age has been a costly failure almost everywhere, including recent bad press on Dallas DART’s high costs and low ridership, Denver’s $4.7 billion FasTracks, and LA’s $9 billion rail investment leading to overall transit ridership declines If LA - with twice our density, far worse traffic congestion, and perfect walking/waiting weather - can’t make massive rail investments pay off, what chance does Houston have?

              Beyond these issues, traditional transit is facing the same technological disruption as many other industries with the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles.  Shared ride services like Uber and Lyft are already causing broad transit ridership declines across the country, and estimates are that their prices could drop even further to $0.35/mile once they go autonomous in the 2020s. Despite the high risk of building obsolete and costly white elephants with taxpayer dollars, some cities continue to plunge obliviously into this technological buzz saw with obscenely expensive old-school rail plans like $54 billion in Seattle, $5.2 billion in Nashville, and $10+ billion in Honolulu ($10,500 per Oahu resident!).  And we’re not immune to the insanity: some of the rail plans under consideration for Houston could easily run into several tens of billions of dollars.

              So what’s a second path that rides this disruptive technological wave rather than drowns under it? There are hints of it in the Chronicle’s recent coverage of Metro’s commuter bus expansions and the Downtown Management District’s ‘Metro MAX’ proposal of two-way HOV-lane bus service connecting more than a dozen major job centers.  Houston is a dispersed city with many major job centers besides Downtown – like Uptown, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway, Energy Corridor, Westchase, Memorial City, etc. - needing commuter services that would be poorly served by a downtown-centric rail network feeding less than 7% of the area’s jobs.

              Taking it to the next level would be our proposal of an expanded network of two-way Managed eXpress (MaX) freeway lanes connecting every job center to every neighborhood.  These lanes would be explicitly managed to move the maximum number of people at maximum speed, including converting to autonomous-only when the technology becomes available.  At that point, vehicles can run safely at much higher speeds while platooning more closely together to increase capacity. These lanes are far more cost-effective and flexible than rail, and we estimate that such a network could support a million commuters to a million jobs Houston’s core job centers – more core jobs than any other city in the country outside of Manhattan.

              But what’s the experience like for the actual commuter?  With rail, it’s infrequent service (big capacity = longer waits to fill) with many intermediate stops, averaging 25-35 mph dropping you far from your workplace and requiring time-consuming walks or transfers in all sorts of weather.  With MaX Lanes you may be in a comfortable public or private Park-and-Ride bus or a smaller shared commuter vehicle that picks you up along with others in your neighborhood going to the same job center (such custom vehicles may even have private compartments).  As they enter the MaX Lanes, they go into autonomous “auto-pilot” mode (if they’re not already) and accelerate to high speeds – possibly as high as 100+mph! (can you imagine the global publicity for Houston and our image if we’re the first city on the planet to offer affordable 100+mph daily commuter services?!)  They then go nonstop to your job center wherever it may be, where they exit and circulate to get you right to your building – no transfers and no risk of walking or waiting in summer heat or downpours.  A faster, better experience at a far lower cost – it’s no contest.

              Historically, Houston has always been comfortable ignoring the conventional wisdom and going our own pragmatic way - like being the largest city in the country without zoning and building an extensive HOV/HOT bus lane network instead of costly, inflexible, and slow commuter rail.  We should continue that iconoclastic tradition and publicly embrace the next generation of transit instead of chasing flashy, over-priced, ineffective rail projects like other cities (and put the savings towards flood control!).

              Two paths forward – one looking to the past and one looking to the future. The choice is ours.

              Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and writes the Houston Strategies blog.  His report on MaX Lanes for Houston can be found here.

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              Saturday, February 10, 2018

              Interviewed on PBS News Hour about post-Harvey Houston development and recommendations going forward, New Opportunity Boomtown, Big Houston, market urbanism, and more

              Before getting to this week's items, PBS News Hour had a 9-minute segment this week on Houston development after Harvey, which includes about a minute interviewing me starting at the 6:50 point.  They interviewed me for about a half-hour on the top of my condo midrise in Midtown on Jan 12th, and it was freezing that day, thus the heavy coat.  I think they did a fair job with the sound bites and summary of our conversation – I love that they used my “don’t throw the development baby out with the hurricane bathwater” line (which is my mantra/tagline on all things Harvey) - although I wish they had included the stat about Houston land developed since 1992 would have absorbed less than 0.4% of the water that fell.

              Moving on to this week's items:
              1. Eliminate parking requirements (agree to long-term reductions)
              2. Scale back minimum lot sizes (agree)
              3. Get street design right (disagree on being hostile to cars)
              I like that he gives a shout-out to the flexibility and adapatability of our lack of zoning, but I'm not as opposed to development on the fringes as he is.  I like that we allow both urban and suburban development and let people choose what works for their lives.
              I've got more, but that's already too much for one week!

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              Friday, February 02, 2018

              Embrace the Uncool: more thoughts on Amazon HQ2 + Houston and LA transit

              There are some follow-ups to my last two posts on Amazon HQ2 and Houston transit, including addendums/updates at the end of both posts you may want to check out, including the news that Texas Monthly backed up our creative "think big" Astrodome Amazon HQ2 idea vs. dismissal by City officials!

              Amazon HQ2

              A new thought since my last post: Amazon's rejection of Houston for HQ2 could have been as simple as bad PR optics: it just looks bad to squeeze a city for big incentives that just went through the most expensive natural disaster in history.  They probably imagined future nightmare stories in the media: "well, we would have spent all this money on new flood control infrastructure, but we had to give it to Amazon instead."

              Other good reasons for us to be glad to be out of this extortionary beauty contest have come out in the media:
              "While there are real benefits like this NYT profile to making the Amazon cut, I don’t think cities that didn’t make it should beat themselves up too much. We really don’t know the factors that went into deciding who was in and who was out. Some of the people who are in may have been put there for pure misdirection for all we know. Maybe even Indianapolis. And being left off the list may not be reflective of the city as a whole. Cleveland, for example, has many problems, but is also one of the few place with an actual HQ2 scale entity locally in the Cleveland Clinic. In that health care space, Cleveland has proven it can attract the best talent in the world at scale. That’s just not relevant to Amazon. So while those who did make the list should feel good about it, I don’t think those who didn’t should wallow in undue negativity. As the New York Times notes, even the “losers” are potentially in line for future Amazon investments."
              Houston transit

              First, to set the stage, two different pieces on the failure of rail in LA, which has invested billions while losing overall ridership, even with twice the density, worse traffic congestion, and perfect walking/waiting weather vs. Houston.
              "He soon soured on rail transit, however, because he didn’t believe that it actually worked. “What we have seen in the United States is right from the start rail transit didn’t add anything at all to transit [ridership] in the United States. It didn’t reduce automobile use at all…By the late 1980s, after having left the commission about four years before I had come to the view that it wasn’t something we ought to be doing…I became very critical of spending billions of dollars to achieve less than we promised we would achieve.” 
              Indeed, the LA Times reported a while back that despite billions in rail transit investments in LA, overall transit ridership had fallen. And it is falling as we speak.  There are many possible explanations for these declines. Bus ridership is falling in many markets, and LA is still very heavily skewed towards buses. Uber and Lyft are eating into market share. 
              I’m not ready to pronounce the death of transit in LA by any means, but the clearly underwhelming results for rail in LA despite very large investment in new lines, a relatively dense environment, and horrible traffic congestion, is something that transit advocates need to seriously confront."
              Those lead me to conclude with this great Facebook post defending Houston's practical and cost-effective bus-based approach to transit by my friend Packy Saunders (who approved the reprint here):
              "BUS RANT...
              Last night someone was whining on a food group about being towed. They didn't explicitly blame the restaurant, yet they were leaning in that direction. Someone piped up about our non-existent public transportation. That annoyed me and I commented. People in Houston are snobs about riding the bus. Not so much the rail, but they wouldn't be caught dead on METRO buses. 
              As expected, I got the typical pushback that Houston's system isn't as good as other big cities. Usually this indicates some confirmation bias when I hear it – because most Houstonians I know haven't been on a bus as an adult. Here’s where I’m going to disagree with the average Houstonian: Adjusted for population density-weighted service, Houston might have the best bus service of any major city
              I ride the bus often. The route improvements made in 2016 (shout out to Christof Spieler) helped tremendously
              Houston is a driving city due to low population density. The bus system serves it accordingly. NYC has 27,500 people per square mile. SF has 17,000. Boston 13,300. Chicago 11,800. Houston? A paltry 3,400. 
              We are almost twice as scattered as the very fragmented LA. Of the top 10 cities by population, Phoenix has us beat with about 2,800 people per square mile. It also has what I think is superior public transportation based on the fact that the rail is more useful as it connects downtown and beyond to the airport. Phoenix costs more to ride, though. As does pretty much every other major city. Most big cities are $2-$2.50 with stingy transfers. Houston is $1.25 with a three-hour all-way transfer window. 
              It’s far from perfect, but pretty much every major arterial has a bus coming in 10 to 15 min. Minor ones are 20-30 min. That’s about the same as Chicago CTA – probably my favorite system in the country after DC. I do wish we had a more useful rail system like Chicago. But 100 years ago there were 2.7 million people in Chicago proper and cars were new tech. They built accordingly. There’s not even that many in Houston proper right now, and we had about 5% of that a century ago. And we built accordingly too – a city that came to life after cars were common with roughly a third the density
              The snobbery that ignores the actual performance amuses me. It's simply not cool to ride the bus in Houston."
              Historically, Houston has always been comfortable ignoring the conventional wisdom and going our own pragmatic way - like being the largest city in the country without zoning and building an extensive HOV/HOT bus lane network instead of costly, inflexible, and slow commuter rail.  Maybe it's time we continue that tradition and publicly embrace "uncool" transit like buses (and MaX Lanes) instead of chasing flashy, over-priced, ineffective rail and streetcar (ugh) projects like other cities?

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              Sunday, January 28, 2018

              Houston 2045 transit vision lacks vision in addition to being outrageously unaffordable

              HGAC's High Capacity Transit Task Force has put out a preliminary draft 2045 vision containing some pretty seriously concerning elements, including a stubborn adherence to obsolete and expensive transit approaches that have been proven to not work in dispersed cities like Houston (see DFW and LA - $9B of rail for a total ridership decline! - as just two examples).  I asked Oscar Slotboom to give me his thoughts, which he authorized me to share below:
              • Proposes to increase the mileage of fixed guideway transit from the current 27.6 miles to 383 miles (!!!), a net addition of 355 miles. Depending on the mix of technology (light rail, commuter rail or bus rapid transit), this will cost in the range of $16 to $36+ billion (Tory note: that's building two+ NRG Stadiums every year for 30 years!), with an annual operating cost around $500 million (!). Metro’s 2018 operating budget is $620 million. 
              • Makes the totally unrealistic claim of increasing worker public transit usage from the current 2.4% to 17.4% by 2045. Regions which have made huge investments in rail still have transit usage percentages far below 17%, for example: Atlanta 2.8%, Chicago 11.4%, Dallas-Fort Worth 1.4%, Denver 4.1%, Los Angeles 5.5%, Portland 5.3%, San Jose-San Francisco 10.4%, Seattle-Tacoma 8.3%, Washington-Baltimore-Arlington 11% (source) (Tory note: they are also all currently declining, not increasing!)
              • Most of the commuter lines would parallel nearby existing HOV lanes, and many “High Capacity All Day” routes (light rail or BRT) serve destinations with very low ridership, including the airports (DFW airport gets a pathetic average of 7 riders per train!). This massive investment would likely suffer from low ridership on most of the system, similar to the very low ridership of Metro's purple and green lines.
              • This plan, or a subset of the proposed routes, would almost surely require a large tax increase and end the General Mobility transfers, which could force local governments to increase taxes.
              • In consideration of likely disruption of transportation in upcoming decades due to ride services, electric cars, and vehicle automation, this massive expenditure will be hugely wasteful. A better solution is much-less-expensive MaX lanes, a system of managed lanes for buses, toll-paying vehicles and potentially automated vehicles.
              Oscar's thoughts on the specific routes here - click on the map to see a larger more readable version:

              Let's hope this preliminary draft gets scrapped and we see more innovative - and affordable - thinking in future drafts.

              UPDATE 2/2/18: We've gotten word that high-capacity transit (HCT) can include MaX Lanes, which is great to hear, although with 27.6 miles listed for today's HCT Guideway number, that's only counting light rail, not HOV/HOT (a number they may want to fix?).  And realistically many, many miles of this map look like rail of one form or another, as Oscar points out:
              "It seems like the US 90A, BNSF-Tomball, Pearland and UP-Galveston lines are envisioned as commuter rail, since those routes follow rail lanes, not freeway/tollway. The Northwest Freeway route appears to be on the Hempstead corridor, also probably commuter rail (or possibly on the tollway (if it is built) or maybe on the Texas Central track). 
              Several of the HCT Peak routes are obviously light rail since they are continuations of existing routes, including the Bush and Hobby routes. 
              The Gessner route could be LRT or BRT, not MaX. 
              That leaves only the following candidates for MaX: Katy Freeway HCT All Day; Westpark HCT Peak; North Freeway HCT Peak."
              UPDATE 2: This is very encouraging! Houston Chronicle: Houston population growth fueling expansion of commuter bus options

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              Friday, January 19, 2018

              Why Amazon's HQ2 rejection is good for Houston (plus a winner prediction)

              Ok let's talk about the elephant in the room, Amazon's rejection of Houston for its HQ2 top 20 finalists list, validating Oscar and I's prediction (my key point: nobody wants to compete with energy companies for tech talent when oil might shoot up to unknown highs at any time!)  I don't think it's anything we need to panic about - I'm sure the freak timing of Harvey was the dominant factor. It's also important to remember that economic incentives are driven far more at the state level than the city, and so Amazon wants a wide range of states in the bidding war.  Amazon knows that by including cities like Indy and Columbus, Indiana and Ohio will go all-out on incentives, which they can then leverage over more desirable locations that aren't as likely to play the incentive game (NYC, DC, Boston, LA, Denver, etc.).  It doesn't mean they're more desirable locations than Houston.  Houston was not needed because Texas is already in the game with DFW and Austin, which are honestly better fits for Amazon if they choose Texas.

              I personally think they want it in the DC region if they can get the incentives they want:
              • DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland all made the final cut - lots of options.
              • Bezos has a home there and owns the Washington Post.
              • Most importantly, it's perfect from a talent perspective: DC is filled with underpaid and disillusioned government workers (including tech) - so it will be easy pickings.  In fact, I think an argument can be made that taxpayers are likely to be screwed twice over: once for the direct incentives, and a second time as the government has to raise salaries to recruit and hold on to tech talent in competition with Amazon.
              There is one great silver lining for Houston, as Aaron Renn points out in his piece:
              "The cities which made this list may also regret it. Putting together an initial bid only required a limited amount of money and civic time and attention. Now the costs start going up for the losers. It may well have been better to be one of the people who got cut early than to keep making through all these rounds only to lose (or potentially even to win)."
              We're saving a lot of resources we don't have to spend on a losing battle, or even risk the "winner's curse" for whoever does win the bidding war.  We'll just keep growing with lots of small under-the-radar wins like we always do.  I'm not saying we don't have work to do as a city to attract more tech talent and companies (something Houston Exponential is directly addressing), but let's not blow this up to be more than it is.  Houston is doing fine - more than fine - and most cities would kill to be growing and thriving like we are.  Amazon was an unnecessary distraction. - let them cause havoc (talent poaching, driving up home prices, increasing traffic, draining tax incentives) somewhere else (Why You Shouldn’t Wish for Amazon’s HQ2 in Your Town).

              Update: This Washington Post analysis includes why Houston didn't make the cut. Note that they give our transit high marks, as opposed to those who bias rail over bus.

              Update 2: My thoughts on Dallas vs. Houston for Amazon HQ2.

              Update 3: Texas Monthly backs us up on our creative "think big" Astrodome Amazon HQ2 idea!

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              Saturday, January 13, 2018

              Guardian on Houston after Harvey, tech to Houston? Market Urbanist transit, #1 city for young people, top migration, and more

              Happy New Year!  Let's dive right into this week's items:
              • The Guardian did an in-depth piece on Houston after Harvey which has some extensive quotes from me: ‘The bayou's alive’: ignoring it could kill Houston - America’s fourth largest city is built on an ancient river network that flooded catastrophically after Hurricane Harvey. With 400,000 homes in the watershed, achieving resilience is the Texan boom town’s greatest challenge
              • Also from the Guardian: California and NYC are shipping us their homeless with bus tickets.
              • Next time you dismiss Houston's cost-of-living advantage: A report from the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Business Council published earlier this year found that exorbitant housing costs in Los Angeles were inhibiting employers from attracting "high performers" or top talent to their companies.
              "About 60% of the employers surveyed said Los Angeles' high cost of living affects employee retention, with 75% naming housing costs as a specific concern. And nearly all said they viewed high housing costs as a barrier to hiring new mid- and upper-level employees."
              Finally, Scott Beyer posted this great piece to his Market Urbanism Facebook group describing key transit ideology I agree with here at Houston Strategies:
              Let’s talk transit – and ideology. 
              Many conservatives/libertarians dislike transit, because they think it's solely a subsidized public utility. But there's a small subset of this bunch called Market Urbanists, who not only like transit, but think transit use would increase significantly if free-market policies were used in cities. Because that would mean the following 4 things: 
              1) Banning restrictive zoning, so that housing would get denser, creating the critical mass of people needed for transit 
              2) Enforcing congestion charging, so that road use is priced based on driver demand. This would incentivize people to locate closer to their jobs, or commute in using different modes besides solo driving. 
              3) Liberalizing private transit from pointless bans and regulations. This would cause the industry to grow, namely through “micro transit” options like rideshare, bikeshare, carpool, ebikes, shuttles, dollar vans, etc. 
              4) Reforming public transit. Many Market Urbanists aren’t against public transit, per se, but think that transit agencies must improve their management and services as a condition to get more funding. And if they are unable or unwilling to do this, cities should seek privatization, by signing short-term, performance-based contracts with outside companies. 
              All 4 of these market-based policy ideas are politically unlikely. But if any or all of them were applied, there's no doubt in my mind that many cities would have higher transit usage...because transit would be way better.

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              Sunday, December 24, 2017

              2017 Highlights

              Time for the annual hike down memory lane for 2017, wrapping up the 13th year of this blog. It was quite an epic year in Houston's history, successfully hosting both the Super Bowl (with an equally epic collapse by the Falcons against the Patriots) and the Astros' first World Series Championship (!!) over the Dodgers as well as the thousand-year storm that was Hurricane Harvey - the one we'll all still be talking about decades from now. 

              These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument; and, last but not least, they've also been invaluable for me to track down some of my best thinking for meetings or when requested by others (as is the ever-helpful Google search).

              Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly once/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box at the bottom of the right sidebar. An RSS feed link for newsfeed readers is also available in the right sidebar (I'm a fan of Feedly).

              As always, thanks for your readership.

              And don't forget the highlights from the first few years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging) and most definitely in the best posts from the first dozen years and million pageviews.