November 24, 2007
More on transit options

I appreciate Tory's summary of his views on transit, which I find largely agreeable. I don't know if he was specifically responding to my critique of his prior post about the Houston Area Survey data on transit or not, but no matter, it's good to advance the conversation.

As I said, there's nothing in what Tory is saying that I find objectionable. It's true that you get a high return on the investment in highway throughput, and Houston has certainly stayed on top of that - pretty much every highway in the region has been widened, is being widened, or has a plan to be widened in the works. I don't see what more we can reasonably do on this score, and yet I don't think anyone would argue that our traffic congestion issues will be solved when all of these projects have been completed. The reason for that is what I said before - there's an awful lot of non-highway driving done in Houston.

I presume this is common sense, but let's go over it anyway. There's a lot of densely populated areas in Houston that just aren't that close to a freeway, and getting to them - or getting between them - often means taking longer routes to utilize whatever highway is closest, or driving on the heavily congested surface roads. I'm talking about places like the Medical Center, much of Montrose, the Rice Village, pretty much everything in the box bounded by Richmond and Westheimer, and Fountainview and Gessner - you get the idea. The key point to understand is that there is no road widening that can be done to help any of this, because it's simply not feasible to do it. The only possible remedy is mass transit.

To my mind, this should not only be common sense, it should be considered a natural and vital consequence of the way Houston is growing right now, which is in the direction of infill and increased density. I read yesterday's story about the two luxury towers being planned for the corner of San Felipe and Voss, and I was amused that the only concern the developers expressed about their impact on the neighborhood was the shadows they'd cast. I don't know about you, but I've driven through that intersection, and let me tell you, traffic sucks there. The addition of a couple of high-rises isn't going to help. We're going to see more of this kind of development, in other already-dense parts of town, and as I see it, the only way any of this makes sense is if there will be viable transit options that allow people to leave their cars at home, so that the city doesn't become a complete gridlocked mess.

Note the use of the word "options" in the sentence. No transit system is ever going to eliminate the need for cars - if one did, we wouldn't have cabs or programs like car sharing. I often hear transit opponents and skeptics talk as if a system can only be considered successful if it gets people to stop driving altogether. Ridiculous! Transit is an option, and if it's done well, people will use it. Even if it takes a bit longer to get where they're going, even if they have to (gasp!) walk a few blocks, they'll use it. The Main Street line has proven that, and I think the rest of the 2012 Metro Solutions system will do so as well.

All of this is a longwinded way of saying that highways and transit shouldn't be thought of as an either-or choice. Each solves different problems, and each is an incomplete solution by itself. We need both, and if we see the Metro 2012 Solutions plan though, we'll have done a good (though not fully complete) job of providing both.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 24, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Another factor to keep in mind is that the central parts of the city are getting more dense. Look at the Heights, where we both live: along with cramming townhouses onto lots, we're now seeing more apartment-style projects, all of which means a bunch more people. You can see this all through Neartown also. What this means is a lot more people making shorter non-highway trips (going downtown or to the Galleria, basic shopping and entertainment trips, etc.), all of which means that short-run transit and walkable amenities become a lot more important, unless we want the whole thing to turn into a mass of gridlock over the next decade or two.

Posted by: John on November 24, 2007 8:08 AM

Another reason that freeway widenings are not long term solutions to traffic is simple--they create sprawl. All those massive greenfields suburban developments out near Cinco Ranch and the Grand Parkway depend on the construction of new freeways like the Westpark Tollway and the expansion of existing freeways like Katy Freeway. It is quite simple--if you build a freeway, development will follow. Freeways are subsidies for greenfields developers.

Posted by: RWB on November 24, 2007 8:45 AM

All this diplomatic doublespeak in Troy's discussion and here is both amusing and tiring.

With regards to the issue at hand: mass transit between IAH airport terminals A, B, C, D, and E makes alot of sense, so no one could say I am against commuter rail.

Until we all live in high-rise "A" AND we all go to work in skyscraper "B", folks who want rail without intending to ride it regularly are parasites, either sucking scarce resources out of our community or living off those sucked resources.

Posted by: Charles E Hixon on November 24, 2007 2:42 PM

The proposed development at San Felipe and Woodway has reminded everyone of the need for real planning in our city, despite the lack of zoning, and traffic impact studies should have been addressed a long time ago. In some areas, even 200-250 units in a complex or hirise IS going to significantly impact traffic. It will add to an existing nightmare and create total gridlock. We have seen that in Galleria.
I often wonder if people who buy the $1+ million condos in Galleria aren't a little masochistic. And if the developers aren't a little sadistic. Perfect combination. For them. But not for the rest of us.

What adds to gridlock is the "transiting" traffic. Half of the traffic in Galleria is not going to Galleria. It is coming and going from West Houston. People can use Katy Freeay, Memorial, Briar Forest, or Westheimer. They choose Westheimer. Because of the false perception that additonal lanes on a thoroughfare make it easier to get from home to work and back again. The additional lanes only mean more people will use it.

Metro needs to look at alleviating these nightmares in their planning. Would the Richmond line be better placed on Westheimer? Would people in West Houston use it? Were the people in West Houston, including Katy and Sugar Land because of the access via Highway 6, taken into consideration at any point in the Metro planning? Apparently not. And yet a significant percentage of our traffic is "transiting" traffic from Katy and Sugar Land.

People do use "park and ride" and most likely even more would use them if rail was offered. Rail is much nicer than the buses. And gets you there much quicker. That in itself would be an incentive for people. Why spend an hour in traffic if you can get downtown in half an hour?

Part of the problem with the Katy Freeway is the same problem with Westheimer. More lanes merely means more traffic. And at certain times of the day, more gridlock. And yet rail was taken off the drawing board early on with regard to the Katy Freeway expansion. I have to wonder if anyone has even considered Westheimer as an alternative to Richmond/Westpark. If not, perhaps they should.

The Main Street line has worked well. But not entirely. What hasn't worked is the projected development along the line itself. Instead of building close to the line, particularly in the Museum/Binz/Midtown areas, developers are building away from the line. Which means few will use it. Developers need to be prodded, perhaps given an incentive, to start building on or close to these lines. They serve no purpose otherwise except to serve those who have no cars and still have to catch buses in order to use rail. Rail is our future. But it needs to be better planned than it is.

Developers are still developing for a car-crazed populace. I don't believe 1717 Bissonnet is going to have that much impact on traffic on Bissonnet. Other development will. The other development is what really should concern everyone. Because of what has happened in Galleria.

Without real planning, Metro serves no one. I don't the board really looks at what needs to be looked at.

It, too, should look at traffic impact studies. And put lines where they will reduce traffic that unfortunately will be increased by ongoing development in certain areas.

Bissonnet by the way is just a harbinger of things to come in the Museum/Rice Village area. There will be more development. And it probably needs to be limited somehow. The only way to do so is through traffic impact studies. Too late, I believe, to stop 1717 Bissonnet along with other developments. But not too late to still begin to limit others. It's not the height of a building as people in the Heights have found out but merely the number of units on one parcel. And perhaps there needs to be some form of "flood impact" study as well. Instead of offering a "cash option" developers should simply be required to provide a certain amount of green space to offset the replacement of green space with concrete to allow for some level of water retention through natural absorption rather than mere water flow into sewer systems not really designed to handle so much water.

The main problem facing the city, however, is traffic. Developers need to look at where Metro is putting in lines. Both should offer solutions rather than just options.

Posted by: Baby Snooks on November 24, 2007 11:12 PM

I think Charles' comment about sums up the views of transit foes - is there a real argument there?

If you want to play the game Charles is playing, I should be a critic of any road built that I do not plan to ride on. If we all decided to play that game, I still think rail on Richmond would be a hefty winner over highways to the hinterlands.

Posted by: Mike on November 25, 2007 1:43 AM

By now I think most city dwellers have realized that we can't pave our way out of congestion. Public transit has to be part of the solution.

Great point that this has to be a viable option, not necessarily a replacement for a car. People will start choosing the public transit option to save money on gas and/or to reduce time and frustration of traffic gridlock. My commute to downtown Dallas is actually a little longer using DART light rail versus driving, but I have saved a ton on gas (and probably years added to my life due to less aggravation).

Good topic.

Posted by: Brian on November 26, 2007 2:51 PM