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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Uptown BRT pushed back to July

Sigh.

Opening day for Houston’s first bus rapid transit line has been pushed back to mid-summer as construction enters the final steps along most of the route before reaching a three-month testing period.

Service is expected to start no earlier than July, said Tom Lambert, CEO of Metropolitan Transit Authority. That is four months later than the March opening officials predicted in mid-2019, the result of some construction delays and the desire to test more of the system at once.

“Until you get the whole corridor lined up, you really can’t deliver the service the way it is intended,” Lambert said.

[…]

Though riders will experience the bus service as a single rapid transit route from Metro’s Northwest Transit Center north of Interstate 10 to a new transit center along Westpark Drive — primarily along bus-only lanes along Loop 610 and in the center of Post Oak — the path involves five different projects, built by different public entities.

That includes the new transit center taking shape along Westpark, now expected to finish in March, that Uptown and transit officials view as a major hub for buses.

Work on the Post Oak lanes mostly is complete, according to John Breeding, executive director of the Uptown Houston Management District, which rebuilt the road and led efforts to add transit to the area.

Construction continues, however, on the elevated busway that will carry the BRT service from Post Oak north along Loop 610 before reconnecting the buses with North Post Oak. Work on the $58 million busway, developed by the Texas Department of Transportation, is expected to finish by the end of March, TxDOT spokeswoman Emily Black said.

Testing in earnest can only happen along the line with the Post Oak and busway portions complete, Lambert said.

The previous update, which did note that there were these other parts that weren’t done yet, still had March for the grand opening. So much for that. If this means it will all open at once and not in a piecemeal fashion, I suppose that makes more sense. But as with all construction projects, you just want it to be over with.

It’s the year 2020…

But where are the flying cars? And hyperloops? And other things we were promised?

Uber will deploy flying cars

When Uber Technologies Inc. pledged to deliver on a promise of the Jetsons, it gave itself just three years to do so. The company still intends to hold flight demonstrations in 2020, but it’s safe to say you will not be able to hail a flying Uber in the next year. The company continues to explore the concept with regulators. In 2019, Uber added a form of flying vehicle that’s not particularly cutting edge: It’s booking helicopter rides in New York City. In December, Uber said it was working with a startup, Joby Aviation, to develop “aerial ride-sharing” and set a deadline of 2023. Uber Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi tweeted: “Getting closer …”

We first heard about this in 2017, and in 2018 we were told that NASA was testing these babies. Since then, we have also heard of flying motorcycles and these weird, drone-like things, but as yet, no flying vehicles that aren’t planes or helicopters. Mark your calendars for 2023 and ask me again.

The first 60-mile hyperloop ride will take place

In 2013, Elon Musk outlined his vision for a new “fifth mode of transportation” that would involve zipping people through tubes at speeds as fast as 800 miles per hour. Several tech entrepreneurs heeded Musk’s call and went to work on such systems inspired by the billionaire’s specifications. In 2015, one of the leading startups predicted a hyperloop spanning about 60 miles would be ready for human transport by 2020. Rob Lloyd, then the CEO of Hyperloop Technologies, told Popular Science: “I’m very confident that’s going to happen.”

It hasn’t. His company, now called Virgin Hyperloop One, has a 1,600-foot test track in California and hopes to build a 22-mile track in Saudi Arabia someday. Musk has since experimented with hyperloops of his own, and even he has had to scale back his ambitions. Musk’s Boring Co. is building a so-called Loop system in Las Vegas, starting with a nearly mile-long track that consists of a narrow tunnel and Tesla cars moving at up to 155 miles per hour.

Man, I was enthusiastic for this, ever since 2015 when we first heard the word “hyperloop”. Skepticism was warranted, and the technology has evolved over time, but we’re still waiting.

Toyota will make fully self-driving cars

Auto and tech companies alike became convinced this decade that computers would soon be able to drive cars more reliably than people. In 2015, Toyota Motor Corp. made a companywide bet that it would have autonomous highway-driving cars on the road by 2020. It didn’t take long for the hype cycle to veer off course. In 2018, a pedestrian died after colliding with an Uber self-driving car. In 2020, Toyota’s Lexus brand will introduce a car capable of driving autonomously on the highway, but executives acknowledged that auto companies were “revising their timeline for AI deployment significantly.”

Honestly, I’ve probably been more skeptical of the many breathless claims about driverless cars than I’ve been about hyperloops. That skepticism was also warranted, though to be fair, various forms of autonomous vehicles have been on the road. They’re still not ready for mass market use, and probably won’t be for at least another decade, but they’re not vaporware, either. As above, check back with me in a couple of years and we’ll see where we are.

No free fares

For the best, I’d say.

Free fares appear to be a hard sell for Houston area transit officials, who said while they are open to exploring discounts, people boarding buses and trains will need to fork over $1.25 for the foreseeable future.

After a comprehensive analysis by Metropolitan Transit Authority staff, transit board members said removing fares from the system actually would increase agency costs by creating a need for more buses and operators, potentially to the tune of $170.6 million annually.

“It is just not feasible to do free fares,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said, echoing others on the board and in the transit agency.

[…]

Metro’s analysis concluded that ridership would jump from 86 million trips a year to an estimated 117 million if fares were eliminated altogether. Even offering free rides only during peak hours could boost ridership to around 100 million, the study found.

Those new riders, however, would come at a big cost, said Julie Fernandez, the transit agency’s lead management analyst. To handle the demand, Metro would need nearly 500 more vehicles, mostly buses, and 415 new operators. Such a sizable jump in vehicles and employees would require the agency to build a new bus operating facility to complement the existing six bus depots.

Even preparing the transit system for free rides would take four years, Fernandez said, adding, “it takes time to order new buses.”

The cost of going free prompted many Metro board officials to conclude it was not likely.

“It is easy to look at it and say ‘OK, it is such a small part of our budget’ but it is really more complicated than that,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

See here and here for the background. Metro says it will consider some other options like free fares for schoolchildren (they get discounted fares now), and Metro Chair Carrin Patman said this was a useful exercise while free-fare-advocate Tory Gattis said he was satisfied with the study Metro did. I agree this was worth considering, but in the end this was clearly the right call. Maybe a smaller version of this makes sense, maybe sometime in the future it makes sense, but for now Metro should focus on other things.

Despite the benefits of increased ridership, many of those urging Metro to expand service oppose the elimination of fares.

“When people don’t pay for something, there’s no value to it,” Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, told Metro board members in December.

LINK works with low-income and minority communities to increase transit offerings, something Blair said could be stunted if Metro were to give up the roughly $70 million in annual fare revenues. Such a move also could delay efforts to expand service or add routes long-sought by some voters that overwhelmingly supported Metro’s $3.5 billion transit plan in November.

“Metro will risk the overwhelming support you have earned,” Blair said.

I agree completely.

Back to the no-fares question

I remain skeptical, but we’ll see.

As it stands right now, most of METRO’s operating funds don’t come from the fares. The transit agency gets most of its money from a one-cent sales tax, which caught the attention of Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

Radack recently spoke before the METRO board on why the agency should consider free or reduced fares. He said that people are already paying for the transit service through the sales tax and a financial incentive for riding could get more people on board.

“And so if we just keep going the way we’re going, we’re going to build more freeways, we’re going to continue to do other forms of transportation, but at the end, it makes no sense to have buses only partially full running around,” said Radack.

[…]

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said while fares aren’t a huge part of their budget, they’d have to figure out a way to make up that money if they stopped charging riders.

“I think what people don’t realize is there are unanticipated consequences of a free fare policy that we just need to fully consider before we went to it,” Patman told News 88.7.

And those consequences are what concern Oni Blair. She heads the transportation advocacy group LINK Houston. Blair said to get more riders, METRO needs to put its focus on other issues.

“It’s the little things we take for granted,” said Blair. “Does the bus come on time? Because if I’m trying to schedule my day I need to get there on time and know what to predict. Does the bus come frequently, so people don’t have to wait half an hour to an hour for the bus to come? Can I wait in dignity at a shelter that is accessible and safe for me?”

And Blair said that all those things cost money.

“The loss of revenue from the fares METRO currently has would undermine their other access to improving operations, improving customer service, improving all of those things,” said Blair. “If they don’t have that revenue they can’t address the things that people want.”

See here for my previously-stated concerns. Metro may not get much money from fares, but it does get some money from them, and that would have to be made up elsewhere, which is where I fear that political pressure, or interference from the state, could undermine this whole rationale. I’m of a similar mind as Oni Blair – the top priority needs to be making transit more accessible to more people. We also need to recognize that there’s a limit to how much we can grow transit ridership in this region as long as driving cars is the vastly-catered-to default. That’s a much bigger question, one that will take more than Metro to work out. For now, let’s try to make Metro the best it can be. Maybe that involves reducing or eliminating fares, but I think there are other options to work on first.

How Nuro is mapping Houston

Really interesting story.

On the muggy streets of suburban Houston, amid McMansions, bright green lawns and stately oak trees, a futuristic race is quietly afoot.

The contestants are not people but late-model Toyota Priuses outfitted with an array of sophisticated sensors. Despite fierce competition and unending pressure to perform, the nearly silent electric vehicles do not speed. They move cautiously, rigorously following traffic laws and never topping 25 mph.

Their goal is not an easily discerned finish line but to map large swaths of the nation’s fourth-largest metropolis, a sprawling patchwork of neighborhoods, mini-cities, strip malls, gridlocked superhighways and mazelike gated communities – an area so prodigious in size it easily could swallow Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island whole.

The vehicles are owned by Nuro, a Silicon Valley robotics company with an ambitious goal – to become the world’s preeminent autonomous delivery service, allowing millions of people to have groceries and other goods delivered by robots instead of making trips to the store, potentially reducing traffic and kicking off a new chapter in our relationship with machines. For months now, Nuro’s robotically piloted vehicles have been successfully, if quietly, delivering groceries to restaurants and homes around Houston, the vehicles’ sensors mapping the city as they go.

The faster Nuro’s vehicles map Houston’s notoriously chaotic roadways, the faster the company can refine its software and export its business model elsewhere. But time is in short supply.

Like Nuro, companies such as Amazon, Alphabet-owned Waymo, Robomart, General Motors’ Cruise division, Ford-affiliated Argo AI, Starship Technologies and many others are also rushing to deploy high-functioning autonomous vehicles for delivery and passenger transport, with some companies attracting major deals and billions in funding. Their goal is to earn public trust and offer real-life convenience, experts say, heightening their chances of securing a valuable foothold in a new era defined by autonomous transportation.

To get there, they will first have to run their autonomous vehicles, or AVs, through millions of miles of driving tests in cities such as Houston until they are glitch-free and unquestionably safe.

“The pressure is real,” said David Syverud, head of robot operations at Nuro. “And to be clear, it is a race in the AV space to deploy quickly and be the first to really get there.”

It goes from there, and it’s worth your time to read, even if it’s a few weeks old at this point. We’ve met Nuro before, and I see their cars around; I’ve seen a couple in and around my neighborhood. Like most stories written about Houston by people not in Texas, this one is both a window into how others view us, and how they can get confused about certain basic things we understand. Like, for example, how you have to distinguish between the city of Houston and the greater Houston area. This is what I mean:

Company officials say they were also drawn to Houston for the complexity of its metropolitan environment, a puzzle of independent communities, each with its own road conditions, zoning ordinances, parking rules and traffic laws. Some area neighborhoods offer wide lanes and little traffic, others are narrow and perpetually hectic – providing the company’s robotic software a massive variety of testing conditions.

As the country’s most ethnically diverse large city – and with a foreign-born population of 1.4 million – Houston also is a place where Nuro officials could probe fundamental questions about its business model.

“The big question for us is: Who is going to use this service, and how often will they do it?” said Sola Lawal, a Nuro product operations manager based in Houston who formerly worked for Uber. “Our robots don’t care who they’re delivering to, but we want to understand how different demographics interact with and feel about the robots. Houston allows for this broad swath of experience in one city.”

That’s all well and good, and it’s easy to see why Houston would be an attractive testing ground, but come on. The city of Houston has a population of about 2.3 million. I assure you, the population of the city of Houston is not three-fifths foreign-born. The greater Houston metropolitan area has a population of about seven million, and I daresay that’s what they meant when they dropped that statistic in the story. But please, let us be precise about these things.

Anyway, despite such glitches, the story is worth reading, so go check it out. We occasionally use grocery delivery, via Whole Foods and Amazon Prime. They leave the goods in a cooler we put out on the porch, and however successful this Nuro project is I don’t see that part of the task being robot-ified any time soon. There’s a lot of money being bet on this business expanding rapidly. I’m usually skeptical about this sort of thing, but what do I know?

Bus service in new places

This is a good first step, which I hope begets a second step.

Harris County has extended bus service to Channelview, Cloverleaf and Sheldon, using $3.8 million in Hurricane Harvey disaster recovery money to jump-start the new routes.

Service started Dec. 2, quickly getting about 500 riders in the second week along roughly 65 miles of new service.

“When you have that freedom to ride a bus, that opens up so many more services to you,” said Daphne Lamelle, executive director of the Harris County Community Services Department.

The need is especially pronounced in eastern Harris County after Harvey led to the loss of thousands of cars and trucks, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Wednesday as he and other county officials dedicated the five new routes.

“We don’t think about these things until we need them,” Garcia said, lamenting the need for cars in rangy parts of the county.

[…]

Future money to operate the service will come from federal sources, doled out locally by the Houston Galveston Area Council, said Ken Fickes, transit services director for Harris County.

The new county service operates every 30, 60 or 90 minutes, depending on the route, and many connect to Metro at the Mesa Transit Center along Tidwell and along Uvalde at Woodforest Boulevard.

Transfers to Metro, at least for the foreseeable future, will be free, said Metro Vice-chairman Jim Robinson, who represents Harris County on the transit agency board.

“We have pulled out all the stops to make this a going thing,” Robinson said of the desire to extend transit to more places.

You can view the routes for existing and new bus services here. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t realized any of this existed. I knew that Metro’s service area did not include some number of non-Houston cities within Harris County, and many of those cities are in the eastern part of the county, I just either didn’t know or had forgotten that the county provided some limited transit service for them. I guess I have mostly thought of this in terms of transit-less Pasadena, which remains a stubborn island of car-only transportation.

Commissioner Garcia and Metro are both interested in extending Metro’s services out to these cities – I touched on this in my recent interview with Metro Chair Carrin Patman, though again I was more Pasadena-focused than I might have been – which is a great idea and something that will require both legislative action and local voter approval, to add a penny to their sales tax rate. That means that even in a best-case scenario, we’re talking at least two years for such a thing to happen. The main thing to do to facilitate that in the meantime is get as many people as possible using the service, and making the case to everyone else in those cities that it benefits them as well even if they’re not riding those buses. And please, do bring Pasadena into this – there’s really no reason why Metro’s service doesn’t include all of Harris County. Houston Public Media has more.

Uptown BRT line update

It’s coming, it’s coming. Hold your horses.

The new year will come with a new sight in Houston: Big gray buses bounding along a dedicated lane on Post Oak through Uptown.

For the first few weeks, however, people will not hop aboard, as transit officials test the new buses and routes to ready it for a March 2020 opening.

Testing could start sooner, but Christmastime in Uptown means a slight wait for the debut of bus rapid transit in the region.

“Because of all the activity surrounding the Christmas decorations going up in that area, we can’t begin testing now,” said Tracy Jackson, spokeswoman for Metropolitan Transit Authority. Testing, she said, will start in January.

[…]

Getting full use out of the BRT service along Post Oak, however, requires a handful of other projects that will not be finished when buses start rolling. That will lead to detours on the north and south ends of the service for months.

Where the Post Oak lanes end near Loop 610, the Texas Department of Transportation will take over with an elevated busway that rises in the middle of the freeway and then swings over to the southbound side along its own overpass.

The busway, expected to cost $58.4 million, will give the large buses continuous dedicated lanes from Richmond to North Post Oak. It remains on track to open along with the Post Oak lanes because it has not faced the lengthy delays of the street-level work.

Meanwhile, Metro last month approved a $10.9 million project to connect the end of TxDOT’s busway with the Northwest Transit Center, which also is being rebuilt.

The 1.4 mile extension of the dedicated bus lane along North Post Oak is expected to be completed in about a year, around the same time as the new transit center, said Roberto Trevino, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction.

The new lanes will replace the existing median along North Post Oak on the bridge spanning Interstate 10, then continue south. To fit the lanes on the existing bridge, Metro would take up some of the space now used for a bike lane along the span.

“We are going to come back with a separate structure for that use,” Trevino said, noting TxDOT is still assessing plans for the new pedestrian bridge.

See here for the previous update, in which we were introduced to the term “MetroRapid”. Note that the expected opening date then was also March of 2020, so everything remains on track, as it were. I had a training class in the Galleria area a few weeks ago and got a good up-close look at the stations at Post Oak and Westheimer. I wish I’d taken a picture of it. If this had been in operation, I’d have had more lunch options readily available to me, I’ll say that much. Getting those extensions built will be nice, but I think the big deal will be when the BRT line that is the successor to the Universities light rail line gets built. That will be the connection of this line to the Main Street line, and will finally provide something like what the 2003 referendum once promised, before cost concerns and John Culberson got in the way. I don’t know what the time frame is for that yet – Metro Chair Carrin Patman is quoted saying this is a priority, but that’s all we know right now – but I can’t wait to see it happen. Not having to drive into the Galleria would be awesome.

Texas Central and Lone Star Rail

Noted for the record.

In South Central Texas, 20 state legislators have revived talk of a San Antonio to Austin passenger rail line. Area lawmakers signed a letter in August asking Transportation Committee chair and state Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) to study the possibility of rail between the two cities.

On Wednesday, rail in Texas was the topic of a panel discussion that included [Holly Reed, the managing director of external affairs of Texas Central], State Rep. Ray Lopez (D-San Antonio), and Tyson Moeller, general director of network development for Union Pacific railroad, at a San Antonio Chamber of Commerce transportation committee meeting.

The discussion, which was closed to media, touched on passenger rail between Austin and San Antonio, freight rail, and the Houston-Dallas high-speed rail project, according to Jonathan Gurwitz, vice president of communications company KGBTexas and chair of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition who attended the meeting.

He was most struck by a few numbers that Union Pacific’s Moeller cited: Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 semi-trucks worth of goods are shipped on trains every day passing through San Antonio. That means 15,000 or so fewer trucks on Interstate 35.

“If you think of it in that way, what impact rail really has on San Antonio, the amount of goods and services that move in and out of our region by rail, it has an extraordinary impact on our economy,” Gurwitz said. “I think most people in San Antonio don’t realize the significance of rail.”

Union Pacific remains focused on moving freight and not people, said Raquel Espinoza, senior director of corporate communications and media relations at Union Pacific. The railroad company effectively killed an earlier Austin-San Antonio passenger rail project when it exited the Lone Star Rail District proposal in 2016.

Union Pacific has no plans to expand passenger rail access for other entities like Amtrak on its lines, Espinoza said.

“Our role is to move freight in an efficient, environmentally friendly way,” she said.

See here for the recent news that Lone Star Rail may rise from the dead again. I’m very much at a “believe it when I see it point”, especially with Union Pacific reiterating its long-held stance that they are not going to share their existing tracks for any passenger rail. A rail line between Austin and San Antonio – really, between Georgetown and the south side of San Antonio, as the original LSR envisioned – makes all kinds of sense, but it becomes a lot more expensive and problematic from a right-of-way perspective if a whole new set of tracks have to be laid down. Not impossible, one assumes, and certainly doable if the will is there. It’s just that there’s many years of evidence to show that it does not, at least not in sufficient quantities. But hope springs eternal, and I will always hope that somehow, some way, this gets built.

Metro moves towards cashless fares (maybe)

We started with this.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority on Thursday will consider the first in a series of agreements to revamp its fare payment system that eventually could offer riders the option of using smartphones, credit cards and electronic wallets to hop aboard its buses and trains.

In a nod to the changing ways consumers use to pay for services, the transit agency is expected to spend nearly $100 million to remake its collection of bus and train fares for the next 15 years. That future could lead to cash being kicked off the bus as transit officials weigh whether to replace aging fareboxes.

Metro is among a handful of large American transit agencies giving some thought to how to reduce the number of riders tossing coins and convert them to tapping a card, which could help speed up bus trips.

“Metro would be in the first wave of agencies making this transition but won’t be doing it alone,” said Ben Fried, communications director for TransitCenter, a New York-based advocacy group.

The first step for Metro is a seven-year $37 million contract with INIT, Innovations in Transportation Inc., for new software and management of its fare collection system, including new validators — the cinder block-sized devices people tap with their Q cards.

Two-thirds of the initial cost, more than $24 million, would go toward equipping buses and installing computer systems in Metro offices to handle fares.

With the new gear will come new options for riders. Currently, riders can use Q cards, cash or Metro’s smartphone app to hop aboard.

The new machines will accept the current Q cards, along with such options as contactless credit cards that allow customers to pay by tapping a card reader and Apple Pay and Google Pay that store credit card info on mobile phones.

“The system will let us use mobile wallets,” said Denise Wendler, chief information officer for Metro. “It transitions very nicely with our old system and new opportunities.”

[…]

Many transit agencies are looking to reduce or avoid cash payments altogether for a variety of reasons, including speeding up transit and eliminating the cost of handling money.

“Boston has made cashless bus fare collection an explicit goal, and the (Metropolitan Transit Authority) in New York has eliminated cash payment on express buses, intimating that regular buses could go cashless in the next few years (the earliest would be 2023),” Fried said.

Paying cash typically takes a few seconds longer than tapping a Q card, with those seconds adding up along a route. The faster people can board, the faster the bus can get moving again — improving the efficiency of trips and getting people to their destinations faster.

Eliminating cash fares also could give transit agencies better use of bus space by allowing passengers to board at the front and rear doors. In Houston, Metro riders can only exit from the back door, but must enter in the front to tap their cards or pay cash.

San Francisco opened its buses and trains to all-door boarding in 2012, and checks fares now with fare inspectors, similar to Metro’s enforcement of light rail payments in Houston. A 2017 study showed San Francisco’s bus speeds increased 2 percent and ridership on buses increased 2 percent.

As the story notes, it would probably not be till 2022 when we see something like this happen. About twenty percent of Metro fares are paid in cash, so ensuring that those riders would not be left behind is a priority. The benefit for Metro is clear – better and more efficient boarding, which means buses can run on a more dependable schedule, which boosts service and ridership overall.

The story then got this reaction from Tory Gattis:


On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. Fare collection revenue is a very small part of Metro’s budget. Free fares would make boarding even more efficient, would certainly ensure that cash-paying riders are taken care of, would increase ridership further, and would free up capital for buying more buses. Seems like a win all around, right?

It appears that argument had an effect.

Metro on Thursday delayed consideration of a $37 million contract for a new fare system so transit officials can ponder how it would affect efforts to eliminate fares altogether for some riders.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority board of directors was scheduled to approve the seven-year agreement, but the item was pulled from the agenda in the morning, Chairwoman Carrin Patman said, “in light of the fact we are also doing a free fare study.”

The transit agency is researching options for eliminating fares, or eliminating them for certain groups of riders, such as schoolchildren and college students.

[…]

Though fares make up a small percentage of Metro’s budget — $67.6 million, or 11.1 percent, of its 2017 operating revenues, according to federal data — eliminating them entirely can be tricky. Transit agencies must follow federal laws, which require fares to be fair and equitable for all users, based on the type of service offered. Removing fees for bus or rail use likely would mean Metro also would have to remove fares on paratransit for disabled and elderly passengers, an increasingly costly part of the agency’s budget.

Eliminating fares also could complicate federal funding for major agency projects if officials in Washington worry that Houston is not bringing in enough money to share the costs of projects.

[…]

Though some transit agencies offer free rides in partnerships with schools or within certain fare-free zones to encourage bus use in urban areas, Chapel Hill, N.C., is the only large transit agency to entirely remove fares in the U.S. That transit system is heavily subsidized by the University of North Carolina, the main campus of which is in Chapel Hill. Several small systems in college towns offer free transit.

Free ride programs have faced ups and downs in other cities, with transit systems similar in size to Houston. Portland, Ore., offered free trips within a special zone for nearly 40 years and saw huge gains in transit ridership as a result. The free zone, however, also led to complaints of increased crime and vagrancy, and it made enforcing fares difficult in a larger region around the zone. Tri-Met, Portland’s transit agency, abolished the fare-free zone in 2012.

Metro Chair Patman said in this story that she had spoken to Gattis, and that the fare box contract would be taken up in December, after a free fare study had been conducted. I think Tory’s argument has merit, but I worry about the politics of it. If public transportation were completely fare-free, a significant portion of the population will come to see it as an entitlement, something that “poor people” get that “the rest of us” pay for with our taxes. Once that happens, there will be political pressure to cut funding for transit, since after all it only “benefits” a small number of people. Republican legislators in Texas are already scheming to siphon off city sales tax revenues. Don’t think for a minute that making Metro rides free wouldn’t increase their incentive to do that. And yes, I am fully aware that this is a factually inaccurate and morally bankrupt way of thinking about transit. But it’s there, and it will be even more there if we eliminate fares. Which is a shame, but this is the world we live in. We’ll see what the result of Metro’s study is.

Metro Wi-Fi

Cool.

Metro riders now can access free Wi-Fi on select buses and trains through a pilot program funded by Microsoft, the transit agency announced Monday.

Buses on Route 54, which passes by the University of Houston and Texas Southern University along Scott, and the Route 204 park-and-ride from downtown Houston to Spring will offer the service, as well as the Green and Purple lines.

The routes were chosen because of their proximity to universities and other schools, Metro officials said. The service eventually may expand to all Metro routes, Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said Monday.

“Connecting our riders means we can make our services more visible and more accessible to them, and it’s also more efficient and sustainable,” Patman said.

Here’s the Metro press release, which notes that the pilot will run through mid-January. It’ll be somewhat like a hotel Wi-Fi offering – choose the “ridemetro-wifi” network, enter your email address, accept terms and conditions, and you’re in. I figure this will be more useful to folks with longer rides, like on the commuter lines, but everyone likes Wi-Fi, so even for a short ride it’ll get used. Hopefully, a system-wide expansion will follow.

Someone is opposing the Metro referendum

I suppose it was too optimistic to hope that the Metro referendum would not get any organized opposition.

Opponents of Metro’s $3.5 billion bond referendum have formed a political action committee to lead a grass-roots campaign to curtail what they say is wasteful spending by the regional transit agency.

“To ask for $3.5 billion is irresponsible,” said Bill Frazer, one of the organizers of the Responsible Houston PAC and a former Houston city controller candidate.

[…]

Opponents used the Post Oak project as the backdrop for their announcement Tuesday, noting that Metro is asking for money to build 75 miles of bus rapid transit in the region despite having nothing to show Houstonians are eager to hop aboard. Critics also noted Metro’s newest light rail lines have never delivered the ridership officials promised when they started construction and failed to build many of the things promised voters in 2003 — as they used the $640 million voters approved to build three rail lines and did not add the park and ride locations and increased bus service promised by the ballot item.

“Before we do another blank check, someone needs to hold someone accountable for the past,” said Wayne Dolcefino, a media consultant that helped organize Tuesday’s announcement.

With so many areas in need of improved street drainage, Frazer said transit officials should invest their money there — something he said is possible because Metro’s agreement with cities promises 25 percent of the transit sales tax for street and drainage projects. Nothing, Frazer said, prohibits Metro from spending more than a quarter of the money for streets.

Note that “organized” does not mean “coherent”, or “logical”, or “sensible”. Last I checked, Houston already had a funding system in place for street and drainage improvement, which as I recall from his campaigns for Controller Bill Frazer opposed. Drainage is certainly a vital thing, but it doesn’t improve mobility. I’m also old enough to remember the 2012 election, in which there was a referendum that not only reaffirmed Metro’s one quarter share of the transit sales tax, it granted Metro a full share of the revenue growth on top of what was then being collected. The rest of this is largely unsupported claptrap, which will appeal to the kind of person who thinks any of this makes sense, and nobody else. I’ll be sure to look for their 30-day and 8-day finance reports.

Texas Central signs a manufacturing deal

For your information.

The bullet train planned between Houston and Dallas has a builder.

Texas Central, the private company developing the Texas Bullet Train, announced Friday morning it signed a deal with Salini Impregilo, the Italian construction giant, and its American subsidiary, Lane Construction.

“This agreement brings us one step closer to beginning construction of the civil infrastructure segments of the project,” said Texas Central CEO Carlos F. Aguilar, in a statement.

The deal is valued at $14 billion and includes final engineering and design of the 240-mile high-speed rail line and construction of the route, mostly along a utility corridor between the two metro regions.

The full press release is here. Texas Central achieved another milestone a few days earlier.

The Federal Railway Administration granted the Rule of Particular Applicability—or RPA—to Texas Central on Sept. 4 regarding the high-speed rail project slated to connect Dallas and Houston, according to a Sept. 4 press release from Texas Central.

This means the high-speed rail project is on track for both FRA actions—the RPA and the environmental permit—to be completed in 2020 with financial close and construction quickly following, according to the release.

RPAs are regulations that apply to a specific railroad or a specific type of operation to ensure a project’s safety, according to FRA information. This action, along with an environmental permit, is required before the project can be implemented.

“The FRA’s action on the Rule of Particular Applicability marks a major milestone in our quest to bring a transformative mobility solution, while minimizing impact on the environment and land use, as opposed to other options,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in the release. “We will meet or exceed all requirements the FRA mandates, to ensure we have the safest high-speed rail system in the world.”

Here’s a longer version of the story. The Environmental Impact Statement is as always the big hurdle to clear. If they’re on pace for that, then we really will see actual construction begin. I’ll be looking for it.

What can we really do about I-45?

Urban planner Jeff Speck is once again warning us about the negative effects of widening I-45.

TxDOT cites three principal motivations for advancing the I-45 project: reducing traffic congestion, improving driver safety, and improving air quality. These laudable goals are apparently considered important enough to outweigh the significant costs discussed above. And they might be — if they were achievable.

Sadly, each one is a false promise. Decades of similar state projects around the U.S., each with its own ample justification, teach a simple lesson: highway widenings do not reduce congestion in the long run, and make both driver safety and air quality worse.

[…]

If I-45 is widened, it will be remembered that, in the decade prior, Houston enjoyed a brief glimpse of a better future. Downtown and Midtown have been reborn, lifted on a demographic shift that favors urban living. Regional bike trails grace the Bayou Greenways, and a brilliant Beyond the Bayous plan lays out an ambitious path for sustainable growth. Transit ridership is up, thanks to investment in light rail and a redesigned bus network. The mayor, members of city council, and county commissioners all sing the praises of a more walkable Houston. Sadly, all these trends will be reversed if Houston doubles down on its nation-leading commitment to fossil-fuel infrastructure.

This need not happen. Houston has the ability to stop the I-45 expansion in its tracks, just as Dallas stopped the Trinity Parkway. That proposed roadway was called “the worst boondoggle imaginable” despite costing only one-fifth of the current I-45 plan. It took a 10-year fight, but the good people of Dallas rose up and killed it.

Meanwhile, Houston’s fatalistic response to its TxDOT incursion has been to just “make I-45 better.” The well-resourced but cautious Make I-45 Better Coalition has proposed a collection of modifications, all good, that unfortunately do not begin to question the underlying folly of fighting congestion, car crashes, and tailpipe emissions by welcoming more driving.

Here’s how to make I-45 better: first, fix the parts that need repair, without making them any wider. At the same time, introduce congestion-based pricing on the entire roadway to maximize its capacity around the clock. Invest the proceeds in transit, biking, walking, and in those poor people who truly have no choice but to keep driving.

Unlike highway widenings, congestion-based pricing reduces traffic, driving deaths, and pollution, all while earning billions rather than wasting them. It has worked wherever it’s been tried, including London, Stockholm, and Sydney, and it is about to become law in New York City. Even Dallas has been experimenting with congestion-based pricing for years.

Speck has addressed the I-45 expansion plan before, and I find him very compelling. The problem, as I’ve said before, is that there is no current mechanism in Texas to do the things he advocates. TxDOT, as the name implies, is a state agency, with leaders appointed by the Governor. Houston has no authority to impose any kind of pricing on I-45, and TxDOT also has no authority under current law to do congestion pricing, because TxDOT does not operate the toll roads and toll-based HOV lanes that do have that kind of authority. The now-dead Trinity Parkway project was not a TxDOT project but a local project under the auspices of a regional toll road authority.

What I’m saying is that the fight over I-45 isn’t in Houston, it is – or it needs to be – in Austin, in the Legislature and the Governor’s mansion. You want TxDOT to have a different mission, one that emphasizes transit over highway widening, you need a different Legislature and a different Governor. You want cities to have the authority to impose congestion pricing rules, with the revenue to be used to boost non-automobile mobility, you need to get that new Legislature to pass a law allowing for it, and a Governor to sign it. We can take one step towards those goals next year, but the Governor and the Senate aren’t up for grabs till 2022 (yes, there are Senators on the ballot in 2020, but only one Republican-held seat is a realistic target, and that won’t be enough). What do we do till then? The Make I-45 Better Coalition may be a limited response to a big problem, but at least their goals are achievable in the current time frame. If we want to think big – and we should! – we also have to play the longer game.

Interview with Carrin Patman

Carrin Patman

I’ve talked a lot about the METRO Next referendum on the 2019 ballot. The referendum, the first time METRO has gone to the voters to ask for bonding authority since 2003, is intended to fund a significant expansion of transit services, including light rail, BRT, HOV, and local bus. There’s a lot to take in, and while METRO will be running a campaign to inform voters about the referendum, I wanted to do a deeper dive into the details. METRO Board Chair Carrin Patman was the person to talk to about that, and I had questions for her about all aspects of the plan. We also delved into bigger picture issues of how METRO fits into the region, connecting with bicycles, future expansion, and how autonomous vehicles will affect things. Have a listen and let me know what you think:

I’ll be back to candidate interviews next week. I’ve got HISD, HCC, more from the city of Houston, and some ungodly number of HD148 contenders in the queue.

Will Lone Star Rail get resurrected?

Maybe!

A coalition of San Antonio and Austin state representatives has asked the House Transportation Committee chair to study the possibility of passenger rail between the two cities ahead of the 2021 legislative session.

Congestion between the two cities will only increase, the legislators wrote, costing drivers time and money.

“Improved transportation connectivity is critical for the Austin-San Antonio corridor,” 20 legislators said in an Aug. 16 letter. “We must not only look at how to utilize our current assets most effectively, but also find new and creative solutions for this corridor. As members of this region, we believe that it is imperative for the House Transportation Committee to explore new opportunities for our constituents to have frequent, safe, and dependable transportation.”

Officials from the Austin and San Antonio areas have been trying to connect the two cities by passenger rail for years. The Lone Star Rail District proposal stalled after Union Pacific pulled out of the project in 2016 over concerns about how passenger rail using its tracks would impact its freight operations. The Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) pulled its funding for the project later that year, leaving the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) few options for keeping the project alive.

The rail line proposed by the Lone Star Rail District would have had multiple stops, starting at the University of Texas A&M-San Antonio and ending in the north-of-Austin suburb Georgetown.

Rep. Ray Lopez (D-San Antonio) served on AAMPO’s board and as the city councilman for District 6 during passenger rail discussions. He said the corridor rail project took many blows but could be revived with proper action from the State.

“Texans have engaged in overviews and reviews, but what we need to do is have a strong directive from the state … and request or require or demand, indeed, that some action plan be created and presented to the Legislature for consideration and ultimately funding,” Lopez said.

[…]

San Antonians have rejected rail before, but as a local means of public transportation. Voters shot down light rail in 2000 and in 2015 approved a charter amendment requiring light rail proposals go to voters.

But if an intercity rail project starts up again, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said San Antonio would support it “if the state worked with us and we found a path forward for rail between Austin and San Antonio.”

“It has been a priority for this community for almost three decades,” he said. “And I’ve always said it will happen once the governor’s office makes it a priority.”

The last we heard about this was in 2016 when the previous plan died, in part because of a failure to come to an agreement with Union Pacific to share its tracks. On the one hand, a passenger rail line between San Antonio and Austin makes all kinds of sense and would be a fantastic alternative to the money and traffic pit that is I-35. On the other hand, well, the past couple of decades trying to get this line even to a preliminary approval stage with no success doesn’t bode well. But maybe this time it’s different. I’m rooting for it, but my expectations are firmly under control. The Current has more.

Ride sharing for kids

Yet another transportation option.

Los Angeles-based HopSkipDrive, a ride-hailing platform that hires vetted caregivers to drive children 6 and older, is now available in Houston.

“Parents shouldn’t have to choose between their careers and their children’s education and activities, but that tough choice is very real for countless families,” Joanna McFarland, co-founder and CEO of HopSkipDrive, said in a news release. “HopSkipDrive wants parents to take comfort in knowing they have a caregiver to rely on to get their kids where they need to go, safely and without worry.”

Founded in 2014, HopSkipDrive hires drivers with at least five years of caregiving experience and a four-door vehicle no more than 10 years old. Each driver is vetted with a 15-point certification process that includes fingerprinting, background checks using FBI and Department of Justice database searches, driving record checks and in-person meetings.

A mobile app allows parents to book and track the rides. And HopSkipDrive’s Safe Ride Support, staffed with former 911 operators, EMTs, childcare specialists and parents, monitors every ride in real time.

Rides start at $17, which the company said is comparable to the hourly rate of a driving babysitter.

And in addition to helping busy families, HopSkipDrive works with more than 170 schools and districts nationwide to transport students who receive an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, who are homeless or who are in foster care and don’t fit into a bus route.

I’m a little skeptical of that “rides start at $17” bit, as they surely have higher operating costs than Uber and Lyft. What percentage of their rides cost that much, what is the range for more typical rides, what are the factors that go into the price (distance, time of day, etc), and so on. This story from last year, from when HopSkipDrive expanded to San Diego says they’d been in business for four years at that time. They started out as a Southern California operation, but scrolling through their Twitter feed I see they’re now in the DC area and Boulder, CO. I don’t have a need for this service, but I’ll be interested to see if anyone at my kids’ schools talk about using it. Is this something you might use?

More driverless trucks

Look out on I-45.

When Don Burnette worked at Otto, a self-driving truck startup, his team hit some pretty big milestones. It recorded the first shipment of cargo delivered by a self-driving truck: 50,000 cans of Budweiser in 2016. It was acquired by Uber the same year.

But something didn’t feel right to Burnette, an engineer by trade who’s spent almost a decade in the self-driving vehicle industry.

“That was very much a demo-like system,” Burnette said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “It wasn’t built with production or scale in mind. And it wasn’t quite the technology that was going to push the industry forward.”

When Uber shifted away from self-driving trucks last year, Burnette saw an opportunity. He helped create Kodiak Robotics in 2018, with the hope that driverless trucks could serve commercial clients.

Kodiak Robotics is putting down roots in Texas, and has become one of the first self-driving trucking companies operating in the state. The Dallas-to-Houston (and back) route features a safety driver behind the wheel.

And humans take over for more challenging stretches between freeways and final destinations. Once Kodiak masters the “middle mile” — freeway driving that’s a large part of most routes — it’ll tackle the non-highway driving that’s proven difficult to other driverless startups.

See here and here for more about the driverless trucks currently on the highways in Texas. They’re not fully autonomous, of course – they all have safety drivers, and they all need to be human-operated off the interstates. For the time being at least, that’s a pretty good combination all around – the drivers stay rested, and the trucks can get where they’re going safely. As with all autonomous vehicles, the question is how far off are they from not needing the human drivers at all. For all the breathless prose in these stories, that part remains vague. TechCrunch and Wired have more.

City moves forward on Vision Zero

Good.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday adopted a plan that aims to end traffic fatalities and serious traffic injuries in Houston by 2030.

The “Vision Zero Houston” plan is considered a significant step in the city’s mobility strategy and will change how officials design roads and sidewalks, according to a city news release. The plan, adopted as part of an executive order, will prioritize “engineering, education, enforcement, equity and evaluation,” the release said.

“Some will say this goal is unachievable,” Turner said in the release. “But I say, no loss of life is acceptable on our roadways, None, ZERO.”

Many cities that have adopted the plan reported steady declines in traffic deaths and injuries over the last few years, the release said. The mayor will establish an executive committee of leaders from city departments, surrounding counties, METRO and the Texas Department of Transportation to devise the strategy by this time next year.

See here and here for more on Vision Zero as it pertains to Houston, and here for further blogging. While Vision Zero has been adopted by San Antonio and Austin, but it’s been awhile since we’d heard much here. The Mayor’s press release is here, and if you want to do a deeper dive on what this means, see here, here, and here. This is a long-term process that’s going to involve things like lower speed limits, more and better sidewalks, and a bunch of other changes big and small that will be phased in, with new construction being done to the Vision Zero standard. You’ll be hearing plenty more as we go along.

A call to embrace scooters

Chron business writer Chris Tomlinson is a fan of scooters.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

After years of riding bicycles in traffic, I’m comfortable riding a scooter on the street where they belong. I find them a convenient and environmentally-friendly alternative to automobile congestion. But I’m in a distinct minority, according to new polling by Zpryme, an Austin-based research and events firm.

About 72 percent of Americans do not want electric scooters in their neighborhoods, according to the survey of 1,500 U.S. consumers. More than half of Americans believe that electric scooters are unsafe.

Only 5 percent of those polled have ever ridden one.

[…]

The scooters’ average top speed is 20 miles per hour, and the range is about 20 miles. An electric scooter performs about as well as the average bicycle commuter, but without sweating.

Zpryme’s survey of scooter users found most trips were less than a mile and cost less than $10 nationwide. But a substantial number said they routinely use scooters to travel up to 5 miles.

About 70 percent said they ride scooters for fun, according to the poll, and in San Antonio tourists use them for sightseeing. More than half said they use scooters because they are faster than walking, and a third use them for a daily commute to work. Last year, scooter users made 38.5 million trips in just a few dozen cities.

Because they are electric and consume little energy, the environmental benefits of scooters are substantial. A person on a scooter also takes up much less space on the road, which helps relieve congestion.

As long as they are banned from sidewalks and there is a plan in place to ensure that abandoned scooters do not hinder the mobility of others, especially disabled folks, then I can sign onto this. I still have my doubts about the scooter sharing industry as a business model, and I’m still not convinced that they’re safer on the roads for the rider than bikes are, but I do agree that they can play a role in various urban areas to reduce car trips. And they are coming to Houston whether we like it or not, so let’s try to make the best of it.

Metro referendum is set

Here we go.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members voted Tuesday to ask voters in November for permission to borrow up to $3.5 billion, without raising taxes. The money would cover the first phase of what local leaders expect to be the start of shifting Houston from a car-focused city to a multimodal metro region — even if it does not put everyone on a bus or train.

“Even if you ride in your car, it is more convenient if there are less cars on the road,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

The item will be on the Nov. 5 ballot, the first vote for new transit projects in 16 years for the Houston region.

The bond proposition would authorize Metro to move forward on a $7.5 billion suite of projects including extending the region’s three light rail lines, expanding the use of bus rapid transit — large buses operating mostly in dedicated lanes — along key corridors such as Interstate 10 and to Bush Intercontinental Airport, and creating two-way high-occupancy vehicle or high-occupancy toll lanes along most Houston’s freeways.

“It doesn’t do everything we would like to do, but it does everything we can afford to do,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

In addition, the ballot item calls for extending the general mobility program, which hands over one-quarter of the money Metro collects from its 1 percent sales tax to local governments that participate in the transit agency. The 15 cities and Harris County use the money mostly for street improvements, but they can use it for other projects such as sidewalks, bike lanes and, in limited cases, landscaping and traffic safety and enforcement.

Local elected officials and business leaders will soon stump for the plan, which has not drawn sizable or organized opposition but is likely to require some persuasion.

[…]

Transit officials would also need to secure an estimated $3.5 billion in federal money, most likely via the Federal Transit Administration, which doles out money for major transit projects. Federal officials contributed $900 million of the $2.2 billion cost of the 2011-2017 expansion of light rail service.

The federal approval will largely dictate when many of the rail and bus rapid transit lines are built as well as where the projects run, Patman said. Though officials have preferred routes for certain projects — such as light rail to Hobby Airport or bus rapid transit along Gessner — those projects and others could change as the plans are studied further.

“Routes will only be determined after discussions with the community,” Patman said. “I don’t think anyone needs to worry about a route being forced upon them.”

Metro would have some latitude to prod some projects along faster than others, based on other regional road and highway projects. Speedier bus service between the Northwest Transit Center at I-10 and Loop 610, for example, could happen sooner if a planned widening of Interstate 10 within Loop 610 remains a priority for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which has added the project to its five-year plan. Work on widening the freeway is scheduled for 2021, giving Metro officials a chance to make it one of the first major projects.

I must admit, I’d missed that HOV lane for I-10 inside the Loop story. I wish there were more details about how exactly this might be accomplished, but as someone who regularly suffers the torment of driving I-10 inside the Loop, I’m intrigued. This would effectively be the transit link from the Northwest Transit Center, which by the way is also the location of the Texas Central Houston terminal and downtown. This is something that has been bandied about since 2015, though it was originally discussed as a rail line, not BRT. (I had fantasies about the proposed-but-now-tabled Green Line extension down Washington Avenue as a means to achieve this as well.) Such is life. Anyway, this is something I definitely need to know more about.

You can see the full plan as it has now been finalized here. Other BRT components include a north-south connection from Tidwell and 59 down to UH, which then turns west and essentially becomes the Universities Line, all the way out to Richmond and Beltway 8, with a dip down to Gulfton along the way, and a north-south connection from 290 and West Little York down Gessner to Beltway 8. The Main Street light rail line would extend north to the Shepherd park and ride at I-45, and potentially south along the US90 corridor into Fort Bend, all the way to Sugar Land. Go look at the map and see for yourself – there are HOV and park and ride enhancements as well – it’s fairly well laid out.

I feel like this referendum starts out as a favorite to pass. It’s got something for most everyone, there’s no organized opposition at this time, and Metro has not been in the news for bad reasons any time recently. I expect there to be some noise about the referendum in the Mayor’s race, because Bill King hates Metro and Tony Buzbee is an idiot, but we’re past the days of John Culberson throwing his weight around, and for that we can all be grateful. I plan to reach out to Metro Chair Carrin Patman to interview her about this, so look for that later on. What do you think?

HGAC makes its pledge to TxDOT for I-45

Lots of pushback, but not enough to change the outcome.

Local transportation officials now have skin in the game when it comes to widening Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston, approving on Friday a $100 million commitment for the project that has drawn increasing scrutiny and criticism from affected communities.

After five hours and nearly 60 residents — as well as Harris County officials — urging delay of the approval until the Texas Department of Transportation answered lingering questions, however, the go-ahead from the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council fell well short of full-throated support.

“It is one thing to listen, but it is very important we are responsive,” Houston at-large Councilman and transportation council Vice Chairman David Robinson said, telling TxDOT the city’s support comes with the expectation the concerns will be addressed.

“We will not support a project that is not in the interest of our citizens,” Robinson said.

[…]

Though the decision affects only the center segment, criticism is growing along the entire $7-billion-plus, 25-mile project from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8. TxDOT proposes adding two managed lanes in each direction the length of the rebuild, which will require the acquisition of 319 residences and 264 businesses north of Interstate 10; another 916 residences and 68 businesses would be affected by the construction around the central business district, where the project would lead to a near-total redesign of the freeway system from Interstate 69 and Spur 527 to I-10 and I-45.

A major part of the proposed project would remove the elevated section of I-45 along Pierce Street and shift the freeway to flow along I-69 on the east end of the central business district and then follow I-10 along Buffalo Bayou back to where I-45 heads north of downtown.

Construction of downtown segments could start as early as 2021, while the center segment work is not expected to start until late 2023 or early 2024.

The sheer enormity of the project has led to widespread air quality concerns and neighborhood-specific fears along the 25-mile route. That has led some to encourage slow-going before local officials commit their money.

“If it feels wrong and feels rushed, it is because it is wrong and is rushed,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told colleagues on the transportation council Friday. “It is only responsible to wait.”

Hidalgo was the sole no vote against the $100 million, after her proposal to delay the commitment to January 2020 was denied. Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia abstained on the vote to commit the money.

They were hardly the only people in the H-GAC conference room opposed to moving forward, which grew so crowded an overflow room was opened. Sixty-five people spoke during public comment, 59 of whom urged officials to delay committing the money or reject the widening plan outright.

See here and here for the background. Allyn West live-tweeted the meeting – see here and here for his tweets, which for some reason I can’t quite seem to fully capture in one thread. If you want to know who spoke and what they said, that’s where to look. LINK Houston also tweeted from the meeting, but not in a threaded fashion, so you need to look at their timeline. They do have pictures, so there’s that. As the story notes, the purpose of this vote was to get the I-45 project on the state’s Unified Transportation Program, basically a ten-year plan for major transportation projects. Someone far geekier than I will have to explain how the timing of that works. In any event, this is not the last time HGAC will vote on this item. HGAC still has to approve adding that $100 million to its own plans, so there will be another vote or two on this in 2020 and 2021, depending on when construction is scheduled to start. TxDOT is still getting public feedback, and I suppose there’s still room for the project to be changed, up till the point where something is well and truly finalized. If you want to get involved in trying to affect, alter, or arrest the development of the I-45 expansion, I suggest you read through Allyn West’s tweets, find the organizations that spoke out and best represent your viewpoint, and contact them to see how you can help. There’s still time, until there isn’t. Don’t wait too long.

Still tweaking the Metro referendum

Extending one rail line to Hobby Airport instead of two has generated some savings in the projected cost, which can then allow for other things to be done.

The expected price of extending the Green Line and Purple Line light rail to Hobby Airport, by combining the two lines and focusing on a route along Broadway, dropped from $1.4 billion to about $1 billion, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said Friday.

Metro’s board is nearing a final vote on asking voters for permission to borrow $3.5 billion for a suite of transit projects, the first portion of the agency’s MetroNext long-range plan. Officials must approve a plan by mid-August and call for an election, in order to have it appear on the November ballot.

Likely projects for the ballot proposal include extensions of the Red, Purple and Green light rail lines, 75 miles of proposed bus rapid transit and various park and ride additions or expansions.

Because of the estimated $400 million savings, those projects could be joined by a $336 million extension of the light rail line from Hobby to the Monroe Park and Ride lot near Interstate 45, and relocating the Kingwood Park and Ride closer to Interstate 69, at an estimated cost of up to $60 million.

Both projects were popular with respondents during Metro’s year-long public meeting process about a long-range transit plan, and also have support from local elected officials.

The Kingwood site was an obvious choice, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, because it was affected by flooding when Tropical Storm Harvey deluged Houston. The existing site along Kingwood Drive also is time-consuming for buses to navigate, compared to a location closer to the freeway.

The Monroe rail extension, meanwhile, would provide a place for suburban residents to park and then ride the rail to various job centers.

“I think we have some conservative votes we won’t get if we don’t do it,” said Metro board member Jim Robinson, who has pressed for more investment in park and ride locations.

I have no opinion at this time about extending the rail line beyond Hobby. I’d be very interested to see what that does to the ridership projections, which to me are the most important factor. I’m also a little curious as to why this extra rail could be added at such a late date but the proposed Washington Avenue extension couldn’t be. Maybe because there was always going to be something at the one end and we were just trying to decide the details, I don’t know. I will admit to some self-interest in asking this question. Anyway, we should have the final proposition soon, and from there the real campaign can begin.

Meet MetroRapid

That’s the new, official name for the Uptown BRT line.

Station names along the Post Oak dedicated bus lanes will have a familiar ring for riders, transit and Uptown officials decided, as they inch toward opening the region’s first foray into BRT in the coming months.

Eight stations along Post Oak will have mostly non-commercial names, aimed at helping travelers navigate the new bus line. Uptown Houston Management District is building the $192 million project, which started work in 2016 to add a dedicated bus lane in each direction in the center of Post Oak from Loop 610 to south of Richmond.

The southern end of the project will be a new transit center, which will re-route buses from the existing Bellaire Transit Center. The new site, which Metropolitan Transit Authority officials are likely to approve July 31, along with the station names, will be called the Uptown/Westpark Transit Center. It is located at Westpark Drive, just west of Loop 610 where a new ramp is under construction along Interstate 69 as part of the total rebuild of the freeway interchange.

Officials also said they have settled on MetroRapid as the name of the service, which will use large buses but offer trip times and frequencies similar to rail. The Post Oak line will not have all the elements of bus rapid transit, such as priority at all traffic lights, but will be, for most purposes, rapid service.

Though the bus project was devised and supported by officials with the management district, the board of which are major landowners or work for developers along Post Oak, station names largely avoided commercial ties.

“Where possible, the street is the major defining characteristic of a station name,” said John Breeding, president of the management district.

As a result, the stations mirror the names of cross-streets, such as San Felipe, Westheimer and Richmond.

[…]

Tentative plans call for the Westheimer and Alabama stops to have “Galleria” as part of their names, as both are within walking distance of the mall. Breeding said Uptown officials also are working with The Galleria to enhance pedestrian access from the stations to various entrances.

Service is now expected to begin in March of 2020, which is a year later than it was expected to begin the last time an opening date was announced. The HOV lane part of this project is also moving along, also with a 2020 start date. I’m ready to see what it all looks like.

HGAC gives initial approval to TxDOT’s funding demand

Approval with concerns. There will be opportunities to revisit this.

Plans to overhaul Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston inched forward this week, but not without some hesitation and a slew of caveats by some local officials who have been asked to commit $100 million to the massive project.

Approval by the Houston-Galveston Area Council Technical Advisory Committee came Wednesday with many members echoing lingering concerns over the project as currently envisioned by the Texas Department of Transportation. Among those are how the agency addresses environmental issues and communicates with the public.

“It is important to recognize that things TxDOT has done in the past are not going to be sufficient for this project,” said Carol Lewis, a TAC committee member and director of the Center for Transportation Training and Research at Texas Southern University.

Ultimately, the technical committee approved the committal of $100 million in locally-controlled federal funds to the center segment of the I-45 project, per a request from TxDOT. The final decision rests with H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council, which meets July 26.

[..]

The approval is not a final word on whether the freeway project is built, and not even the last time H-GAC will have to vote on it.

Local officials must add the $100 million to the region’s short-term transportation plan, also approved by the transportation council. That approval would not happen for a project in 2024 for about another two years.

The resolution, if approved by the regional council next week, notes some of those milestones so officials could be assured they had options if TxDOT did not adequately address community concerns.

See here for the background. Two members of the technical committee, Veronica Chapa Gorczynski, president of the East End Management District, and Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, opposed the request/demand/whatever to commit the money to TxDOT. I’d still just like to know what exactly it would be used for, or at least what are the possibilities, and what would happen if HGAC said “nope”. Not today, I’m afraid.

Another manifesto against I-45 expansion

They’re fun to read, and my heart is with them, but we all know how this works.

The I-45 project is likely to do irreversible damage to our city’s finances and ecology. It will reduce the city’s tax base by eliminating existing businesses that affect 25,000 jobs. This includes approximately 20 city blocks in EaDo, a thriving entertainment and residential neighborhood with massive unmet potential. It will wipe out homes, churches and businesses in neighborhoods including Independence Heights, Near Northside and Fifth Ward, repeating the sins of the past by building highways through historical African American and Latino neighborhoods.

This project represents a major transfer of wealth from the city to the suburbs, trading actual city of Houston homes, land, and businesses for the promise of faster trips through Houston. Researchers say that promise won’t pan out long-term: As Houston’s own history with I-10’s expansion demonstrates, adding lanes doesn’t improve freeway congestion for long.

Adding insult to those injuries, the expanded freeway will likely lead to further development on our shrinking forest and prairie lands north of Houston. That open land currently buffers neighborhoods downstream from flooding, and it filters rainwater, improving our area’s water quality.

I have been part of many of the “Make I-45 Better” discussions, hosted with the idea that, if TxDOT would come to the table with resources and an openness to new design approaches, the damage caused by the project could be offset by the benefits it could create. I no longer think this trade-off makes sense.

To move people without the putting an undue burden on the neighborhoods along the I-45 corridor, we need a better regional approach.

What might be possible if we work together on a different vision? Imagine if the state legislature allowed TxDOT act like a true department of transportation — not just a highway department. Imagine leaders from TxDOT, METRO, the city of Houston and others sitting together and figuring out how we can best connect people to the abundance Houston has to offer. Imagine a safer, sustainable and more equitable Houston, where people had choices to avoid congestion. Imagine if we implemented projects that strengthen our city instead of undermine its competitiveness.

That approach shouldn’t be limited to freeways. Given the funds dedicated to I-45 and other roadways, METRO’s METRONext plans, Harris County flood bond projects and Harvey Recovery funds, tens of billions of dollars will soon be spent on infrastructure to remake our city. We need a vision for how all this investment fits together.

See here and here for some previous point/counterpoint, and read the whole thing for the author’s suggestions. I basically agree with everything he says, but it’s all for academic interest, because there’s no mechanism to make any of what he says happen. The truth of the matter is that what we should have been doing is spending the last decade or two working to change the laws on how transportation dollars are allocated by the Lege. That wouldn’t have worked, of course, because there’s very little interest in the Republican legislature for anything other than road building, but at least it would have had a chance of success. It’s still a worthwhile goal, even if it’s too late to do anything about I-45. Lobbying Congress to appropriate more money to transit grants would also be useful. None of this is pretty or easy, but it’s the best we can do.

Add HEB to the autonomous grocery delivery trend

In San Antonio, at least. Maybe in Houston later if it goes well for them.

Customers near an H-E-B in suburban San Antoni0 can soon get their eggs, fruit and tortillas dropped off by a vehicle with no one at the wheel.

The San Antonio-based company is working with Udelv, an autonomous delivery startup in California, to test self-driving vans on streets around the store starting this fall.

“The world is changing fast and our customers’ expectations are changing,” said Paul Tepfenhart, senior vice president of omnichannel and emerging technologies at Central Market and H-E-B. “We have a growing, thriving online business, and we’re trying to figure out how in the world we’re going to keep up with this emerging demand.”

During the first phase of the pilot, a Udelv employee will drive a van developed by the startup with a H-E-B employee along for the ride to help with deliveries.

As the technology collects and analyzes data and learns the optimal routes, it will eventually take over the maneuvering. However, H-E-B will still have the ability to control the van remotely, Tepfenhart said.

[…]

Kroger, Amazon and other retailers have experimented with autonomous vehicles, and Udelv is also working with Walmart to test its vans at Arizona stores and with XL Parts to try out the technology in Houston.

We know about Kroger. I see that bit at the end about Udelv and Walmart in Houston, but a little googling around did not find anything more on that. As for HEB, much like the Kroger pilot in Houston this is being limited to one store at first, in HEB’s case in Olmos Park, with the program set to begin later in the summer. This is clearly the next frontier for grocery stores, so get ready for a more widespread deployment soon. I still think there will be demand for some old fashioned non-autonomous grocery deliveries, for folks who can’t or don’t want to haul the groceries into their residences themselves. But if there’s enough demand to support this option, I’d guess it will be the bulk of the delivery market in short order. The Current and the Rivard Report have more.

Scooters and the negative effect on disabled folks

A deep dive on the San Antonio experience.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

From the moment they appeared in cities across the country, the business model for electric scooters has depended on riders’ abandoning the machines wherever the ride ends. Users unlock scooters with a cell phone app, put $1 on their credit card plus 15 to 30 cents per minute to ride, and routinely ignore city rules against dumping the vehicles in the curb cuts that make sidewalk wheelchair use possible.

San Antonio’s new ban on riding scooters on sidewalks — if it’s enforced — will only partially restore a path to a freer life for disabled people. Scooters are still legal to park on the sidewalk itself, and the city’s “light touch” preference for warnings and education over police ticketing and confiscation leave the disabled skeptical that much will change.

Urban commentators might curse scooters as a metaphor for a hurried, narcissistic age, but disabled people generally see the glut of abandoned vehicles as a physical affront.

“We’ve spent 30 years making sidewalks accessible,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the Washington-based National Disability Rights Network, referring to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. “And then overnight we’re forced into asking cities, ‘Why have you allowed this to happen without thinking of their impact?’”

The problem is especially acute and visible in San Antonio, which U.S. Census figures show has the nation’s second highest rate of residents with “ambulatory difficulty” — 9.5 percent of San Antonians ages 35 to 64, or about 100,000 people. Among the 10 largest U.S. cities, only Philadelphia had a higher rate.

Blind people feel especially harassed by the two-wheeled whippets, said Sandy Merrill, CEO of San Antonio-based Guide Dogs of Texas, which trains service dogs for the vision-impaired.

“It’s difficult enough dealing with what’s in front of you,” Merrill said. “But now our dogs and people have to deal with something almost silent zipping behind them at 15 miles an hour. I wish young people would think about how they’re using them.”

[…]

John Jacks, director of San Antonio’s Center City Development and Operations Department and the city’s de facto scooter czar, sounds sympathetic to the complaints of disabled citizens, but is loath to criticize the scooter companies or call for aggressive policing of a breezy business culture more determined to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

The city won’t create the rules designed to change that culture. It has asked the companies to do it themselves, by submitting detailed proposals for bringing order to the scooter scrum. By October, the city will cut the number of permitted scooter firms from six to three and reduce their fleets of dockless vehicles from a total of 16,000 to 5,000. Jacks said the city’s request-for-proposals process offers the reward of a city contract to the three companies with the best ideas for reducing clutter and rider misbehavior.

“Our number one concern is the ability of all people to navigate the sidewalks safely,” Jacks said. Correcting the problem, he added, will be done mostly by creating incentives “for good behavior versus bad. It’s putting the burden on the companies for addressing the problem.”

Jacks said he had consulted the disabled community about the scooter roll-out and its concerns will be “embedded” in the process by having Malone, a former president of the National Federation for the Blind, on the selection committee.

The city’s scooter ordinance, thrown together last year to govern a six-month tryout of the new technology, contains rules against parking within a certain distance of curb ramps and other structures, but Jacks conceded that few, if any, riders actually know that.

“This is all still evolving,” Jacks said. “If the Council still doesn’t think it’s working, we may have to have more restrictive regulations.”

San Antonio Police confirm that they haven’t impounded any scooters in 2019, choosing instead to alert the scooter companies, call 311 or tidy up the sidewalks themselves.

“Sometimes I’ll just move them off to the side on the curb,” said SAPD Capt. Chris Benavides, the department’s head of traffic and special events.

Officers have given out 438 warnings since August, he said, but have written only 80 citations for scooter riders since last August, a period in which renters took nearly two million rides, according to city records. This month, SAPD deployed three overtime officers per day, seven days a week, to focus on downtown scooter enforcement.

“I like the ‘soft touch’ to scooter enforcement, if that’s what you want to call it,” Benavides said. “Our biggest problem is just educating people, especially the tourists.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. As noted, San Antonio has now banned scooters from sidewalks, which I think will help keep riders from menacing pedestrians, but those scooters are still going to be left on the sidewalk after being used, and that’s still going to be a problem for people with mobility issues. There’s clearly value in these “micro-mobility” options, which should reduce the number of short-hop car trips people take and may help encourage transit use, but their business models leave these problems to the cities to solve. I sure hope Houston’s plan for scooters will address this. In the meantime, there are federal lawsuits filed by people with disabilities in other states like California that allege that Lime and Bird and other scooter companies are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by restricting their ability to navigate their cities. That’s going to take a few years to work its way through the courts, and who knows what SCOTUS will do with it. In the meantime, cities and states need to figure it out.

TxDOT wants H-GAC to commit money to the I-45 project

I don’t understand this.

To demonstrate local support for the mega-project, the Texas Department of Transportation is asking the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council, the committee that doles out state and federal money controlled by local officials, to commit $100 million to the central 3-mile portion of the freeway rebuild, from Interstate 10 to Loop 610. State officials would cover the remainder of the $1.22 billion cost, or around 91 percent of the total.

If approved this month by the transportation council, the money would not move from HGAC to TxDOT until construction begins, estimated around early 2024. The more immediate effect would be showing support for the increasingly controversial project, and would be reflected in upcoming plans. Further, it would be $100 million that local officials could not direct elsewhere in a region rife with road improvement needs.

Committing the money would have no effect on projects already planned and funded, officials said.

During a June 28 discussion about the project and about whether to commit the money, members of the transportation council were divided. Despite years of community meetings and redesigns of the project, some on the council thought the I-45 plans lack solutions for some of the problems critics identified.

“My concern is we are forced to stick our neck out and put a down payment on a house we have not seen,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

[…]

Pass up the commitment, transportation officials said, and the state could send its money elsewhere.

“If this would not go forward,” Quincy Allen, district director for TxDOT in Houston said of the state funding offer, “I don’t know when we would have the money to go forward.”

The transportation council is scheduled to meet July 26 and is poised to decide on the money then, though officials could choose to delay. The state’s long-range plan, to be unveiled during a public meeting in Austin that will be streamed online, is set for approval in August. State officials could amend it if Houston-area leaders balk at committing the region’s share.

I have questions.

1. Is this normal? Has TxDOT ever asked any other regional transportation agency to kick in local funds like this? “Local” is a bit misleading – I think what TxDOT is asking is for HGAC to commit $100 million of future grants, which come from state and federal sources, to this part of the I-45 project. My question stands, though – is this something TxDOT has ever done before? If yes, then what were the circumstances and how did it go? If no, why now?

2. What is this money for? I recognize that the I-45 project plans have not been finalized, so a high-level answer is the best we can do. My point here is about whether this money is for the actual highway construction or some ancillary things? I’m not even sure what that would mean, so any clarification would be helpful.

3. What exactly happens if HGAC says “nah, we’re good”? Clearly we can’t answer this without knowing the answer to #2, but at a high level, does this mean there would be some piece of this project that wouldn’t get done, or does it actually threaten the project as a whole? I have a hard time believing that, which brings me back to the question of why TxDOT is making this request. I can’t help but think the answer here is that the project will happen regardless, but there would be some petty repercussions down the line if we locals don’t play ball.

I’m sure there are more questions, but I think that’s a good start. My firm position on this is No until we get some answers.

San Antonio bans scooters from sidewalks

Speaking of where scooters do and do not belong:

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Dockless electric scooters can’t be ridden on San Antonio sidewalks, per a new City ordinance that went into effect Monday, but many say they’re concerned about how well it will be enforced.

The new prohibition on sidewalk use comes a full year after rented e-scooters first arrived in San Antonio. It took months to arrive at the point where the City Council deemed riding on the sidewalk enough of a nuisance to move them off pedestrian rights-of-way and onto the street. But even though violating that law is a Class C misdemeanor that can carry as much as a $500 fine, some in the city are not sure that will be enough to deter violators.

[…]

Capt. Chris Benavides, with the San Antonio Police Department, said the sidewalk riding ban will begin with a 30-day grace period in which violators will be issued warnings about the new rule rather than citations. On Aug. 1, Benavides said, police officers will begin issuing citations in situations that call for them.

“The entire month of July will be used as an educational piece where we will issue written or verbal warnings for riding on the sidewalk,” he said.

“What we hope for is that the riders are mindful … that we’re able to work together to share that road and they’re aware of their surroundings.”

Gotta say, I appreciate San Antonio acting as beta testers for Houston’s eventual scooter experience. For sure, scooters – like bicycles – don’t belong on sidewalks, where they can endanger pedestrians. The enforcement issue can sort itself out; it’s my belief that plenty of scooter riders will now stay off the sidewalk just because it’s the law. As the story notes, there was a bill filed that would have banned scooters on sidewalks statewide, as well as capping their speed at 15 MPH (same as what the Houston commission recommended), and other things. This made it through the Senate but never got a hearing in the House. I feel like this should be a local issue, but at least this bill doesn’t appear to have done anything egregious. As with ridesharing, don’t be surprised to see this come up again in two years.

Biking and breweries

Actually, this makes perfect sense.

This started off in the gray area between a good idea and a bad one. Two years ago, Jason Buhlman and Brian Kondrach got about 30 of their friends together for an afternoon of two-wheel tourism, in which they aimed to bike between as many breweries as possible in one day.

“At the time, there were only eight breweries that we could do inside the Loop,” Kondrach explains to a group of prospective riders on a sunny Saturday afternoon in late June. “It took us 14 hours. We were way too drunk. It was a mess.”

“A mess,” echoes Buhlman, who is standing just to the right of Kondrach, wearing a baseball T-shirt with the motto, “Wheels Down, Bottoms Up,” printed across his chest.

“So we put some rules on it,” Kondrach continues. “We made it so it was only 45 minutes at each stop – just one pint each, and then we move. And we added two breweries and did it again six month later.”

The ride was still fun. But much less … sloppy. And that’s when Buhlman and Kondrach realized that a curated version of this could potentially lay the groundwork for a business that could combine two of their loves: Craft beer and bicycles.

Then last May, their business, Tour de Brewery, was born. Rather than 10 breweries in an afternoon, they offer shorter tours in distinct pockets of the city, featuring about three breweries apiece.

[…]

Across Houston, breweries are becoming more bike-friendly. At Saint Arnold, a BCycle bike-share station opened earlier this Spring; there are plans to unveil one at 8th Wonder by the time the summer is through; and hopes of opening a third in Sawyer Yard, in close proximity to three breweries. And some of the city’s breweries are forming bike teams, and hosting bike crawls of their own. But as all this happens, it raises one big question: Should people hop on bikes after drinking?

“We’ve have people approach us and ask, ‘Why would you put a station at Saint Arnold or 8th Wonder?’” says Henry Morris, a spokesman at BCycle. “And the answer is, well, they have parking spaces. People drive there and drive back and they’re expected to be responsible. So if you take a bike share to a brewery and you have too much to drink, you should call an Uber home.”

That’s why the guys at Tour de Brewery emphasize that their outings are about discovering new beers.

“If you’re going to bike and drink, it’s important to remember that it’s a tasting experience,” says Jessica Green, director of development for Bike Houston, which is on track to add 50 miles of bike lanes to the city this year, including a stretch that will help cyclists close the gap between 8th Wonder and Saint Arnold. “Have one beer, and then ride. And the riding will help you metabolize the alcohol. But don’t drink more than a beer or two an hour, which is when you get into getting drunk.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these breweries are neighborhood institutions as much as anything else, in the spirit of the old corner bar. They draw their customers mostly from their nearby surroundings, not the wider region. Also, and especially for the breweries in the inner core, parking is at a premium. That’s a combination that incentivizes biking, on both sides. For sure, as the story notes, you should imbibe carefully if you do this. Honestly, though, the same would be true if you drove. So plan your route, pick your spots, maybe give Tour de Brewery a look, and enjoy your afternoon.

Yeah, scooters are going to come to Houston

The question is when, not if.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

[E]ven though there’s a growing interest in alternate forms of transportation, you still can’t rent a scooter in Houston.

Maria Irshad, assistant director of the City of Houston’s Parking Division, said Houston’s infrastructure has had a lot to do with the lack of scooters. But with the development of new on-street bike lanes that may be starting to change.

“One thing Houston is doing, we’re taking a really cautious and deliberate approach to developing a program,” said Irshad. “So we’re watching what other cities do because this is a rapidly evolving form of transportation.”

[…]

Joe Deshotel is Texas Community Affairs Director for Lime, one of the companies hoping to do business here in Houston. He said they’re also trying to make up for past mistakes.

“When you have two or three companies that are professional and have the proper scaled operations for the city, then you really get the kind of program that you want,” said Deshotel.

As for Houston’s timetable for allowing scooter companies to operate, Irshad said there will be more public engagement later this summer. City Council will then have to draft an ordinance regulating scooters, and Irshad estimates we could see them on the streets next year.

I’m a bit embarrassed to realize that there’s been a letter to the Mayor with dockless mobility recommendations since October. It’s a fairly high level outline of proposed requirements for private operators of bikes and scooters and whatever else, and there’s an impressive list of stakeholders that helped put it together. Really, I’m just glad we’re not following the Uber/Lyft model of invade first and ask questions later, which happened in some other cities with scooters as well.

I’ve expressed doubts about how scooters would work here in Houston, as they don’t fit on sidewalks and seem to be in peril from motor vehicles on the road. That dockless mobility recommendations document partially addresses this in that they state that scooter speeds should be capped at 15 MPH. That’s basically what a pedal-powered bike does, for those of us in the non-Tour de France division, and in that case they’d be fine on the off-road bike paths. That still seems limited to me, and it occurs to me that maybe I just think there’s more danger on the streets for a scooter than for a bike. I’m sure we don’t have enough data to assess that, but maybe one of these days there will be a decent study. In the meantime, I concede that I may be overreacting. I look forward to those engagement sessions and to see what decisions Houston makes about scooters.

Uber’s vision for the future

I feel like this is more wishcasting than real planning. Still, some of it may happen, and if nothing else we should be aware of what it’s all about.

When Uber envisions the future, it not only wants to put urban air taxis and drones in the skies. It also wants to transform how people navigate cities and how they live in them.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the San Francisco-based tech company wants to turn today’s cities that are getting denser and more polluted into “cities of the future that are fundamentally green and built for people.” To do that, he said, cities need transportation options that range from cruising down the street on an electric scooter to commuting through the skies.

“We want not just to be the Amazon of transportation but also the Google of transportation,” he said.

One of the first places Uber wants that to play out is Dallas-Fort Worth: It’s one of the first three markets for Uber Elevate, an initiative to launch the aerial ride-sharing service.

[…]

Uber gave a progress report and made splashy announcements at its third annual Uber Elevate Summit. It announced the first international market for the air service: Melbourne, Australia. It revealed that Uber Eats is working with McDonald’s to deliver Big Macs and fries by drone. It touted the progress of six aviation companies that are designing the aircraft. And it dived into specifics, such as economics, safety and FAA-required certification. It showed off its different modes of transportation, from its new self-driving Volvo SUV to electric scooters.

Through splashy presentations and showroom floor exhibits, Uber and its business partners tried to build the case that urban air taxi service is not a far-fetched idea but one that’s coming to fruition.

Uber went public in May. The tech giant’s growth has been fueled by venture capital, but it is spending billions of dollars and has yet to turn a profit. That hasn’t slowed development of its aerial ride-sharing service. It expects to start flight demonstrations next year and launch commercial service in a few cities, including Dallas, in 2023. Eventually, it wants the urban air taxis to become autonomous.

Mark Moore, Uber’s director of engineering for vehicle systems, said he’s already seen some of the aircraft take flight. He declined to name the companies that are flight testing, saying they’re keeping quiet for competitive reasons.

“It’s incredibly impressive,” he said. “They’re nothing like helicopters.”

We first heard of Uber Elevate back in 2017. They had a goal at that time of rolling out a demo in 2020, so as far as their public pronouncements go, they’re on schedule. There re other operators in this space, one at Texas A&M that is working on flying motorcycles, with a test date of 2020, and a different kind of flying vehicle, based on battery power, that is farther away from reality. Beyond those two, we’ll just have to take Uber at their word that there are other companies testing prototypes now.

The challenges are not just technical.

Moore said the next four years will focus on demonstrations that “prove out the safety, noise and performance” of the vehicles.

In 2023, he said it will launch to paying customers in Dallas — but with a limited number of vehicles and limited operations. He said he expects five aircraft per manufacturer at launch. That will grow to about 50 per manufacturer in 2024. But, he said, some manufacturers may not be ready in time.

In Dallas, the average trip is expected to be 20 to 25 miles, Moore said.

But one of the major questions is whether Uber can win over regulators and the public. Unlike other tech innovations, early adopters won’t just use a new kind of technology. They’ll fly in public, so that affects the people driving, walking or living on the ground below, whether or not they choose to opt in.

[…]

“Uber is obsessed with making these vehicles as quiet as possible,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s acting administrator, Dan Elwell, said he’s enthusiastic about urban air taxis but acknowledged that their development gives him more to worry about.

“Everyone is riveted by this, especially me, but then I put on my FAA regulator hat and I got a whole new bucket of stuff to lose sleep over,” he said in a speech at the summit. “What you see is the ideal way to transporting people across cities. When I look at it, I see car-sized vehicles with multiple rotors hanging over dense urban populations.”

All that was discussed in the first Uber Elevate link I posted above. Noise is also a concern – much is done to abate highway noise for residences, but the only way to do that for aerial vehicles is to make the vehicles themselves as quiet as possible. How t ameliorate the “death from above” concerns, well, that’s going to be a key question. All this from a company that burns money faster than 747s burn jet fuel. I’ll keep an eye on this, but don’t be surprised if the next major update is that the timelines have been pushed back.

Another look at scooter mayhem

From the Associated Press:

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

As stand-up electric scooters have rolled into more than 100 cities worldwide, many of the people riding them are ending up in the emergency room with serious injuries. Others have been killed. There are no comprehensive statistics available but a rough count by The Associated Press of media reports turned up at least 11 electric scooter rider deaths in the U.S. since the beginning of 2018. Nine were on rented scooters and two on ones the victims owned.

With summer fast approaching, the numbers will undoubtedly grow as more riders take to the streets. Despite the risks, demand for the two-wheeled scooters continues to soar, popularized by companies like Lime and Bird. In the U.S. alone, riders took 38.5 million trips on rentable scooters in 2018, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

[..]

Data on injuries or fatalities linked to scooters is hard to come by because the industry is so new. In Austin, Texas, public health officials working with the Centers for Disease Control counted 192 scooter-related injuries in three months in 2018. Nearly half were head injuries, including 15% that were traumatic brain injuries like concussions and bleeding of the brain. Less than 1% of the injured riders wore a helmet.

Bird, one of the largest scooter-sharing companies, dropped its scooters on the streets of Santa Monica, California, in September 2017 and within a few months riders were showing up at the emergency room, according to Dr. Tarak Trivedi, an emergency room physician in Los Angeles and co-author of one of the first peer-reviewed studies of scooter injuries. The following year, Trivedi and his colleagues counted 249 scooter injuries, and more than 40% were head injuries. Just 4% were wearing a helmet.

“I don’t think our roads are ready for this,” Trivedi said.

Bird and Lime both recommend that riders wear helmets, and they’ve handed out tens of thousands for free. But last year, Bird successfully fought a California proposal that would have required helmets for adults, maintaining that scooters should follow the same laws as electric bikes that don’t require adult helmets.

Bird says helmet requirements are off-putting to riders and could lead to fewer scooters on the road. Almost counterintuitively, the company argues that it’s better to have more riders than less because it forces drivers to pay attention to them.

“There’s a safety in numbers effect, where the motorists know that there’s people out on the street, so they act accordingly,” said Paul Steely White, director of safety policy and advocacy for Bird.

Getting people to wear helmets is a challenge. Riders don’t want exposure to lice or germs that could be found in shared helmets, and many make a spontaneous decision to scoot while they’re already out and about.

You can add this to the Austin study, which is now beginning to paint a consistent picture. Here’s the problem as I see it: Scooters on sidewalks are a danger to pedestrians, while scooters on roads are a danger to themselves, with worse potential consequences. They’re all right on bike paths and bike trails, as long as those are not used by pedestrians, but there aren’t enough of them to support the scooter business model. I don’t know how they’re supposed to fit into an urban street system. There’s something to be said for the “safety in numbers” effect – the same is known to be true for bicycles – but how many scooters will there need to be to get to that effect, and how long might that take? I just hope that we can figure out some better strategies to minimize the damage until we get there.

(That definitely means making helmets mandatory. I mean, come on.)

Metro and the Mayor’s race

This went pretty much as one would expect.

Delivering his fourth State of Mobility speech to Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston Chapter, Mayor Sylvester Turner echoed previous years, noting the region needs more options than solo driving if it is to handle the deluge of new residents in the future.

“We need to find ways to move people efficiently and quickly, and that means more than just building more highways,” Turner said.

While touching on the many improvements needed in the region, including deepening the Houston Ship Channel to keep the Port of Houston an attractive call for ships and support of a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas, much of the session was spent on the upcoming transit plans.

“We cannot continue to operate a transportation system as if it was 30 years ago,” Turner said.

[…]

“Given the congestion we have now… we must build out our system,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

Patman and others said most of the summer will be spent selling voters on the plan, though officials believe it has strong support.

“Of course, we will have some naysayers,” Patman said.

That includes some of Turner’s opponents in the mayoral race, which also will be on the November ballot. Bill King and Tony Buzbee both have said Houston has invested too much in public transit to the detriment of suburban commuters.

Asked during a June 10 Kingwood forum on transportation solutions, King said “it is not transit or light rail” while congratulating Metro on its commuter bus efforts.

Buzbee focused his remarks at the event on the need to improve neighborhood streets and synchronizing traffic lights for better efficiency. He called the Metro plan too focused on a small portion of the city.

“It is more about career politicians telling us public transit is good,” Buzbee said.

So, Bill King cares more about people driving in from The Woodlands than anything else, while Buzbee demonstrates zero grasp of the topic at hand. As for Dwight Boykins, he wasn’t quoted in the story, probably because he wasn’t at the event. Insert shrug emoji here.

Look, Metro has come a long way since the dark days of Frank Wilson and David Wolff. There are more HOV lanes, a vastly improved bus system, more light rail, good ridership numbers, and forward-thinking planning from the Board and the Chair. All that is at risk, not just with the MetroNext plan on the ballot but also Mayor’s race. All the good work being done goes right out the window if a transit-hostile or transit-ignorant Mayor gets elected. Sylvester Turner is the only choice if you care about transit. It’s not even close.