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Merging transit fare systems

There’s a frustratingly small amount of information in this story, but the basic idea, as best I understand it, is great.

Federal transit officials will spend $14.8 million making sure Houston area transit riders can have more options for how to pay their own way and have seamless options between local bus agencies.

As Metropolitan Transit Authority revamps its aging fare collection system to add options for how and where transit users can pay for rides, officials said making it easier to hop on a bus or train was paramount. That’s why board members said options such as paying with a smart phone was vital, along with adding multiple places such as corner stores where cash-paying transit riders could add money to Q cards.

Part of efforts to ease transit access was adding bus systems such as Fort Bend Transit and Harris County Transit to the system. Metro, by far the largest transit agency in the region, could incorporate the smaller systems in, provided either federal or local money could be found.

Metro will receive the grant from the Federal Transit Administration, the second-largest award in this year’s round of money from Washington, announced Tuesday. Officials selected 96 projects totaling $464 million. The money covers replacing aging buses and related infrastructure such as maintenance centers, transit centers and bus stops.

I’ve been an advocate for having a broad regional one-fare-system-for-all-transit-networks approach. This is very much a baby step in that direction, but it’s a step nonetheless. If you’re wondering, Harris County Transit runs bus service in some cities that are not part of Metro, so folding them into the same fare collection system makes perfect sense. I wish there were more to this story, or that there were a Metro press release I could read to see what else there may be to this, but this is all we have for now. All I can say is, make it a goal to expand this outward until there’s nowhere else in the region to expand to.

Are we headed towards a coronavirus spike?

One set of researchers thinks we may be.

Houston is one of several cities in the South that could see spikes in COVID-19 cases over the next four weeks as restrictions are eased, according to new research that uses cellphone data to track how well people are social distancing.

The updated projection, from PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, found that traffic to non-essential businesses has jumped especially in Texas and Florida, which have moved aggressively to reopen.

In Harris County, the model predicts the outbreak will grow from about 200 new cases per day to more than 2,000 over the next month.

“Some areas—particularly in the south—that have moved more quickly to reopen are showing a higher risk for resurgence,” the researchers wrote in a blog post. “If people in Houston and Palm Beach, Fla., for example, aren’t being cautious with masking in indoor crowded locations and with hygiene and disinfection, local governments may need to intervene again should they lose control of the epidemic.”

[…]

The PolicyLab research is tracking 389 large counties across the country with active outbreaks. It found that projections are best in places that are relaxing restrictions selectively in areas with fewer cases and less transmission.

“Given these cautious actions by our governments, we have already seen that the predicted resurgence has not occurred in most places that are beginning to reopen—rather, daily cases are either plateauing or falling,” the researchers wrote. “But the picture our models are painting for Texas and Florida provide ample evidence to others who would choose to move too quickly. We see these concerns even as we adjust for additional testing capacity that might have inflated our forecasts.”

See here and here for more on the predictions, and here for an earlier press release about their model. As far as I can tell, their model depends on “social distancing measures, defined by travel to non-essential businesses”. They say their data comes from a variety of publicly-available sources, but that’s about as much detail as I can find. I’m not an expert in any way, so I’m in no position to critique this. Fortunately, Dr. Peter Hotez is an expert, and he shared some thoughts about this in Friday’s Chron.

I understand the importance of opening up the economy. The worry that I have is that we haven’t put in place a public health system — the testing, the contact tracing — that’s commensurate to sustain the economy.

Some models show fairly dire predictions for Houston. I’m referring to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia model that shows that by the summer, if we’re only at about 50% of the social distancing, we’re doing now, Harris County could see a steep surge in the number of patients coming into the hospitals and intensive care units.

It’s a model. It’s only as good as the assumptions that it’s based on, and we know the assumptions are not robust. But it gives me pause for concern that unless we have that health system in place, we could be looking at an epidemic that’s far greater than the one we’ve gone through.

Let’s say we’re opening up as as we are now. The way a surge works is, it’s not as if we’re going to see a gradual increase in cases. The models say things will look good for weeks. At first, it’s a flat curve, then it’s flat, it’s flat, and only after all that do you start seeing a steep, steep increase.

That’s what worries me. In those flat weeks we’ll get this sense of complacency, and then people are going to start going into the bars. Forget about one quarter occupancy in the bars. Poison Girl, on Westheimer, is going to be full. And so are all the other places all across Houston.

So: How do we fix that? I think it’s having a health system that’s larger and more extensive than what’s being proposed. We’re going to have to do extensive testing in the workplace so that you’d know if your colleagues have COVID-19 — especially asymptomatic COVID-19.

The number of contact tracers has to be far greater than the numbers that I’m seeing. Gov. Abbott says that Texas has around 2,000 and plans to hire 2,000 more. But consider that Gov. Cuomo in New York State is hiring 17,000 contact tracers. A state that’s quite a bit smaller is hiring a much larger number.

We also still don’t have that syndromic-monitoring system in place that you and I have talked about — an app that would allow Houstonians to report how they’re feeling, or that would track temperatures, like the Kinsa electronic thermometer app.

We should be bringing in our best engineering minds out of the oil and gas industry, out of NASA, out of the Texas Medical Center to put in place an app-based system — maybe make a hybrid between the kinds of things being put out there by Apple or Google or Kinsa, or the kinds of things they’re doing in Australia. We can design one that works for our culture, works for our system. But we’re not assembling the engineers to put that in place.

We don’t even have an epidemiological model for the city of Houston. There’s one for Dallas, put out by UT Southwestern and the University of Texas. Austin’s put out one. But I haven’t seen one for Houston.

So I’m worried that if people are going to start piling into bars and restaurants, and we don’t see the numbers going up, within a couple of weeks from now, it’ll be business as usual. Everybody will feel good, will be saying, “Hey, I’m not seeing the cases go up.”

And it’s going to really accelerate starting in the fall. This is not only true of Houston; it’s true of cities across the U.S. It would happen right before the 2020 election, so I worry about a lot of instability and how we mitigate that.

So there you have it. Keep it up with the social distancing and staying at home, avoid crowds, and wear a mask. We all have a role to play.

We are doing a good job of keeping our distance

That’s what our phone say, anyway.

Harris County residents are doing a good job keeping their distance, according to location data culled from smartphones, earning an “A” on a nationwide scoreboard.

The Social Distancing Scoreboard is a creation of Unacast, a Norway-based company that provides location data for business clients. The tool tracks the decrease of movement by people in a location over time to determine whether they are staying at home and assigns a letter grade, drilling down to the county level. The grade is tracked against the number of COVID-19 cases in each location.

It does not track whether people are staying six feet apart from each other — yet.

[…]

Overall, the United States scores a “B,” with the District of Columbia doing the best job of social distancing, followed by Alaska. Texas gets an A overall, as does Harris County.

Schleicher County, south of San Angelo, gets the highest score in Texas; Oldham County, west of Amarillo, has the worst.

You can fool around with the Social Distancing Scoreboard here. It gets its data from various smartphone apps – thank you for turning on location services, by the way – though it doesn’t specify which apps, per the Washington Post. The data for Texas was last updated on March 21, prior to all of the stay-at-home directives, so one would expect the mobility levels to drop further. It’s a good start, at least.

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.

Hitch-ing a ride

I’m kind of fascinated by this story about another ridesharing app/service.

High-tech hitchhiking has arrived in Texas.

Austin startup Hitch offers a ride-sharing service connecting people driving between Houston and Austin with people needing rides.

“Over 10,000 cars make trips every day just between Austin and Houston, and 90 percent of them have just one occupant — the driver,” CEO Kush Singh said in a news release.

Here’s how it works: Someone with a 2003-or-newer vehicle who is planning to drive between Houston and Austin downloads the “Hitch – Regional Ridesharing” app and registers as a driver. After a background and driving record check, which can take up to 24 hours, the drivers are authorized to pick up passengers.

Those needing a ride will enter a virtual queue and then proceed to a physical Hitch pickup location, which will be a public place like a coffee shop along the route. Riders are ID verified using scanned driver licenses and facial recognition,  and they must have a valid credit card on file with Hitch.

Drivers simply pull over at a Hitch pickup location and then collect the next person in line. They can pick up multiple riders — with each person allowed one typical-sized suitcase and a small personal item — and the middle seat is never occupied.

The concept is simple enough, and I can see some appeal for both drivers and riders. I have no idea if there’s enough demand on either side of that equation to sustain this, but that’s not my problem. If you want to try this for yourself, be careful about how you search for it, as there are other apps called Hitch out there. I found this particular app in the Google Play store on my Android phone. It had a 2.6 average rating, with five one-star reviews out of eight total. Megabus tickets are pretty cheap, y’all. I’m just saying.

Another Schwertner update

The investigation is happening.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

The University of Texas on Monday acknowledged it has received a complaint about state Sen. Charles Schwertner from a student, and that it has collected evidence as part of an investigation into him, marking the first official acknowledgement of the school’s inquiry into whether Schwertner sent a sexually explicit photo and message to a graduate student he met this summer.

The American-Statesman reported two weeks ago that the school was investigating the allegation against the Georgetown Republican, and that it was considering banning him from campus if the allegation was proven true. The newspaper cited three senior UT officials with knowledge of the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to discuss the situation.

A university spokesman at the time declined to answer questions about the investigation, saying UT does not confirm or comment on ongoing investigations. Monday’s confirmation came in a letter from the university to the Texas attorney general’s office that seeks permission to withhold records that the Statesman requested two weeks ago.

[…]

Schwertner, who could not immediately be reached for comment Monday afternoon, has maintained that he did not send the message and image, though he hasn’t provided an explanation for what happened. He has not denied that the image and the message were sent to the student, nor has he explained how they could have been sent if not by him.

His lawyers’ statement last week included results from a polygraph test that appeared to show Schwertner was not lying when he said he did not send the message and image. However, the test left several significant questions unasked, including whether the image sent to the student was of Schwertner, and whether Schwertner knew who sent the image and message.

See here for the previous update. Schwertner’s attorneys had said there was an investigation, now we know that UT has confirmed that, and we know some more of the background. AG Ken Paxton will issue an opinion about what information UT is required to turn over to the Statesman about it all – my guess is he’ll say that most of what UT has is protected – and at some point we’ll know the results of this investigation. I would guess that everyone involved would rather have this wrapped up sooner and not later.

As for what Schwertner has and has not denied: Like I said before, it’s a pretty straightforward matter to determine whether or not a message was sent from a given phone. Even if stuff had been deleted, service provider records and basic forensic tools would provide the answer. The bigger question is, if Schwertner himself did not send the messages, who did? One presumes only so many people have access to his phone. Yes, his phone could have been hacked, but that’s harder to do than you might think, and anyone who wanted to break into his phone would probably want to steal information from it, not use it as a front for forwarding sexy pictures. Be that as it may, as before a competent IT security professional would be able to suss that out. I don’t want to speculate ahead of the evidence so I’ll leave it here. Let’s just say I’m eagerly awaiting the outcome of this investigation. Also, too, Meg Walsh.

Who watches the anonymous tipsters?

Am I the only one who sees the potential for problems with this?

Want a safe way to anonymously report suspicious activity at your neighborhood school to prevent a potential school shooting? There’s an app for that.

In light of last month’s school shooting at Santa Fe High School, the Texas Department of Public Safety on Friday announced the launch of its “iWatch Texas” app giving students, teachers and parents a new tool to anonymously report incidents, suspicious activity or odd behavior to a network of federal, state, regional and local law enforcement authorities.

The app’s launch is part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s 40-part plan to ensure schools are safer in light of a school shooting at Santa Fe High School where a 17-year-old student opened fire on students there, killing 10 people and injuring 13. His other recommendations include beefing up security and hiring more school counselor.

The iWatch initiative is part of the DPS Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division, which operates as an information clearinghouse in Texas. The iWatch system feeds information to the Texas Fusion Center’s watch center 24 hours a day to coordinate with local law enforcement. Other states have created similar apps.

I should note that the IWatchTX.org website has been in existence since at least 2013. What’s new is the app, which you can find in the usual places. You can put in your contact information, but you don’t have to, and that’s my concern about this. What’s to stop people from anonymously filing false reports? It’s well known that when law enforcement advertises a tip line for help with particular cases, they are inundated with useless information, from delusions and nonsense to people reporting loved ones and rivals out of spite or revenge. The odds that people with bad motives will use this app for nefarious, even sinister purposes are very high.

Now, it says on the IWatchTX website that each report “will be reviewed by an analyst to determine if similar reporting exists and to ensure the appropriate referrals are made”, so clear-cut BS will likely be filtered out. That’s still going to mean DPS resources are being used on filtering it out, and innocent people may still get caught up in it. I get what DPS is trying to do, and I agree there may be value in it, but I say DPS will need to be transparent about the reports they get via this app. What percentage of them turn out to be viable, and what percentage is straight-up baloney? What percentage of the people targeted by false reports are minorities? The public needs to know these things to feel secure that law enforcement efforts are being used wisely. If there’s not already a provision in the law to make that happen, someone needs to push a bill in the next Legislature to make one.

Ten digit dialing comes to San Antonio

It’s the end of an era.

The era of knowing someone is from San Antonio based solely on the “210” at the start of a phone number is drawing to a close. San Antonio is outgrowing its singular 210 area code and will have to add a second code, 726, later this year.

The North American Numbering Plan Administration, which oversees national use of area codes, predicts that 210 numbers will be exhausted by early 2018.

Area code 726 will be an overlay code for the region currently serviced by 210, including the majority of Bexar County and parts of Atascosa, Comal, Guadalupe, Medina, and Wilson counties. An overlay area code means that 210 numbers will not change, but 726 numbers will be available to the same area.

The biggest immediate consequence is that San Antonio will cease to be the largest U.S. city in which seven digit dialing is possible, meaning that the old way of dialing local calls without an area code will no longer work.

“Right now we are in what is called a permissive period where you can use either a seven or 10 digit phone number in the 210 area,” said Terry Hadley, communications director for the Public Utilities Commission of Texas, which oversees area codes in addition to all electric, telecommunication, water, and sewer utilities for the State.

The six-month permissive period will end on Sept. 23, meaning that all local calls will require 10 digits, the three-digit area code and a seven-digit phone number. Long distance calls will continue to require 1 followed by 10 digits.

The activation date for the new 726 area code will be Oct. 23.

[…]

The 210 area code has been in place for San Antonio since 1992 and has become part of San Antonio’s identity for some.

“210 is really a brand for San Antonio,” said local resident Sarah Esserlieau. “There are a couple companies that reference 210 to show that they’re local companies, and I don’t know how that will affect branding.”

“Five or 10 years from now, will [210] be almost like a heritage number?” she questioned, suggesting the older area code could create a sense of pride similar to regional pride for area codes in some cities.

Yeah, well, when I was in college San Antonio was still using 512, same as Austin. It was still a long distance call, though, and you had to dial a 1 before the number. I do think 210 numbers will have a bit of prestige for them, as 713 and to a lesser extent 281 numbers in Houston do, but that may not be fully felt until there’s a third or even fourth area code that everyone else can look down on. And don’t worry, you’ll get used to the ten digit dialing thing. Hell, everyone has to do that already with cellphones, right? No big deal.

Halfway through the session

The House is doing House things, and that’s fine.

Rep. Joe Straus

Brushing aside concerns that they are not moving swiftly enough to enact Gov. Greg Abbott’s 20-point agenda, Texas House members opened the second half of the special session Wednesday with a flurry of activity Wednesday.

“We made good progress, and we’re only half the way through,” House Speaker Joe Straus told the American-Statesman.

“I’ve been spending my time, the first half of the 30-day session, trying to get the House in a place to consider the items that the governor has placed on the agenda,” said Straus, a San Antonio Republican. “We work more slowly than the Senate does because we listen to people and we try to get the details right. And so the House committees have been meeting and have shown some good progress, moving many of the items that are on the call.”

[…]

Straus has indicated he opposes a measure — favored by Patrick — that would pre-empt schools and local jurisdictions from making their own transgender friendly bathroom rules.

But, its sponsor, Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, said he considered that bill an “outlier” — the only one he knows of that Straus explicitly opposes, “and so it’s not surprising to me that that has not moved expeditiously.”

Simmons said there had been an effort to discourage members to sign on to his bill and so he only had about 50 members willing to do so, far fewer than in the regular session.

Of his other bill on school choice for special needs students — also part of Abbott’s agenda — Simmons said, “I’m not sure it will get voted out of committee.” He said he holds out a faint hope that it might advance if there is some “grand bargain” on education.

“The governor wants school finance and we’re going to do that; we’re going to pass our plan on Friday,” said Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, chairman of the Public Education Committee. “I think it’s very clear that the House has not agreed on the voucher issue, but we have a solution to help special needs students.”

“The House is doing what it should do, which is being deliberative, thoughtful and being sure that legislation that we would pass is sound policy that would benefit the citizens of the state of Texas,” said Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, chairman of the State Affairs Committee. “The House is not built for speed.”

“This is the House,” said Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, who chairs the House Republican Caucus Policy Committee. “We will use all 30 days. There’s plenty of time.”

Goldman said it looks like the bill he is carrying for the governor to pre-empt local cellphone ordinances is unlikely to make it out of committee.

“Nothing nefarious,” he said; there’s just too much opposition from local police and elected officials who hold great sway with House members.

Imagine that, listening to stakeholders. Who knew? The House will pass more bills, some of which will be amenable to the Senate and some of which will not. Expect to see a lot of gamesmanship, passive aggressiveness, and the occasional bit of decent policymaking, though that latter item is strictly optional.

Abbott versus the cities

The continuing story.

If Gov. Greg Abbott has disdain for how local Texas officials govern their cities, it didn’t show in a Wednesday sit-down with three mayors who were among 18 who jointly requested a meeting to discuss legislation that aims to limit or override several municipal powers.

“Whether we changed anybody’s mind or not, you never know,” said Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough. “But I will say it was a healthy conversation.”

What also remained to be seen Wednesday: whether Abbott plans to meet with mayors from the state’s five largest cities — who were also among those who requested to meet with the governor. So far, Abbott hasn’t responded to the requests from the mayors of Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

[…]

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Wednesday that when he was a member of the Texas House, Republican lawmakers repeatedly complained about government growing and overstepping its bounds.

“And now we find that the state government is really reaching down and telling local governments what they can or cannot do and pretty much trying to treat all cities as if we are all the same,” Turner said.

During invited testimony to the House Urban Affairs committee on Tuesday, several city officials and at least one lawmaker denounced what they said were overreaching and undemocratic attempts to subvert local governance.

“If people don’t like what you’re doing, then there are things called elections. I don’t see it as our job to overreach and try to govern your city,” said State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg testified that it felt like the state was waging a war on Texas cities.

“The fundamental truth about the whole debate over local control is that taking authority away from cities — preventing us from carrying out the wishes of our constituents — is subverting the will of the voter,” Nirenberg said.

At Wednesday’s meeting with Abbott, Yarbrough said he and his counterparts from Corpus Christi and San Marcos told the governor that local officials have a better finger on the pulse of city residents’ expectations and demands.

“We wanted to make sure we preserved the ability for local municipalities to be able to adjust and react to the needs of their community,” he said.

See here for some background. It’s mighty nice of Abbott to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule of threatening legislators to meet with these concerned constituents, but they shouldn’t have had to take time out of their busy schedules to try to persuade the Governor to leave over a century of accepted governance in place and butt out of their business. And not for nothing, but the cities whose Mayors Abbott has been ignoring are the reason he can make elaborate claims about how awesome the Texas economy is.

Let’s begin with population. The five counties that contain the state’s five largest cities have a combined 12,309,787 residents, which is 44 percent of the state’s total. If you want to talk about elections, the registered voters in those counties make up 42 percent of Texas’ electorate.

Those counties out-perform the rest of the state economically. Texas’ five biggest urban counties constitute 53.5 percent of total Texas employment. If you broaden it out to the metropolitan statistical areas, which include the suburbs as well, the proportion becomes 75.8 percent — and growth in those regions has outpaced growth in the state overall since the recession.

Not convinced Texas’ cities drive the state? Let’s look at gross domestic product: The state’s five biggest MSAs contribute 71 percent of the state’s economic output, a proportion that has increased by two percentage points over the past decade. Focusing just on counties again, workers in the ones that contain Texas’ largest cities earn 60 percent of the state’s wages.

If you look at the embedded chart in that story, you’ll see that the metro area that is doing the best economically is the Austin-Round Rock MSA, and it’s not close. It’s even more impressive when you take into account how busy the city of Austin has been systematically destroying Texas with its regulations and liberalness and what have you.

As I said in my previous post on this subject, quite a few of the Mayors that are pleading with Abbott to back off are themselves Republicans, and represent Republican turf. It’s good that they are trying to talk some sense into him, but I’d advise them to temper their expectations. Abbott and Dan Patrick and a squadron of Republican legislators, especially in the Senate, don’t seem to have any interest in listening. The one thing that will get their attention is losing some elections. What action do these Mayors plan to take next year when they will have a chance to deliver that message?

War on local control update

Example one:

Sen. Craig Estes’ Senate Bill 18 would require cities and counties to get voter approval if they plan to spend a certain amount more than they did in a previous year. His bill ties such an election trigger to inflation and statewide population growth.

“You ask people about that and they generally think that’s a good thing,” the Wichita Falls Republican said Friday.

But local government officials and advocates for municipal government say the measure will hinder their ability to afford services that residents expect. They also say it will make it hard to keep up with population growth — especially in booming suburbs growing much faster than the state as a whole.

“We’re planning our budgets multiple years in the future because we’ve got so many capital projects that we can’t just look at budgets from year to year,” said Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney, whose North Texas city grew almost four times as fast as Texas did from 2015 to 2016.

Estes’ bill, plus others aimed at giving voters more frequent say over their property tax rates, are on the docket for Senate committees this weekend. They fall in line with several items on Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session call that seek to limit powers cities and counties have long exercised. Other bills being considered Saturday and Sunday would change how and when municipalities regulate land use and annex land outside their borders.

State leaders say they are trying to both respond to Texans’ complaints about rising property tax bills and protect landowners’ rights from local regulations. But local elected officials say lawmakers and top state leaders are unfairly portraying cities and counties as irresponsible stewards of taxpayer money to score political points with voters ahead of next year’s primaries.

Such tensions highlight a growing divide over how much say city and county officials should have over local matters. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the proposed spending cap is another example of lawmakers trying to control officials who are elected to represent Texans at the local level.

“It certainly flies in the face of the very important democratic principle that we’ve adhered to for centuries in self governance,” Nirenberg said.

[…]

Estes couldn’t point to any examples of cities or counties dramatically increasing their spending in recent years. He said his office is currently collecting data from local governments on it. And he said he’s open to tweaking provisions in his bill as it moves through the Legislature.

But he shrugged off the notion that the state shouldn’t be telling local governments what to do. He said counties are extensions of state government, and that cities “reside in the state.”

“I don’t think that’s really an issue, that we don’t have any jurisdiction in what they’re doing,” he said. “We do.”

Don’t bother making the analogy to states and the country, because that’s Totally Different and Not The Same Thing At All, because it just is and that’s that. I would just point out that several of the Mayors who signed that letter opposing stuff like this are Republicans. This is not a partisan issue, it’s one of power and the belief of Abbott and Patrick, enabled by Patrick’s minions in the Senate, that they’re the only legitimate form of government. It’s crazy that we’ve come to this place, but here we are.

Example two:

A bill aimed at protecting property owners’ rights from changing local government regulations could undo years of safety and land use rules and create a building environment in Texas with the potential for bars to pop up in residential neighborhoods, critics say.

Some local officials are calling Senate Bill 12 the “hyper-grandfathering” bill that goes far beyond current state provisions by retroactively applying to each property the land use and safety codes that were in place the last time the property was sold. In the extreme, SB 12 could lead to broad land use possibilities for parcels of land that haven’t changed hands in decades, according to six local government and public policy experts tracking the bill.

[…]

The bill’s author, Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, said in a statement it would protect property owners from new county or city regulations that would upend the plans that people had when they bought the land.

“Since filing Senate Bill 12, I have been working with stakeholder groups across Texas, and I look forward to passing legislation that will protect the rights of Texans to develop their property,” Buckingham said.

In Austin, the passage of SB 12 would drastically undermine the city’s ongoing efforts to rewrite its entire land use code, known as CodeNext. If the City Council signs off next spring as planned on CodeNext, none of its provisions would take effect on a piece of property until the land changed hands, Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey said.

“Let’s say CodeNext gets approved,” Guernsey said “It is not worth a whole lot if I have to deal with property codes from 10, 20 or 30 years (ago).”

I’ll bet the lawyers who specialize in land use codes will make a killing, though. Bear in mind, while the state would impose this requirement, it’s the cities and counties that will get stuck with the costs of implementing and enforcing it. I don’t even know what to say.

Example three:

A Texas Senate committee approved a bill Saturday that would outlaw local restrictions on using a cellphone while driving.

Senate Bill 15 would pre-empt local ordinances on mobile phone usage, effectively rolling back provisions in more than 40 Texas cities that currently post hands-free ordinances stricter than the statewide texting ban. That measure now heads to the full Senate. It was one of several items the Senate Business and Commerce Committee took up Saturday that target local regulations and ordinances.

That committee also passed a bill that would require women to pay a separate premium for insurance coverage of an abortion that is not considered medically necessary.

Gov. Greg Abbott has argued that stricter local cellphone ordinances make for a confusing “patchwork” of regulations across the state, leaving drivers confused as they navigate between areas with different rules. Opponents of SB 15, including police officers from San Antonio and Austin who testified against the measure on Saturday, argue that the state should not pre-empt city ordinances that make people safer.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the Senate sponsor of the statewide texting-while-driving ban that goes into effect in September, said SB 15 would be a “huge step back.”

“I’ve never cried as a senator,” said Zaffirini, a senator since 1987. If this passes, “I think I would cry.”

The committee vote on SB 15 was 7-2.

The Buckingham bill was not voted on in committee, with some comments from the author that it could get reworked. Call me crazy, but maybe this is the sort of thing that needs a more deliberate process, if only to see if there is any legitimate purpose for it. If there’s one bit of good news in all this, it’s that the general insider belief is that most of Abbott’s agenda won’t get passed. There’s still plenty of room for damage even if only a few of his items make it through. The House offers the better chance of non-action, so let your representative know what you think.

My vision for Metro: Expansion

HoustonMetro

Part 1: Buses
Part 2: Marketing itself

One of the things that new Metro Chair Carrin Patman has been talking about is a regional transportation plan, to get everyone – including cities and counties not currently involved with Metro – to agree on what transit is and how we best go about doing it in a way that serves the greater region’s needs. I am fully on board with this idea, and my purpose today is to discuss a few specific ideas towards that end. My assumption throughout this post is that Metro can and should take a leadership role in this discussion. One can argue for an organization like H-GAC to take the lead, but I see them as more of a facilitator. Metro is the dominant transit provider in the region, and any meaningful regional plan for transit necessarily goes through them. They need to be the driving force to make things happen.

To me, the first principle in a regional transit plan is that it should be possible for anyone in the region – and I am talking about the ten-county greater Houston region that H-GAC covers – to plan and execute a trip on any transit line, from any point of origin and to any destination – from a single app or website. That includes mapping out the trip, estimating total trip time by the published schedules, and paying for the fare. It shouldn’t matter which agency or agencies are involved – any transfers, whether inter- or intra-agency, should be seamless. All you as the transit customer need to do is say that you want to start here and end there, and the rest is made available to you.

The first step towards this is for every transit agency in the greater Houston area to make all of its data available for the other agencies to use. Routes, schedules, fares, alerts, outages, whatever else – put it into a standard format that can be shared and used by applications. The city of Houston has done a lot of work to make its data available, so there’s an example to follow. Metro undoubtedly has the most data to make available, and likely also has the most IT resources at its disposal, so they ought to take the lead on this.

Once the data has been made available to all, the next step is to thoroughly review it, to see what obvious holes exist and what simple things – relocating a station, adjusting a schedule, and so forth – can be done to fix them. See Raj Mankad’s story of taking transit from Houston to Galveston for an example of what I’m talking about.

Now it’s time to build all that data into an app so that people can plan their trips. And as long as that is being done, there may as well be a parallel effort to allow for payment from within the app. Metro is already developing a smartphone payment system, so this shouldn’t be a stretch. The bonus here would be for the app to allow for payment on any system. Along those same lines, Metro Q-cards should be accepted as payment on any other regional system, with a reciprocal agreement in place as well. (*) I know there are reasons why so many different transit systems exist in our region. All I’m saying is that if we really want a regional transportation solution, as Metro appears to want, then we need those differences to be made transparent to riders.

So that’s the goal, and the path to meeting it. I think about this on the days when I take the bus home, because the stop where I pick up the 85 is also a pickup point for various Woodlands buses. I don’t have a need to go to the Woodlands, but if I ever did I shouldn’t have to figure out on my own what I need to do to get there. If Metro and its peer agencies get this done, I wouldn’t have to.

Finally, any discussion of expansion needs to include the fact that Metro doesn’t currently operate in Fort Bend County. That becomes an issue if and when the promised US 90A commuter rail extension – you know, the one that our buddy John Culberson made some promises last year to help get moving – gets funding. That line makes a lot more sense if it can be extended into Fort Bend, but that can really only happen if Metro operates in Fort Bend. For that to happen will take legislative action, and possibly a local referendum; I’m a bit unclear on the exact details. The legislative part I am sure of, and we know how dicey that can be, and how long you have to wait for a second crack at it if at first you don’t succeed. Getting started on that sooner rather than later is probably the better way to go.

(*) – When you think about it, why shouldn’t Metro’s Q-cards work on Via and DART and every other transit agency in the state? The EZ Pass we bought from HCTRA pays for tolls anywhere in the state. Why shouldn’t this also be the case for transit agencies? I’m just saying.

Metro smartphone payment system debuts

Progress marches onward.

Metro riders will be able to board a bus or train without a fare card or cash within a few days, just in time for some of the transit agency’s heaviest use during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials on Wednesday said they had completed testing and preparation and will activate a smartphone payment system Monday or Tuesday. The rodeo starts Tuesday, and the mobile ticketing will include the option to buy rodeo shuttle tickets.

“We want to make sure everything is in place, but it will be live by the time the rodeo opens,” Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

[…]

Metro’s app allows a rider to use PayPal or a credit card to purchase and store tickets. Once activated, the tickets are valid for three hours. The system includes elements to eliminate fraud.

A number of cities, notably Portland, Ore., and Dallas, beat Houston to offering mobile tickets. In both of those cities, despite some technology-related problems, many riders embraced the system. TriMet, the transit agency for Portland, sold about 2.9 million mobile tickets in 2014, about 3 percent of all trips.

Transit use in Houston is lower than in the Portland area.

Not all functions Metro plans to unveil will be active by next week, said Denise Wendler, the agency’s chief information officer. The contract includes offering Apple Pay, Google Wallet and Android-based payment systems, but those are not included yet.

Wendler said it will also take longer to allow students to purchase discounted fares, though other ticket options will appear much sooner.

“The very next thing we do is park and ride,” Wendler told a Metro board committee.

See here for the background, and here for reporter Dug Begley’s account of beta testing the system. If you park at a Metro park and ride lot and take the shuttle to the rodeo, you can use this system to buy tickets for that as well; see here for more about taking Metro to the rodeo, which is totally a better and cheaper option than driving and parking. I’ve got a Q card, so as long as those exist I don’t foresee a need for me to use the app, but that may change some day. What do you think about this? Would you use it? Leave a comment and let us know.

New parking meters coming

No more paper receipts to clutter up your dashboard.

Some things about street parking in downtown Houston are unlikely to change: It will always require a keen eye for available spots and the courage and skill to wedge your car between large trucks.

A paper receipt, however, is becoming unnecessary as the city replaces its parking meters with newer models that give drivers more options and can even send a text message alerting them that their time is about to expire.

Rather than place a receipt on the dashboard indicating payment, those parking downtown can now input their license plate number when paying by cash or credit card. The machine relays the list of paid vehicles to parking enforcement officers, who simply verify the vehicle is accounted for. If drivers prefer, they can get a paper receipt for the dashboard as before.

“Hopefully it is easier on our customers and it is easier on us,” said Maria Irshad, who oversees ParkHouston, the parking division within the city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department.

The first 276 meters have been installed in northern parts of downtown, primarily around the county courthouse. Parking rules have not changed, and the new meters, like the old ones, require that a button be pushed to activate them.

Over the next five years, 1,054 meters – some dating to 2006 – will be replaced. The city is spending about $10 million on the new meters, which essentially pay for themselves via parking fees.

[…]

The meters being replaced were a vast improvement over old-style machines that required coins, but they also had some problems. Powered by a solar panel atop the kiosk, some of the meters had trouble staying on during “the four months without sunshine” in Houston, said Lara Cottingham, deputy assistant director in the regulatory affairs department.

People also left cups and other litter on top of the panel, disabling it, said Jerry Keeth, division manager for meter operations for ParkHouston.

Paper receipts became a major hassle. Humidity and heavy rain gummed up the slot where the machine spits out the receipts. The paper jams led to broken meters and frustrated drivers.

“I’ve tried to park downtown and both machines on the block would be broken,” Roger Reese said.

Irshad said the new meters were designed with a sensor to alert ParkHouston when the paper dispenser jams, which also shuts down the meter so someone doesn’t inadvertently pay and not receive a receipt.

Eventually, parking officials hope fewer and fewer receipts are needed.

“Definitely the future of parking is your cell phone,” Irshad said.

The app to use on your phone for parking downtown is ParkMobile, which has text-reminder and add-more-money-remotely features. I’m old school enough to want to use the meters themselves (and I’m cheap enough to want to avoid the extra 35 cents per transaction fee that ParkMobile charges), but not having the paper receipts is nice. A press release from the city on this is here, and KUHF has more.

Metro and HCTRA exploring other payment options

Look for them soon.

HoustonMetro

Many transit riders are clamoring for smartphone payment for Metro buses and trains, which the agency originally announced would be ready by the end of 2015. Those plans have been delayed because of contract negotiations, but about 100 riders will be chosen for a test of a smartphone-based payment system in January, according to Denise Wendler, Metro’s chief information officer.

Metro approved a $244,090 contract in June with GlobeSherpa, based in Portland, Ore. The company is developing a smartphone app enabling riders to store single-ride tickets or day passes for use as needed. Riders will show the bus operator or fare inspector their valid ticket, which is designed so it cannot be copied or forged.

Current and potential riders are eager for smartphone options, Metro board members said.

[…]

For the initial March unveiling, Wendler said the smartphone payment system will have the ability to accept and verify Metro’s common $1.25 fare and a $3 day pass option. Smartphone options will come later for those who receive discounts, such as seniors and students, and for park-and-ride fares, she said.

Demand also is expected to surge among commuters, Metro board member Christof Spieler said.

“I would roll out park and ride as fast as possible,” he said.

Metro, after years of encouraging Q card use, has eased up on making the cards the preferred payment source. Though the Q card system is aging and likely to be replaced in a few years, it is still the dominant method of paying for bus and train trips in the area.

I noted the pilot of this a few days ago. I have a Q card, which is paid for by my employer – I suspect there are a lot of people like me – so I’m not exactly itching to try something new. I’m sure that when the time comes, companies that subsidize transit for their employees will find a way to use the new system. For everyone else, I see no reason not to offer more options. Among other things, having a smartphone app for paying would make Metro more accessible to visitors and locals who have a short term need for transit, due to a temporary work assignment or a car that’s in the shop or whatever else. I hope this works out.

Toll agency officials are changing drivers’ payment choices as well. The agency wants to eliminate coin-operated machines and staffed toll booths along many roads, and this month it launched its first EZ TAG option that does not require a credit card.

The new reloadable toll tags, though a partnership with BancPass, are available at the Sam Houston Tollway Ship Channel Bridge toll plaza. They’ll be sold in various retail outlets after the new year, toll road authority spokeswoman Mary Benton said.

Initial purchase of the reloadable EZ TAG costs $40. The “reload kit” includes a transponder for the person’s vehicle, a card to add balance to the toll account and $15 in tolls. As the toll balance diminishes, drivers can add value to the card online or a certain locations around Houston – for now, the Ship Channel Toll Plaza. Each time the card is reloaded, BancPass, the administrator of the accounts, assesses a $2 fee.

Benton said the reloadable card is aimed at attracting people who do not want to give the toll authority credit card information, many of whom use the toll lanes infrequently.

We have EZ tags, and though we don’t use them often (mostly for trips to and from the airport), I don’t foresee that changing. If you’re going to phase out coin machines and staffed toll booths, then you’ve got to have an option for the folks who use them now. It seems a bit complicated, but that’s the tradeoff for using cash.

Want to help Metro test a mobile ticketing app?

Here’s what you need to know.

HoustonMetro

METRO is launching a new mobile ticketing application for smart phones, and we are looking for volunteers to help us test the app before it is released to the public. By volunteering to be a beta tester, we ask that you agree to the following:

1) Actively participate in testing the mobile application.
2) Provide timely and relevant feedback about the app.
3) Be willing to purchase METRO tickets using your own credit or debit card (American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa).
4) Complete a survey about your experiences.
5) Adhere to Terms and Conditions when installing the app.

To participate you must use an Android or iPhone with a certain version of operating system, ride METRO to some degree, and have a valid credit or debit card. If you are interested in participating in this test, please continue with the survey.

Note: We are limiting the number of participants and will try to fill certain quotas based on cell phone user experience and other criteria. Therefore, not everyone who applies will be selected to participate.

Click over to fill out the survey if you are interested. I’ve got a corporate-subsidized Q card or I’d give this a shot myself. I don’t know what the time frame is on this – I couldn’t find a news release about this, I heard about it via Streetsblog, so I’ve got no context for it. If you do know more about it, or if you give it a try, leave a comment and let us know about it.

An app to help the homeless

This is a great idea.

A shower. A meal. A place to sleep. Those basic needs come to mind when most think of the homeless.

Our Calling, a Dallas nonprofit, has given the homeless an iPhone app. The faith-based nonprofit is using technology to help people who live under bridges, near crack houses and in encampments.

The Our Calling app can be used by the homeless to find shelters, food pantries, free meals and job training. Others can use it to snap a photo to direct staff and volunteers to the GPS location where a homeless person may be in need.

Wayne Walker, executive director of Our Calling, learned about the power of technology while working as a software developer during college and seminary.

He discovered that many homeless people didn’t know where to turn for food or shelter — and they sometimes got bad phone numbers or directions. He started a website, helpimhomeless.com, with a list of local resources. Later, he created a booklet of resources printed in a large font with ink that won’t smear in the rain.

The booklet is now used by police, Dallas residents, homeless people and Our Calling’s “search and rescue” teams. The volunteer teams visit camps, wooded areas and other sites to bring water, food and clothes. They encourage the homeless to move into shelters and direct them to support services, such as drug treatment and counseling.

Almost every day, Walker said, he answers calls from homeless people who live across the country and find the group’s website.

Our Calling also uses a robust mobile database. Staff and volunteers use iPads to record interactions with each person, who is listed by name, photo and personal history. The database has helped flag women who may be victims of domestic abuse or keep track of a person’s medications. It can help staff remember the name of someone’s spouse or a prayer request.

The Our Calling app is currently for iPhone only, but an Android version is coming in January. Other cities have other apps, but this one sounds like the most robust. If we don’t have this or something like it for Houston, we should. Mayor Parker did a lot to reduce homelessness during her term. A lot of that was a matter of connecting the people who had the need with the resources that could help them. This can be a project for the next Mayor to take that further.

On cellphones and school zones

I guess I need to talk about this.

Six years ago, state lawmakers hoping to protect students banned drivers from texting and talking on hand-held cellphones in school zones.

The ban, however, has never been enforced in Houston. City and school district officials have opted not to install the warning signs needed to issue tickets, citing a lack of funds.

The city puts the cost at roughly $2.34 million for about 7,800 signs. Based on estimates from the Texas Department of Transportation, however, the price tag should be significantly lower.

Houston lags behind the state’s other major cities and several of its neighbors, including Bellaire, Conroe and West University Place, which installed the signs years ago and enforce the law. With school back in session after summer break, police in some jurisdictions have started issuing tickets for a seventh straight school year.

[…]

About two years ago, Mock said, the city clarified that HISD could take on the task. HISD, however, hasn’t budgeted funding, either. Mock estimated that the district would need about 2,000 signs to cover all the school zones.

Price estimates differ. Using the city’s figures of about $300 each, including anti-graffiti coating and mounts, the HISD signs would cost about $600,000.

The Texas Department of Transportation estimates the tab at $100 each, assuming the cellphone notice can be added to an existing school zone sign. The price tag for installing independent signs is $450 to $600.

In Dallas, spokesman Richard Hill said the city’s public works department funded the installation of more than 2,360 signs in 2010. He said the material cost was less than $22,700 – or about $10 each.

“The cost has been the concern,” said Janice Evans, spokeswoman for Mayor Parker, who was unavailable for comment.

Let’s put the cost question aside for a moment. If this law was passed in 2009, then it took effect in September of 2009, in the latter days of the Bill White administration at a time when he was gearing up to run statewide, and at a time when Annise Parker was in the midst of a hot Mayoral race. I follow this stuff pretty closely as you know, and I have no memory of this bill passing. My guess is that no one in either the outgoing White administration or the incoming Parker administration had this on their to-do list, and it fell through the cracks. Had there not been a story in the Chronicle calling attention to it, my guess is no one would have realized it was on the books and that the city was not in compliance. These things happen. The people who are now making a fuss about it could have been making a fuss about it a week or a month or a year or five ago, they just didn’t know it was there to be fussed about. I say all this not to make excuses – surely this should be done now that we all know about it – but to suggest that we try to maintain a little perspective.

HISD’s Mock said the law would not be easy to enforce – officers have to catch drivers typing or holding their phones to their ears – but he still wants the signs up.

“It would be helpful – not so much because that allows you to write citations … really just to create awareness,” Mock said.

That’s pretty much the debate over banning texting while driving in a nutshell. The vast majority of people who text while driving are never going to get caught at it, but the act of making something illegal, and publicizing that it’s illegal will cause some number of people – probably a lot of them – who currently engage in it to stop doing it. You may not write a lot of tickets for texting while driving, but you’ll make it less common, and that will have a beneficial effect.

Houston City Councilman C.O. “Brad” Bradford, a former Houston police chief, said the signs should be funded.

“What is a child’s life worth?” he asked. “We do a lot of things at City Hall that cost a lot more money. We have a $5 billion operating budget, and to say we cannot find money to erect signs in school zones to help protect children, that’s unconscionable.”

All due respect, but you can use this exact line of reasoning to justify any individual expenditure. Budgets always involve choices, and different choices can always be made. I’m always amused to hear self-styled budget hawks talk like this. Their priorities are obvious and self-explanatory. It’s those other priorities that need to be scrutinized and justified.

The Conroe department, which monitors about 20 school zones, issued 14 cellphone citations last year, [Sgt. Robert Engel of the Conroe Police Department] said.

In Spring Branch ISD, the ban applies only to a handful of schools that fall outside the Houston city limits. In those areas, the local villages have installed the signs, according to school district police Chief Charles Brawner.

The Hedwig Village Police Department, for example, has issued 741 citations for school zone cellphone use since 2009, according to Police Chief David Gott. He said he was surprised by the large number – more than 100 a year on average – but his staff spot-checked the data for accuracy.

“It’s important for people to pay attention in school zones,” Gott said. “It can be very dangerous.”

Bellaire, which has schools in HISD, has issued about 100 citations in six years.

Auto collisions involving distracted drivers – whether on a cellphone or fumbling with the radio – result in roughly 424,000 injuries nationwide annually, according to the latest federal data from 2013. More than 3,150 were killed that year.

My guess is that the Hedqig Village PD doesn’t have a whole lot else to do during the day. A ban on texting while driving is right in their wheelhouse.

Getting back to the matter of cost:

“It comes down to the cost of installing the signs – who bears that cost and whether there’s enough of a benefit to make it worthwhile,” Parker said. “Clearly if it saved one child’s life, it would be a worthwhile investment.

“But we don’t believe that putting up a bunch of signs stops anybody from doing anything. Because if they don’t already know it’s dangerous to do … I don’t think there’s any education we can do to stop people from being stupid. It’s an enforcement issue.”

Houston school board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones said Wednesday that she planned to discuss the issue with her fellow trustees.

“I would like to see there be some cooperation between the school district and the city,” she said. “The safety of our students should be a collaboration between the two entities.”

Marney Sims, general counsel for Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, said she was surprised to find out that the district’s three schools under city jurisdiction did not have the cellphone signs. She said she planned to verify that the district had the authority to install them. “If we do,” she said, “then we will pay to add those.”

Look, we’re most likely talking about a couple hundred grand, which despite my earlier snark really isn’t that much in the context of the city’s budget. In addition, the cost can surely be split to some extent with the big ISDs within Houston – HISD, Cy-Fair, Alief, et cetera. In the name of dropping one annoying little thing from the list of things that the Mayoral candidates can grandstand about, can we please get this done? Thanks. Campos has more.

Metro and your smartphone

Nice.

HoustonMetro

As Metropolitan Transit Authority officials planned for the new system – which will affect practically every bus ride in the region – they have also focused on offering new services. One of those, a system that allows bus riders to text a code listed at each bus stop and receive a reply with the time of the next bus arriving, will debut in August, at the same time sweeping changes come to Metro’s bus routes.

The second new feature, an application to allow riders to buy fares and display them on their smartphones, will be ready in October or November, said Denise Wendler, Metro’s chief information officer.

Officials last month approved a $244,090 contract with GlobeSherpa for the smartphone payment system. Wendler said it would take 60 to 90 days to unveil the first phase, available only to purchase regular fares and day passes. A second phase would enable riders to buy fares specific to park and ride and to pay with online tools such as Apple Pay and Google Wallet.

The new text and smartphone payment systems are intended not only to provide better service for existing riders, but to attract new Metro users, officials said.

Metro does already have a smartphone app, the TRIP app, available on its RiderTools page. That will clearly need an update once the new bus system is rolled out. I suspect the text-to-find-the-time-of-the-next-bus service will be easier to use. As for the pay-by-smartphone app, it’s a great idea that I hope does help increase ridership. Not everyone carries cash, not everyone has a Q card, but lots of people have smartphones, and as long as you do you can catch a ride. I look forward to hearing what kind of numbers they see from this.

You have the right to a phone call

But it won’t help you much if you don’t know what number to call.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

[Harris County Sheriff’s] Deputies on Wednesday outlined a pilot program they hope will help lower the jail population by letting detainees copy five numbers out of their phone before it is sealed in a bag with the rest of their valuables.

“Hopefully they’ll make a call to a family member or a friend and get a bonding company and get bailed out,” said Deputy Chief Fred Brown. “This will be a positive, as far as getting people out on bond.”

When a person is arrested and taken to the jail, the arresting officer takes that person’s purse or wallet, jewelry and other personal belongings, including their phone, and seals it in a property bag.

The bag is given to the property department at the jail and is held until the person is released.

To get access to the phone, the bag has to be retrieved and unsealed. Then to put it back in the property room, all of the paperwork has to be redone.

The solution, then, is to let the detainees write five numbers on their paperwork before the phone is put in the bag.

“It’s simple,” Brown said.

He said the simple fix is part of a strategy of many small steps to make the system work better in the long run. He noted that inmates who are able to find someone to bail them out cost the county less.

The root problem here is that in this day of smartphone contacts, no one actually knows any phone numbers any more. Why should they, when their phone remembers them for them? I’m old school enough to have a bunch of numbers that are critical to me memorized, but anyone I’ve gotten digits from in the last few years is just another entry in my address book. This proposal is such a forehead-slappingly good idea it’s amazing no one had thought of it before. If it helps even a few people get bailed out, it’s well worth it. Kudos to whoever came up with it. Hair Balls has more.

There’s an app for birth control

I’m sure this won’t controversial at all.

“Isn’t there an app for that?”

Turns out there is, if what you’re after is birth control or a test for a sexually transmitted infection.

In the latest example of fast-growing “telemedicine,” video conferencing that virtually extends medical expertise, Planned Parenthood is rolling out a pilot project for real-time “office visits” that bring patient and medical provider face to face on a smartphone, tablet or personal computer.

Fueling the Planned Parenthood Care project, under way in Washington and Minnesota, is a “horrible statistic,” says Chris Charbonneau, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest: “People are sexually active for six to nine months before they get a really reliable birth-control method.”

One result: an estimated 52,500 unintended pregnancies in Washington in 2010, according to the state Department of Health.

Combine that with the prevalence of chlamydia, the most commonly reported sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the U.S., and gonorrhea — both primarily affecting people ages 15 to 24 — and Planned Parenthood hatched a plan to meet young people where they live: on their phones and mobile devices.

For now, the virtual visits create a streamlined process for getting mail-order birth control — and soon, test kits for two common sexually transmitted infections.

Along with convenience, the virtual visits provide a technological answer to this question, Charbonneau says: “How do we see people who either can’t or have difficulty walking into bricks-and-mortar sites, to at least get them started on birth control” or begin investigating a potential sexually transmitted infection?

The national Planned Parenthood organization chose Washington as one of the first states for the project because of its long history of support for women’s reproductive rights and its strong local chapter, according to the local organization.

Planned Parenthood hopes the project will expand next to Alaska and eventually go nationwide. Obstacles include state laws — and possibly some controversy in the wake of a telemedicine controversy in Iowa.

[…]

Some [anti-abortion] activists also worry that webcam visits, though solely for birth control, may ultimately lead to more abortions.

“We know how these things start,” says Dan Kennedy, CEO of Human Life of Washington. “Who is honestly going to believe that’s as far as it goes?”

I’m sure you can imagine how the “argument” will go from there. I’m posting this partly because it’s a great idea, and partly so we’re all familiar with the background when someone in the Lege inevitably files a bill to ban this. In the name of women’s health, of course. Tech Times has more.

911 to text is here

As expected.

Text-to-911 service is available now in Harris and Fort Bend counties for Verizon and T-Mobile wireless customers.

“This is not to be used just because people like to text, but when people cannot make a voice call,” said Sonya Clauson, spokeswoman for the Greater Harris County 911 Emergency Network.

The service for Verizon and T-Mobile subscribers went live on Tuesday, Clauson said. Sprint and AT&T cellphone customers in the two-county area are expected to be able to use messaging services to reach emergency help next month.

See here and here for the background. Remember, as the National Emergency Number Association says, call if you can, text if you can’t. Hair Balls has more.

Text to 911 option coming locally

Ever wonder why you can’t text 911? Well, in Harris and Fort Bend Counties, you will soon be able to.

By the end of the year, millions of Houston-area residents are expected to have a silent alternative: the Text-to-911 option for emergencies.

Despite the popularity of messaging, the service hasn’t been available in most of the nation and much of Texas for the most life-threatening situations: pleas for fire, police or medical assistance.

In May, the nation’s four major wireless carriers met a voluntary deadline to have their end of the Text-to-911 technology ready to deliver customers’ messages topublic safety agencies that request the service, the Federal Communications Commission reported.

As a result, dozens of call centers nationwide and several in Texas can now receive texts from cellphones on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon networks.

The Greater Harris County 911 Emergency Network, which provides technical support for call centers in Harris and Fort Bend counties that serve more than 5 million residents, will be ready in the coming months to do the same with at least one carrier.

That’s important because most people in the Houston area call for emergency help by cellphone. In the first seven months of this year, 84 percent of emergency calls in Harris and Fort Bend counties originated from wireless lines, Greater Harris County 911 figures show.

[…]

FCC rules specify that by year’s end, all wireless carriers – not just the major companies – should be able to provide text messages to call centers that have requested the service.

Those centers, however, are not required to exercise that option, said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association – which is known as NENA.

Some states, such as Indiana and Vermont, are deploying the service statewide, he said. Others, such as California, leave the decision to individual public safety call centers or networks.

According to an FCC list dated Aug. 25, 18 states had at least one 911 center that could receive texts, though some were limited to one or two major carriers. The police departments in the Lone Star State which can receive texts are mostly in the Dallas Metroplex. There are none so far in the Houston area.

With the major carriers ready, the last hurdle is preparation at local 911 centers, said NENA government affairs director Trey Forgety.

As we know, text to 911 is currently available in some North Texas counties, which are so far the only places where it has been deployed. Nationally, however, only about two percent of emergency call centers around the country are prepared to handle text messages, and compliance is voluntary at this time. I’d guess that while cell calls are the bulk of 911 contacts, there’s still not much demand for texting emergency services.

All of Collin County supports the service. But it isn’t offered anywhere in Denton County. A handful of police departments in Dallas County can receive emergency texts: Balch Springs, Cockrell Hill, Sachse, Seagoville and Wilmer.

But texts still account for only a fraction of 911 requests in North Texas.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments oversees 44 call centers in a 16-county region that includes Dallas, Denton, Collin and Tarrant counties.

Of those centers, 25 have text-to-911 capability, and the rest will have it by the end of September, said Christy Williams, chief 911 program officer for the agency.

Since the service launched in January 2013, dispatchers at these centers have received only 12 text messages, compared with more than a million 911 calls, she said.

You can see why the rollout is proceeding slowly. To some extent, this is a chicken-and-egg question, and I’ve no doubt that over time usage will grow. There are also still some technical advantages to calling 911, though perhaps over time that will change as well. For now, the potential remains theoretical. For more on the text-to-911 program, see the FCC webpage.

San Antonio will take its time on Uber and Lyft

As was the case in Houston, San Antonio City Council is in no rush to take action on updating their vehicles for hire ordinances to deal with Uber and Lyft.

Lyft

After an emotional and colorful Citizens to be Heard session, the City Council Public Safety Committee unanimously agreed to hold-off on sending a staff-recommended ordinance revision to City Council that would allow rideshare companies to operate in San Antonio. The committee unanimously passed a motion calling for a task force comprised of local stakeholders to continue research and discussion on developing rideshare regulation.

The committee will take up the issue again in three months during November’s meeting. Traditional taxi and limo companies applauded the decision.

“It was beautiful, I almost wanted to jump and kiss all the council people that were here,” said local cab driver Cruz Chavira after the meeting Wednesday afternoon. “I’m glad that they’re taking their time with this. We felt they were being rushed and we couldn’t figure out why … just sit down and do the homework.”

This decision delays resolution to the hotly-debated presence of Lyft and Uber, who began operating in San Antonio in March.

“Do we have all the answers today? I don’t think so,” said San Antonio Police Department Assistant Director Steven Baum, who presented the staff recommendation and urged the Committee to allow the revision to go to City Council. “If we move forward and adopt (this) revision, we will be back and have to adjust again … if we keep pushing it down the road we will never find all the answers.”

See here, here, and here for the background. San Antonio finished up a major overhaul of their vehicles for hire code in 2013, just in time for the likes of Uber and Lyft to show up on the scene, so I can understand to a point the reluctance to dive back in and do it all over again, but I will suggest that it doesn’t get any easier if you wait longer. One Council member is quoted in the story saying “San Antonio is not like Houston”, but I’d suggest the basic concerns are the same and there’s really not that much difference between the two cities. The main issues – insurance, background checks, access for the disabled, etc – are generally the same and have been studied by other cities as well as by Houston. Nobody really knows yet what the effect of these new companies will be. Whether you follow the example of another city that has already addressed this or you strike out on your own, you’ll want to revisit how it’s going at some point.

Still, I understand the hesitation. Perhaps some of that emotion and color from the session had an effect as well. The Current provides a few highlights.

Uber

A recurring crazy argument that some ride-share opponents honed in on was that poor people do not have smartphones and elderly people do not know how to use smartphones. That argument tapered out after a 68-year-old woman who no longer drives and can’t even use one of her arms, told the committee that she regularly uses her smartphone to catch a Lyft ride. In fact, that’s how she got to the public safety committee meeting. As for poor people not having access to smartphones, have you tried finding any phone recently that’s not a smartphone?

Here’s another fun one. One ride-share opponent has blown the conspiracy out into the open. Lyft and Uber are actually puppets of the global-masterminds over at Google. To be clear, according to this commenter, ride sharing is not about ride sharing; it’s about stealing personal data from consumers.

While we could continue to explore a few more not-so-crazy-but-still-kind-of-crazy comments from ride-share opponents, we’ll end with the craziest comment of them all because the rest are sort of repetitive.

One invigorated man whose voice crescendoed into thunder as he spoke, ended his anti-ride-sharing rant with an outrageous comparison: According to this speaker, allowing Lyft and Uber to operate by changing city code would actually be like slavery and San Antonio would be the Confederacy. His speech was met with thunderous applause from the taxicab lobby. So there’s that.

Are you asking yourselves why we didn’t include any crazy ride-share supporter arguments in this story? The simple answer is, there weren’t any wacky arguments coming from that side. And we don’t want to marginalize legitimate concerns posed by opponents either. Those were there. But crazy is like a car crash and you can’t look away.

I will just note that my mother, whose age I am not at liberty to disclose, is the queen of her iPhone. The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, but I think it’s fair to say that there are plenty of people from generations before mine that can handle modern technology. The logical extension of that argument is that there’s no need to innovate at all, which is arguably how we got to this point in the first place. Good luck sorting it all out, San Antonio. I’ll check back on you in November.

There’s an app for alternate mobility in Houston

This makes a lot of sense.

Technology companies might soon upend Houston’s paid ride market, but they’re already adding new options for getting around the region.

Local groups and software developers are tapping into Houston’s sophisticated traffic management system to offer solutions beyond heading onto the freeway. The hope is that better information will help people decide when their best option is to walk, grab a bus, ride a bicycle or share a ride. And when they drive, real-time information can help them choose the best route – and to find a parking spot.

“Not only is there individual benefit but collective benefit,” said Nick Cohn, global congestion expert for the mapping company TomTom.

Austin-based RideScout [launched last] Monday in 69 cities, including Houston. The free smartphone app connects people with other services nearby, such as Metro buses and trains, taxis, ZipCar car rental locations and B-Cycle kiosks.

Laying out the options could help some people avoid solo car travel by picking transit or a carpool.

“When people in Houston realize they can commute in and are going to be (a passenger) in a car and not behind the wheel and when they get downtown realize they can ride transit or take a cab … it frees them up,” said Joseph Kopser, co-founder and CEO of RideScout.

[…]

Metro and Houston B-Cycle have their own smartphone apps that help link interested riders to their services. The problem is these apps focus on one product rather than laying out all the options, Kopser said.

“This was no different than the airlines 15 years ago,” Kopser said. “They all had websites, and when you were searching for flights you had to go to all the different websites.”

Since then, sites have emerged that gather fares from all carriers and then show users options. Kopser said RideScout is aiming to provide the same service for travel around cities. The app displays all of the services, as well as ridesharing and traffic data, on one map.

Houston can be – how can I put this delicately? – a challenging city to navigate, especially if you’re new or just visiting here. One of the unsung values of public transportation is that it’s a lot friendlier to visitors than driving in an unfamiliar city is. Connecting the dots on our transportation network will make getting around easier and less stressful for a lot of people. The app is available here, and according to their blog they have information on Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and El Paso as well.

Here comes the 346

We’re getting another area code.

Starting July 1, Houston area residents might see phone numbers that begin with 346, when a new area code comes to town.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas last year announced a new area code was being added and this week cell phone companies are texting their customers as a reminder.

The new area code will create possibilities for about 8 million new numbers.

Long-time locals have no reason to grumble-they will get to keep their original area codes

The new area code will be the fourth for the nation’s fourth largest city.

[…]

When 346 is activated, it will overlay 713, 281 and 832 in Harris, Fort Bend, Waller, Austin, Montgomery, San Jacinto, Liberty, Chambers, Galveston and Brazoria counties.

A few numbers are still left in 281, 713 and 832, according to the PUC, but the options for new numbers are dwindling.

Houston’s three existing area codes could run out by October, according to some estimates by the PUC.

The new area code might not be used immediately, but the PUC said 346 will be ready that day, just in case the other three codes run out.

I missed the PUC announcement, so I’m glad I caught this. The story reminds me that we got the 832 code, and the 10-digit-dialing requirement that came with it, way back in 1999. That was two years after the introduction of the 281 code, which at the time was based on geography. Guess they were right when they said the overlay codes would last longer. Anyway, what this all means is that when we finally give Olivia a cellphone, it’ll very likely come with a 346 area code. Good to know. Via Swamplot, and Hair Balls has more.

Texting 911

This is clearly the way of the future, though I admit that I myself would be a bit leery of using it right now.

With eight of 10 Americans using their cellphones to send or receive text messages, some emergency response centers are updating their technology. Among them are centers in 12 Texas counties, hoping to accommodate situations in which calling 911 may be risky or impossible.

The text-to-911 service is an early step in a national initiative to modernize the emergency call system. The initial deployment in Texas, where the service is available at 27 call centers for Verizon or T-Mobile users, is one of the largest so far in the country.

Text-to-911 technology, which allows a user to send a text to 911, also makes emergency response more accessible to the deaf community. Phone calls remain the priority, officials said, because voice calls have better location-targeting capabilities.

[…]

North Texas counties were among the early adopters, partly because the call centers run by the North Central Texas Council of Governments already had an Internet-based calling system that enabled the cost-free installation of text-to-911. Call centers with older equipment would need to spend anywhere from $80,000 to $8 million to enable the service, depending on their size, said Christy Williams, the chief 911 program officer with the council.

LeAnna Russell, the system’s 911 database supervisor, said that while the several 911 texts sent in North Texas so far have not been the most dramatic of circumstances, they have been important. “We’re just glad they’re using the system,” she added.

Williams, who will become the president of the National Emergency Number Association next month, said the long-term goal was to make sure emergency response technology kept up with cellular technology used by consumers.

“We’re ripping out and replacing an infrastructure that’s over 45 years old,” she said. “Once that’s done, we can provide enhanced features for citizens and public safety responders.”

Potential future advances in 911 technology include incorporating video and photo messaging in emergency response systems and allowing different 911 call centers to share maps and databases, which could cut costs and improve efficiency, Fontes said.

“In a next-generation 911 environment,” he said, “when a car crash happens, people could move around, take pictures of the scene and the license plates, and all of this information will be pushed through the responders and hospitals before they even arrive.”

My initial reaction to this was one of skepticism – I thought, if I’m having an emergency, I’d rather have a live person I can talk to on the other end of the line – but the more I think about it, the more I can see the utility of this. For one thing, texting would be mighty handy in any situation where making noise could be dangerous. For another, in the context of an app you could attach a photo or other useful evidence, as you now can for non-emergency purposes as with Houston’s 311 app. Down the line I could imagine integrating Skype or Facetime or some other video chat function. Not many people use this now, but that will surely change. I figure by the time this is rolled out nationally, it will be an indispensable tool in the kit.

Yik Yak

News flash: A new app that enables the posting of anonymous unfiltered thoughts can cause headaches for school administrators. Film at 11.

Not that Yik Yak

A recent bomb threat alerted many Memorial High School parents and administrators to something that many Houston-area students already knew about: Yik Yak, a smartphone app that functions as a kind of cyber-bathroom wall, allowing users to post anything at all anonymously.

The posts – “yaks” – are visible to other users within 1.5-mile radius. On Friday morning, a sampling of yaks from the Houston area included a parent-appalling mix of bullying, racism, sexism, profanity and drug references – not to mention blatant disregard for grammar and capitalization. Some were funny. Some were plain mean.

Late Wednesday night, a yakker threatened to bomb Memorial High School. A student reported the post to Memorial’s swim coach, who alerted the principal, who called in the Spring Branch ISD’s police department.

“We went straight into protocol,” said Jennifer Blaine, the district’s associate superintendent for administration and operations. The police department, including its drug and bomb dogs, swept the building twice, determining it to be safe at 4 a.m. School opened Thursday, with nothing unusual on the campus but a heavy presence of police and dogs.

Yik Yak threats of violence have spread as quickly as the app: High schools in Massachusetts and California have investigated threats, and just Tuesday morning, the University of Alabama investigated a yak that claimed someone was coming to “shoot up campus.”

Such threats appall the app’s creators, says Tyler Droll, one of the company’s young co-founders. He and Brooks Buffington, another 2013 graduate of Furman University in South Carolina, designed Yik Yak as a way for college students to reach each other in large numbers – “to say things like, ‘Free donuts at the library.'”

Yik Yak is also being blamed for the defeat of a ballot initiative at SMU to create an LGBT Senate seat. As someone who is old enough to have participated in Usenet discussion groups, color me unsurprised by any of this. Enabling people to say what’s on their mind has a lot of value, but it also means enabling those who don’t have anything worthwhile to say. The sooner you learn how to deal with it, the better. The HuffPo has more.

Metro to make real time bus info available

Good news from Metro:

METRO’s partnership with Google is getting real – as in offering real-time bus info.

To sweeten the ‘real’ deal, METRO will also be providing Google with detour alerts as well.

“We are focused on improving the customer experience,” said METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “Not only will our customers know when their bus will arrive, but if there’s a detour in place on their route, that information will pop up and they can factor this in their plans, too.”

If for any reason a bus loses connectivity – as the GPS information is transmitted via cellular communications – trips posted will revert to the bus’ scheduled times.

About 77 percent of METRO’s bus fleet is currently equipped with the hardware to provide real-time bus information. The agency is working to bring the remainder of the fleet online.
METRO TRIP app logo

As a reminder – the agency offers other rider tools such as the METRO T.R.I.P. app which helps customers on-the-go plan their trip using scheduled and real-time information, among other features.

“METRO is the first major transit agency, that we’re aware of, to develop its own stand-alone transit app,” said METRO President & CEO Tom Lambert. “We are trying to make it easier for our customers to navigate our system by bringing these types of tools to their fingertips.”

METRO first teamed up with Google in 2008 by sharing its schedules which were loaded into Google Maps for quick, easy trip planning. Of the two trip planners METRO offers on its website, about 50 percent use Google Maps.

The agency’s trip planner will continue to be available to customers but will be phased out in the future.

METRO’s real-time data on Google Maps rolls out Friday, April 25.

Very cool. To me, the most stressful part of taking the bus, which I do at least once a week these days, is not knowing how long it will be before the next bus arrives. I always have the feeling as I approach a bus stop from a direction where I can’t see the traffic coming that there’s a bus just about to arrive and I’m going to miss it. Now at least I’ll be able to either reassure myself that I’ve got plenty of time to get to the stop, or make myself walk faster. Either way it’s a win.

Calculator apps

This seems reasonable to me.

Despite concerns about test security, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced Thursday that he would allow some students to use calculator “apps” on state exams next school year.

Under current rules students may use only traditional calculators. But with more districts giving students iPads or other tablets, some school officials said students should be allowed to use less expensive graphing calculator “apps.” Williams conceded, just for eighth-graders, but ruled out the use of mobile phones.

“While I recognize this revised policy will not address all concerns and may still require some districts to purchase additional technology, I am hopeful this policy will enable us to provide some flexibility,” Williams said in a statement.

Graphing calculators typically cost about $100, though districts may be able to get cheaper bulk rates, said Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. The apps cost $15 or $20, she said.

“The problem from our end was the security risk it created,” Ratcliffe said, referring to students using tablets. “They’d have a camera. They’d have access to the internet. Initially we said no, but we had enough feedback that the commissioner said it would be worth it to try — but at the same time warning districts they really need to make sure their test security and test monitoring occurs at a high level.”

As Jason Stanford points out, there are ways to cheat with the TI graphing calculators as well. Seems to me if the concern is that great there are steps that can be taken to temporarily disable wireless data communications where the tests are being taken if one wants to do so. Personally, I think the benefit of not making the kids spend $100 on a tool they likely won’t ever need outside the classroom far outweighs that risk. This was the right call, and it should be extended to other students as well.

There will be an app for your auto insurance

Do you frequently forget to put your proof of insurance in your car and/or your wallet? The Lege has provided a solution for you.

Thanks to a law passed during the 83rd legislative session, motorists will be able to pull up proof of insurance on their phones to show officers.

Lawmakers and insurance industry professionals say that Senate Bill 181 helps Texas keep up with the times.

“This bill just seemed like the common-sense thing to do,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who co-authored the legislation. “It came to us through a recommendation and provided an opportunity to make use of technology to make life a little simpler for many Texas motorists.”

Traffic stops will occur the same as before, but instead of the driver handing the officer a paper copy of the insurance card, the officer can note the pertinent data off of the mobile device.

[…]

The impact of the new law on Texas drivers and law enforcement is convenience and efficiency, said Beaman Floyd, executive director of the Coalition for Affordable Insurance Solutions.

“If you are involved in a traffic stop, then you are going to be able to demonstrate what you are going to need to demonstrate faster,” Floyd said. “And that means that for law enforcement officers, it’s less time standing out there by the side of the road while you are searching through your glove box.”

Concerns were raised about the ease of counterfeiting an electronic insurance card, but it is just as easy to forge a paper copy, Floyd said.

Whether the insurance is presented on paper or electronically, the officer takes the information and runs it through a verification database.

“If somebody actually tried to counterfeit an electronic proof of insurance, they will be subject to that verification and they will still be caught,” Floyd said.

I wrote about this during the session when there were a couple of House bills to accomplish this working their way through the system. I lost track of it from there, thanks in part I’m sure to some of the more distracting issues that came up, so I’m glad to hear that a version of this passed. Speaking as someone who is one of those people that loses track of his proof of insurance card, I’ll be downloading an app for my smartphone as soon as I hear one is available from my insurance company.

Parking Panda

Interesting

Parking Panda, an online parking reservation system, launches Tuesday in Houston and Dallas. The site’s already up and running, taking reservations for lots around many area venues, including Minute Maid Park, Reliant Stadium and the Toyota Center.

The concept is pretty simple: Go online, find the parking lot you want, based on price and location, and reserve a spot. In some cases, Parking Panda co-founder Nick Miller said, people can even reserve a select spot.

In places where parking can be problem, like around a Texans game, having a guaranteed spot removes the hassle of hunting around or timing your arrival to find a close enough spot. Even if you’re ten minutes late, the spot is there waiting for you.

In Washington, D.C., where Miller said the company has seen one client use the service 125 times in the past year, the use is branching out beyond major venues to include parking around museums and entertainment districts.

That could be where things head in Houston, too, he said. Take the crowded Montrose corridor or Washington Avenue, where the city recently enacted strict parking rules. Before heading out for the night, someone potentially could find a spot ahead of time and leave the car there for the evening.

[…]

Major events and large parking garages aren’t the only places touched by the technology gains in parking. Though the bulk of the business is commercial lots, Miller said Parking Panda has some spot sellers who are, essentially monetizing their driveways.

“We have people who are making a couple hundred dollars a month,” he said.

Not everyone has a driveway worth renting, but for those in high-density areas, or near offices, the opportunity is out there.

The larger point, Miller and others say, is cities have finite space to store cars. If someone who lives a block or so off Westheimer is commuting downtown, someone in Sugar Land who works off Westheimer may be willing to rent the vacant driveway during the day to guarantee a spot.

I guess this is our week for vehicle-related innovations. It’s an interesting concept, and you can see what they have available for Houston here. I’m thinking the rent-your-driveway option might be quite appealing for events like the Art Car and Pride parades, if one lives in those areas. For that matter, I’m thinking some of my neighbors who live close to White Oak might check this out – if people are going to be parking in front of their houses anyway, they may as well make their driveway available and earn a few bucks for it. What do you think?

Uber

Mark me in favor of this.

A smartphone app could be the subject of the year’s most spirited regulatory battle at City Hall, as lobbyists line up for a fight that pits taxicab companies against a car-service technology company called Uber.

The firm’s entry into more than 20 U.S. cities has sparked lawsuits and cease-and-desist letters from taxi owners concerned for their livelihoods and regulators accusing the firm of skirting the law. Uber says it is merely a broker between riders and drivers, using a smartphone app to make getting a ride more efficient.

Uber must seek a change in ordinance for its business model to work in Houston, said Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Company representatives first met with city officials in May; a social media marketing push launched in recent days.

The service the San Francisco-based startup wants to offer in Houston is UberBLACK, which would allow riders to hail town cars – also known as black cars or sedans – using the Uber app, alerting the nearest participating driver to respond. The fare is based on speed and distance using each smartphone’s GPS technology, with the fare charged automatically to the customer’s credit card.

Drivers who want to participate are given smartphones with the Uber app installed, said company spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian, and must pass a background check and comply with all city licensing rules. Drivers continue to work for their limousine company or themselves; they do not work for Uber.

Houston is the last major U.S. city in which Uber does not operate, largely because of the city’s “draconian” regulations, Kalanick said, calling the city’s rules typical of those negotiated by taxi companies to protect themselves at the expense of riders.

“I don’t think taxis in Houston are as readily available as other cities, and (I’d like) to have something like this where you can call, it’s on-demand, they’re there, they’re always very reliable, very respectful,” said Houstonian Natalie Petratis, who uses Uber when visiting her native Chicago.

Uber wants to drop the minimum fare for a sedan ride in Houston from $70 to $5.50; wants regulations changed to enable on-demand service, as opposed to rides arranged at least 30 minutes in advance; and wants to delete the four-car minimum required for new limo and sedan companies, among other tweaks.

This is a no-brainer to me. Regulations that inflate prices while limiting choices are regulations in need of overhaul. Christopher Newport of the city’s Administrative and Regulatory Affairs department correctly noted the parallels between Uber and things like pedicabs, REV Houston, and the Washington Wave. To that list, I’d also add food trucks and their ongoing fight to be allowed to operate downtown.

I have no issue with the cab companies working to protect their interests, and I’m sure Uber will be disruptive to them, but I see no reason to stifle this kind of innovation. I presume cabs continue to exist in the cities where Uber already operates. As such, I see no need to fear it operating here. Uber sent me some information about what has gone on so far and what they’re specifically seeking to change. Here’s the letter from Administrative and Regulatory Affairs that outlines the relevant ordinances; Uber’s response to ARA’s letter; and Uber’s briefing statement about what it does and where it does it. If all that doesn’t have you convinced, note that in addition to using Uber to arrange a ride, you can also use Uber to request an ice cream truck on demand. Need I say more? Hair Balls was on this as well.

First Hackathon project released

Cool.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Budget Bootcamp, a new city website application that provides easy access to city budget information, is the first Houston Hackathon project to become reality.  Budget Bootcamp is hosted on the Finance Department’s website and provides citizens an educational walkthrough of the City’s budget data – both for the recently adopted Fiscal Year 2014 Budget, as well as all adopted budgets since Fiscal Year 2010.

“We’re proud to announce the implementation of Budget Bootcamp,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “Following the adoption of the Fiscal Year 2014 Budget on June 19th, this data visualization provides our citizens a great educational tool for understanding City finances. The Hackathon was a fantastic way to engage citizens and expose the City to new ideas and uses of our data.”

“Budget Bootcamp has something for every budget policy-wonk. Whether you want to break down our revenues for FY14, see the trends over time, or see how the city’s taxpayer-supported General Fund transforms from revenues into department expenditures, this application is a terrific step in terms of financial education and transparency,” City Finance Director Kelly Dowe said.  “We’re excited to implement additional Hackathon projects developed over the coming months as well.”

The City of Houston hosted a 24 hour “Open Innovation Hackathon” on May 17-18 at the Houston Technology Center and at Start Houston. The event offered software developers, designers, and data analysts to collaborate on data and software projects. Over 24 hours, Houston’s “civic hackers” pitched ideas, formed teams, and developed innovative new websites, mobile apps, and insightful data visualizations to address community and City problems.

The City is expecting to implement a handful of additional Hackathon projects in the coming months, as well as continuing to invest in the Houston Data Portal that was set up for the Hackathon.

Further details about the City of Houston Open Innovation Hackathon event can be found at the event website: http://www.houstonhackathon.com/

See here for the background. You should click on that Budget Bootcamp link if you want to understand the city’s finances better – the spreadsheet they’ve created really breaks it down for you. Now if someone is working on better bike maps, I’ll be very happy.