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traffic

A bad streak

Twenty years. Geez.

For 20 years, Texans have been dying to get somewhere, and there is little sign they will stop anytime soon.

Saturday marks 20 years of at least one death a day on Texas roads, a grim milestone in a long-simmering safety crisis lawmakers and local agencies have pledged to stop but have barely slowed in the past two years.

“The numbers don’t reflect it yet, to be frank,” state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said of efforts to eliminate roadway deaths by 2050.

They eventually will reduce dying on streets, officials said, but only through efforts on numerous fronts. Plans call for spending millions on education campaigns to change driver behavior and keep impaired drivers from choosing to get behind the wheel. Engineers expect to use crash data to identify and then build better intersections and crosswalks. Upcoming state highway repairs include rumble strips to warn drivers when they drift from the road.

Whatever changes officials have in store, the intent is to encourage drivers to do what they need to do to keep themselves and others safe, or not enable whatever it is that leads them to poor choices.

“It is the difference between life and death,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, noting the city’s plan for eliminating fatalities on city streets will be released later this month. It is expected to recommend significant reconstruction changes at intersections and along major streets.

“No loss of life is acceptable,” Turner said. “We need to communicate the value of life over speed.”

If we couldn’t have a traffic death-free day during the height of the pandemic shutdowns, I can’t imagine how we’ll ever have one again. Just from a sheer numbers perspective, it seems impossible, barring a radical paradigm shift at some point. (Yeah, yeah, driverless cars. When were those supposed to start being regular features of our daily commute again?) There’s been a lot of work done to make roads safer, and there are more such projects in the pipeline, but those things take time, and we have zillions of miles of roads. Stay safe out there, y’all.

Nothing but gray skies ahead

You want a small sign that things are returning to “normal”, here you go.

Houston’s air pollution is returning to normal levels, following a period of cleaner skies during the stay-at-home orders put in place to slow the spread the coronavirus.

As Gov. Greg Abbott moves to reopen Texas’ economy, vehicles are back on the roads and with them come emissions from the burning of gasoline and diesel.

Ozone levels have now surpassed legal limits five times since April 20 after staying unusually low for more than a month. Nitrogen oxide emissions — a key contributor to smog — are back near where they were before the coronavirus shutdowns began, said Daniel Cohan, an environmental engineering professor at Rice University.

“It looks like most of the reduction in nitrogen dioxide over Houston has now faded,” he said. “There appears to be a partial bounce back in travel.”

Hope you enjoyed the breathable air while it lasted.

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.

Driving may be down, but traffic fatalities are not down as much

It’s a bit of a conundrum.

I don’t miss this

COVID-19 can keep millions of Texans at home and cut vehicle travel roughly in half in many cities, but cannot keep hundreds from dying on state roads — continuing a stubborn trend of carnage unabated for nearly two decades.

With many reports likely still finding their way into the state’s crash recording system maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation, police last month logged at least 241 fatalities on state roads as of Monday. That is a decline of 21 percent from the 305 in March 2019, at a time when people are driving only about half as many miles.

“I would have expected the number to go down more,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said. “But we tend to have a bad driving culture in our region and less traffic doesn’t mean safer drivers are out, sadly. We still see people taking unnecessary trips, and the fact we are still seeing high numbers (of fatalities) is worrisome.”

In Harris County, 32 people died on roadways last month, 14 more than killed by the new coronavirus, based on crash reports to the Texas Department of Transportation and health department statistics.

As is typical, most deaths occurred in urban counties, according to the tallies to date. Dallas County, which reported 29 fatalities, surpassed its 2018 and 2019 totals for the month. Harris County’s 32 reported deaths was more than the 31 in March 2018, but below the 37 in the same month last year. The five deaths so far in Galveston County represent increases over March totals in 2018 and 2019.

[…]

Among those deaths, pedestrians are becoming a larger share, with both Harris County and Bexar County surpassing 2018 and 2019 deaths for March. In Harris County, the 11 pedestrian deaths reported is four more than March 2019, something Gonzalez attributed potentially to bad habits along mostly desolate roads.

“Everybody that takes to the roadways thinks there is nobody out there and there are bicyclists and pedestrians,” he said.

Crashes overall, however, have declined for the Harris County sheriff’s department, internal department statistics show. The previous two Marches, the agency responded to 3,035 and 2,574 crashes. Last month, deputies handled 1,725.

Freed from stop-and-go traffic, Gonzalez said he worries speed — already a major problem along Houston area roads and a contributing factor to crashes — is worsening.

“Some of the habits do not break whether there is a pandemic or not,” the sheriff said.

See here for some background. I too would assume that fewer vehicles on the road means the ones that are out there are driving faster than usual, because that’s what we do. I’ve taken advantage of the lesser traffic to let my elder daughter do some driving practice, and many cars whiz past us on the highways; to be fair, my daughter likes to stick to the speed limit, which as we know is for chumps in this town. It would be nice if we could reap the full benefit of fewer cars on the road, but it’s clearly not realistic.

Goodbye, Greenlink

Another version of Metro’s downtown trolley system is shut down due to coronavirus, and likely won’t come back, at least not in that format.

Downtown Houston’s free shuttle may have hauled its last passenger, a victim of the central district’s stop-and-go traffic, as well as changes in how residents and visitors move around town.

GreenLink, shuttles that pick up and drop off at Metropolitan Transit Authority bus stops along various streets in the downtown district, stopped March 23 as transit officials and the downtown district reduced service because of the COVID-19 crisis.

The timing could accelerate what already was a planned discontinuation of the service on May 31, said Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District, which owned the shuttles that started circling the city’s center in mid-2012, operated by Metro with funding from the downtown district.

Eury said given the weeks of isolation orders likely ahead, it is possible GreenLink shuttles never get a green light ever again, at least in their present form.

[…]

Metro on March 24 agreed to buy the seven buses used on the route for $264,439, their estimated value due to depreciation.

Officials said it is possible they will not go far, however. Metro board member Jim Robinson said the transit agency is exploring quick routes across the central business district to connect workers on the eastern side to the park and ride service largely focused on the west side.

“I’ve had a number of people who live in northern or western park and ride areas tell me they would use the service if they didn’t have to walk from the west side of the (central business district) to the east side in Houston weather,” Robinson said.

Robinson said a decision will come within a comprehensive look at the entire commuter bus system, and how it can serve jobs spreading across the downtown area and into EaDo and Midtown.

That makes sense. The Greenlink buses were low-capacity to begin with, and to some extent they were an alternative to walking, which when downtown streets were jammed was often at least as quick a way to go. Uber and Lyft also competed with Greenlink. I worked two different stints downtown, for two years in the mid-90s when the previous trolley system was in place, and for four years in the 2010s with GreenLink. I never used either service, mostly because I’m a fast and impatient walker who doesn’t mind a little recreational jaywalking. In my second time downtown, I made use of B-Cycle when I had to take a trip that was just a bit too far to walk. As Metro redesigned its local bus system a few years ago, it makes sense to rethink what GreenLink is about, and to ensure that it’s providing the kind of rides that most people really need. After we’re all able to get out of the house and use it again, of course.

Coronavirus and driving

There are a lot fewer cars on the road now, though the decrease may not be quite as much as you’d think.

I don’t miss this

Traffic around the country has plummeted since governments began enacting stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus outbreak, but data from vehicle navigation systems and other monitors shows many of us are still out of our homes and on the road.

Nationwide, traffic analytics firms say, daily traffic remains at about 60% of normal levels, even as the vast majority of Americans tell pollsters they’re staying home more.

In California, where a stay-at-home order took effect March 19, daily trips statewide remain at 58% of normal levels, according to Wejo, a British company that collects data from sensors in some passenger vehicles.

On Wednesday – two days after the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland enacted stay-at-home orders – daily car trips in the region remained at 51% of normal in D.C., 53% in Maryland and 59% in Virginia, according to Wejo, which does not include trucks or other commercial vehicles.

The figures are similar in parts of the country at the forefront of the U.S. covid-19 outbreak and where people have been under shelter-in-place orders longer.

[…]

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted March 22-25 found that 91% of Americans reported staying home as much as possible due to the coronavirus outbreak, and nearly 9 in 10 said they had stopped going to restaurants and bars.

But plenty of Americans are still on the road, even if they have curtailed their travel.

Some of the remaining traffic, experts say, stems from motorists heading to and from the many worksites that have been deemed “essential”: health-care facilities, supermarkets and liquor stores, construction sites, banks, dry cleaners, hardware stores, pet stores, government facilities, and auto and bicycle repair shops, among others. The Washington region’s orders also exempt plumbers, electricians and others needed for home repairs.

Some workers who previously might have taken mass transit or carpooled might now be driving alone in an attempt to distance themselves from others, experts say. Public transportation service hours also have been curtailed dramatically.

And though many of us have greatly reduced our travel, we usually can’t eliminate it. Activities deemed essential to carrying on daily life include fetching food, going to a doctor’s appointment or picking up a prescription. In The Post-ABC News poll, 6 in 10 people said they had stocked up on food and household supplies.

And if you want to hit the road to avoid climbing the walls? Washington-area officials say it’s OK to drive for “leisure” or relaxation – a pastime not typically associated with the region’s roads.

It turns out that a lot of driving is not just for going to and from work, but for things like errands and shopping, which people are still doing albeit not as often. And of course there are a lot of people who still have to go to work, for those essential services. My team was ordered to start working from home on March 9, and I’ve barely been on the road since then. I don’t miss it at all. It has been a good opportunity to give my elder daughter some road experience with her learner’s permit, since we’re much less likely to encounter nasty conditions. This was a national story from the Washington Post, so there was no Texas-specific information in it, but an earlier Chron story suggests we’ve seen the same effect here, so much so that conditions have been great for road construction projects. It wouldn’t surprise me if one result of all this is more people working from home for the long term, which in turn would mean a permanent dip in traffic. We can all hope.

Les traffic, easier construction

We’ll be talking about the knock-on effects of the coronavirus pandemic for years to come.

A lighter load on Houston-area freeways and COVID-19 concerns have not slowed the heavy machinery making way for more lanes or new ramps along many of the routes seeing unprecedented drops in traffic.

Some crews will even ramp up work as traffic takes a coronavirus-induced holiday.

“Lighter traffic on our roadways potentially presents some opportunities to advance some of our work, and that is being assessed on a case-by-case basis,” said Raquelle Lewis, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.

All TxDOT projects remain active, Lewis said.

Houston Public Works and contractors on city jobs also remain out tying steel, pouring concrete and smoothing asphalt, Public Works spokeswoman Erin Jones said this week.

This is actually a great time to hit the streets and get some major work done while there are fewer folks driving, officials said. Work is accelerating or changing on a handful of projects, Lewis said. Typically during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, crews halt work on TxDOT projects in the vicinity of NRG Park. When the rodeo pulled up stakes, the highway workers returned.

The chance to disrupt fewer drivers also is changing some schedules, Lewis said.

“Work on the (Loop) 610-Interstate 69 interchange project has moved up the placement of beams for some of the new connectors,” she said.

Contractors working with TxDOT also are seeing if they can extend lane closures to expedite work while traffic volumes are low. Lewis said those are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“As events evolve, this also could change,” she said.

This all might not last too long – Lord knows, we are all hoping that the bulk of the social-distancing requirements will have a short lifespan – but road construction will be a little easier, and a whole lot less disruptive, in the meantime. I know I’ve barely been in my car over the past two weeks – my group at work was told to start telecommuting ahead of most others, and this past week was spring break. What has been your experience – are you driving less and enjoying the respite, or driving as much and enjoying the lesser traffic?

Resilient Houston

It’s good to have a plan.

No traffic deaths on Houston streets, 4.6 million new trees, and no more homes in the floodway. All by 2030.

Those are some of the lofty goals set in the master resiliency plan, “Resilient Houston,” that Mayor Sylvester Turner and city officials unfurled Wednesday, a 186-page document that spells out how the city and its residents can orient themselves to best prepare for future disasters like Hurricane Harvey.

The plan addresses resiliency at five scales — people, neighborhoods, bayous, the city and the region — and sets 18 targets, along with a corresponding set of 62 actions to make those happen.

“There’s a lot in there,” said Marissa Aho, the city’s chief resilience officer, who has spearheaded the production of the plan over the last 18 months. Aho was hired from Los Angeles, where she developed a similar framework.

About a third of the actions are initiatives the city already has in the works. Another third build on existing city projects, and the remaining actions are new.

They range from the immediate term, such as the appointment of resilience officers in each city department this year, to the more distant future, such as reaching complete carbon neutrality by 2050.

As noted in the story, the Resilient Houston plan document is here. It’s 186 pages, so I hope you’ll forgive me that I’ve only skimmed the beginning of it. The eighteen goals of the plan are laid out in the table of contents on page 3, and they include items that ought to have wide consensus like “We will support Houstonians to be prepared for an uncertain future”, “We will live safely with water”, and “We will modernize Houston’s infrastructure to address the challenges of the future”. I’d encourage you to look and get a feel for what it’s about. This is part of a worldwide effort called 100 Resilient Cities, of which Houston is now a member. It’s going to take me some time to process all this, and now I feel like I want to do an interview with Marissa Aho once primaries are over. At a high level, I think this is a good and necessary thing, and I think the goals are both desirable and achievable. How we get there will very much be the tricky part.

What can we really do about I-45?

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if we didn’t expand I-45?

It’s an awful lot of money that comes with a ton of negative effects and which, if the I-10 expansion is any guide, will have short-lived positive effects. So maybe we should just, like, not do it?

A massive remake of Interstate 45 from downtown Houston north to the Sam Houston Tollway that would be among the largest road projects in the region’s history also is one of the nation’s biggest highway boondoggles, according to an updated list released Tuesday.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project — the umbrella term for the entire $7 billion-plus plan to remake Interstate 45 — is listed in the latest installment of unnecessary projects compiled by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group. Nine projects across the country made the 2019 list, the fifth annual report from the two groups that have argued for greater transit investment.

“We believe that to fix congestion problems we need to take cars off the road,” said Bay Scoggin, director of the TexPIRG Education Fund, a subset of the national group. “We could do far better investing $7 billion in public transit.”

The dubious distinction on the list comes days before two city-sponsored public meetings to gauge ongoing fears about the project. In the past six months, concerns have ramped up against the project as the Texas Department of Transportation and engineers seek federal approvals, following years of discussions.

The report is here, and you can see a very concise breakdown of the issues with this project here. If you want a bit more detail, Streetsblog read what TxDOT itself has to say about the project.

  • The project’s “proposed recommended” routes would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 single-family homes, 1,067 multifamily units and 331 businesses with 24,873 employees. “Potential impacts to community resources include displacement of residences and businesses, loss of community facilities, isolation of neighborhoods, changes in mobility and access, and increased noise and visual impacts. . . All alternatives would require new right-of-way which would displace homes, schools, places of worship, businesses, billboards, and other uses.”
  • “All [build] alternatives would result in displacements that would reduce the size of the communities and potentially affect community cohesion… Proposed alternatives that include elevated structures may create physical barriers between neighborhoods or affect the existing visual conditions of the communities.”
  • The project’s “[c]onversion of taxable property to roadway right-of-way and displacements of businesses that are significant sources of sales tax revenue would have a negative impact on the local economy.” And while at present the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods “are experiencing various degrees of redevelopment,” the state notes that “growth trends indicate redevelopment would continue independent of the proposed improvements to project facilities.”
  • The project will “cause disproportionate high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations.” And the project’s “[d]isplacement of bus stops could affect people who do not have access to automobiles or that are dependent on public transportation.”

Doesn’t sound good, does it? Here’s a thought to consider. What if we took that $7 billion that this project is estimated to cost, and spent it all on transit? That would be more than enough to fully build the Universities and Inner Katy light rail lines, plus the Green/Purple extension to Hobby Airport and the Red Line extension out US 90 all the way into Sugar Land. I’d estimate all that would cost three billion or so, which means there would be between three and four billion left over. We could then take that money and buy more buses and hire more drivers so that we could upgrade most if not all of the existing bus system to rapid bus service, we could create some new lines to fill in any existing gaps, we could add more commuter bus lines from outlying suburbs into the central business district and other job centers, we could build a ton more bus shelters, we could fix up a bunch of sidewalks around bus stops, and we could pilot some more autonomous shuttles to help solve last-mile problems and gaps in connectivity in the existing network. I mean, seven billion dollars is a lot of money. This would greatly improve mobility all around the greater Houston area, and it would improve many people’s lives, all without condemning hundreds of properties and displacing thousands of people. But we can’t do that, because TDOT doesn’t do that, and we haven’t gotten approval from the voters, and many other Reasons that I’m sure are Very Important. So get ready to enjoy all those years of highway construction, Houston, because that’s what we’re gonna get.

Still filled with dread about I-45

Anyone got a paper bag I can breathe into?

Strip away the enormity of rebuilding Interstate 45 and the promise of speedier trips along downtown Houston freeways, and two questions about the once-in-a-generation project remain:

How many negative effects are acceptable in one neighborhood for other people’s faster commutes?

And, how far should transportation officials go to reduce those impacts, to secure support and not vocal opposition?

“This is the defining project in the city of Houston for the next 20 years,” said Michael Skelly, a local businessman and organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “Doing it properly means minimizing impacts and, where there are impacts, mitigating them properly.”

Impacts expected from the widening of I-45 from downtown north to the Sam Houston Tollway — including a $3 billion remake of the downtown freeway system that buries a portion of the freeways and tears down the Pierce Elevated — run the gamut of environmental and social ills: air quality and flooding concerns for schools, day cares and low-income communities; removal of public housing developments in a city already hurting for affordable homes; concrete pillars and ramps rising above pristine park space along area bayous; uprooting 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes.

“What concerns us as a group is inequity,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, a local transportation advocacy group. “They will feel losses, not gains.”

Texas Department of Transportation officials say they are balancing those concerns with a need to rebuild a freeway beyond its useful life, in a way that officials believe prepares for how Houston will move more than a decade from now.

“We are working real hard to make this work,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for the six-county Houston area. “Everything we’ve heard, we’ve said ‘let’s see if we can make this work.’”

Not every problem, however, has a solution as TxDOT awaits federal approvals, possibly by the end of this year. The total cost of the project could climb above $7 billion. Construction on the segments where I-45, Interstate 69 and Texas 288 intersect could start as early as 2021.

It’s a long story, so go read the whole thing. I’ve already written about Independence Heights and the raw deal they’re likely to get, so I’ll just note two more things. One is that when a certain high-speed rail project needs to use eminent domain to build on rural land, there’s a huge (though to be fair, so far not very effective) political backlash. But when a highway expansion being proposed for the heart of a city that will “uproot 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes”, there’s a much more muted reaction. You tell me why that is. And two, as someone who is now working on the west side of town and commuting on I-10 every day, let me tell you that whatever traffic flow improvements this will achieve when the ribbon is cut, they will not last for long. I head west on I-10 from the Heights every day before 6 AM, and you’d be surprised how much traffic there is already. It moves at highway speed, but if I were to leave even thirty minutes later, that would not be the case at all. I drive home between three and four, supposedly going “against traffic”, and again, you wouldn’t believe how full it is. Most days, traffic is heavy enough to cause standstills, and it’s almost always worst inside the Loop. We’re what, a decade out from the much-ballyhooed Katy Freeway expansion? Good luck with trying to solve this when the clamor for relief starts to rise. My point is, we’re going to go through multiple years of hell, for maybe a few more years of improvement. Again, you tell me if there isn’t a better way.

What’s wrong with the I-45 expansion plan?

Urban planner Jeff Speck, in a recent lecture in Houston, lays out the following problems with the planned I-45 expansion:

The brief list of negatives include:

I-45 will wreck your bayou parks.
I-45 will destroy wildlife habitat.
I-45 will make flooding worse.
I-45will impede neighborhood connectivity and access.
I-45 will reduce city revenues.
I-45’s bike facilities are a cruel joke.
I-45’s caps are not likely to succeed.
I-45 is so much money.

Other than that, though, I’m sure it’s fine. Chron writer Allyn West digs a little deeper into that last point.

In 2012, Houstonians were asked to vote on a $166 million proposition to pay for 150 miles of greenways along our bayous. In 2018, Harris County residents were asked to vote on a $2.5 billion proposition to pay for hundreds of projects that would help the entire region with flood control. This year, Metro says it will ask us to vote on a $3 billion proposition to pay for 20 miles of light rail extensions, 75 miles of bus rapid transit and other “systemwide improvements.”

The Texas Department of Transportation, too, is planning to spend $7 billion (and maybe more than that) to rebuild about 24 miles of freeways. The project will reshape roads between Midtown and Beltway 8, some of the most congested stretches in Texas, by merging Interstate 45 with Interstate 69 and rerouting them together northwest around downtown. Unlike with those greenways, flood projects or transit plans, TxDOT never had to ask permission from voters.

Because TxDOT doesn’t have to do that, its massive projects often ignore the reality of people on the ground — the thousands of Houstonians whose neighborhoods will be impacted both directly and indirectly as a result of the I-45 expansion.

“There has never been the same (political) pressure for specificity for highway projects,” Kyle Shelton, the transportation historian and the director of strategic partnerships at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, told me. Unlike transit, for example, freeways have historically been viewed and funded as a “public good.”

It should be noted that the city, the county, and Metro were and will be asking voters to authorize borrowing the money needed for those projects. Had they been funded out of their operating budgets, no vote would have been needed. The point West is making is that this makes the politics of these projects very different. TxDOT starts out with the assumption that it can do whatever it wants, as long as it goes through the regulatory approval process. TxDOT is required to solicit public feedback, and they do incorporate that into their designs, but it’s a lot harder to drum up public opposition and basically impossible to kill whatever it is they’re working on. That’s the nature of the system. It’s worth pausing for a moment and thinking about how the system might be different if, say, TxDOT and Metro – and we may as well throw in HCTRA and the other toll road authorities around the state – had identical hurdles to clear in order to build anything. I don’t know what that might look like, but it’s fair to say it would be different.

In the meantime, the final environmental impact statement for the I-45 project is now available on the project website. You have one last chance to give your feedback to TxDOT on it, so get moving before the 17th of March. Speck’s video will be available on the Kinder Institute YouTube channel, so go watch it when you can.

Have you started avoiding the 59/610 interchange yet?

Better get started.

I-69 at the 610 West Loop is a traffic hot spot in Houston. The two freeway segments that meet at the interchange top the list of the most congested in Texas, according to the Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Danny Perez, a spokesman for TxDOT, says a project the Department has already started is designed to eliminate a lot of the weaving motions that lead to crashes in the hot spot. They want to give drivers more time to make decisions before they have to merge.

“You’ll have increased capacity on connector ramps for instance,” explained Perez. “So if you’re going 610 northbound to 69 going northbound you’ll have a wider connector that will be set further back.”

The project includes higher and wider ramps along with other improvements. Perez says the work could take up five to six years but they’re hoping to finish sooner.

Emphasis mine. See here and here for the background. Note that this is happening as the construction of an elevated busway is already happening. A couple of weeks ago on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly on Houston Matters, I opined that the end of the construction on 290 just meant that roadwork would shift elsewhere, as roadwork never truly ends but is conserved. It’s like one of the laws of the universe or something. If anyone who was listening to that thought I was joking, well, now you know. Godspeed to us all.

Speed kills

Good long read from the Chron about our dangerous roads and highways. There’s too much to cover here, so I just want to focus on the why we all speed so much.

Houston drivers likely speed, at least in part, because they believe no one with authority is paying attention.

A Chronicle analysis of municipal court data shows that Houston-area law enforcement’s largest agencies are deploying fewer officers for road enforcement and ticketing fewer drivers, even as fatalities increased in the past two years and the area grows in population.

Houston police officers ticketed 41 percent fewer drivers in 2017 than they did in 2012, even as the number of vehicle miles traveled in Houston grew 23 percent.

That reflects a national trend of less traffic enforcement, according to Hersman, the former chairwoman of the NTSB. Federal statistics show that the share of people coming into contact with police through a traffic stop dropped about 11 percentage points from 2002 to 2011.

“We certainly understand what law enforcement is being asked to do and what they deal with, but the reality is fatalities are going up on our roadways,” Hersman said. “What we are seeing nationwide is law enforcement is not doing traffic enforcement.”

Harris County sheriff’s deputies, for example, issued 28 percent fewer speeding tickets in 2017 than they did in 2015, even though the county gained 100,000 people during that period. Houston police officers issued 16 percent fewer speeding tickets in 2017 than in 2015. Texas Department of Public Safety Troopers operating within the greater Houston region are the exception; they issued 11 percent more tickets for speeding than they did in 2015.

I mostly travel on I-10 these days, and I do see (usually unmarked) patrol cars on the shoulders, and occasionally a pulled-over vehicle getting cited. But this is the exception, and there’s nothing quite like the joy of being tailgated when you’re already doing over 70 on a road with a speed limit of 60. I don’t have any solutions to offer here – we could reduce speeding and the mayhem that accompanies it with higher levels of patrol, but of course that’s going to require more patrol officers, and that’s not in the cards. I just miss working in a part of town where I didn’t have to take highways to get to the office.

The autonomous cars/mass transit debate

Seems to me this should be a “both-and” rather than an “either-or”, but you know how I get.

Autonomous vehicles that will outperform buses, cost less than Uber and travel faster than cars stuck in traffic today are two years away. Or 10. Or 30.

But visions of the future they’ll bring have already crept into City Council meetings, political campaigns, state legislation and decisions about what cities should build today. That unnerves some transportation planners and transit advocates, who fear unrealistic hopes for driverless cars — and how soon they’ll get here — could lead cities to mortgage the present for something better they haven’t seen.

“They have imbued autonomous vehicles with the possibility to solve every problem that was ever created in transportation since the beginning of time,” said Beth Osborne, a senior policy adviser with the advocacy group Transportation for America. “That might be a tad bit unrealistic.”

In Indianapolis, Detroit and Nashville, opponents of major transit investments have argued that buses and trains will soon seem antiquated. In Silicon Valley, politicians have suggested something better and cheaper is on the way. As New York’s subway demands repairs, futurists have proposed paving over all that rail instead for underground highways.

Autonomous cars have entered policy debates — if not car lots — with remarkable speed. And everyone agrees that making the wrong bets now would be costly. Cities that abandon transit will come to regret it, advocates warn. Driverless car boosters counter that officials wedded to “19th-century technology” will block innovation and waste billions.

[…]

Highways today can carry about 2,000 cars per lane per hour. Autonomous vehicles might quadruple that. The best rail systems can carry more than 50,000 passengers per lane per hour. They move the most people, using the least space. No technology can overcome that geometry, said Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based transportation consultant.

“Let’s talk about what we can predict,” he said. “The problem of the city is a problem of sharing space. In 2100, the problem of the city will still be a problem of sharing space.”

By that logic, cities should invest even more in high-capacity rail and dedicated bus lanes in key corridors. Autonomous vehicles might handle other kinds of trips — rides from the train station home, or through suburban neighborhoods, or across the parts of Las Vegas without rail.

This possibility is not radically different from today. Uber and Lyft offer the closest approximation to how people will behave in an autonomous future, when consumers use cars they don’t own. Both companies are frequently cited by opponents of transit. But they also now back big transit investments, without which their riders in congested cities would be stuck in even worse traffic.

No system of autonomous cars could be more efficient than the New York subway, said Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s head of transportation policy and research. Uber needs that transit, just as it will need electric scooters and bikes and the congestion pricing it also supports in New York to ensure that cheaper transportation doesn’t simply lead to more traffic.

I see a lot of value in finding ways to use autonomous cars as shuttles to help solve “last-mile” problems. Find places where getting people to and from bus stops across large parking lots or other non-pedestrian-friendly turf as a way to entice more bus usage, for example. Here in Houston, that might also mean connecting people in the farther-flung parts of the Medical Center to the light rail stops. I don’t see any value in claiming that autonomous cars will replace transit, or in arguing that transit projects should be put on hold until autonomous cars are more prevalent. We need solutions for the short term, and this is what can help for now. Let’s focus on that.

We could be getting to the end of 290 construction

By the end of the year. We think.

Most major construction along the main lanes of U.S. 290 will end in 2018. Every new wide lane open. Every bridge built. Eleven lanes, including a reversible HOV lane, from Loop 610 to Texas 6, and nine lanes from Texas 6 to Waller County. All open by the end of 2018.

“There are going to see stuff open up if we can do it safely,” said Frank Leong, area engineer for TxDOT’s West Harris County office. “The bridges are controlling the schedule right now.”

The last segments to start construction, west of the Grand Parkway, will be the first to open under TxDOT’s current plans. Leong said that stretch, the easiest to build because it required the fewest bridges and fewest utility relocations, likely will open in March or April.

About six months later, if schedules proceed as anticipated, the freeway should be fully open from Loop 610 to the Sam Houston Tollway – including the lengthy work to rebuild all the connections to and from Loop 610, Interstate 10 and frontage road entrances and exits.

Officials said work will speed ahead and the project will be in finishing touches phase by the time Houstonians ring in 2019.

[…]

Crews also are close to opening a major component of the Loop 610 interchange, which will reconnect the HOV lane. The work also coincides with openings planned in January for some of the frontage road access.

“This job is going to open up a lot of things next month,” said Hamoon Bahrami, project engineer for the U.S. 290 project.

The openings also allow work to concentrate in the center of the interchange, where one of the last steps will be returning the connection from northbound Loop 610 to westbound U.S. 290 to the interior of the interchange. Of the major connections between U.S. 290, Loop 610 and I-10, it is the last piece.

The final few months, however, will not be pain-free. In some spots, crews still are hanging beams for some overpasses, which will lead to highway closings and detours. Lanes will remain narrowed in spots for months to come.

It’s ending just in time for the 59/610 interchange work to begin. You didn’t think it was going to be all smooth sailing, did you? Be that as it may, enjoy whatever traffic relief you get when the new and improved 290 opens. Just remember it took less than ten years for I-10 to get all congested again. Happy trails!

Can we share these lanes?

Metro is rethinking how the light rail lines run in parts of downtown.

Traffic woes and collisions along the newest light-rail lines in downtown have Metro leaders toying with the idea of backpedaling on their promise not to close parts of the lanes to cars.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s new Green and Purple lines in downtown that run eastbound along Capitol and westbound along Rusk for about a mile continue to confuse traffic signal timing and drivers. The trains and vehicles have had several collisions in these shared lanes as drivers make turns, as well as enter and exit parking garages for downtown buildings.

Now Metro is – albeit cautiously – considering ideas to close the lanes to vehicular traffic where practical.

“There is zero intent to change this without getting a lot of input with the stakeholders,” board member Christof Spieler said, while acknowledging some changes may be needed to improve timing and safety for trains, drivers and pedestrians.

City officials, downtown business leaders and drivers, however, remain skeptical that dedicating the lanes to trains is going to be a solution.

“(Former Metropolitan Transit Authority CEO) Frank Wilson promised the community and the City Council that these would ‘never’ be train-only lanes in order to get agreement to allow them to operate downtown,” said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of Houston Public Works in charge of traffic operations and maintenance.

I guess I’m not surprised there are issues with the trains sharing a lane with car traffic, but I did not know there was such resistance to the idea of separating the two. I suppose the entrances to and exits from downtown parking garages, which by the way can snarl traffic pretty effectively themselves, are a major obstacle to any kind of change. I’m sure there are some minor tweaks that can be made to improve things a bit, but more than that seems unlikely.

Smarter streets

They’re coming soon to Houston.

Houston City Council on Wednesday will consider a $33.6 million contract – partially funded by a $10 million federal grant – to add hundreds of traffic-tracking devices across the city so officials can receive better up-to-date information, respond by adjusting traffic signals and provide current conditions to drivers more quickly.

Freeways in most major cities have traffic detection, cameras and changeable message signs to warn drivers of tie-ups around the area. Some cities also have used the systems along specific corridors.

Houston is taking that approach citywide, optimistic an integrated system can improve traffic, and show drivers their best route choices via signs and traffic maps.

“The ability to visually verify incidents and alert drivers to travel times on parallel alternate arterial and freeway routes will be a benefit,” said Tony Voigt, a Texas A&M Transportation Institute researcher based in Houston. “The ability to better detect vehicles at signals and use that data for signal timing updates at more frequent intervals – and in real-time, if necessary – will be a benefit.”

Proving that, however, can happen only after the devices are in place.

“We have ‘before’ data and we will get ‘after’ data,” said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of Houston Public Works in charge of traffic operations and maintenance. “No one has really done this on this large of scale. That is part of why the federal government gave us this money.”

Voigt, whose office assisted with some of the research for the grant proposal, agreed.

“Will the benefit be as large as compared to freeway (traffic systems)?,” Voigt said. “I would say maybe not, but the benefits should still be considerable.”

Based on federal data, he noted about half the miles traveled in urban areas happen on local roads – not freeways or major highways – so anything aimed at more accurate data for those roads naturally will benefit drivers.

All of the new technology will be integrated into existing traffic operations controlled by Houston TranStar, which combines resources from the city, Harris County, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

This is all good, and I’m sure it will help. Having more and better realtime data about traffic incidents and tie-ups will improve life for lots of people. It’s just that data can only do so much – it can’t improve capacity, it can just move it around. As long as we’re clear on that and realistic about what this can achieve, it’s fine.

Get ready for lots of road construction

Because a lot of money is fixing to be spent on it.

A sweeping revision of state highway plans adds nearly $9 billion in new funds for improving Texas roadways, including a $1.32 billion infusion in the Houston area for a major overhaul of Interstate 45 and nine other projects.

Projects along Texas 36 in Fort Bend and Brazoria counties and Texas 105 in Montgomery and San Jacinto counties are also included in the unified transportation plan approved Tuesday in Austin by the Texas Transportation Commission.

“This is a major step forward,” said Commissioner Bruce Bugg.

The newly approved plan adds 230 projects and $8.9 billion in funding statewide.

[…]

Construction is expected to start in late 2020 on the first of seven separate projects that will realign I-45 along downtown’s eastern side, parallel to Interstate 69, also known as U.S. 59 in the Houston area.

The first projects will reconstruct I-69 between Spur 527, which leads into Midtown, and I-45, including the interchange with Texas 288. That will be followed by a rebuild of I-45 at its interchange with I-69.

Combined, the two interchanges – technically four projects on TxDOT’s books – are expected to cost nearly $1.7 billion. That is more than half the $3 billion cost of remaking I-45 around downtown, which includes removing the segment of I-45 along the Pierce Elevated.

[…]

Next month, TxDOT is scheduled to open bids on the next phase of widening I-45 in League City, continuing a decade-long slog toward Galveston, making the freeway four lanes in each direction with frontage roads.

Typically, construction begins about three to four months after bids are opened. If that timing holds, two months after I-45 work moves south, drivers frustrated on their way to Austin when westbound Interstate 10 drops to two lanes in Brookshire will start seeing orange cones. Crews will widen the freeway to three lanes in each direction to the Brazos River.

Just before or after the holiday season, work will begin on a third project to reconstruct some of the connections where I-69 crosses Loop 610 near Uptown, as well as rebuild Loop 610 through the intersection.

TxDOT expects all of the projects to finish in 2021, around the time downtown interchanges will start to see construction.

Note that these are approvals for new projects, so it doesn’t include works in progress such as 290. Outside of Houston, there will be continued widening of I-45 farther south, eventually reaching all the way to Galveston. Years ago, I used to hear people joke that there had never been a day when some part of I-45 wasn’t under construction. In retrospect, I don’t think they were joking. I’m going to predict that by the end date for these projects in 2021, we’re going to be talking about if not preparing for further construction on I-10 out west, which already resembles what the Katy Freeway looked like pre-widening. Basically, there’s always going to be major construction somewhere. Get used to it.

Bike plan vote delayed

What’s another two weeks?

Houston’s long-term plan for improving bicycle routes around town will wait a couple more weeks after a handful of elected officials voiced various concerns.

City Council members Greg Travis, Michael Kubosh, Steve Le, Mike Knox and Dave Martin tagged the proposed Houston Bike Plan on Wednesday morning, delaying its approval for at least two weeks.

The plan, which doesn’t commit money but does guide future projects as the city proceeds with road work, lays out an ambitious plan for hundreds of miles of high-comfort bike lanes in Houston, meant to make bicycling safer and more appealing to residents.

Work on the plan began roughly 18 months ago and has been through various drafts with input from city and community officials.

See here for some background, and here for the plan itself. If you’d like a more executive-summary view of it, see this Offcite post from last year, and this Kinder Institute blog post from Wednesday. At some point, part of the solution for traffic has to be getting some cars off the road, and the best way to do that is to give more people more non-car options for their daily travels. Note that you don’t need someone to completely give up their car to have an effect here – trading in some of your car trips for non-car travel helps, too. Let’s get this done, y’all. The Chron editorial board agrees with me on this.

The long-term future of public transit

By “long-term” I mean by 2050 or so.

For an agency that’s spent decades guiding freeway expansion, it was a stark admission for members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s transportation policy council.

“Future growth and the resulting travel is expected to surpass our ability to meet regional mobility needs by relying solely on increased roadway capacity,” the agency’s staff wrote.

Facing a future in which 14.2 million people will live in the eight-county Houston area in 2050, transportation planners are proposing a special task force that will work on the region’s long-range transportation plan so that high-capacity transit can start to gain a foothold after years – perhaps decades in some cases – without traction in car-crazed Houston.

The regional transportation plan is updated every five years, for a 25-year period. The current plan, approved in 2015, covers until 2040. The next version will reflect plans for highway, transit, bicycle and maritime projects for 2020 to 2045.

Though plans always have some bold transit components – ranging from commuter trains to major expansions of Metropolitan Transit Authority’s light rail system – they rarely proceed in earnest.

“Some of them have been in three or four editions of our plan and they are no farther along than they were 15 years ago,” said Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for the area council, which acts as the local metropolitan planning organization responsible for doling out federal transportation funds.

On the one hand, it’s very encouraging to see official recognition of the reality that road capacity is a finite thing, and that expanding transit in the greater region is going to be vital to meeting our mobility needs. On the other hand, I’m going to be 79 years old in 2045, so my expectations are necessarily modest. Gotta start somewhere, I guess.

TxDOT accelerates I-45 construction timeline

Gird your loins.

For many long-suffering Houston drivers, a solution to the infuriating bottleneck on Interstate 45 through downtown is likely something they thought they wouldn’t live to see.

More than a decade ago, a plan pitched to solve the problem – moving the interstate to the east side of downtown and demolishing the Pierce Elevated – appeared so preposterous they thought it would never get off the ground. It was too big of a change, too ambitious, too expensive and too disruptive.

Turns out it was also too good to pass up, leading to efforts by local transportation officials to now include the first phases of the project in an updated, expanded statewide transportation plan. So the project some only dreamed about is, at least on paper, a reality, pending the allocation of more than $900 million for the reconstruction of two major interstate intersections in the downtown area.

Though these first steps are incremental compared to the overall plan, officials say they are important and send the clear message: The I-45 freeway is relocating and the elevated portion along Pierce will be abandoned and maybe demolished within the next dozen years.

“We are turning the key and starting the engine and moving,” said Quincy Allen, district director for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.

Work on revamping the freeway intersections is slated for late 2020 or early 2021, years ahead of when state officials first predicted when they unveiled their construction plans in 2014.

For the Houston region, it might be the most significant freeway project in anyone’s lifetime. That’s because it reconfigures the three interstates that form the backbone of how Houstonians move – I-45, I-69 and Interstate 10 – in the one area where they are so closely tangled and reliant on drivers making transitions from one to another as smooth as possible.

No doubt, those interchanges are the worst, but let’s not forget that a big part of the reason why is because one or both of the intersecting highways has narrowed or will soon narrow down from three or more lanes to two at these points of intersection. I guess the massive reconstruction plan will address that in some fashion, but that’s the problem in a nutshell, and there’s only so much you can do to engineer it away. And oh Lord, the mess even this preliminary construction is going to make. My head hurts just thinking about it.

One more thing:

The first part of the project, along I-69 near Spur 527, aims to lessen the congestion caused where traffic from the Greenway Plaza area flows into a bottleneck where I-69 drops to three lanes, with two others for the spur. It would add another lane, and widen the already depressed freeway through Montrose and Midtown.

The project’s next part takes that even further, burying the portion of I-69 that now is elevated east of Spur 527. Local streets that now flow beneath the freeway will stay where they are, but cross atop it.

“I expect us to continue to progress and go in a counter-clockwise motion around downtown,” Allen said.

Based on projections, when the entire downtown ring is completed and I-45 is in place parallel to I-69, the amount of congestion drivers endure will be cut in half, based on 2040 traffic estimates.

[…]

Eventually, the proposal is to widen I-45 from downtown to the Sam Houston Tollway in Greenspoint. Combined with the downtown efforts, it is estimated to cost at or near $7 billion.

Remember when we spent nearly $3 billion to widen I-10 from 610 to whatever point out west we stopped? On Friday, I had to be at the Lifetime Fitness in the Town and Country mall area at I-10 and Beltway 8 by 6 PM. I hit I-10 at Heights at 5:20. As I approached 610, there was one of those TxDOT marquees telling me the travel time to the Sam Houston Tollway was 29 minutes. That turned out to be a bit of an overestimate, but not by much. How many years do you think we’ll have to enjoy the lessened congestion this is promising to bring us before we’re right back to where we were before we began?

The Complete Transportation Guide To Super Bowl LI

For which the tl;dr version is don’t drive in or near downtown if you can at all help it.

More than 1 million people are expected to converge on downtown Houston during the week leading up to Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5, officials emphasized Tuesday as a transportation guide for the festivities was unveiled for visitors and locals alike.

[…]

The transportation guide – part of a #KnowBeforeYouGo social media campaign – details options for efficient movement around downtown, Midtown, the Uptown-Galleria community and areas surrounding NRG Stadium, the game venue. The manual can be found at www.housuperbowl.com/transportation – which is an area of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee website.

Among new features for 2017:

There will be prepaid downtown daily parking available beginning in January via the committee’s app for motorists to reserve spaces for light rail passes.

Super Bowl Live downtown will feature a bike valet for those who prefer to travel on two wheels.

Free shuttles will circulate in downtown and Midtown; an Uptown-Galleria area link to downtown from Feb. 1 to Feb. 5 is $2 each way.

A game-day shuttle between the Galleria area and NRG Stadium will be $2 each way.

Metro will have extended rail hours from Jan. 28 to Feb. 5 beginning around 4 a.m. and running until at least midnight daily.

Click here for the official guide. My advice, if you work downtown, is to take the week off. I’m already getting a cold sweat thinking about how many tourists I’m going to have to dodge in the tunnels at lunchtime. A staycation is sounding pretty damn good the more I consider it. If you must come downtown, Metro or a bike are your best bets to not be part of the problem. The Press and Write On Metro have more.

As go gas prices, so goes interest in transit

It is what it is.

gas-prices-sign

Cheap gasoline has Texans driving more, indicating that efforts to promote mass transit or bicycle commuting are falling short, a new statewide poll suggests.

As folks hit the road, though, they are increasingly supportive of investment in transit and bike safety, even if perhaps they’d rather see others try it first.

“It’s one of those things where everybody thinks it is a good idea, but nobody seems to be using it,” said Tina Geiselbrecht, a co-author of the report and leader of the public engagement planning program at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

The poll, released Tuesday, is the first update to the Texas Transportation Poll since its creation in 2014. In those two years, car-centric Texas became even more devoted to driving, based on responses of more than 4,300 drivers, including more than 1,000 in the Houston region. Among the findings:

93 percent of drivers rely on an automobile as their primary way to travel, up from 91 percent in 2014. Vehicle ownership is also up statewide.

Roughly 1 in 7 Texans, 14 percent, had used public transit in the past month, compared to 25 percent of those polled two years ago. Fewer reported bicycling, walking and carpooling as well.

Gasoline prices, which have remained low in the state, were far less of a factor for drivers. Less than 30 percent of drivers were traveling less because of fuel prices, compared to 61 percent who said they were cutting back in 2014.

Geiselbrecht noted fuel prices in 2016 were about two-thirds what they were when pollsters asked people their opinions two years ago. Opinions on many things remained roughly the same, such as the interest people have in increased transportation spending, despite many thinking public officials squander some of the money.

“While people think there should be increased funding for transportation … nobody wants it to come out of their pocket,” Geiselbrecht said.

A copy of the study is here. I currently have a short commute into downtown, and I carpool with my wife. On the occasions when I have to be in early or when my wife has an after-work errand or appointment, I take the bus. In a few months, I’m going to be moving to another location out on the west side of town, and will be driving solo when that happens. Metro service is mostly nonexistent in this area; there is a bus route nearby, but I’d have to make two transfers to get to or from this location, so it’s just not an option. The main change for me is that this will be the longest commute I’ll have ever had in nearly 30 years of living in Houston. To put it mildly, I’m not thrilled about it. Life is too damn short to spend that much time in the car.

For better or worse, mine is a minority opinion, or at least one that carries little political and policy weight. I’ve said before, we need to come to terms with the fact that at some point we just cannot prioritize optimizing the travel times of single-occupancy vehicles over everything else. There’s only so much road capacity we can create, and the cost of doing so, which heavily subsidizes these solo trips, keeps increasing. That means that at some point, we need to prioritize density and transit, so that people can be closer to the places they most need to be and can get to and from them without having to drive. I have no idea when this might happen – at this point, I doubt I’ll live to see it – but it’s what we’re going to need.

The latest attempt to kill the Uptown BRT line

Whatever.

“See this right turn lane filled up?” asked consultant Wayne Dolcefino to about a dozen angry Uptown residents, standing along Post Oak Boulevard near the intersection with San Felipe Street on Monday morning. “That’s going away. The right lane at Westheimer? That’s going away too.”

A woman’s jaw dropped, as though what Docefino said was inconceivable.

But pretty soon, it will happen. One of the most congested roads in Houston will soon be ripped up by construction for two-and-a-half years — brought down to just two lanes, plus a left turn lane where necessary — as Uptown Houston makes ground on a public transit project that residents have been protesting for a year: the Post Oak Boulevard dedicated bus lanes project.

Uptown Houston, the neighborhood management district, claims the biggest problem facing the overcrowded Uptown area is the “lack of effective commuter transit service.” To solve that problem, the district has decided to rip out the center median and replace it with two elevated bus lanes — similar to how the rail works in the center of Main Street. The buses will come every six minutes, running from the Northwest Transit Center along 610 and Post Oak to a new Bellaire Uptown Transit Center at Westpark and U.S. 59. While Uptown Houston will pay for construction and development, Metro has agreed to team up and provide the transportation once the project is complete.

On Monday, though, Uptown residents held a press conference along Post Oak as part of a last-ditch effort to ask Mayor Sylvester Turner to halt the $192 million project. Among many things, residents claim this project is going to make traffic worse, will put stores along Post Oak out of business because drivers won’t want to bother with the headache, and that the project is “stained ethically” because of conflicts of interest within Uptown Houston.

[…]

John Breeding, president of Uptown Houston, denied every accusation Dolcefino and the residents made. He said that no one at Uptown Houston has made any money off these deals, and also said that “this project has been vetted more than any public project I’ve ever been associated with” in response to critics saying it hasn’t been transparent.

Complaints about the Uptown line are nothing new – they go back to 2010 at least. A lawsuit was filed last year claiming that the project was in conflict with the 2003 referendum because it wasn’t light rail (!); that lawsuit was dismissed a few months later, though there was no resolution in the dismissal. A criminal complaint was filed in April over the way land was acquired for the project; there’s been no word yet as to whether there’s anything to that or not. Campos has the text of a letter this “Save Uptown” group has sent out, which calls on Mayor Turner to stop the project and says another lawsuit is in the offing. It’s not clear to me that the Mayor could stop this if he wanted to – Council approved funding as part of the overall Uptown/Memorial TIRZ expansion, but funding for this comes from other, non-city sources as well. It’s also not clear to me why Mayor Turner would want to top this given his emphasis on rethinking transportation. My question for “Save Uptown” or any other foe of this project is this: What’s your alternative to the status quo? I mean, if you think the traffic situation in the Uptown/Galleria area is fine as things are and nothing needs to be done, then fine. Say it loud and proud. If you don’t think it’s fine, then please tell me 1) what you would do about it, 2) how you would pay for it, 3) how much disruption any of your planned upgrades would cause over the next two years, and 4) what you have been doing since, oh, 2010 or so, to bring about your vision. Maybe the Uptown BRT project isn’t the best possible idea, or maybe the cost is too high, but you can’t beat something with nothing. This plan has been in motion for a long time. What have you got that’s better than it? Swamplot and the HBJ have more.

Woodland Heights neighborhood traffic management plan

Of primary interest to the folks in my neighborhood only, though I will note that as Mayor Turner has made it easier for neighborhoods to request traffic-calming measures like speed cushions, this could be in your future as well. Tonight at 7 PM there will be a public meeting in the cafeteria at Hogg Middle School to discuss the very-hotly-debated neighborhood traffic management plan (NTMP) for the Woodland Heights. A copy of the letter sent to residents about the meeting is here. A map of the affected area is embedded in this post and viewable in larger form here; a larger version, from the back of that letter than I scanned and uploaded, is here. An FAQ for residents who haven’t been following this as closely as some is here.

As I understand it, there are three main issues: People speeding on Pecore, people not slowing down at the school crossings at Bayland and Helen and at Bayland at Morrison, and cut-through traffic on Watson and Beauchamp, both of which provide alternate routes to the freeway exchanges at I-10 and I-45. There’s a lot of concern that the forthcoming changes to I-45 in the area will create incentives for more cut-through traffic, and this is designed to remove those incentives. You may or may not care for the solutions being proffered, but this discussion has been going on for a long time and there have been plenty of opportunities to have your voice heard. None of what is being proposed should come as a surprise. If you have anything further to add, tonight at 7 PM at Hogg Middle School is your chance to add it.

My vision for Metro: Marketing itself

HoustonMetro

Part 1: Buses

Metro Board member Christoph Spieler has said that Metro turns over 20 percent of its ridership each year, just due to the natural comings and goings of life. As such, Metro doesn’t have to expend effort to persuade current non-users to give it a try in order to build ridership. It just needs to be a better option for the people whose life changes – turning 18, moving, different job, retiring, whatever – put them in a position to think about how best to get around for their daily routines. That’s true enough as it goes, and ridership trends since the new bus network was unveiled have shown the wisdom of that approach, but I’m here today to convince you – and them – that they should try to recruit current non-riders. Naturally, I have a suggestion for how to do it as well.

My thinking on this started with a simple question: What is it that keeps people from using Metro in the first place? Obviously, it’s not going to be viable for everybody, but for many people it’s at least a possible choice. What is the main thing that keeps people from trying it to see how it might work for them, or to even think of trying it? Habit, convenience, and weather concerns would all be on the list, but if I had to guess, I’d say that most people think that taking transit to work or school will take significantly longer than driving will. Who wants to spend more time during the day getting to and from where you need to be?

And again, for some number of people, transit clearly isn’t as good an option as driving. Maybe the don’t live or work near a high- or medium-frequency bus line, or maybe they’d have to make multiple transfers. But for many others, especially those who work in the major employment centers, there’s likely to be a transit option that will at least be reasonably comparable to driving. My suspicion is that for a lot of these people, they have no idea that this is true. If they did, some of them would consider transit. Perhaps some other people might take that information into consideration when they make their next move. But first, that information needs to be made available.

And even before that, this information needs to be discovered. Metro knows how long it generally takes its buses to get from point A to point B, but that’s not the same thing. To make this data useful, it needs to tell the whole story, from point of origin to point of arrival, with walk time, wait time, and travel time all taken into account. Those numbers need to be computed multiple times, because on any one day a rider could catch a bus right away and not experience much traffic, or could have to wait to get picked up and then get caught at every light. And of course you want this for as many start-and-end combinations as possible.

The best way to do this is to crowdsource it. Metro has thousands of daily riders. Enlist them to tell their daily stories over, say, a two week period. Put out an app, or make an upgrade to an existing app, to track all the relevant data points. For example:

Time at which I left home.
Time at which I arrived at my initial bus/train station, and the name of said station.
Time at which I board my bus/train.
Time at which I arrive at my destination/transfer station, and the name of said station.
(If transferring: Time at which I board my next bus/train. Repeat previous step.)
Time at which I arrive at my office.

Meanwhile, challenge drivers to get the app and do the same thing. I’ve said before, I believe people often underestimate their real travel times. They only count the time they spend in the car, maybe only the time they’re on whatever freeway or main road they take, but don’t count how long it takes them to get to their office from their car, or how long it takes them to find a parking place. Which, in the case of major employment centers and big, sometimes off-site parking lots, can be longer than you think. One underrated aspect of transit (and bike riding, for that matter), is that transit stops can often be closer to office buildings than parking lots may be. That can save you a bit of time at one end or the other.

Give everyone who turns in two weeks’ data a reward, say a month’s worth of rides on their Q card, and an “I Took The Metro Trip Time Challenge” t-shirt or coffee mug. Maybe have weekly random drawings for other prizes, life restaurant or Starbucks gift cards. Do this over the course of a couple of months, then publish the data and see what happens. Maybe some direct comparisons will be available, and will be surprising. Whatever the case, the data will be interesting. It might provide the basis for a future advertising campaign designed to urge people to consider their options. Maybe it will speak for itself. Maybe it will highlight a need to improve some services. I don’t know. But I’d love to find out, and I bet Metro would love to as well.

I should note that publicizing this study, and ultimately its results, should be easily done via social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (does Metro have an Instagram account? If not, why not?), all the usual suspects. Just doing this ought to get Metro some positive attention, which would make it worthwhile all by itself. I don’t see a down side to any of this. What do you say, Metro?

Turner reiterates the need to rethink transportation

New audience, same theme.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s transportation future – and perhaps its economic vitality – relies on more options than new freeway lanes to make room for more cars, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

“The solution is to increasingly take advantage of other modes of travel,” Turner told business and elected leaders at a lunch event hosted by Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston Region.

The mayor, who has talked about a transportation “paradigm shift” since taking office in January, mentioned a laundry list of mobility projects that Houston must embrace, ranging from regional commuter rail to improved pedestrian access.

Nothing by itself can abate Houston’s growing congestion, the mayor acknowledged, but together the options could reform how people travel. Also, he favors a better balance of state and federal transportation funding, which heavily supports highways over public transit in the region.

“We will have to make choices on how to use limited space on streets to move people faster,” Turner said, noting that nine out of 10 working residents in the area rely on their own vehicle to get to and from work.

Houston today – and in the future – is a far different place than the one its highways initially served. Rather than a development pattern focused solely on downtown, Houston is an assortment of small, concentrated job and housing centers. Turner said the city’s transportation should reflect that by offering walkable solutions and local streets capable of handling the traffic in places such as the Texas Medical Center and Energy Corridor.

“We can connect the centers together with regional transit,” Turner said. “We need to focus our limited funding in these areas.”

[…]

As mobility options increase, the mayor said it will be up to officials to focus attention where certain transportation solutions can do the most good and ignite the least political furor.

“I will not force light rail on any community that does not want it. I will not do it,” Turner said. “We must stop trying to force it on places that do not want it and give it to neighborhoods and people in this city who want it.”

Minutes after his speech concluded, listeners were already dissecting the mayor’s statement on light rail and its obvious reference to the decadelong discussion of a proposed east-west rail line along Richmond Avenue to the Galleria area.

See here for thoughts expressed by Mayor Turner to the Texas Transportation Commission in February. I wouldn’t read too much into that comment about “forcing” rail into places that don’t want it. For one thing, the opposition to the Universities line has always been loud, but there’s never been any evidence that it’s broad. The evidence we do have suggests there’s plenty of support for that line in the neighborhoods where it would run. In addition, recent remarks by Turner-appointed Metro Chair Carrin Patman suggest the Universities line is still on the agenda. Perhaps there’s a disconnect between the two – in the end, I can’t see Metro putting forth an updated rail referendum that includes the Universities line over Mayor Turner’s objection – but I doubt it. I would just not read too much into that one statement without any corroborating evidence. Houston Tomorrow, which has video and a partial transcript of Mayor Turner’s remarks, has more.

Beyond that, this is good to hear, and even better to hear more than once. The reality is that as with things like water and energy, there is only so much room to add new road capacity, and it starts getting prohibitively expensive, in straight dollar costs as well as in opportunity costs, to add it. It’s far cheaper to conserve the capacity that we already have, which in the case of transportation means getting more people to use fewer cars. I talked about all this at the start of the Mayoral race last year, and I’m heartened to see that Mayor Turner’s priorities have been in line with many of the things I was hoping for. A lot of this talk still needs to be translated into action, but you can’t have the action without the talk first, to make people aware of the issues and get them on board with the solutions. The Mayor has done a good job of that so far, and it’s great to see.

What do you do with a problem like I-10?

From a conversation that Cite Editor Raj Mankad conducted with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro, who co-teach a survey of landscape architecture at the Rice School of Architecture.

Mankad: Let’s come back to I-10 and the failure of its…

Alfaro: … hubris …

Mankad: … its massive expansion. We talked about designers finding opportunities in the most problematic of sites. What is the opportunity there?

Albers: There is a bottleneck that exists at the reservoirs in the Energy Corridor. The Energy Corridor has been a huge economic driver for the city. And where Eldridge Parkway meets I-10 and then Memorial Drive is at its heart. These intersections are routinely blocked with traffic creating quality of life issue for those who find themselves in the area. Partially in response to these concerns, The Energy Corridor District assembled a team to investigate the future of the corridor. The district commissioned a master plan to address these and other issues.

This master plan documented ideas that could be implemented throughout the city. Very simple ideas that have been around since the birth of cities. Greater connectivity. Parallel roads. The answer is not more lanes, the answer is more options. The plan looks at ways to transform the existing infrastructure that we have—park-and-ride lots and bus lanes. METRO can adjust them to create a system that offers options and that gets people away from the reliance on the single-occupant car.

A circulator bus would move people around the Energy Corridor. If you go to lunch in the Energy Corridor, you have to get to your garage, get out of your garage, drive to where you want to go, find parking. By the time you have done that, it is 30 minutes. Then you have to repeat the whole process coming back. Your lunch hour is consumed by going and coming. So take that out of the equation with a circulator bus.

Instead of driving to the Energy Corridor, maybe you could get on a bus and come to the Energy Corridor, get off at the park-and-ride, get on a circulator bus, and get to where you are going. So it is about making linkages, creating different approaches to the problem of traffic.

Additionally, I-10 serves as a manmade barrier to pedestrians and bicyclists. The Energy Corridor is split between north and south by I-10. The scale is so immense. The plan looks at ways to links these parts of the city back together; for pedestrians; for bicycles; and for alternative transportation.

Mankad: I understand that the big detention basins and drainage ditches scooped out for the I-10 construction could provide more opportunities for cyclists and pedestrians at Langham Park. There is always this positive and negative, this yin yang, especially with hydrology.

Alfaro: If it we were to get crazy about I-10, imagine rail or bus rapid transit going through the center in both directions to get all those commuters in and out, parks on either side, and provide the connectivity elsewhere. You would have these amazing green spaces in the middle of I-10. That’s what I would want. Make it a landscape. Use the terrain, use the topography. Screw it.

The Energy Corridor is itself seeking feedback on this issue, so it’s not just the pointed-headed academics who are thinking about these things. The travel-to-lunch problem that Albers describes is even worse when you consider that a lot of those trips involve taking indirect, roundabout routes because you can’t get from Point A to Point B directly thanks to the presence of I-10. Circulators would help a bit with traffic, and would also enable more people to take transit to work in that area, as would making life easier for pedestrians. We do a lot of things to facilitate highway driving in this town, and a lot of those things have negative effects on local traffic that we just haven’t given any thought to in the past. The Energy Corridor is trying to deal with those effects now, as well they should. I look forward to seeing what they do.

More speed bumps coming

Like ’em or not.

Houston officials are speeding up the process of slowing down residential street traffic.

A laborious process to improve traffic and safety by installing traffic calming devices such as speed humps is radically streamlined in a new method by the city’s public works department, unveiled Monday at a City Council committee meeting. Council members applauded the change.

“I am doing the happy dance here,” said District K Councilman Larry Green, whose southwest Houston area has some of the neighborhoods that have waited the longest for relief from speeding cars.

In the future, with demand for speed humps high in many areas, public works will no longer require traffic and speed analyses, Public Works Deputy Director Jeff Weatherford said.

“We believe all local neighborhood streets should automatically qualify for speed control if they want it,” Weatherford said, citing overwhelming evidence that pedestrians and bicyclists are safer with lower residential street speeds.

The change would only apply to residential streets, where speed humps are practical, and not thoroughfares that carry far higher volumes of traffic.

[…]

In the past, neighbors upset at a cumbersome city process left dissatisfied, especially when the analysis found they didn’t have a speeding issue. Residents would then frequently ask public works to assess the traffic volume, which would start the process over again.

When requests from residents come to public works in the future, staff will analyze the neighborhood and then deliver their recommendations to the district council member for the area.

Pending approval from the council member, public works will then coordinate construction of the speed humps. Plans are devised for entire neighborhoods, often a 10- to 20-square block area between two major streets. Public works will normally consider streets best suited for traffic calming, then locate humps, medians and other features where appropriate to control speed.

District D Councilman Dwight Boykins noted the city successfully dealt with fast-moving vehicles crashing in a curve in a residential area by placing the humps not at the curve, but leading to it.

Under the old way, however, that process often took nine months to complete. The new method that reduces studies decreases it to six to eight weeks, but it also puts a lot more responsibility in the hands of council members, [CM Ellen] Cohen said.

I confess, I hate these things. I hate driving over them, and will go out of my way to avoid them. But I understand why we have them, and I’ve seen more than enough jackwads doing in excess of 40 on residential streets to accept them without complaint. Well, OK, with a bit of whining, but without any expectation of sympathy. If we want safer streets and fewer traffic fatalities – and we do, or at least we should – then this is a part of that. I’ll just have to suck it up.

Will driverless cars fix Houston’s traffic problems?

Tory Gattis thinks they might.

The second step is understanding the ramifications of coming new technologies — specifically self-driving cars. While the general vehicle fleet will take decades to turn over as people slowly replace their cars, we can expect extremely rapid adoption among taxi services as soon as these vehicles are available in the early 2020s. The economics are simply too compelling: Almost 80 percent of the cost of a ride is the driver. One estimate has the typical ride dropping to $3.25, with shared rides going for $2.43 or even as low as $1 with SUVs carrying up to six passengers at once along a shared route.

Customized SUVs could be made with private individual compartments, so that passengers traveling in generally the same direction could share a ride without interacting. When vehicle pulls up, an indicator could tell you which door to enter for your compartment, then alert you again when it’s time for you to get out based on the destination you put into your smart phone. A private ride combined with shared prices and efficiency: the best of both worlds.

The impact on traffic congestion could be dramatic, as fewer vehicles carry more riders. Analysis by MIT, Stanford, and others estimate that shared rides could reduce the number of vehicles needed to carry the same number of trips by 70 to 90 percent. Quite the silver bullet to reduce traffic congestion! Then there’s the icing on the cake: Automated drivers are expected to dramatically reduce crash injuries and space required for parking, which will free up a tremendous amount of much-needed land in our cities.

All indications are that these super-cheap, point-to-point autonomous taxi services will essentially replace most bus and rail transit: Most trips would be much faster and more direct at nearly the same cost. In fact, transit agencies like METRO may switch their fleets to such vehicles, providing better service to their customers. Helsinki’s transit agency is already a pioneer of this transition, offering on-demand mini-vans available via smart phone app.

Gattis goes on the describe Managed eXpress Lanes — MaX Lanes, for short – as a way to efficiently ferry around all those multi-occupant driverless SUVs. I have no doubt that driverless cars are coming and that they will change how we do cars – indeed, I have good reason to believe that. What I’m less sure about is the effect it will have on how people behave. As cheap as this form of “mass” transportation may be, people aren’t just motivated by price. Status, comfort, convenience, luxury, self-expression – these are all things people look for in their mode of transportation, and there’s no reason to think that will be any different with driverless cars.

In a utopian world, as my colleague Brian Fung writes, driverless cars would make everything more efficient. You’d never have to waste time looking for parking. Cities, in fact, could get rid of it. Vehicles that today sit empty most of their lives could be put to maximum use instead, transporting one passenger after another.

This ideal scenario, though, assumes some kind of all-knowing central dispatcher: a company, or service, that would distribute cars to serve the most people the most effectively, with an omniscient eye on the entire network. And, as more companies dive into this space — General Motors and Lyft announced an eye-popping new partnership Monday — it’s tempting to think we’re witnessing the start of an epic battle for the coming autonomous monopoly.

Who will get there first, winner-take-all? General Motors working with the ride-hailing startup Lyft? Or Ford, as it’s rumored, teaming with Google? Toyota? Or Uber, which seems to think it doesn’t need a traditional automaker ally at all?

“Uber, their whole goal is to minimize the time from request to pickup, and to do that means you have to have a lot of vehicles,” says Dave King, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University. “And if they’re the monopolists, maybe it’s close to being efficient. But they’re not going to be the monopolists.”

None of these companies will, he predicts.

That’s because autonomous cars will require the same market segmentation we already have today (whether consumers want to own these vehicles or share them or use some hybrid service in between).

“If you think the rich people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan are going to get into just a lowly old car, I don’t see that happening,” King says. They’ll want the Audi of autonomous cars, while you may gladly hitch a ride in the Kia equivalent. And even if I’m not truly driving a sports car myself, I may want to ride in something that feels sporty.

“The idea that everybody wants the same experience for personal travel is strange to me, because nobody’s ever wanted that,” King says. “We don’t buy the same bicycle, we don’t buy the same model of car. Some people like the bus, some people like the train.”

Sure, a ride in that automated Uber SUV may be cheap, but I’d bet a lot of people would be willing to pay extra to not have to share the ride. I mean, unless you’re the last person picked up and the first person dropped off, a part of your ride will be spent going to and from other people’s pickups and dropoffs, and who wants to spend all that excess time in a car? Note that this is not the case with plain ol’ mass transit – you get on and off at your stops, with no extra side trips. Also, maybe you like listening to your tunes through the car’s stereo system instead of earbuds. Maybe you just don’t want to be in a car with other people, even if you can be hermetically sealed from them; I confess, this “SUV with individual compartments” idea conjures for me images of being packed into a carton like eggs, or slotted like a LEGO action figure into a car built with the iconic bricks.

And while the egg carton individually-compartmented SUV might be a great deal for daily commuters who travel on predictable schedules, the fact remains that a fair number of our driving trips are spontaneous and unplanned – “Hey, let’s go out to dinner tonight”, “Sure, I’d love to meet you for a movie that’s starting in 30 minutes”, “Dad, I need to go to Jenny’s to work on our science project”, “He’s got a fever and he’s barfing, we need to get him to a doctor”. How much tolerance will people have to wait for a robot car to pick them up? (Side question: How many of these driverless Ubermobiles are going to have to be on standby for this, and where will they be when they’re not in use? Idle cars do not maximize profits, and as with commuting people may not want to make three or four other stops before they get where they want to go, especially if they’re in a hurry.) It’s not like car manufacturers are going to stop marketing to individual owners (*), after all.

And if owning an automated car is as common and pervasive as owning a car is today, then we may not get any reduction in traffic at all.

We’re starting to see professional reports echoing long-standing concerns about how driverless cars will affect our cities. This new one from KPMG, in particular, is getting a lot of press.  It’s actually a focus group study about the transport desires of different generations, but it confirms the thought experiments that many of us have already been laying out for a while.

Much depends on whether these cars are owned or spontaneously hired like taxis, Uber, and Lyft.  A taxi model is definitely better in its congestion impacts, but that doesn’t mean it will happen.  The ownership model is closer to the status quo, and the status quo always has enormous power.  Driverless taxis will not always be available on demand, especially in suburban and rural areas, so a legitimate fear of being stranded will make people in those areas prefer the security of having a car just for them. And of course, that’s just the effect of rational concerns about relying on taxis.  Less rational desires for car ownership, as an expression of identity or symbol of liberty, will also not vanish overnight.

This leads to a nightmare scenario that University of Washington’s Mark Hollenbeck laid out in our recent Seattle Times panel.  Paraphrasing Mark:  A suburban father rides his driverless car to work, maybe dropping his daughter off at school. But rather than park the car downtown, he simply tells it to drive back home to his house in the suburbs.  During the day, it runs some other errands for his family.  At 3 pm, it goes to the school to bring his daughter home or chauffeur her to after-school activities.  Then it’s time for it to drive back into the city to pick up Dad from work.  But then, on a lark, Dad decides to go shopping at a downtown department store after work, so he tells his car to just circle the block for an hour while he shops, before finally hailing it to go home.

This is really easy and obvious behavior for a driverless car owner.  It reduces the number of cars someone needs to own, and reduces pressure on inner city parking, but would cause an explosive growth in vehicle trips, and thus in congestion (not to mention emissions and other impacts).  Just the commute behavior doubles car volumes, because the car now makes a two-way trip for each direction of the commute, instead of just one.  And if everyone shopping downtown has a car circling the block waiting for them, well, that level of congestion will far exceed what’s generated by cars circling for parking today.  It could pretty well shut down the city.

And while increased safety is touted as the single biggest boon from driverless cars, there’s reason to fret about that as well.

For the past five years, my collaborators and I in the Vision Sciences Lab at Harvard University have been exploring the differences in capabilities between people and today’s best AIs. My studies have focused on simple tasks, like detecting a face in a still image, where AIs have become reasonably skilled. But I have become increasingly unsettled by the implications of our research for very challenging AI tasks. I am especially concerned by the implications for the extremely challenging task of driving a car. Self-driving cars have enormous promise. The improvements to traffic, safety, and the mobility of the elderly could be dramatic. But no matter how capable the AI, humans just behave differently.

[…]

The biggest difference in capability between self-driving cars and humans is likely to be theory of mind. Researchers like professor Felix Warneken at Harvard have shown that even very young children have exquisitely tuned senses for the intentions and goals of other people. Warneken and others have argued this is the core of uniquely human intelligence.

Researchers are working to build robots that can mimic our social intelligence. Companies like Emotient and Affectiva currently offer software with some ability to read emotions on faces. But so far no software remotely approaches the ability of humans to constantly and effortlessly guess what other people want to do. The human driving down that narrow street may say to herself “none of these oncoming cars are will let me go unless I’m a little bit pushy” and then act on that instinct, but behaving that way will be one of the greatest challenges of making human-like AI.

The ability to judge intention and respond accordingly is also central to driving. From determining whether a pedestrian is going to jaywalk to slowing down and avoiding a driver who seems drunk or tired, we do it constantly while behind the wheel. Self-driving cars can’t do this now. They likely won’t be able to do it for years. But this isn’t just about routine-but-confusing interactions like that between the Google self-driving car and the Mountain View bus.

Even the best AIs are easy to fool. State-of-the-art object recognition systems can be tricked into thinking a picture of an orange is really an ostrich. Self-driving cars will be no different. They will make errors—which is not so bad on the face of it, as long as they make fewer than humans. But the kinds of errors they make will be errors a human would never make. They will mistake a garbage bag for a running pedestrian. They will mistake a cloud for a truck.

In other words, we may be farther away from achieving the kind of AI needed to make self-driving cabs and buses feasible than we now think.

Of course, none of this may happen. Ultimately, we’re all just guessing. All I’m saying is that we should not rule out the human factor when gaming out how driverless cars will change how we live. We tend to adopt new technology to suit our needs, including the needs we didn’t know we had. Maybe a larger percentage of people in the future will forego buying cars and exist solely on the various forms of mass transit than in the present, but it’s not clear to me that that will happen. We’re a car-centric culture that loves our automobiles and needs to be prioritized, right? I know I’ve heard that argument before. I hope I live long enough to see if that remains the case.

(*) Unless of course the Big Government of the future forbids it. If you listen closely, you can hear Ted Cruz’s head exploding.

Turner wants to rethink transportation

I like the way he’s thinking.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, in less than a month on the job, has hit the streets at full speed. First he tackled potholes. Last week he tackled a state transportation department that’s spent the past half-century developing a highway network that is increasingly getting farther from Houston’s core and, according to the mayor, is worsening a congestion crisis.

“If there’s one message that I’d like to convey, it’s that we’re seeing clear evidence that the transportation strategies that the Houston region has looked to in the past are increasingly inadequate to sustain regional growth,” Turner told the Texas Transportation Commission [recently]. “Our agencies must look beyond these strategies if we are to successfully accommodate the growth that Texas’ major urban areas are anticipating.”

[…]

Annise Parker was both cheered and criticized for her support of alternatives to driving such as expanded light rail and many new bicycling projects. The two local leaders Turner took with him to Austin for the meeting, the city’s planning and public works directors, were installed by Parker and praised by local transit advocates for their breaks from previous agency philosophy.

But Turner, at least in tone, said what none of his predecessors ever publicly uttered. To a dais filled with sate highway officials, he declared: You’re doing it wrong.

“The traditional strategy of adding capacity, especially single occupant vehicle capacity on the periphery of our urban areas, exacerbates urban congestion problems,” he said. “These types of projects are not creating the kind of vibrant, economically strong cities that we all desire.”

That story is from last week, right after Turner’s address. This is more recent, with some reactions to what Turner said:

Clark Martinson, general manager of the Energy Corridor District, called Turner’s speech “the boldest, best thing I have heard from a mayor in the 30 years I’ve been in Houston.” Martinson said more mass transit and nicer, safer routes for pedestrians and cyclists are as important for his west Houston area as they are for the blocks around City Hall.

To attract the sort of workers nowliving in Midtown and working downtown, Martinson said, the Energy Corridor must seek better streetscapes and more transportation options. Citywide, he said, that meanssidewalks near schools, better access to the Bayou Greenways trail network, and working with land owners to plant shade trees as city streets are rebuilt.

“I believe you cannot solve our congestion problems by building traditional highway projects,” Martinson said. “Once you build all the highways, you have now acknowledged that we’re always going to fill up those highways with cars. If we want to move more people, the way you move more people is you shift your resources from accommodating the single-occupant vehicle to encouraging high-capacity mass transit.”

It remains an open question, however, whether the paradigm shift Turner seeks is attainable.

Alan Clark, director of transportation planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional planning group of local governments, noted that most state highway funds are restricted only for freeways. HGAC’s Transportation Policy Council, which divvies up regional transportation funding, also will play a key role, Martinson said, as council members work to change minds on a board that includes many representatives from far-flung counties with different needs.

“Making a major change in how the money is invested would be a big challenge,” Clark said.

[…]

One of the five state transportation commissioners Turner addressed last week was Jeff Moseley, a former director of the Greater Houston Partnership who said it struck his colleagues that Turner would travel to Austin in the midst of his mayoral transition to address them.

“That just speaks volumes about this mayor’s strong interest in working with all parties to make sure that the demands Houston is facing in its future have a comprehensive response,” Moseley said. “The mayor’s office over the last several administrations has looked at Metro as being the city’s response. What we see is that the mayor’s interested in Metro and all the other opportunities to address mobility.”

Moseley said he and TxDOT’s district engineer met with the leader of Turner’s transition team, David Mincberg, and the two heads of the mayor’s transportation transition committee recently, discussing everything from freight moving through the Port of Houston to pending work on U.S. 290, Texas 288 and Texas 249, and the concept of light rail expansion to Hobby and Bush airports.

It is good timing for Turner to seek a shift in thinking, Moseley said, because TxDOT will confront a legislative review during the 2017 session, having gotten the message in each of its last two so-called sunset examinations that its approach must broaden.

“The Legislature has been very, very clear that we are a Department of Transportation,” Moseley said. “When we were created about 100 years ago, we really were a highway department.”

Good to know. The main naysayer quoted was County Commissioner Steve Radack, who likes doing things the way they have always been and has no interest in the city. People like him are the obstacle that Turner will have to overcome to get anything done differently.

Let’s look a bit more closely at what Turner said. Here’s a trasnscript. The main points:

First, we need a paradigm shift in how we prioritize mobility projects. Instead of enhancing service to the 97% of trips that are made by single occupant vehicles, TxDOT should prioritize projects that reduce that percentage below 97%. TxDOT should support urban areas by prioritizing projects that increase today’s 3% of non-SOV trips to 5%, 10%, 15% of trips and beyond. Experience shows that focusing on serving the 97% will exacerbate and prolong the congestion problems that urban areas experience. We need greater focus on intercity rail, regional rail, High Occupancy Vehicle facilities, Park and Rides, Transit Centers, and robust local transit. As we grow and density, these modes are the future foundation of a successful urban mobility system. It’s all about providing transportation choices.

Second, I believe we need to focus the highway resources for our urban regions in the urban core, where congestion is most severe. Urban cores are the crossroads where freeways, railways, and ports such as the Port of Houston come together, and where the region’s mobility systems often bear the greatest stress. Spending limited resources on the region’s periphery, rather than the core, exacerbates the City’s already severe urban congestion and dilutes TxDOT’s ability to address the most vital challenges to economic development and mobility in the urban core.

Third, our agencies should to continue to collaborate to find comprehensive solutions for the traveling public. TxDOT and local partners like the City of Houston should work together to ensure TxDOT’s projects are coordinated with enhancements to the local street system – the “last mile”. Highway improvements impact our local thoroughfares, and that last mile must have adequate capacity to receive increased volumes resulting from highway improvements. Cities need to be at the table throughout project development to ensure highway improvements do not create new congestion problems along local thoroughfares with inadequate capacity.

The argument that widening the highways causes at least as much “last mile” congestion on the local streets as it relieves on the freeways is one I’ve made before, usually in the context of proposals to add lanes to 288 in town, with some kind of “dedicated lanes’ for the Medical Center. At some point, people still have to get into parking lots, one car at a time. To me, there are two basic principles that need to be understood and observed. One – and this is a point I’ve made in the context of providing bike parking, too – is that it’s in everyone’s best interests if we make it easier for the people who can walk or bike or carpool or take transit to do so. The more people who can find alternate means of transportation that do find it, the fewer single-occupancy vehicles that are competing for highway lanes and parking spaces. That’s a win all around.

What that requires is more robust transit, a more extensive bike infrastructure, better and safer sidewalks and crosswalks, not just for getting to and from work but also for going to lunch and running the basic kinds of errands that people who have cars do during the work day. Tiffany and I carpool into work downtown, and we face this all the time. Metro has been our solution for when one of us needs to go somewhere else after work, and recently for when we both needed to go somewhere at lunchtime. She wound up taking the 82 bus to her appointment, which with its 10-minute off-peak headway made it a viable option. This is what I’m talking about.

The other principle is simply that we are reaching, if we have not already reached, a point at which it no longer makes sense to prioritize minimizing travel times for single occupancy vehicles over other transportation solutions. Yes, the Katy Freeway needed to be expanded, and yes we were going to get a lot of extra traffic out that way whether we built more capacity or not. But that project was sold from the beginning as an answer to traffic congestion. That has not been the case, and any further “solution” of a similar nature will be a lot more expensive and convoluted and destructive to the environment, including and especially the built environment. Hell, just look at what’s being proposed for I-45 downtown to see what I mean. It has to make more sense at this point to find and implement ideas that encourage and allow people to drive by themselves less often. That’s my way of thinking, and I’m glad to know that not only is it also Mayor Turner’s way of thinking, it’s something he’s willing to say to those who need to hear it. CityLab, Streetsblog, and Houston Tomorrow have more.

The Prop 7 funds are already being claimed

Get ready for a lot more road construction in the near future.

Voters have a little more than a week to decide whether to give Texas highways a $2.75 billion annual funding boost, but Houston-area officials are already making plans to spend the money.

In the event Proposition 7 passes – the proposal has silent, token opposition – officials with the Houston-Galveston Area Council on Friday approved a revised 10-year spending plan that reflects when area road projects could begin, using the new money.

“Readiness will be the name of the game,” said David Wurdlow, program manager for short-range transportation planning at H-GAC. “We are going to be real aggressive to move projects forward.”

Without Proposition 7 the amount of money available for regional transportation projects is roughly $2.1 billion for the next decade, according to the current 10-year plan. Though not the only source of highway money, the funds directed by H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council are among the most significant to build or rebuild highways.

Adding Proposition 7, officials estimate, increases that total to more than $4.6 billion, taking long-sought projects and moving them much closer to reality much sooner. In fiscal year 2018, for example, Proposition 7 would increase highway spending in the Houston area from $211 million to $696 million.

In 2018 alone, Proposition 7 means an earlier start to two segments of widening Interstate 45 near NASA Bypass 1 in Webster and earlier construction on FM 2100 east of Atascocita.

Another project accelerated by planners is a long-sought widening of Texas 36. Though the road isn’t a major commuting bottleneck, widening it is a major focus Freeport and Waller County officials who contend the highway is a natural truck bypass for the Houston area.

[…]

Like Proposition 1, the money comes with some conditions. Officials cannot pay off any of Texas’ highway debt, which is how many previous transportation programs were paid. All of the funds must be used on state highways – meaning no tollways, transit or alternative modes such as bicycling can benefit.

Some non-highway projects, however, could benefit, if regional officials approve. The transportation council is made up of local elected leaders and the heads of transportation agencies such as the Metropolitan Transit Authority and TxDOT’s Beaumont and Houston offices. Council members use a formula that divides the federal and state funds spent by the agency, which caps spending on non-highway projects, called alternative modes, to between 18 percent and 25 percent of total funds.

If the Proposition 7 windfall gives officials hundreds of millions of dollars more for highways, they could restructure.

“We might be able to move those (highway projects) to the proposition side and move some of those funds to alternative modes,” Wurdlow said.

Prop 7 isn’t raising any new money to spend on transportation, because we don’t do that sort of thing in Texas. It simply mandates that $2.5 billion of sales and use tax revenues in Texas specifically to transportation – in other words, it takes money from one pocket of the budget and puts it in the other. If you’re wondering why legislators who have been writing the state’s budget over the pasty few years were unable to allocate extra funds for transportation on their own, or thinking that this is just another band-aid that doesn’t actually solve anything, you would not be alone. Streetsblog and the Rivard Report present a more comprehensive case against Prop 7, but I doubt it will have much effect. Like it or not, we’re going to see a lot more highway construction in the near future. Better get used to it.

Three views of traffic in Texas

It’s getting worse.

Houston-area leaders love to trumpet the region’s affordable cost of living and low taxes, but the costs of sitting in traffic are taking a record share of workers’ incomes, according to a comprehensive annual study.

The average peak-period commuter in Houston pays $1,490 annually in lost time and wasted fuel because freeways are not flowing, according to the Urban Mobility Scorecard. The scorecard, developed by the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute, assesses congestion in America’s 471 urban areas. It is considered a reliable barometer of whether traffic conditions are worsening or improving.

Congestion delays more than 2.4 million commuters daily along the Houston region’s 90,000 lane-miles of streets and highways, the study found. Though nearly the same number of workers traveled in the area daily in 2012 and 2014, last year motorists collectively sat in traffic for more than 200 million hours for the first time. This means every worker in the Houston area who travels at peak times wastes on average 61 hours annually because traffic doesn’t move as intended.

[…]

Despite having a lower cost of living than many other congested urban areas, Houston ranks fourth nationally when the cost of congestion is calculated. The area’s total wasted time and fuel value is $4.9 billion annually; an estimated 94.3 million gallons of fuel are lost to stop-and-go traffic.

Freight movement also suffers. Congestion adds $1.1 billion annually to the price of delivering and shipping goods via truck, according to the scorecard. Only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago shippers lose more money to congestion.

Even adjusting to the value of $1 in 2014, the money lost to commuting is at an all-time high in Houston. With a more diverse economy and growth seemingly inevitable, experts do not expect the cost of congestion to decline.

“If Houston grows by a million people, just keeping that at $1,500 is going to be hard,” [scorecard co-author Tim] Lomax said.

Here’s the scorecard and press release, with additional commentary from The Highwayman. I’m sure all of this will sound familiar.

What may not be so familiar is this critique of the study:

The trouble with TTI’s work is that, to put it bluntly, it’s simply wrong. For one, their core measure of congestion costs — the “travel time index” — only looks at how fast people can travel, and completely ignores how far they have to go. As a result, it makes sprawling cities with fast roads between far-flung destinations look good, while penalizing more compact cities where people actually spend less time — and money — traveling from place to place. These and other problems, discussed below, mean that the TTI report is not a useful guide to policy.

Moreover, its authors have been consistently indifferent in responding to expert criticism, and the report has not been subjected to peer review. The authors continue to report data for 1982 through 2007, even though TTI’s model for those years doesn’t actually measure congestion: it simply assumes that increased vehicle volumes automatically produce slower speeds, which is not necessarily accurate. The report’s data from 2007 and earlier isn’t comparable the data that comes afterwards, and can’t legitimately be used to make claims about whether traffic is better or worse than in earlier periods. And for decades, TTI used a fuel consumption model to estimate gas savings that was calibrated based on 1970s-era cars, and which assumed that fuel economy improved with higher speeds — forever.

At City Observatory, we’ve spent a lot of time digging through TTI’s work and similar congestion cost reports. A summary of our work is in the City Subjects card deck “Questioning Congestion Costs.”

Click over to see the summary of what City Observatory learned. More along these lines comes from Transportation for America:

The report focuses only on drivers — not commuters as a whole. The millions of people using growing modes like transit, walking or biking or skipping the trip entirely by telecommuting at peak aren’t included in the analysis. So when the report says “person” or “commuter,” what they’re really saying is “car commuter.” The nearly 1 million trips taken per day in Washington, DC —#1 on the “list of gridlock-plagued cities — on metro (bus and rail) and therefore not in a car? Not included in this analysis.

Trips not taken can be crucial, yet they’re ignored here. In February 2009, Inrix, the company partnering with Texas A&M on this release, reported that just a 3.7 percent drop in vehicle miles traveled in 2008 resulted in a 30 percent drop in congestion in the 100 most congested metro areas. We don’t need everyone to shift their trip, take transit, move closer to work, or telecommute — among many possible options. But smart investments and incentives that lead to very small reductions in trips taken can have huge benefits in reduced congestion. And they’re often far cheaper than massive projects proposed to shave a few seconds off of average commutes.

Live close to where you work? Oops. Your short commute can come out looking worse than someone else’s much longer commute. TTI completely ignores the actual time and distance of commutes. If you have a 20-minute commute home but move at a lower speed, your commute scores worse than the person driving 80 minutes at a higher speed. Yet who has the better experience each day?

[…]

Ranking congestion is fine, but what should we do about it? How can we manage congestion in the most cost-effective way possible given limited transportation dollars?

Doing more of the same certainly won’t solve the problem. Regions that have been aggressively investing in additional travel options, eliminating trips, reducing trip length, creating more places to live close to jobs or more effectively managing demand have seen their congestion numbers get better, according to this landmark CEOs for Cities report from a few years ago.

That’s why it’s so critically important that the rule for the congestion performance measure being developed by USDOT measure success (or failure) in ways beyond just this limited and flawed TTI measure. We do need a better measure of congestion if we want to avoid making the same decisions that got us into this mess.

How far do most people have to travel for work? How long does it take them? What is most effective at reducing the amount of time it takes to get places? How many people are exposed to the congestion? Congestion may be bad, but people telecommuting, in a vanpool or on a bike might not experience it. Credit should be given to areas that allow people to opt-out of the traffic. Those are the kinds of metrics we need to use in order to find real solutions.

I’d fall into that third group above – whether we take I-45 or Houston Avenue, we move pretty slowly going into downtown most days, but we don’t have far to go, and it almost never takes more than 10 minutes total. Tiffany used to take a vanpool to The Woodlands for her job. She moved a lot faster, but was on the road a lot longer. Which would you rather do?

Just a little food for thought while you’re sitting there in traffic. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, we are reaching the end point of accommodating single-passenger-vehicle drivers. We don’t have the room to build more highway lanes in our cities, and in the places where we have done so recently, they’ve just filled right back up again. Just as we can’t economically meet our state’s water and energy needs without conservation, we can’t economically meet the needs of single passenger vehicles at the current pace. The focus has to be on reducing the number of cars on the road – more carpools, more transit, more biking and walking, more telecommuting – which is to say, on conserving road capacity. We’re too cheap to pay for anything else anyway, so we may as well embrace the option that we’re forcing ourselves into. Street Smart has more.