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North Central Texas Council of Governments

Dallas hyperlooping

North Texas takes the lead for this super sexy but possibly vaporware transportation technology.

The Regional Transportation Council announced Wednesday that it will consider the feasibility of a hyperloop as a way to connect Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington. The group is made up of 44 elected and appointed officials that choose funding priorities. It has been in discussions with Virgin Hyperloop One, a Los Angeles-based company that has a test track in Nevada.

“Whatever we build will be around for 100 years, so we need to consider it [a hyperloop system] as we move forward and let the process decide if it’s the best way to move or not,” said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

The regional group has been exploring solutions that would speed up trips between Dallas and Fort Worth and boost economic activity. It plans to hire consultants later this year to evaluate hyperloop and high-speed rail and compare them based on a variety of factors, such as noise, vibration and potential ridership. The study, called an environmental impact statement, will cost about $5 million and take two to three years to complete, Morris said.

A hyperloop system that carries passengers isn’t a reality yet — but that hasn’t kept companies and transportation officials from imagining a time when long commutes and trips to a sports arena or a restaurant in another city could take only a few minutes. A computer model by Virgin Hyperloop One estimated that a trip between downtown Dallas and downtown Fort Worth would take about 6 minutes and 20 seconds by hyperloop with passengers cruising at about 360 miles per hour.

[…]

Hyperloop One got a new name and infusion of funding last year from the Virgin Group and its founder Richard Branson. Texas was already on the company’s radar. Last fall, it included a Texas route on its short list of potential hyperloop sites. The proposed route of approximately 640 miles, dubbed the Texas Triangle, would connect Dallas-Fort Worth to Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Laredo. The proposal was submitted by engineering firm AECOM.

Dan Katz, Virgin Hyperloop One’s director of North American projects, said the company began talking to North Texas officials because of the proposal. He said the Dallas-Fort Worth hyperloop route could be the first phase of a larger, statewide project.

See here for some background. As noted, that larger statewide project contains a connection to Houston, but that’s not on the table right now.

A Houston leg from San Antonio remains possible, but company officials said it is not part of the current projects.

[…]

Wednesday’s announcement fulfills part of the plan envisioned when Hyperloop Texas advanced in a global competition to develop the projects. The San Antonio-to-Houston leg left out of the process is among the busiest corridors in the state.

Katz said the company is proceeding based on where officials have shown interest, with North Texas officials promoting both the Dallas-Fort Worth and Fort Worth-to-Laredo lines. Dallas officials toured the company’s Nevada test site earlier this year.

Interest in a direct Dallas-to-Houston hyperloop has lagged, as Texas Central Partners has worked on a high-speed rail line between the metro areas.

Facing huge demands on travel between Texas’ biggest metro areas, however, officials across the state are looking at all options.

“Adding an option like hyperloop to the existing system of roadways, rail transit, bicycle/pedestrian facilities and high-speed rail to Houston would expand the system in an exciting way,” said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “Connecting other regions in Texas through hyperloop would open up economic opportunities throughout the state.”

Might open up some opportunities for choosing where to live, too. Again, it’s easier to dream on this technology than it is to objectively assess it, but if they’re doing an environmental impact statement we’ll get some of the latter as well. I look forward to seeing what that has to say. The Dallas Observer has more.

Dallas City Council approves vehicles for hire revisions

It was smooth sailing, relatively speaking.

Uber

Starting in late April, ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft will be able to operate legally in the city of Dallas.

The City Council on Wednesday voted 13-2 to overhaul the city’s ordinance for taxicabs, limos and those app-based companies. In doing so, they introduced more competition and brought into the fold some companies that have been functioning without regulation.

The new ordinance ends months of sometimes rancorous debate over how to handle the sweeping technological changes in the industry. Discussion was again a bit tense on Wednesday, even as officials said the rules represented a stakeholder compromise.

Riders in Dallas may not notice all the changes, which go into effect April 30 and cover everything from insurance to fares to vehicle standards.

[…]

Lyft

Dallas has grappled with car-for-hire rules for about a year, after the city tried to crack down on the app-based companies that were operating outside the city’s existing regulations.

An ordinance that would’ve made it much harder for the app-based companies to stay in business in Dallas almost slipped by the council unnoticed. That rewrite was drafted with the help of an attorney for Dallas’ most prominent cab company, Yellow Cab.

But an outcry erupted. City Manager A.C. Gonzalez ultimately apologized for the fiasco. And in the incident’s aftermath, council member Sandy Greyson was tasked with leading an industry study group to update Dallas’ rules.

Officials said the key was developing regulations that, for the most part, treat everyone the same. Though there are some differences for the different modes – and nobody appears to like everything – many said the new rules create more equal competition.

“Competition, my God, it’s the capitalist system,” said Berhane Alemayoh, who represented some limo owners and independent taxi drivers. “We don’t’ say, ‘No Lyft.’ We don’t say, ‘No Uber.’ We want them to compete, but may the best survive.”

Under the new rules, hailable vehicles, such as taxis, will still have maximum rates, while others’ fares will be unregulated. All drivers must get a background check. And vehicles will now undergo a 31-point inspection, rather than having to comply with an age limit.

The ordinance allows for two tiers of commercial insurance: one for when an operator is available to accept riders and another for when they are picking up or carrying riders.

See here and here for the background. Apparently, Dallas is the mirror universe version of San Antonio. I’d love to know the specific differences between Dallas’, Houston’s, and San Antonio’s (proposed) ordinances, since Lyft is apparently happy to operate in the Big D but not here or in San Antonio, while Uber is set to abandon San Antone as well if nothing changes. I have to admit, I’d have expected more uniformity in the various cities’ approaches, but it didn’t work out that way.

Speaking of San Antonio, today is the day that their Council is scheduled to take up vehicles for hire. Proponents of allowing Uber and Lyft to operate, which include District 2 Council Member-elect Alan Warrick, who won’t be seated on Council until next week, and Mayoral candidate Mike Villarreal, would like that vote to be delayed at least until January. (Another Council seat, vacated by Diego Bernal, will be filled at today’s meeting; that person would get to vote on this ordinance if it comes up.) I kind of think that’s the best and most representative course of action at this point, but the ball is in Mayor Ivy Taylor’s court. We’ll see how it goes.

One more thing regarding the Dallas vote:

And it still remains to be seen what will result from the North Central Texas Council of Governments effort to craft a regional car-for-hire policy. That group is largely working off of Dallas’ rules, though some key areas of disagreement remain.

Council member Sheffie Kadane, who’s joined Greyson in meeting with regional officials, said he was confident that “they’ll come along with most everything we’ve done.”

In other words, the rules adopted by Dallas City Council may soon apply to a wider area than just Dallas itself. I wonder if something like that is in the works for the greater Houston area. Unfair Park 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.

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.

Uber and insurance

Fascinating.

Shortly before midnight on a Tuesday night in March, a black Lincoln Town Car was heading south on Divisadero Street in San Francisco at the same time a Dodge Charger was approaching from the opposite direction. The accident that occurred next is a fairly common one: the Town Car was preparing for a left-hand turn as the Charger neared the intersection. The two cars collided along their front driver’s side bumpers (at varying speeds, depending on who’s doing the telling in the police report).

The next couple of moments are the weird ones. The Charger then careened through the intersection, sheared a fire hydrant off the ground, knocked over a tree and barreled into another one. A five-story tall geyser erupted from the corner as the hydrant flew up the sidewalk and struck a pedestrian. When police arrived, it was found lying 81 feet away.

As you might imagine, the front of the Dodge was badly damaged. The driver is now suing the driver of the Town Car, a vehicle with livery plates operated under the company SF Limo Car Service. The pedestrian, who broke her leg and injured her back, is suing both drivers. She is also suing – and this is what makes this crash particularly interesting – the transportation-tech company Uber.

[…]

The whole chain of liability is a mess: A pedestrian was struck by a fire hydrant that was struck by a private vehicle that was struck by a Town Car whose driver had a contract with Uber – but no actual Uber passenger in the back seat. But the terribly fluky accident raises some more straight-forward questions, too: Just what does happen if you’re an Uber passenger in the middle of an accident, or the driver behind the wheel of someone else’s car on RelayRides, or the passenger who’s riding along during a collision on Lyft? Who will take care of you?

See here for my previous Uber blogging. Read the whole Atlantic Cities story, it’s worth your time. Locally, the cab companies in Houston have raised the insurance issue as the debate over Uber continues. Uber for its part maintains that it only contracts with licensed drivers that have their own insurance, so these questions should not involve them. As the story notes, however, Uber’s app puts Uber branding on the cars and drivers, so the matter is more complicated than that. I’ll be very interested to see how the litigation goes.

On a completely tangential matter, the North Central Texas Council of Governments is embarking on a discussion about Uber and other new transportation-enabling technology services like Lyft, and how to deal with their local cab codes to accommodate them (or not). As with the lawsuit above, it will be very interesting to see how that shakes out.