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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

TxDOT plows ahead with I-45

What did we expect?

Texas highway officials [last] Thursday gave themselves the green light to rebuild Interstate 45 in Houston, a crucial step in the process, despite lingering concerns from critics that the proposed $7.5 billion widening project is out of step with the region’s future needs.

The record of decision, essentially a declaration that the project met all the steps laid out in federal transportation rules, clears the way for construction of the revamped freeway, but also allows for changes, Texas Department of Transportation officials said.

In a statement, Houston District Director for TxDOT Eliza Paul said the decision “is a necessary step in moving into the detailed design phases of project development, which is where we will have the opportunity to fully explore many of the project refinements requested.”

Those proposed changes, which critics have sought for more than three years as the project moved through its environmental process, include significant revisions in more than a dozen neighborhoods.

“‘Refinements’ is a blatant mis-characterization of the critical changes requested by Harris County, the City of Houston, and other elected officials representing the people of the directly impacted communities,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, an advocacy group that has worked with local neighborhoods to oppose the project.

See here for the background. I don’t know what to expect from here, but I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic. Still, the only way to get something like what you want is to keep asking for it. I don’t know how much better it’s possible to make this, but there’s only one way to find out.

There’s a real lack of consensus about the I-45 project

It seems unlikely that TxDOT could just throw up its hands and walk away from this, but it’s at least a possible scenario.

A proposed agreement devised to bring planners and critics of a massive redesign of Interstate 45 together has left officials in many ways further apart and opponents with a chance to convince more people the $8 billion project is stuck in the past.

No one is pulling the plug on the freeway rebuild or its design, but transportation officials said the lack of consensus between the Texas Department of Transportation, Harris County, Houston and the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council has the region’s largest-ever freeway rebuild at a crossroads. It is a hurdle a proposed memorandum of understanding was intended to clear, but the various agencies could not even agree on the agreement.

Transportation Policy Council members tabled a resolution last Friday after TxDOT said that even voting on an agreement that had no legally binding effect could complicate the project. That left some officials struggling to understand how various concerns about the project can even be addressed.

“I think it is a huge black mark on TPC and H-GAC that after all of this work and all of this community involvement nothing happens,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority and a member of the committee that worked on the now-scuttled agreement. “I just can’t imagine this thing foundering at this point and how it will affect the public’s perception.”

[…]

The Transportation Policy Council, which doles out federal money for highways and must include the project in its spending plans for the next decade, brought TxDOT and others together in June 2020 to create an agreement outlining what each hoped to gain from the project and some outline of the design’s goals. A committee was formed to develop a memorandum of understanding, an agreement between the entities outlining what they jointly commit to and who is responsible for certain particulars. The committee was headed by Carol Lewis, director of Texas Southern University’s Center for Transportation Training and Research.

Lewis said the various groups achieved a lot, developing what she called a framework from which to build consensus even with “extremes of positions” among TxDOT and the project’s critics.

“The opinions were not necessarily all aligned but we got to a good place,” Lewis said.

TxDOT’s legal review, however, called for sweeping changes, eliminating any part of the proposed agreement that conflicted with the current environmental plan. Otherwise, lawyers concluded, TxDOT would not able to sign a deal that differs with what it proposed to federal officials.

Unable to get a firm, binding agreement, Lewis said the committee sought a resolution that would go to H-GAC’s transportation council. The reasoning was that a resolution could at least serve as a guidepost of what everyone wanted to achieve.

Even that ran into opposition from TxDOT. The concern, state officials said, is a resolution would send mixed signals that the project did not have regional support, although the transportation council’s 10-year plan has set aside money for it.

In a statement some said boded ominously, [TxDOT Houston District Engineer Eliza] Paul noted if the Houston area slowed or stopped its support of the project, it could lose its place in line for state funding.

“I know TxDOT is not going to let the $8 billion sit around until we know what we are going to do,” Paul said.

I don’t know what to make of that, so go read the rest. As noted in the last update, Harris County and the city of Houston oppose the design as it is now but still want to see the project work. Other groups like LINK Houston, Air Alliance Houston, and Stop I-45 are firmly in opposition, and there’s some hope among them that this could be a way to kill the project. I have a hard time believing that, but given how long this idea has been in the works, I could imagine it being delayed for another few years, with the current pot of money being re-apportioned. The TPC has another meeting in late February to try again with this resolution, so we’ll see if they’ve made any progress on it by then.

More bike riders, more bike fatalities

We should try to do something about this.

The COVID pandemic sparked a surge in bike sales and bike riding across the Houston region at a time when pedaling — and driving — area streets is deadlier than ever.

A sharp drop in driving could not stop road fatalities from reaching a record high based on data compiled by the Texas Department of Transportation.

That lack of safety was especially true in 2020 for bicyclists, who represent a fractional number of road users but 5 percent of those killed. Last year 31 men and three women died on area roads. The annual total of 34 exceeds that of 2019, which also was a record at 27 for the region in a single year.

Based on a preliminary analysis — reports can take weeks to enter the state’s crash database maintained by TxDOT — crashes involving bicycles are down 15 percent while deaths are up 26 percent from 2019.

Safety researchers and cycling advocates, however, were reluctant to draw too many conclusions from the early numbers or begin laying blame for the jump on any single cause. In fact, where crashes occurred and who died does not align with the noticeable increase in recreational cycling but, rather, the same factors present before the pandemic: a lack of safe space for bicycles, inadequate or absent lighting, and street design choices that enable drivers to speed.

“These aren’t accidents,” said Joe Cutrufo, executive director of BikeHouston, a local advocacy group. “Our streets were intentionally designed to accommodate one mode, and only one mode.”

[…]

Yet, despite bicycle use for recreation and commuting being higher in neighborhoods within and around Loop 610, that is not where fatalities are happening. Deaths of bicyclists within Loop 610 dropped from seven in 2019 to one last year.

Instead, it is suburban areas where crashes are happening in larger numbers, such as in Houston along U.S. 90 and major streets nearby within the Sam Houston Tollway and along FM 1960 near Bush Intercontinental Airport, which were not built with bicycles in mind.

The number of fatalities always has fallen off the farther from central Houston one gets, but this year some suburban counties logged increases, notably in Brazoria County where five bicyclists lost their lives in 2020. The county’s previous high was three in 2011.

[…]

Last year’s rise in bicyclist deaths mirrors the increase in overall road deaths despite the pandemic-induced economic slowdown that has resulted in fewer vehicles on freeways and streets.

In the 11-county Houston area, 710 roadway deaths were reported by police in 2020, with almost 60 percent being drivers or passengers in cars and trucks. Despite efforts at the state, regional and local levels to curtail crashes and a pandemic that at times cut vehicle use in half, wrecks continued to claim more lives, including a record 482 in Harris County and 263 in Houston.

The conclusion of researchers — who caution that 2020 information is preliminary — is that fewer miles of automotive travel is leading to fewer wrecks, but the resulting collisions and catastrophes occurring are more severe. As a result, few can say roads are any safer.

The connection between less traffic (due to the pandemic) and more traffic deaths was noted months ago, and seems to be the result of people driving faster on those less-congested streets. For obvious reasons, that will be especially deadly for bike riders. There’s a chart embedded in the story that shows 2020 was the highest traffic fatality year since at least 2011 in the Houston area, which I believe in this case is the 11-county H-GAC region. There’s a lot that can be done about this, and a lot that needs to be done, including more roads built for safety over speed, more bike lanes, more and better sidewalks, and just more drivers being aware of bikes and pedestrians. We can make a difference, but we have to want to.

More on the Metro security robot

Looks like this is finally getting rolled out.

Typically, when a security guard weighs 400 pounds, it means they are not well suited for foot patrols. K5, however, was built for it.

Soon the spaceship-shaped sentries will roll into action at transit stops and continue keeping watch on a parking garage at Bush Intercontinental Airport, under tests to see if more mechanized monitoring can help people navigate places and provide a bit more security in spaces that could use an extra set of eyes.

Airport officials deployed two K5s, built by Silicon Valley-based Knightscope, in early December. In the coming weeks, once they are properly branded with logos, Metropolitan Transit Authority said it will roll out K5s at a park and ride lot and a transit center in the area. A stationary K1, also built by Knightscope, will be installed at a rail platform. Metro’s board approved a $270,000 contract with Knightscope about 11 months ago.

Robots likely will hit the beat in a few weeks, transit agency spokeswoman Tracy Jackson said. Officials have not confirmed the locations where the units will be deployed.

The intent at Bush, airport parking director Walt Gray said, is to see if the robots prove helpful addressing minor issues that come up in the garage, such as someone who cannot find their car or a traveler who returns with a trip to find a flat tire. A button on the robot can be pressed to speak directly with someone, with the robot able to pinpoint the exact location.

Gray said the robots are supplemental tools to on-site security, though airport officials could have bigger plans to let K5 loose in the terminals to help travelers with directions.

See here for the background. That contract was approved about a month before COVID shut everything down, so I presume that that is the reason why it took so long to get from contract approval to actual pilot test. I don’t have anything to add to what I said back then, I just look forward to the day when I can find myself on a rail platform and encounter one of these things.

Waiting for our bike trail bridge to be fixed

Of interest mostly in my neighborhood, but it’s my blog, so.

Bike riders who pedal through the Heights will need to keep burning calories past a key connection closed by fire in the region’s growing trail system.

Just in time for winter, however, parks officials at least have a plan to reopen the MKT bridge in place, news welcomed by local cyclists eager to cross easily over White Oak Bayou again.

“It’s just a killer to lose that bridge,” said Craig Arthur, 29, who bikes recreationally at least four days a week, often along the Heights Hike and Bike Trail. “I know a lot of people are wondering when it will reopen.”

The closest answer officials could give now is, probably in the spring. A glimmer of hope but also a long wait as cycling interest in the area grows.

As soon as Houston public works and engineering officials clear construction permits and verify the repair work, crews can repair abutments and slopes on the sides of the bridge, said Beth White, president and CEO of Houston Parks Board. Repairs would take between 45 and 60 days and cost about $100,000, paid for by the nonprofit parks board, which oversees the $220 million Bayou Greenways program.

The MKT bridge closed Aug. 19, when Houston firefighters responded to a call about a brush fire affecting the bridge. Crews arrived to find a small wooded area ablaze and charring the wooden beams of the bridge.

This Houston Architecture Forum thread has some pictures and other info from the fire – it was pretty dramatic, and it is still under investigation. The bridge and that part of the trail was opened in late 2009 – before that, the bridge was basically an abandoned former railroad bridge. It became part of the bike trail network as part of the “Rails to Trails” program, and I can tell you it is quite heavily trafficked when it’s open. As the story notes, and as you can see in the embedded image, there is a detour available, but it’ll take you a bit out of your way. I’m sure I speak for many people in my part of town when I say I can’t wait for this to be fixed.

Bike lanes for the Red Line

I approve.

The belief that Northside Houston residents will bike to buses and trains if it is safer to do so is bringing more curb work to Cavalcade, paid for out the same pot of federal money that brought the neighborhood trains.

Metropolitan Transit Authority on Nov. 19 approved the use of nearly $1.3 million left over from building the Red Line light rail extension — which opened nearly seven years ago — to add protected bike lanes to Cavalcade from Irvington to Elysian.

The upcoming work will extend bike lanes along Cavalcade from Airline to Irvington, adding about a half mile of protected lanes. Tikon Group won the contract with Metro, which includes altering the road where needed and striping for bike lanes in each direction, installing rubberized bumps — often called armadillos — to separate cyclists and motorists, and building new curbs at major bus stops.

The curbs and intentional curves force bicyclists to slow at spots where people will be standing for the bus, while making sure biking through “will not have a conflict with the buses,” said Bridgette Towns, vice president of project management and engineering at Metro.

The extension will connect bike lanes already in use along Cavalcade between Irvington and Airline to bike lanes along Hardy and Elysian that act as a major spine for cycling through Northside.

I’m a longtime proponent of combining bike capacity with transit capacity, so this makes a lot of sense to me. Fixing sidewalks is also a good way to make transit more attractive, as well as just being a general boon to the area. This work is being funded by some leftover money from the original Red Line expansion – it’s a bit of a story, read the article for the details. As we know, there’s more work coming from the 2019 bond referendum, but for obvious reasons things are taking their time getting started. There’s still other stuff in the meantime.

Is Greg Abbott now an obstacle for Texas Central?

This Texas Monthly story suggests that maybe the answer to that question is Yes.

Earlier this year, after six years of legal battles brought by property owners and local governments, the rail project finally looked to be chugging along. Texas Central, the company behind it, had purchased six hundred parcels, or 40 percent of the land needed to build the project. In May, a victory at the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals asserted the business’s status as a railroad company with the power to exercise eminent domain—meaning that it can require owners to sell portions of their land in return for a “reasonable” price—though that ruling may be appealed to the state Supreme Court. This fall, the project received approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration, and Governor Greg Abbott wrote a letter to the Japanese government, a key investor in the project, voicing his support. The potential benefits of the rail seemed manifold. It would offer travelers a ninety-minute alternative to the four-hour drive between Dallas and Houston and relieve highway congestion that’s projected to double by 2035. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And it would create thousands of high-paying jobs at a time when Texas is suffering from both a pandemic-related recession and an oil-price bust.

“The Texas High-Speed Train will be the first truly high-speed train in Texas and the United States, connecting North Texas, Houston and the Brazos Valley in less than 90 minutes, using the safest, most accessible, most efficient and environmentally friendly mass transportation system in the world today,” Texas Central spokesperson Erin Ragsdale wrote in a statement.

Abbott’s letter, however, sparked a firestorm among some of his longtime supporters. Even before the governor expressed support for the rail project, Meier said, her circle of friends had become increasingly wary of him because they believed he was pandering to liberal interests by imposing restrictions on some businesses during the early days of the pandemic. “I was the only one I know of that was still basically supporting him,” Meier said. “If he continues to support the [train], he will not get my vote, and I will passionately spread the word.”

Four days after Abbott penned his letter, his staff walked back his support, telling the Dallas Morning News that the governor intended to reevaluate his position out of concern for Texans’ property rights and because he was provided with “incomplete” information about the project. (His initial letter had indicated the railway had already obtained all the necessary permits to proceed, but, in fact, it still needs to receive approval from the Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulatory agency.) Abbott’s office did not make clear whether staff, pro-rail lobbyists, or another party had provided the information that allegedly misled him, nor did it respond to multiple requests for an interview about why he wrote the letter and later walked it back. Texas Central also declined multiple requests for interview about Abbott’s reversal. With the loss of the governor’s support, the train’s future faces new hurdles. Texas Central now lacks a strong advocate to ward against pending anti-high-speed rail bills in the upcoming Legislative session, and the company has lost a prominent voice asking investors to keep money flowing.

See here for the background. It’s hard to know what Abbott is thinking, but what is clear is that the strongest opposition to TCR comes from rural Republicans, who are the base of the party. While I think that on a philosophical level this project likely appeals to Abbott – indeed, TCR was designed from the beginning to appeal to Republicans, with its private-enterprise, no-government-funding ethos, and with Republican stalwarts like Robert Eckels among its leadership – he is for sure aware of which way the wind is blowing, and after a summer of vitriol from the wingnut faction he’s probably wary of starting another fight. What that means in terms of the upcoming legislative session is unclear, but we already know that TCR was playing defense. They may be facing a more potent offense than originally expected.

We’re not #1, at least for now!

For the time being, probably not for very long, the most congested stretch of highway in Texas is not in Houston.

Traffic on the West Loop has always been a mess and now it has a ranking from Texas transportation experts to match: No. 2.

Loop 610 through Uptown has lost its top spot among the state’s most congested freeway segments to Interstate 35 in downtown Austin, falling to second place according to an updated list of the 100-most clogged roadways released Tuesday by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and Texas Department of Transportation.

It ends a four-year streak of the Loop between Interstate 10 and Interstate 69 being considered the worst in the state — a distinction the segment easily could reclaim as construction of the Loop 610 and I-69 interchange continues and slows traffic.

“Somebody has to win and somebody finishes second,” said David Schrank, senior research scientist at TTI one of the list’s authors. “It’s just math.”

This year, Schrank said, the math was razor-thin by TTI’s standards, using hours of delay per mile annually as the measurement. I-35 and Loop 610 were separated by fewer than 20,000 hours of delay, each topping 1.6 million total hours stuck behind the wheel.

[…]

Schrank and others have said COVID gives them a rare glimpse into what happens when commutes are curtailed and the effects that can have on traffic. In the Houston area, while some segments of highways are back to their pre-pandemic levels, others remain about 10 percent of the typical traffic volume compared to 2019.

The effect has been segments that came to a standstill for six or seven hours a day — three hours in the morning and evening — are at their worst instead for three or four hours. Traffic experts who look at telework and flexible times to travel to offices say that demonstrates their potential.

“We can potentially take those peak periods and whittle the shoulders off them,” Schrank said.

Still, in many cases congestion is always evolving, Schrank said. A few decades ago most trips into the office in Houston meant a trip from a suburban spot to a parking garage in the central business district. Now, tens of thousands of office jobs are in Uptown along Loop 610, at I-10 west of Houston in the Energy Corridor and sprouting up along the Grand Parkway and Sam Houston Tollway ringing the city.

“They might not have the truck traffic delays you see in the top 15, but those core commute routes are still on the list,” he said. “One can go up and one can go down, but they stay there.”

Yeah, don’t worry, Houston still dominates the list, even if the #1 spot is not ours, at least for now. I will just add that working from home and not contributing to any part of this problem for most of the year is something I will greatly miss when we go back to our office.

The next phase of the I-45 fight is about to begin

Where it goes from here is still up in the air. The opening of this story was at a rally on Sunday that opposed the current I-45 plan.

The rally, part of a flurry of events from concerts to block-walking that members of Stop I-45 have organized, comes days before the deadline for comments on the $7 billion plan to remake I-45 and the downtown freeway system. Comments on the final environmental report are due to the Texas Department of Transportation’s Houston office by Wednesday.

Construction on segments, starting downtown, could start as soon as late 2021.

In advance of the deadline, groups such as LINK Houston and Air Alliance Houston that have opposed the project have mobilized online efforts to solicit comments and even petition local elected officials to oppose it.

“We’re going to do whatever we can,” said Susan Graham, organizer of the Stop I-45 group. “We’re calling elected officials. We’re set to speak at City Council on Tuesday. If there’s something we can do, we’re going to do it, but we can’t do anything unless people show up.”

Scores of groups and individuals, including the city’s planning department, plan responses in their last chance to comment. Elected officials, notably County Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, are also increasing their criticism of the plan.

“They want to continue to do the same old, same old, but that dog won’t hunt,” Garcia said of TxDOT’s plan. “We need to make sure they understand it is about the future, not what used to be.”

TxDOT and some supporters also have coalesced, with TxDOT releasing its own documents online and groups such as the NAACP and North Houston Association submitting comments at recent meetings in the Houston area and with the Texas Transportation Commission in Austin, which oversees TxDOT.

Certification of the project’s environmental process is not the end of the discussions or opportunities to address concerns, but it largely gives TxDOT the approval to proceed. Most of the money comes from state transportation funds, though about $100 million in locally controlled money is budgeted; members of the the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council can rescind it.

To address concerns raised by Harris County and Houston officials — who in the past year began to rethink their support of the project — H-GAC sought to craft a deal outlining what state and local officials hope to accomplish with the freeway rebuild. That memorandum of agreement between TxDOT, Houston, Harris County, H-GAC and the Metropolitan Transit Authority would allow all of the groups to have a single set of goals to achieve.

As that agreement has taken shape, however, much of the binding language H-GAC staff started with has been watered down, at the behest of TxDOT lawyers. For example, the original introduction said areas where the freeway fails to meet modern standards “must be corrected.” Now it reads “should be improved.”

TxDOT lawyers also inserted language stating the environmental review supersedes any agreements, in effect noting that the federal process governs how a freeway is designed.

“TxDOT’s legal obligations under the (federal environmental) process remain unchanged, and nothing in this document commits or obligates any party to any action against, or in addition, to those obligations,” lawyers wrote.

Susan Graham, quoted in the excerpt above, had a recent op-ed that outlined the opposition to the project, the bulk of which is that TxDOT has not adequately taken into account the concerns and the input from the people and communities that would be most directly affected by the rebuild. I’m sure TxDOT would say they’ve bent over backwards to provide opportunities to give feedback and that they have listened and adjusted as much as they can. I feel like this project has been looming over all of us who live within a mile or so of I-45, and while it has gotten better, there’s only so much you can do to mitigate its effects. I think the opposition has the stronger argument, and if TxDOT can’t stick to the agreement that H-GAC hammered out about consensus goals for the project, then maybe this project isn’t worth doing. Or at least, it’s not worth doing the way it’s currently set up to be done.

Is this what all the hyperloop hype was about?

I’m underwhelmed.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop has completed the world’s first passenger ride on a high-speed levitating pod system, a key safety test for technology it hopes will transform human and cargo transportation.

The Virgin Hyperloop executives, Josh Giegel, its chief technology officer, and Sara Luchian, the director of passenger experience, reached speeds of up to 107mph (172 km/h) at the company’s DevLoop test site in Las Vegas, Nevada, the company said on Sunday.

“I had the true pleasure of seeing history made before my very eyes,” said Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, the chairman of Virgin Hyperloop and the group chairman and chief executive of DP World.

The Los Angeles-based Hyperloop envisions a future where floating pods packed with passengers and cargo hurtle through vacuum tubes at 600mph (966 km/h) or faster.

[…]

The company is working towards safety certification by 2025 and commercial operations by 2030, it has said.

See here for a beginning-of-the-year update, and here for some video. I guess it’s a good thing that we’re at a point where something can be physically tested, but moving two people at 107 MPH isn’t exactly groundbreaking – hell, that happens every day on parts of the interstate highway system. I want to believe in hyperloops despite the many reasons for skepticism, but I’m going to need more than this. I’ll leave it to you to read this evisceration of the Virgin One test, but in the meantime I suspect that the folks behind Texas Central are not quaking in their boots just yet.

Texas Central once more gets to deal with the Lege

They’re both farther along, and not as far along, as they might like heading into this session.

Less than two months before the Texas Legislature begins its next session, the yearslong battle over a controversial high-speed rail project is expected to spark more legislative skirmishes.

And after years of public skepticism, Gov. Greg Abbott recently signaled his support for the project in a letter to Japan’s prime minister, although his spokesperson later said that Abbott’s office will “re-evaluate this matter.”

Last month, Abbott sent a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga saying: “This venture has my full support as Governor of Texas, and I am hopeful that final negotiations of this project with Japan can be concluded so that construction can begin. Public support and momentum are on our side, and this project can be completed swiftly.”

The Oct. 2 letter also included a significant error. Abbott told Suga that the company developing the high-speed rail line had “all the necessary permits to begin construction.”

The Texas Tribune found that Texas Central, the Dallas- and Houston-based company in charge of the project, is far from receiving all permits needed to build the 240-mile line, which would stretch from Dallas to Houston and cost around $20 billion, according to the company. When contacted by the Tribune with this information, Abbott’s office said it would review the matter.

“From the beginning of this project, the Governor made clear that he could support this project if, and only if, the private property rights of Texans are fully respected,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman told the Tribune on Oct. 7.

“The Governor’s team has learned that the information it was provided was incomplete. As a result, the Governor’s Office will re-evaluate this matter after gathering additional information from all affected parties,” Wittman added.

The governor’s office has not responded to multiple follow-up questions about the results of its review and has not explained why Abbott didn’t know the project lacked permits or who Abbott was relying upon for information about the project.

[…]

Texas Central has said that it plans to start construction by the first half of 2021 and that it has already secured sites for stations in Dallas, Houston and the Brazos Valley.

But the Tribune found that Texas Central still hasn’t applied for a key permit from the federal Surface Transportation Board, which regulates transportation projects, for the construction and operation of the proposed rail line, according to an STB spokesperson.

And two Texas agencies, the Texas General Land Office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said they haven’t received all the necessary permit applications from the company, including the route proposal and a permit to discharge stormwater during the construction process.

A third agency, the Texas Department of Transportation, must approve permits for the rail line to cross state roads during construction, but a spokesperson said the agency would consider any proposals from the company only after the STB approves the project.

The company did receive two key approvals in September from the Federal Railway Administration, which provided the regulatory framework and the environmental review for the high-speed train. The railway administration explained that these rulings covered several of the permits needed by the project in areas like railroad safety, protection of parkland and protection of cultural resources.

See here for the previous update, about the approval provided by the Federal Railroad Administration. I have no idea where the other permits stand, or how long that part of it is supposed to take. We’re about to enter at least the third legislative session where I find myself saying “if they can just make it through this session, they’ll probably be okay”. They did fine in 2019, but their opponents are organized and dedicated, and even though I suspect they’re a minority, I have no idea offhand who their best champion in the Lege is. A small group of people who really care about something can often beat a larger group of people who don’t feel all that strongly about whatever it is they’re being asked to care about. TCR might also want to check in with Greg Abbott and make sure he has up to date information from them – assuming he bothers to respond to their requests, of course. On the plus side for TCR, the Lege has a pretty packed agenda, which may crowd out anything their opponents want to do. But I wouldn’t count on that.

Harris County reaches bike trail deal with CenterPoint

Nice.

CenterPoint rights of way

Biking between bayous in Harris County is closer to reality, now that local leaders and the monopoly that manages local power lines have inked a deal.

Harris County officials Tuesday approved an agreement between the county and CenterPoint Energy outlining the use of utility easements as hike and bike trails.

“Part of what we are doing is expanding the view of transportation in the county,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

Utility easements crisscross the Houston region, with many being ideal north-south connections to the existing trail systems along area bayous. Local cyclists said that is what makes them popular as possible new trails.

[…]

County officials are working on a comprehensive transportation plan, scheduled for release in February, Hidalgo said. With the CenterPoint agreement in place, part of that plan will include outlining the first easements where the county can make critical connections to area bayous.

“We have a lot of promise here,” the judge said, noting she is hopeful that with better trails to beautified bayous Harris County could become “the Venice of our area” by building on efforts by others, including the Houston Parks Board and local management districts.

Harris County’s arrangement with CenterPoint follows a similar agreement with Houston six years ago. Houston’s agreement became a template for changes in state law to make deals easier after the city and utility plodded through various legal issues. Hidalgo said the county also faced slow-going despite a streamlined process, as lawyers haggled over insurance specifics.

As a result of those various delays, opening some of the new trails in Houston and beyond along utility corridors remains a work-in-progress. Some in western Houston, notably the Westchase district and near Sims Bayou, are open and efforts continue to build more via local management districts or the nonprofit Houston Parks Board.

See here and here for some background, and here for a more recent update. The right-of-way that goes from Memorial Park down to Beltway 8, just inside 610 for the northern half of it, passes through some well-populated areas, and should be a huge boon for the residents nearby. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t realized that the county wasn’t already on board with this – as noted, the city of Houston struck this agreement with CenterPoint way back in 2014 – but I’m glad they’re on board now. Anything we can do to bring this to completion is worthwhile.

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.

Metro moving forward with its construction plans

As well they should.

Carrin Patman greeted the supporter by grabbing both of his hands in a packed downtown Houston event space above a bustling sports bar. The buffet laid out for Metro’s 2019 election night watch party was thoroughly picked through and waiters and waitresses were bringing out more.

“I don’t want to jinx it, but everything is looking great. It’s going to pass,” Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board, told the man among a throng of celebrants clinking glasses and talking about the big win for buses and trains. As she let go, Patman said she was looking forward to starting the “real work” of building Houston’s future transit system.

A year later, Metro has to work its way through a pandemic that took away more than half its ridership and still is roiling its financial outlook before it can tackle more than a decade of rail, street and transit stop construction.

Nonetheless, transit officials are moving ahead with millions of dollars in engineering and design of new lines and services, confident they can plan now for major projects that riders eventually will demand.

“We don’t want to lose that time,” said Roberto Treviño, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction. “We don’t want to wait. Now is the time to plan.”

After months of discussion, contracts for design oversight and preparation of the lengthy federal environmental process for a major bus rapid transit line could be solicited by the end of the year, as Metro starts the work Patman predicted.

You can read the rest. Some projects have been de-prioritized for now, which is fine. The people voted for doing this work, and it would be a dereliction of duty to not do it. Unless you think we’re never going to get back to the level of activity and traffic we had before, there’s no reason to put this off. Keep moving forward.

Don’t park in a bike lane

It’s illegal now, and you will get a citation.

Houston city council on Wednesday made it illegal to park in or otherwise block the city’s expanding network of bike lanes, a long-sought change by cyclists fed up with dodging cars and other obstacles in their designated paths.

Council voted 15-2 to pass an ordinance to forbid people from blocking the dedicated lanes that are physically separated from roadways. The prohibition applies to 120 miles of bike lanes, and violations will be punishable by a $100 fine.

Councilmembers Mike Knox and Edward Pollard voted against the measure, but did not explain why. Council did not discuss the ordinance.

Previously, there was nothing in the city’s code that prohibited blocking the lanes. The city had to post “no parking” signs along the lanes in a sometimes futile effort to keep them clear.

Nick Hellyar, a board member for the nonprofit Bike Houston, hailed the ordinance as a pragmatic step toward safety.

“Bike Houston has been fighting for this for forever,” said Hellyar. “It’s just some of that common-sense government that sometimes we need to push a little harder for as advocacy groups.”

Warnings will be given for the first 90 days, and an amendment proposed by three Council members to offer a free bike class in lieu of the fine – sort of like defensive driving class for illegal parkers – was adopted. Motor vehicles of any kind are not allowed on the off-road bike trails, so in a sense all this does is standardize the bike trails around the city. I approve.

Here comes another rideshare company

Seems like a less than optimal time to be expanding, but here we are.

Alto, a new rideshare company based in Dallas, will roll into view in Houston as it looks to expand its reach and compete with Uber and Lyft.

The app-based service, which [arrived] in Houston Thursday, looks to distinguish itself in the market by offering what it calls a consistent experience by managing its own fleet of 200 luxury Buick sports utility vehicles and hiring employees to drive them rather than relying on independent contractors, as competittors such as Uber and Lyft do.

[…]

Alto’s expansion comes as a debate rages in California over how companies such as Uber and Lyft should treat its drivers. There, a new state employment law requires the gig economy companies to classify drivers as employees, but voters could exempt the companies via a ballot measure in November.

Alto also is expanding as the coronovirus pandemic batters the ride-hailing industry. Uber, the market leader, reported a 75 percent decline in ridership during the quarter ended June 30, as people grew wary of leaving the house and entering enclosed spaces.

Alto’s business has shrunk, too. Business is still down about 30 percent from pre-pandemic levels, [Alto CEO Will] Coleman said. “There’s some people in Dallas that are going to continue to not get into cars,” he said, “so our total customer base is smaller.”

That makes expanding into new territories more important to the company’s growth, Coleman said. Houston seemed like a natural next step, he said, given its proximity and size — it’s the nation’s fourth largest city. It also appealed because the company caters to the business community, which in Houston is large and international.

Business travel from the airport was a big sales driver before the pandemic, he said, and is beginning to pick back up. “People are looking for safe ways to move again,” Coleman said.

Not surprisingly, Alto costs more than Uber; the story does not do a comparison to a taxi fare, which would have been interesting. As someone who thinks Uber and Lyft treat their drivers like trash, I like Alto’s model, I just don’t know what their prospects are, even without factoring the pandemic into the equation. But if you’re the type of person who uses this type of service, and you’ve been wishing there was an alternative to Uber and Lyft, here you go.

(Also, can we please come up with an alternative term for “rideshare”? That doesn’t fit all that well any more for Uber and Lyft, and it makes even less sense for Alto, which actually owns the vehicles and employs the drivers. They’re basically a livery service, but that word makes me think of horse-drawn carriages with footmen. I am open to suggestion here.)

Texas Central gets federal approvals

A big step completed.

Federal officials have issued final approvals to backers of a Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail line, clearing the way for construction of the proposed line, in a move almost certain to face challenges from opponents.

Texas Central Railroad, the company planning to operate trains from Houston to Dallas with a stop near College Station, said early Monday that the Federal Railroad Administration had issued both the Record of Decision that ends the environmental analysis and the Rule of Particular Applicability that governs the safety standards the Japanese-developed trains must use.

“This is the moment we have been working towards,” said Carlos Aguilar, CEO of Texas Central Railroad.

Railroad administration officials did not confirm the approvals, with the company saying the details and specifics of the rules will be released soon.

Company officials — who less than a decade ago expected construction to cost $10 billion, now say building it will cost “around $20 billion,” with construction possibly starting in the first half of next year.

[…]

With the two approvals in hand, Texas Central can begin final designs and construction of the project. A consortium of companies, including Italian construction giant Salini Impregilo, Central Japan Railway — builder of the Shinkansen bullet trains that will be the basis for the Texas trains — and Spanish rail operator Renfe, are all hired to handle various parts of the building and operations of the system.

Though development involves global companies, Texas Central and supporters, including elected officials in Houston and Dallas, note the company is based in Texas and the companies will hire thousands of locals to build and operate it. Some, such as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, said new travel modes will define how the metro areas grow and cooperate.

“The construction of high-speed rail will have a generational impact, creating thousands of jobs right here in Houston and injecting billions of dollars into our local businesses,” Turner said.

Texas Central had previously hoped to start construction by the end of this year. I presume, though the story doesn’t indicate, that the COVID situation may have slowed things down a bit.

Most of the rest of the story is given to Texas Central opponents, and I think we can recite most of what they have to say by heart. I don’t expect the opposition to ease up any time soon, but the opponents are beginning to run out of tools in their bag, especially after a favorable court ruling on the “are they really a railroad” question. I’ve said repeatedly that the best thing TCR can do for their own future is to get those shovels in the ground and start constructing before the Lege has the chance to take any further action. They’ll be at the very beginning stages of that during the session this spring, so maybe this is the end of the line for serious peril.

Of course, we don’t know how demand for this kind of travel will change in a post-COVID world. One could argue that with fast boarding and roomier passenger spaces, TCR will be better placed than before to compete with the airlines. They may have a harder time competing with people driving themselves, however. All this assumes there will be the same kind of demand for mostly business travel going forward. We just don’t know what that effect will be in the longer term, but any argument that the Zoom-and-Teams world we’re in now obviates the need for big rail projects like TCR would apply to big road projects as well. We may very well make some inaccurate guesses about this. We’re going to have to live with that until we do know better. The Trib has more.

Dallas ends its scooter experiment

Over in Dallas, never started in Houston.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Tis better to have scootered and stopped than to have never scootered at all.

That is the consensus of a handful of Houston proponents of rental scooters as they watched Dallas this week order companies to pull the devices from local streets, citing crime and other issues with their use.

“We have received complaints about scooters and would like to make substantial changes to the scooter program,” said Dallas Transportation Director Mike Rogers, in a statement. “The changes will include public safety considerations so that the city may have safe modes of alternative transportation.”

Companies have flooded some cities with scooters people can rent by the minute with a smartphone app, part of a growing micro-mobility movement. Users can grab a scooter, motor to wherever they are going within a few blocks or miles and simply leave the scooter for the next person. Advocates say the scooters reduce car travel while making moving outdoors in inhospitable places — like scorching Texas — possible.

Critics call the scooters mobile clutter, complaining they crowd sidewalks and pose a safety hazard to pedestrians and riders.

That is the point Dallas hit earlier this week. City officials told Bird, Spin, Jump and any other companies still out there to cease operations on Wednesday and remove all the scooters by Friday, bringing an end to a popular but contentious debate about dockless devices and local transportation, for now.

It is a debate Houston mostly has avoided simply by doing nothing. Regulations in Houston make deploying the scooters murky at best — much as companies such as Uber and Lyft began operating in a cloud of uncertainty related to taxi rules. The consensus was Houston’s regulations would need to be changed before scooters hit the streets for rent.

Houston was an outlier in Texas in not having scooters. Dallas and Austin were both fertile markets for the devices, at least until COVID significantly upended the business and some of the companies collapsed or cut back. San Antonio finalized its agreement with the companies in January after 10 months of public discussion, allowing Razor and Bird to deploy up to 1,000 scooters each.

[…]

Houston officials said scooter regulations remain possible, but are not a high priority compared to such efforts as Vision Zero to eliminate roadway deaths. .

“The city’s focus right now is on implementing Vision Zero and adding bike lanes across the city,” said Maria Irshad, deputy director of the city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. “At this time, a program is not under consideration but we are studying it and trying to figure out how it could safely work.”

Officials also are working through a number of transportation-related rule changes, including specific prohibitions and greater enforcement of illegal parking in bike lanes.

Meanwhile, use of Houston’s B-Cycle system is booming during the pandemic as bike-sharing officials ready for more expansion, including 100 new e-bikes that bring their own challenges related to trail safety.

Until I saw this headline earlier in the week, I’d completely forgotten that just over a year ago it looked like scooters, or at least some proposed scooter regulations, were about to debut in Houston. Crazy how things can change, huh? Scooters may have failed in Dallas, but they remain a success in San Antonio, as long as they keep off the sidewalk. We can only speculate at this point what their fate might have been in Houston if Lime and Bird and the rest had simply taken the Uber/Lyft approach and invaded the city first, letting the regulatory issues sort themselves out later.

Honestly, I think the main reason why scooters have taken a back seat in Houston is that the city’s attention has been much more on bikes and expanding bicycle infrastructure. B-Cycle has been successful and continues to expand, while Dallas tried and failed to go with dockless bike sharing. The city of Houston, along with Harris County and the Bayou Greenway Initiative, has been busy building out its bike infrastructure, which by the way is off limits to scooters as they are not people-powered. Also, too, we do have electric bikes in the pipeline, and they pretty much serve the same transportational niche as scooters.

So maybe this is a lot of fuss about nothing much. Or maybe the problem was that the scooter business model doesn’t necessarily work everywhere, and perhaps Dallas and eventually Houston would be served better by a non-profit scooter rental system like B-Cycle. I mean, if it really is about solving a people-moving problem that enables mobility without cars, then it shouldn’t matter what the entity behind the scooters is. I’ve said all along, I’m happy that other cities have taken the lead in working out all the kinks in this process before it comes to Houston, so my thanks to the people of Big D for their service. The Dallas Observer has more.

Uptown BRT officially opens

Meet the Silver Line.

T.J. Buttons is used to a bus ride in Houston giving him plenty of time to check his phone. On that front, Houston’s first bus rapid transit route failed miserably.

“It’s so fast,” Buttons said as he bumped along on opening day Sunday of the Silver Line, operated by Metropolitan Transit Authority through Uptown.

More than four years of work — some a source of frustration for critics who called the project unnecessary along the car-centric corridor — preceded the opening, muted by COVID’s constraints on travel in the area. Nonetheless, officials and transit supporters said the opening was cause of celebration, and an indication of the changes coming as Metro plots 75 more miles of bus rapid transit in the region.

For Buttons and other riders, it means a much faster trip than the Route 33 buses it replaces along Post Oak, with fewer stops and less competing with traffic.

“It’s really like the train,” Buttons said.

That’s exactly what officials wanted with the project designed by Metro and the Uptown Houston Management District, which rebuilt the street and sidewalks as part of a $192.5 million project. Fourteen 60-foot buses will operate the route, traveling along an elevated busway along Loop 610 and then in dedicated transit lanes in the center of Post Oak.

The Silver Line operates between the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610 through Uptown mostly along Post Oak to the new Westpark Lower Uptown Transit Center south of Interstate 69 near Bellaire. Fifteen bus routes connect directly to the service, via the two transit centers.

Metro and Uptown officials have said the buses will deliver service similar to light rail with boardings via platforms in the middle of the street. Trips will be faster, transit officials said, because the buses are not inching along in regular traffic. Compared to Houston’s light rail system, the buses might outpace trains because traffic is not in front of them or turning from the same lanes, improving both speed of trips and safety.

“If we don’t have shared left turn lanes, that knocks a lot of our issues out,” said Andrew Skabowski, chief operations officer for Metro.

[…]

Getting the timing right in Uptown, especially at key intersections such as Richmond, is critical to not having the buses obstruct others. In downtown Houston, shortly after the Green and Purple lines opened in 2015, Houston Public Works and Metro spent months tweaking the traffic signal timing to find the right routine.

Skabowski said if there is a silver lining to opening the Silver Line during a pandemic, it is that lower traffic demand because of fewer commutes and shopping trips gives officials a grace period to get things right.

“We still don’t have normal conditions, so that gives us a little window to get there,” he said. “We have the perfect time period to tweak it.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a good Twitter thread showing what the ride experience looks like. As far as that goes, it looks really good, and the service will be frequent (every ten minutes during the day) and reliable. Everything we know about transit ridership says that a comfortable and convenient experience will draw riders, so we’ll see what we get here, especially once people start returning to something like a normal routine. And as Christof Spieler pointed out, this line will connect to multiple high-frequency east-west bus lines, thus really expanding the network in Houston. Later on, this will be extended to connect to the Texas Central station. It’s an exciting development, and next up should be the BRT replacement for the Universities light rail line.

How Nuro is doing in the pandemic

An interesting update on the little driverless grocery (and other things) delivery serives.

As recently as last fall, Nuro appeared to be years away from widespread adoption. The company, which operated in Arizona and California, arrived in Houston in 2018 to test its vehicles on a city known for its diversity, with a wide range of neighborhoods and types of customers. Though the cars were overseen by two human employees in the front seat, the goal was to develop the world’s preeminent fully autonomous delivery service. The robotically piloted Toyota Priuses, equipped with remote sensing equipment on top, became a fairly common sight in central Houston neighborhoods. But before the pandemic, most people didn’t pay them much attention.

Last fall, only 3 percent of the nation’s households were placing frequent online orders for grocery delivery. The low rate was attributed to shoppers’ concerns about higher prices online and delivery drivers showing up late. In May of this year, however, that number had skyrocketed to 33 percent, a stunning increase that—in even the best case scenarios—was expected to take many years to reach, not months. In Houston alone, Nuro has seen its deliveries triple into the thousands since the pandemic turned in-person shopping into risky activity. Suddenly, Nuro was no longer a novelty, but an important aid for many Houstonians sheltering in place.

[…]

In addition to partnering with Kroger, the nation’s largest operator of traditional supermarkets, Nuro delivers Domino’s pizza and prescriptions from CVS. The company expects much of its new customer base to remain after the pandemic, believing that quarantine has only amplified an existing trend toward on-demand grocery delivery. Sola Lawal, a Nuro product operations manager based in Houston who formerly worked for Uber, cites high customer appreciation scores as evidence that new users will remain loyal to the brand.

When I spoke to Lawal, I asked him what he would have thought if someone had shown him those heightened delivery numbers last fall.

“I’m not sure what I would’ve thought,” he said. “I just know I would’ve been very confused.”

The pandemic hasn’t just rapidly expanded the company’s customer base and delivery volume, it’s also forced them to adapt. The company still relies on Nuro employees to oversee the autonomous vehicles, collect valuable information about how they perform on the road, and unload groceries gathered by workers at Kroger. Last fall, when driverless vehicles arrived at a home with groceries in tow, a human operator sitting in the passenger seat would hand the goods over to customers or deliver them to the front door. In Houston, some families had a habit of meeting the vehicles at the curb with a red wagon. “It was like a mini family celebration,” Lawal explained.

With person-to-person interaction no longer safe, Nuro’s engineers rushed to develop a new system that would allow customers to open a delivery vehicle’s doors by flashing a thumbs-up sign or using a setting on their mobile phone. (Both the hand gesture and smartphone features are available only on vehicles in California for now.)

“Creating contact-less delivery was a long-term goal that got sped up when it became clear that, yeah, we need to be able to do this now!” Lawal said.

That was specifically one of the things I wondered about when Nuro expanded its service a couple of months ago. I still think there will be demand for having a human person bring the groceries to your door, but perhaps the demand for contactless delivery will be greater than I might have thought. We still mostly go to the store ourselves – early mornings are fairly uncrowded, and it’s the only way to be sure you’re getting exactly what you want, including when what you originally wanted isn’t available – but the allure of delivery is easy to see. Have any of you tried this service?

Merging transit fare systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who gets to be on the I-45 panel?

I’m not thrilled about this.

Houston will have a say in a regional response to design differences in the planned widening of Interstate 45 within the city — and so will Sugar Land, Montgomery County and Waller County.

After voting last month to establish a working group focused on improving the plans by the Texas Department of Transportation for rebuilding I-45, members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council approved the members of the panel Friday over the objections of critics and Harris County officials.

“I do take exception that those who are going to be most impacted are not as represented,” Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.

[…]

Houston, via a letter from Mayor Sylvester Turner to TxDOT officials, has sought changes to the project north of downtown to ease those effects. City officials want frontage roads in some areas eliminated or reduced to two lanes, and a greater reliance on transit instead of carpools by making the center lanes bus-only rather than HOV. TxDOT has said it is studying the proposal, but said that after years of discussion it is committed to moving its designs along to keep construction on track while addressing possible changes later.

Regional officials with the transportation council ultimately will decide whether $100 million or more of locally-controlled federal money is spent on the project as phases begin over the next five years, a sum that while small in comparison of the $7 billion-plus cost, significantly affects TxDOT’s ability to leverage state-controlled dollars. That leaves the council to support or not support the changes as a condition of its funding, or allow TxDOT to move forward with its own plans.

The 16-person working group approved Friday includes some Houston-centric officials — including At-Large Councilman David Robinson, Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman and Port Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther. Half of the members, however, hail from outside Harris County, including Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman, Waller County Commissioner Justin Beckendorff and Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough.

Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, chairman of the transportation council, said his aim in appointing people to the group was to reflect the entire region’s interest in the project.

“Their commuters are driving their freeway roads all over the place,” Clark said. “I thought it was important we had a group that had that … a critical working group if you will.”

Zimmerman, who last month argued Houston-area officials needed to put the project “in a positive light” noted that the regional body’s role was to reflect the entire eight-county area.

“The intent was to keep politics out of this,” Zimmerman said.

Critics, who have said for two years that their concerns have been heard by TxDOT with little progress toward resolving the issues, said a regional group that includes no members from the project area speaking directly for residents and neighborhoods indicates their concerns are being ignored.

“This proposal is inequitable and unacceptable,” said Jonathan Brooks, director of policy and planning for LINK Houston, a local advocacy group that has organized some of the opposition to the project.

First of all, you can never “keep the politics out” of an inherently political process. I cringe at this because the implication here, one that is widely made and shared, is that by keeping “politics” out of this process you are somehow keeping it “clean” and “fair”, because “politics” is dirty and tainted. But “politics”, as a process, is all about engaging communities and getting consensus. You can’t do that if key communities are being excluded while others that have a lesser stake in the outcome are given power over the process. The people whose homes, neighborhoods, jobs, and lives are going to be directly affected by the I-45 project need to have a seat at that table. It’s just wrong that they don’t.

Second, maybe the reason Houston-area officials haven’t been putting such a “positive light” on this project is because we don’t see it as being all that positive. Certainly, plenty of people who live in Houston don’t see it that way. Maybe the problem isn’t branding but the product itself.

And look, none of this would be a problem now if the people who will be the most affected by this project had truly been heard along the way. They’ve been airing the same complaints about the I-45 rebuild because so many of their key concerns are still there. You may say there’s no way to do this project without setting aside most of those concerns. We would say that’s exactly the problem, and should call into question the fundamental assumptions about this project in the first place. If you can’t do it without causing significant harm, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

Time for your regularly scheduled announcement that the Uptown BRT line opening has been pushed back

Maybe for the last time, though. We hope.

Rapid bus service is coming to Uptown next month, a couple weeks later than Metro first said this summer and two years later than expected when construction began in 2016.

Service will start along the Silver Line on Aug. 23, along with other bus route changes planned by Metropolitan Transit Authority, CEO Tom Lambert said. Officials pushed back opening day a couple weeks from an earlier estimate to make all the changes at once.

“This allows us to be consistent,” Lambert said.

[…]

“There are four critical traffic signals to getting this done,” said Roberto Trevino, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction, outlining the remaining work.

City officials, Trevino said, pledged to have the signals in place by the end of the week. The lights are vital to giving buses their own signal to enter and exit the lanes at key such intersections as Westpark and the Loop 610 southbound frontage road.

See here for the previous update, when July was the target month. I will say, this time we have an actual date, which is a step forward. Also, if the term “Silver Line” has been used elsewhere, I’ve missed it. I look forward to a day when the virus is under control and I can feel free to take what would be a joyride for myself on this new line. I hope the date for that doesn’t have to keep being rescheduled.

Bike lanes coming to Shepherd/Durham corridor

Nice.

Houston officials with some regional help have nearly solved funding a $100 million rebuild of Shepherd and Durham that adds bike lanes, wider sidewalks, improved drainage and new concrete to one of the most car-centric corridors within Loop 610. Regional officials Friday approved committing $40 million of the cost, using locally controlled federal highway funds.

All those additions, however, come with the loss of a driving lane on each street, reducing them to three lanes each.

Work is scheduled to start on the northern segment in fiscal 2022, from Loop 610 to 15th Street. Construction is expected to move south of 15th about a year later to Interstate 10.

It is the latest major effort by city officials to add cycling amenities along bustling and traffic-logged corridors that officials said will not significantly choke drivers and offer others crucial links to trails and upcoming transit projects.

“It is critical we have inter-modal transportation,” said Houston District C Councilwoman Abbie Kamin.

She said the rebuilds of Shepherd and Durham — planned since 2013 — were among her priority projects when she took office in January because of the rapid redevelopment happening along the two streets. Car sales lots, warehouses and other businesses are being replaced by mid-rise apartment buildings and new commercial centers between I-10 and Loop 610.

“We have so many great places coming in but people can’t walk or ride to get there,” Kamin said.

[…]

The southern segment is vital because I-10 at Shepherd/Durham is also where Metropolitan Transit Authority plans a new stop on a future bus rapid transit line along the freeway from its Northwest Transit Center near Uptown to downtown. A completed bike lane would provide a direct link so someone could bike to a bus depot where they could hop on transit that would connect them to the two largest clusters of jobs in the region.

“It gives people a way to get to transit without driving their cars,” said Maureen Crocker, deputy director of transportation planning in the Transportation and Drainage Operations Department of Houston Public Works.

Support for funding the street redesign came from a wide swath of elected officials. Texas Republicans Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, whose zig-zagged district includes the Shepherd-Durham corridor as well as Kingwood, wrote letters of support along with Houston-area Democrats led by Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

“It just shows the importance of this project,” Kamin said.

Aside from the bike benefits, officials said the rebuild restores streets that have waited years for repairs, including cross streets such as 20th that are riddled with chipped-away pothole patches. By eliminating the fourth lane of traffic, federal officials said in their grant award last year, the street project also improves safety by shortening the distance drivers and pedestrians must travel to safely cross the streets.

With phase two funded, Kamin said that leaves a small segment from I-10 south to Washington unpaid for, but she said officials are optimistic they can work to get the final pieces in place.

I’m glad to see this. CM Kamin is exactly right about the changing nature of this corridor. Among other things, there are a lot of new restaurants in that area, which should draw customers from the immediate area. Ideally, those folks would be able to walk or bike there, as they would in other neighborhoods that don’t have what are basically four-lane freeways running through them. This is a big step towards making that happen, and that will be a real boon for the area. It’s also important to remember that even in Houston there are a lot of folks who don’t have cars, and a project like this is going to make how they travel, whether by foot or bike or bus, safer as well.

I feel compelled at this point to confess that fifteen years or so ago, during an earlier phase of the “rebuild and expand I-45 south of Beltway 8” project, I advocated for turning this corridor into a better and faster automotive alternative to I-45 – basically, using the Shepherd/Durham corridor as extra capacity for I-45, so we could maybe get away with adding less capacity to that freeway. I’m sure there’s a blog post to that effect somewhere in my archives, because I definitely remember writing something along those lines, but I don’t feel like spelunking for it. Point is, that was a bad idea that I’m glad no one took seriously. I was myopically concerned about one thing, and didn’t consider how it would affect other people and places. It’s crazy to think what this area might look like now if Shepherd and Durham had been modified to be even more highway-like. What we have now is so much better and about to be even more so. It’s good to remind myself sometimes that I’m as big an idiot as anyone else.

Checking on Metro’s mask mandate

I admit, I was a bit confused when I saw the earlier version of this story.

Metro wanted to make sure its mask requirement for all passengers passed legal muster, asking a Houston lawmaker to seek an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

That request may be moot after Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Thursday requiring Texans to wear face masks while in public, under most conditions.

State Rep. Jim Murphy, a Republican who represents a west Houston district just south of Interstate 10 between Loop 610 and the Sam Houston Tollway, had asked the attorney general in a June 26 letter whether Abbott’s previous executive orders limiting local governments’ ability to enforce public health requirements apply to the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Metro spokesman Jerome Gray on Thursday said Murphy posed the question at Metro’s request. Only certain people — prosecutors, county attorneys and state elected officials — can solicit an opinion from Paxton’s office.

“Given the various back-and-forth discussions about masks we thought it prudent to get some clarity from the AG’s office regarding our ability to deny service to anyone who does not wear a mask,” Gray said. “Gov. Abbott just issued a new order regarding masks and that appears to clear up any ambiguity.”

[…]

When masks became conditional to ride, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said transit officials had no intention of imposing criminal or even civil penalties. Those without a mask will be provided one by Metro staff, and if they refuse to wear it Metro will provide alternative transportation but will not allow them to remain on the bus or train, officials said.

While riders have reported some lax enforcement of the mask requirement on some buses, transit officials have said most riders are compliant with the change and there have been few incidents.

See here and here for the background on the mask mandate. As noted, Greg Abbott’s statewide mask order kind of makes this moot, but the basic question is still there. When I saw the early version of this story, I must have missed the bit about this request being made on Metro’s behalf – my reaction was like “what does Jim Murphy have against Metro?”, which surprised me because that’s not his brand. Briscoe Cain, sure, but not an establishment guy like Murphy. This at least makes sense, though now I’m worried what the answer Metro might be. Anyway, we’ll check back on this when the opinion is given, hopefully at a time when it’s moot for better reasons.

Masks for Metro confirmed

It’s official.

Metro riders need to cover up to hop on, following a decision by the transit agency’s board Thursday to require masks on its buses and trains.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members approved the requirement at their monthly meeting Thursday morning, citing the need for all residents to protect themselves — and others — in public as COVID-19 cases in the Houston area increase.

“We owe an obligation to each other to treat our neighbors as we treat ourselves,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said. “In order to flatten the curve we have to take prudent steps.”

The requirement means all riders must wear face coverings, unless it is medically harmful to do so, while on buses and trains and at Metro transit stations and buildings. Workers and contractors also are required to wear masks. Anyone entering a Metro building also will need to have their temperature checked.

Metro drivers will have masks to provide to customers who do not have one, transit agency CEO Tom Lambert said.

[…]

For those who refuse to cover up, [Metro chief operations officer Andrew] Skabowski said, Metro drivers will work through a checklist, informing reticent riders that it is a requirement; if they do not wear a mask, the bus cannot proceed and a Metro supervisor will have to be called to arrange alternative transportation for them, which will take time to coordinate.

“From there, the patron typically either puts on the mask or walks away,” Skabowski said, adding that “peer pressure” on the bus can help diffuse the situation.

As drivers worked to encourage mask use over the past three days, Skabowski said only 10 refusals led to a supervisor being called. In each of those cases, the person either complied or left without seeking alternative transportation from Metro. In two cases, Metro police responded but did not take any action against the rider.

“We are not looking at civil or criminal penalties,” Lambert said.

See here for the background. How Metro has handled recalcitrant riders is exemplary and encouraging. And it really makes you wonder how much better off we’d be if this kind of social pressure to wear masks when out in public had existed at all levels of society. No point crying over spilled hydroxychloroquine, I guess.

So how safe are those driverless cars?

Safer than human-driven cars, but maybe not by as much as you might think.

A new study says that while autonomous vehicle technology has great promise to reduce crashes, it may not be able to prevent all mishaps caused by human error.

Auto safety experts say humans cause about 94% of U.S. crashes, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study says computer-controlled robocars will only stop about one-third of them.

The group says that while autonomous vehicles eventually will identify hazards and react faster than humans, and they won’t become distracted or drive drunk, stopping the rest of the crashes will be a lot harder.

“We’re still going to see some issues even if autonomous vehicles might react more quickly than humans do. They’re not going to always be able to react instantaneously,” said Jessica Cicchino, and institute vice president of research and co-author of the study.

The IIHS studied over 5,000 crashes with detailed causes that were collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, separating out those caused by “sensing and perceiving” errors such as driver distraction, impaired visibility or failing to spot hazards until it was too late. Researchers also separated crashes caused by human “incapacitation” including drivers impaired by alcohol or drugs, those who fell asleep or drivers with medical problems. Self-driving vehicles can prevent those, the study found.

However, the robocars may not be able to prevent the rest, including prediction errors such as misjudging how fast another vehicle is traveling, planning errors including driving too fast for road conditions and execution errors including incorrect evasive maneuvers or other mistakes controlling vehicles.

For example, if a cyclist or another vehicle suddenly veers into the path of an autonomous vehicle, it may not be able to stop fast enough or steer away in time, Cicchino said. “Autonomous vehicles need to not only perceive the world around them perfectly, they need to respond to what’s around them as well,” she said.

Just how many crashes are prevented depends a lot on how autonomous vehicles are programmed, Cicchino said. More crashes would be stopped if the robocars obey all traffic laws including speed limits. But if artificial intelligence allows them to drive and react more like humans, then fewer crashes will be stopped, she said.

I’ve been watching the Amazon series Upload (very funny, check it out), and one plot point in it is the death of two characters in separate autonomous vehicle crashes. Feels a bit more salient after reading this. This is more a model than a study, and it may well be that driverless cars do better, or eventually get to do better, than what this predicts. But one of the selling points of driverless cars is that they will be able to go faster and in denser traffic than human-driven cars can go, which will save time, allow for less road construction, and provide options for mass transit that are currently unthinkable. Those things are a whole lot less feasible if this model is accurate. Sure, a one-third drop in crashes would be excellent, but that’s not transformative. Under those assumptions, we’ll get the driverless cars, but other than not driving the overall experience won’t be much different.

Who gets displaced by I-45?

Worth keeping in mind, the cost of expanding I-45 is more than just dollars.

The I-45 project’s toll on local property owners would be unprecedented for TxDOT in Houston, potentially relocating hundreds of families and businesses. Estimated to cost at least $7 billion, the project will rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, and change how it connects with other downtown freeways.

That means rebuilding — by removing — pieces of Fifth Ward, the Northside, Acres Homes and Aldine. Spots south of North Main where third-generation Latino residents help neighbors work on cars in their driveway. Or Tidwell, which bustles with activity as the commercial center and is the only place within walking distance of her apartment where Shondrae McBride, 26, can get her nails done, pick up marinated carne asada and drop off her husband’s cell phone for repair across from a Pho restaurant.

“Not everybody has a car to get around,” McBride said.

Removing some of those businesses, she said, would “add hours” to her typical errands.

The latest estimates show the rebuild would impact — the catchword for any structure or dwelling directly touched by the changing road boundary — 158 houses, 433 apartments or condos, 486 public housing units, 340 businesses, five churches and two schools. The Houston Police Department would need to relocate its south central police station and the Mexican Consulate in the Museum District, adjacent to I-69, will move to a Westchase-area location.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has called the project “transformative” but also called on TxDOT to revise the designs north of downtown to impact fewer homes and businesses while remaining on track to start construction downtown in a matter of months. Work is slated to begin north of Interstate 10 by 2024.

When the work actually begins will depend on decisions made this year and next that some, including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, worry will displace a historic number of people before getting a full public review despite more than 15 years of planning. Hidalgo and others have called on TxDOT to delay final decisions, which could push back the start of construction for months as more public meetings are planned.

“Given the impacts of the COVID-19 disaster, this delay would give the county and its residents more time to engage with and offer feedback,” Hidalgo wrote in May.

TxDOT officials have said they welcome the city and county’s input, with state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan, of Houston, saying the goal is a project that “will work, for the most part, for as many people as possible.”

That still leaves the question of how many people will have to get out of the way.

There’s an illustration in the story that shows what the effects would be for the project as now planned. The city’s alternative would do a lot to mitigate that. The best thing you can do is take advantage of every opportunity to let your elected officials know what you do and don’t want to happen. I know there’s a lot going on, but stuff like this doesn’t go away when there’s too much to pay attention to.

Masks for Metro

Yes, please.

Metro riders soon may need more than their Q card or $1.25 to board buses and trains as transit officials weigh making face coverings mandatory for all bus and rail users in a new set of safety procedures.

Transit officials will resume collecting fares along all routes on July 12, as ridership rebounds and more routes return to normal, according to a briefing for Metropolitan Transit Authority board members.

When fares resume, Metro will adjust the safety protocols it set in March, said Andrew Skabowski, Metro’s chief operations officer. Those included requiring riders to enter and exit via the rear door and placing signs on some bus seats to space riders accordingly.

With the resumption of fares, riders will enter from the front again, where Metro will provide hand sanitizer.

What remains unresolved is whether riders will need a mask. Metro’s board is expected to consider on Thursday a measure that would make face coverings mandatory on all buses and trains and at Metro facilities.

[…]

Metro will install hand sanitizer stations on all buses and trains, including park and ride and MetroLift vehicles. Pumps on local buses will be just inside the front door.

“It gives you just enough to address your hands,” Skabowski said.

Liquid sanitizer will be used on buses, while officials opted for a foam sanitizer on trains, Skabowski said, to avoid liquid landing on the floor of the train and causing a slipping hazard.

Installing sanitizer pumps on Metro’s roughly 1,200 buses and trains is expected to cost $146,000. Monthly costs are estimated at $70,000, mostly the 1,000 gallons of sanitizer and 480 foam cartridges officials expect to use.

To protect drivers once the front door reopens, Metro is installing plastic shields so drivers are closed off from passengers. The barriers will consist of drapes of heavy plastic held in place with magnets. Installation is expected to cost $430,000.

See here for some background. A subsequent press release confirms that Metro will in fact ask the Board for this authorization, which they note is consistent with the recent executive order from Judge Hidalgo. It’s not clear to me how they will enforce this – perhaps that will be discussed at the Board meeting – but I hope that just having the requirement in place will greatly increase the number of riders wearing masks.

Metro’s long road

It will be awhile before bus and rail ridership returns to pre-COVID levels.

Metro officials predict it will be months, and possibly years, before bus and rail service ridership return to pre-COVID-19 levels in Houston as economic uncertainty, a lack of firm dates for schools to reopen and commuters choosing to drive dents transit use.

“We have to understand some businesses are not going to reopen, period,” said Kurt Luhrsen, vice president of planning for Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Bus and rail use in the region, always dwarfed by automobile use, faces not only lost riders in fewer workers and students, but also questions circulating among some critics about whether it is safe to ride.

[…]

Transit officials eliminated fares in mid-March to reduce contact between bus operators and riders, a roughly $6 million monthly loss for the agency.

The biggest hit to Metro’s coffers, however, is a decline in the region’s sales tax revenues. Within Metro’s coverage area that includes most of Harris County along with Houston and 14 other cities, the transit agency is funded mostly from a 1 percent sales tax. Metro’s internal finance analysts expect revenues from the sales tax to drop by $102 million, about 13 percent of what the agency had budgeted for fiscal 2020, which ends Sept. 30.

“We are making some assumptions now,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert cautioned board members last week, noting sales tax revenues take two months to assess, meaning the latest figures are from March. “The reality is, we will probably get a couple months, and won’t know the impact until June.”

In the interim, the federal financial response will supplement Metro’s losses, and appear, based on estimates, to maintain the current budget. Metro’s share of Federal Transit Administration funds is $180 million, which officials said would cover all operations and fare revenue declines in the current budget.

The long-term outlook is less certain.

Since the close of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and a stay-home order in Harris County began on March 11, transit use in the region has dropped to about 40 percent of normal. Even as state officials began reopening many Texas businesses in early May, bus and rail use has continued to remain half or less of typical work days.

“Downtown is still relatively empty compared to what we have all come to expect,” Luhrsen said, noting that surveys of central business district offices by the Houston Downtown Management District found only about 10 percent of workers have returned.

Exacerbating the return is Houston’s reliance on the oil and gas industry, which remains mired in a downturn that means fewer people reporting to offices.

That uncertainty and industry furloughs, combined with a tough spring for food service workers and no students reporting to campuses, are expected to result in steep losses for Metro’s local bus service, rail lines that service the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, as well as commuter bus routes that connect many suburban dwellers to downtown white-collar jobs.

Park and ride poses the most difficult ridership to predict, Luhrsen said. Local bus and rail service already have started to tick upward, forcing Metro to gradually increase some frequency on routes to maintain buses at half-capacity.

[…]

Metro board member Lex Frieden also encouraged transit staff to consider assuring residents about the safety of the system.

“Many people will stop to think, what are the odds of being exposed,” said Frieden, an expert in disability rights and access, who often works with individuals most at risk from the virus.

In areas hit hard by the COVID pandemic, notably New York City, some studies have shown public transit packed with riders helped spread the illness because others were inhaling air fouled with the virus.

According to transit and health officials, no positive COVID diagnosis in the Houston area has been traced to exposure on a bus or train or transit stop, though 25 Metro workers or contractors — 14 of whom had contact with public — have tested positive for the virus.

In Houston, trains and buses typically are far less full than a New York subway and transit use accounts for 3 percent of trips regionally. Fewer people means fewer chances for positive cases to spread.

Metro is following Centers for Disease Control guidelines to limit riders and bus drivers being within six feet and encouraging — but not requiring — riders to wear masks. Frieden said if contact tracing and other data become available, Metro should make it public.

I feel like riding the bus or train, with everyone wearing a mask and with a brisk hand-washing afterwards (which we always should have done but for the most part never thought about), is probably fine. I wouldn’t want to be on a ride longer than 30 minutes or so, but the fact that no COVID cases have been linked to transit in Houston is encouraging.

It will take awhile for ridership to bounce back, but once there is a vaccine and the economy has stabilized, it should begin to do so. Metro needs the economy to hum again more than anything else, as that affects its revenue as well as its ridership. In the long run they’ll be fine, but it will be bumpy in spots. At least there were federal dollars to help tide things over for the short term.

Nuro expands its service in Houston

First groceries, now prescriptions.

Nuro’s fleet of autonomous vehicles is expanding its footprint in Houston, partnering with CVS to deliver prescriptions in a delivery service that is expected to begin as early as next month.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Nuro’s autonomous fleet made its Houston debut last year when it partnered with Kroger to deliver groceries. It later added Walmart to the list. The delivery vehicles to-date were staffed with operators to monitor the service, but Nuro announced earlier this year its plans to introduce a human-free product, the R2, to Houston roads.

The new prescription delivery service will start with a pilot in three ZIP codes surrounding the CVS pharmacy at 5430 Bissonnet St., Bellaire, according to a news release.

[…]

The service comes at a time when, due to the spread of the coronavirus, people are avoiding physical contact with one another. Especially those with underlying health conditions.

“We are seeing an increased demand for prescription delivery,” said Ryan Rumbarger, senior vice president of Store Operations at CVS Health. “We want to give our customers more choice in how they can quickly access the medications they need when it’s not convenient for them to visit one of our pharmacy locations.”

See here for the background. Nuro began its automated grocery deliveries in March, just as everything was starting to shut down. I’d had a lot of question prior to its launch about how popular that would be versus human-driven deliveries. How many people would prefer having their groceries unloaded and brought into their house – or at least to their front door – for them, versus having to walk out to the car and haul them in themselves? One presumes the pandemic has had some effect on that calculation, though we don’t get any insight into that from the story. Be that as it may, this does seem like a propitious time for this kind of service to debut. I would have been more skeptical of this a few months ago, but not so much now.

Here come the electric bikes

Cool.

Houston’s growing bike share system will jump into over-drive in the coming months, fueled by $250,000 in Harris County funds that will put 100 new electric bikes on city streets.

An amended plan by Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis approved [recently] will buy the bikes, along with additional stations in under-served communities.

The bikes — outfitted with electric motors — will be distributed and used across the entire B-Cycle system, most of which lies within Ellis’ county precinct.

[…]

With the addition of the electric bikes, Ellis’ proposal — approved [recently] by Commissioners’ Court with money from Precinct One discretionary funds — totals $842,700 and includes installation of 30 stations — half in low income areas — along with 320 bicycles.

The expansion of e-bikes will increase the number of electric bicycles in the system from five to 105.

“Five isn’t very much of a pilot,” Ellis said Wednesday. “Let’s get these in place and let’s see what usage is like then.”

Key to that use in many communities is the location of kiosks. B-Cycle, operated by a local nonprofit, allows people to check out bicycles from stations of 10 to 15 bikes across the area, mostly clustered in downtown, Midtown, Montrose and the Texas Medical Center. Riders can check out bikes and pay $3 for every 30 minutes of use or use a monthly or annual pass and receive the first 60 minutes of use free. Bikes can be checked out and returned to any of the 109 current stations, though 12 have been shut down because of the COVID-19 crisis to lower exposure in area parks.

“Even after shuttering a dozen of our highest-performing kiosks, ridership has remained strong,” said Doogie Roux, operations director for Houston B-Cycle. “We’re still seeing people make increased efforts to travel in a socially-distant, environmentally-responsible and fun way.”

All of the new stations planned are in Precinct One, though the additional bikes will be distributed and used across the system, which now totals 109 kiosks and nearly 800 bikes. The upcoming stations are part of a larger program to increase the total to 160 by next year.

You know I’m a fan of B-Cycle. Some of the kiosks close to where I live are closed for now, but I do still see folks riding around on them. I’m glad ridership hasn’t suffered too much at this time, but expanding the system, especially in the indicated areas (see the embedded map in the story) is what they should want to be doing. Keep it up, y’all.

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.

Appeals court rules that Texas Central is in fact a railroad

Seems obvious, but these things are more complicated than you’d think.

Planners of a Houston-to-Dallas bullet train scored a victory in Corpus Christi Thursday when a state appeals court said the company — despite not operating yet — is a railroad in the eyes of the law.

“This decision confirms our status as an operating railroad and allows us to continue moving forward with our permitting process and all of our other design, engineering and land acquisition efforts,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in a statement.

Writing for the 13th Texas Court of Appeals, Judge Nora Longoria said a Leon County judge who sided with landowners erred when he said the lack of current operations or equipment meant Texas Central was not a railroad, and therefore had no claim to survey land or acquire it through eminent domain. Leon County landowners Jim and Barbara Miles sued Texas Central in early 2017, claiming the company had no authority to survey their land, after they refused to grant the company’s hired surveyors access.

In their challenge, lawyers for the Miles’ argued since Texas Central is not operating as a railroad and currently owns no trains, it cannot claim to be railroad under Texas law to take land. The company, created in 2012 specifically to build a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas, said owning and operating trains was not necessary, noting it still is designing and developing its 240-mile route.

[…]

Aguilar and others said Texas Central remains ready for federal approvals of the project’s safety and engineering, expected later this year.

“Today’s ruling supports the enormous amount of work Texas Central has done to date,” he said.

See here for the background. As the story notes, this is a fight over whether or not Texas Central can use eminent domain to acquire right of way; there have been various attempts to pass a law along these lines in the Lege without success. If this ruling stands, that’s one less obstacle for Texas Central, which is facing other attacks related to the current economic situation. The plaintiffs will appeal to the Supreme Court, so this is not over yet. For now at least, Texas Central is officially a railroad.