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commuting

And now a few words from our city transportation planner

Didn’t know we had one, did you? Well, we do, his name is David Fields, and he had a few things to say to Chron reporter Dug Begley in a recent Q&A:

As you look at upcoming plans and projects around the city, how is COVID-19 affecting them? Are there tangible things that are changing or are the changes more conceptual, in the sense we might not know what demand is going to look like 12-18-24 months out any longer?

Streets are funny things. Some people see them as having just two purposes: Movement and storage. That might be cars, bikes, transit, or walking, but for all of them, we often limit in our minds what this very physical and expensive infrastructure can do for us.

COVID-19 is reminding us that streets don’t need to do the same job, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year. If we limit streets to these two jobs, we’re not getting the full value out of our investment in our city. While our streets move people at some times of day, those same roads can be used as play spaces at other times. Businesses reminded us that space used for parking sometimes can be used for restaurant pick-up zones at other times.

Learning this lesson is a huge benefit for our city, because the more ways we can use our roads, the more value we provide to our community.

From a planning perspective, has the new coronavirus bought you a little time to sort things out? The challenge here historically has been projects rarely have kept up with traffic and often induced demand makes the shelf life of their benefits much shorter. So, is there a silver lining to a pause?

COVID-19 is a teaching moment. It’s time to take a hard look about what we thought could never change. One of those big topics is believing that everyone who commutes must commute five days every week, somewhere between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. People are working from home more than ever, which means fewer people traveling to work each day. Businesses are learning to be flexible and technology is helping.

The takeaway is that traffic is not set in stone. If 10 percent of our workforce can work from home in the future, traffic becomes a very different conversation. The key for Houston and for our work is to find ways to encourage this behavior we’re learning now, so it’s a choice by our residents and businesses that ends up helping everyone. It’s also resulting in more people walking around close to home more on those days that they stay home to work.

The silver lining is the chance to remember that we control our transportation choices and nothing is set in stone.

There’s more, so go read it. The point of interest for me is the observation that if work from home becomes more widely adopted, it really changes traffic patterns, and potentially reduces the future need for road construction. This has always been a consideration for transportation wonks, but we’ve never seen it in action like this. I am certain that more people are going to resume commuting to work in the coming weeks – here we are hand-waving away the potential for further lockdowns – but I’m also certain that some number of people who have been working from home as a result of COVID-19 will continue to work from home going forward because they like it and it suits them. Who knows what our streets and highways will look like after that?

Again, this is not a revelation to transportation planners and their ilk. A steady increase in telework has always been factored into their calculations. The point is that this is likely to be a step increase in those numbers, which changes the shape of the curves in their models. Some plans are already in motion – the 59/610 interchange rebuild, for example – while others are not yet finalized – the ginormous I-45 project – but in either case what we once thought was true now may not be. What are we going to do about that?

On a somewhat random side note, another factor that transportation nerds have been eyeing has been the rise of autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles that are shared by multiple riders are one option touted as a possible future mode for mass transit. I’ve been skeptical of stuff like this for a variety of reasons, but it’s not hard to imagine such a thing having more appeal in the future, at least as an alternative to buses, and assuming there’s a way to separate the passengers from each other. Also assuming that the ridesharing companies that would surely be among those providing this service survive the current economic environment, which, who knows. You’d think now would be the time for someone to be touting the benefits of this concept, but I at least haven’t seen such chatter.

Could you get to work if you didn’t have a car?

Lots of people in the Houston area could not easily get to work if their car were not available to them.

According to a new report from the Brookings Institution, only 57.8 percent of the jobs in the entire Houston metro area are in neighborhoods with access to public transit service.

When ranked against the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the nation, Houston was No. 82 in terms of the share of jobs that were in reach of public transit service.

[…]

When compared to other cities, Houston fared better on its percentage of labor population that could use public transportation to reach their employer within 90 minutes. In the city, 22.5 percent of the working population could reach their office by using public transportation within 90 minutes, placing it No. 56 on the national list.

You can see a sorted list of MSAs here and the study itself here. For the most part, it’s the suburban areas that lack transit options, especially if you have to get from one suburb to another. I suspect one reason Houston has a mediocre score isn’t so much because bus coverage is inadequate but because bus trips can be time consuming, especially if you have to transfer. I’m just guessing, though.

At our house, Tiffany works downtown and takes the bus most days. I do kid dropoff and pickup and I work near the Astrodome, so I drive. Out of curiosity I went to Metro’s trip planner to see what a transit commute would look like for me. The shortest trip suggested, which involved taking the Montrose Crosstown bus to the Hermann Park/Rice U light rail stop and catching the train from there, was estimated at 42 minutes. If I’m still working in the same place when the North Line extension is finished, I could hie myself over to the Quitman station after dropping off the kids, and from there I’d estimate it would be about a 30 minute trip, assuming that the North Line continues on Main Street instead of requiring a transfer. I’d contemplate parking my car near school and riding my bike to Quitman, but I know from personal experience that you can’t bring your bike on board the train before 9 AM, which unfortunately makes commuting that way impractical. Ah well, maybe that will change by 2014. Anyway, at least I’d have options. WonkBlog has more on the Brookings study.

It’s Super-Commuter!

You think you have a long drive to work? Ben Wear writes about a study of people who take it to the extreme.

A flying car would make that commute feel shorter

The researchers define a supercommuter as someone who works in the central county of a metropolitan area but lives beyond the official boundaries of that metropolitan area. They used census data to draw their conclusions.

Among their findings:

  • City “labor sheds,” the areas from which workers flow into the workplace, “are expanding rapidly and super-commuter growth rates are far outpacing workforce growth rates.” Supercommuting is growing in eight of the nation’s 10 largest cities, with the exceptions being Atlanta and Minneapolis.

    To some degree, the study’s authors say, the growth of the Internet and other electronic tools that make it possible for workers to carry their office with them have contributed to the phenomenon. Some of these employees work from home some of the time, traveling to an actual office only once or twice a week.

  • Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston have the greatest percentages of supercommuters, with approximately 13 percent of the workforces in those cities living beyond the exurbs. According to the report released last month, 51,900 people commute from Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston each week, and 44,300 people from Houston work in Dallas.

    Perhaps these people should call each other and discuss some house swaps.

  • Houston has 251,200 supercommuters working there, a figure that grew 98 percent between 2002 and 2009. Dallas had 175,700 of them, with 38.4 percent growth during those seven years. Mind you, that’s a period during which the average cost of gas rose from about a $1.20 a gallon to well above $3 a gallon.

Austin is very much a part of this trend. The report says that about 35,400 people from greater Austin commute to Houston, and 32,400 live here and work in Dallas-Fort Worth. So, not even counting Austinites who commute to San Antonio — the report didn’t have that data — that means about 1 of every 25 people who lives in this area (including infants and children) works in those two cities.

Report co-author Mitchell Moss said he and researchers did not make the opposite calculation, figuring how many people like Hurt commute to Austin from Houston or the Metroplex.

The report said these supercommuters tend to be young and to make less than $40,000. The motivation, typically, is to live where housing is cheap and work where the work is.

The study in question was done by NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. Here’s the abstract:

The twenty-first century is emerging as the century of the “super-commuter,” a person who works in the central county of a given metropolitan area, but lives beyond the boundaries of that metropolitan area, commuting long distance by air, rail, car, bus, or a combination of modes. The super-commuter typically travels once or twice weekly for work, and is a rapidly growing part of our workforce. The changing structure of the workplace, advances in telecommunications, and the global pattern of economic life have made the super-commuter a new force in transportation.

Many workers are not required to appear in one office five days a week; they conduct work from home, remote locations, and even while driving or flying. The international growth of broadband internet access, the development of home-based computer systems that rival those of the workplace, and the rise of mobile communications systems have contributed to the emergence of the super-commuter in the United States. Super-commuters are well-positioned to take advantage of higher salaries in one region and lower housing costs in another.

Many workers are not expected to physically appear in a single office at all: the global economy has made it possible for highly-skilled workers to be employed on a strictly virtual basis, acquiring clients anywhere and communicating via email, phone and video conference. Furthermore, the global economy has rendered the clock irrelevant, making it possible for people to work, virtually, in a different time zone than the one in which they live. Simply put, the workplace is no longer fixed in one location, but rather where the worker is situated. As a result, city labor sheds (where workers live) have expanded over the past decade to encompass not just a city’s exurbs, but also distant, non-local metropolitan regions, resulting in greater economic integration between cities situated hundreds of miles apart.

NYU’s Rudin Center has found that super-commuting is a growing trend in major United States regions, with growth in eight of the ten largest metropolitan areas.

The full report is here. There was a Chron story from five years ago that said “9.7 percent of Houston-area residents and 7.2 percent of Dallas-Fort Worth-area residents have commutes of more than an hour”, so there’s a comparison for you. The 251,200 supercommuters for the Houston area (which they define as the “Harris County Center of the Houston-Baytown-Huntsville CSA”) must represent both those who go as well as those who come, because the table on page 12 that lists the top 10 metro areas of residence for non-local workers in our area only sums to about 144,000, and I rather doubt the tail is long enough to have another 100K people in it. Dallas-Forth Worth (51,900), Austin (35,400), and San Antonio (31,100) are the three biggest contributors to our non-local work force, while some 44,000 people live here but work in the Metroplex. You’ve got to figure that these folks would form a large portion of the initial ridership for that long-awaited high speed rail network in Texas if it ever gets built. Anyway, the next time you’re stuck on the freeway and you find yourself wondering where all these people came from, now you know. Houston Tomorrow has more.