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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Driverless taxis have arrived

In Phoenix.

Google offshoot Waymo announced it is launching the nation’s first commercial driverless taxi service in this and other Phoenix suburbs. The 24/7 service, dubbed Waymo One, will let customers summon self-driving minivans by a smartphone app, a la Uber or Lyft.

Waymo’s move comes after nearly a decade of development, more than a billion dollars in investment and 10 million miles of testing on public roads. The project was embraced by top state and local officials even as questions have been raised here and elsewhere about the speed of the technology’s rollout.

“In Arizona, we still do enjoy a bit of wild, wild West mentality. We have this great desire to be exploring and conquering this frontier,” said Rob Antoniak, chief operating officer of Valley Metro, which helps oversee the metropolitan area’s 500-square-mile transit system and next year will begin paying some Waymo fares for the elderly and people with disabilities, as part of a pilot. “And we enjoy a regulatory environment that embraces that attitude.”

Waymo, part of Alphabet, is starting small, rolling out the service first to hundreds of the company’s local volunteer testers, and only in part of this sprawling region of almost 5 million people. But the move is a major – and potentially revealing – step in the tightly controlled and hype-filled realm of self-driving vehicles.

“It’s a big leap between testing this stuff and booking and transporting a passenger who’s paying money for a service,” said Costa Samaras, an automation and infrastructure expert at Carnegie Mellon University who worked as an engineer on a New York subway expansion early in his career. “This is real.”

Waymo will now be putting its technology through the public wringer, with cellphone-toting customers – freed from nondisclosure agreements – ready to capture and tweet every miscue, just as they might with a bad airline flight, Samaras said.

“The trajectory of the industry, not just at Waymo, is going to depend on a lot of these early experiences. Do people feel safe? Do people feel comfortable? Is it seamless?” Samaras said. “If it is, we’ll see more of it. If not, people will go back to the engineering room.”

[…]

There is significant public skepticism about self-driving cars, and polls find that most people don’t want to ride in them. Earlier this year, a driverless Uber SUV killed a pedestrian pushing a bike across a dark street in nearby Tempe. The emergency braking system had been shut off for driverless testing, and the backup driver did not start slowing down until after the vehicle struck Elaine Herzberg, 49. That safety driver had looked down more than 200 times and her smartphone was streaming NBC’s “The Voice” in the run-up to the deadly collision, according to investigators.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in March that his team’s vehicles “would be able to handle situations like that.”

We’ll see about that. I’m not ready to ride in one of those things on the real streets. A fixed-route shuttle in a low-traffic area, sure. Beyond that, I’ll let others do the beta testing. I’m not the only one who’s leery of this. How about you? TechCrunch has more.

Are we ready for Texas Central?

This is more about the experience than anything else.

Texas Central said it will break ground late next year on the first bullet train line in the United States, which will connect Dallas to Houston, and the train, technology and much of the know-how is coming from Japan.

“We will start the construction next year,” said Masaru Yosano, Chief General Manager of Central Japan Railway Company.

Yosano flies to Texas once a month to help coordinate the project with partners at Texas Central Railway Company, the private firm that’s developing the United States’ first bullet train.

The Texas bullet train, which will be privately funded, has already passed multiple milestones and is currently awaiting final approval from the Federal Railroad Administration.

When that last permission is granted Texas Central said it will then begin looking for financial backers. The firm said it already has options to purchase a third of the land needed and is currently negotiating for the remainder.

[…]

In Japan, the bullet train is not only a source of pride, but a fixture in the culture.

“It’s more spacious than actually sitting in a plane for me,” said Joel Deroon, an Australian living in Japan who uses the bullet train to commute daily. “For airliners you have all the extra added costs [such as] paying for luggage, paying for petrol. On a Shinkansen, no one’s going to check how much your luggage weighs or anything like that.”

So, what’s it like to be on board? Both the economy and First Class cars have high ceilings, wide aisles, and big seats. The cars are configured with two seats on each side of the aisle. Perhaps the biggest difference in the Central Japan Railway’s N700-series is the legroom in both cabins. Unlike an airliner, there’s plenty of extra space to move around.

Onboard restrooms are substantially larger, as well, with a massive handicapped lavatory.

And at 177-miles per hour, the landscape is less of a blur than many would imagine. A bottle of water easily balances on an arm rest.

[…]

One reason the bullet train is so successful in Japan is that riders can easily connect to subways. But Dallas and Houston don’t have that same infrastructure.

So, will it work?

“What happens to that last mile is an opportunity for taxi companies, for Uber, for hotels to build and businesses within walking distance of the terminus to develop themselves,” Swinton said.

The last mile can be lucrative. Not much was around when the Tokyo’s Shinagawa train station was built in the 1990s. But within a decade, skyscrapers had risen around it. Central Japan Railways also makes money leasing space at the station to restaurants, shops, and hotels.

I believe I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had the opportunity to take the shinkansen in Japan. It’s really cool! It’s amazingly quiet, and a very smooth ride. There is a lot more room on the trains than on an airplane – not a high bar to clear, to be sure – and you basically walk onto the platform and board when the train arrives. If you’ve ever taken the light rail line in Houston or Dallas, it’s basically the same as that, which means boarding is quick and efficient and once everyone is on you can just go. There won’t be any security checkpoints like there are at airports. All this means that the total travel time won’t be much more than the actual time on the train. I do think people will like it. The question is getting them to try it, and pricing it in a way that makes it worth doing on a regular basis.

Uptown update

The work is ending, the work continues.

The end is near for construction that has clogged Post Oak and delayed drivers, but the buses at the center of the project will not start rolling for at least another year as officials grapple with roadblocks threatening to push the final route three years past its original completion date.

Months of additional work lies ahead on the dedicated bus lanes in the middle of the street as crews complete the stations that will connect passengers to the rapid transit line. Though once on target to ferry passengers this holiday season, workers still are installing electrical and fiber optics systems so the buses can operate, as they pour the last segments of concrete along the widened roads from Loop 610 south to Richmond.

As a result the buses, which officials at one point had hoped would ferry visitors for the 2017 Super Bowl, will not carry passengers until 2020.

Even when Metropolitan Transit Authority begins operating the buses along dedicated lanes in the center of the street, riders and operators face months, perhaps years of detours at both ends of the project as two Texas Department of Transportation projects take shape.

“It will operate. It just may not be the guideways we want eventually,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

[…]

As Post Oak proceeds, TxDOT is building an elevated busway along Loop 610 so the large vehicles will move from their Post Oak lanes to an overpass that takes them directly to the transit center. Construction, estimated to cost $57.2 million, started earlier this year. Completion is set for late summer 2020, meaning a few months of the large buses slogging north to the transit center.

On the southern side of the bus project, another challenge looms. A massive rebuild of the Loop 610 interchange with Interstate 69, already a year into construction, will worsen as the project moves toward its 2023 completion.

Of particular concern is the timing of work south of Richmond, where Post Oak morphs into the southbound Loop 610 frontage road and goes under I-69 before re-emerging at Westpark Drive. Referred to by transportation officials as the “portal” along with the underpass that carries northbound frontage traffic beneath the interchange, it is the critical link for Post Oak buses headed to the new Bellaire transit center.

We were promised that the service would begin in 2019, but between politics and Harvey and whatever else, that’s the way it goes. Solving the problem of extending this to its intended endpoints at Northwest Transit Center and the to-be-built transit center in Bellaire, that’s the big challenge. Among other things, right now this is the main connection to the rest of the city from the Texas Central terminal. This thing is a big deal, and we’re going to need it to be done right.

More Metro regional transit plan meetings planned

There’s more to talk about now.

After gathering input over the past year on how to expand public transportation in the region, METRO says it will soon hold another series of meetings to see what people think of their draft Regional Transit Plan.

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said they’re also expecting feedback from a new group of Harris County decision-makers.

“We have a new county government, there are some changes on the congressional level, and we need to take all those things into account,” said Patman. “Because some of the opinions of some of the stakeholders may have changed too.”

As the population grows, METRO says it needs to find better ways to move people to the region’s many employment centers. In the past, most people commuted into downtown Houston. But now, commuters are headed to places like the Med Center, the Energy Corridor, and The Woodlands.

Patman said they also want to tackle mobility challenges within the City of Houston, like providing better connections between downtown and the Galleria.

“The question is what form that will take,” said Patman. “What we’ve been looking at is the concept of bus rapid transit along part of Richmond, dropping down to Westpark, and connecting with the Post Oak BRT. But when we go back out for the public engagement process we’ll get a lot of input into that.”

See here and here for some background, and here for the project webpage. Changes to Commissioners Court as well as changes in Congress may allow for a more expansive definition of what is possible with this. The end result of the meetings and the engagement will be a referendum we vote on in 2019. Go and have your say so what we vote on later is what you were hoping for.

Metro’s autonomous vehicle pilot to start in January

Here it comes, TSU.

Last spring, METRO announced a plan to run an autonomous bus along TSU’s Tiger Walk, a shared-use path that cuts across the campus. Now, the transit agency said it will start a pilot program in January.

METRO CEO Tom Lambert said they’re curious to see how autonomous vehicles function on a small scale, as they look for new ways to move commuters through the growing region. He added that a college campus is a good testing ground.

“There’s a lot of pedestrian movement, cycling movement, golf cart movement,” Lambert said. “There’s a lot of things we can learn.”

In the second phase of the pilot, Lambert said they hope to run the bus on nearby Cleburne Street to see how it interacts with vehicular traffic.

See here for the background. Running this thing off campus once it has proven itself on campus is a logical thing to do, but I for one would want to make sure it is tested very thoroughly before I unleashed it in a less-controlled environment. That said, I do hope that the long range transit plan takes into account the potential future location of similar shuttles, to better extend the reach of the regular system. I may have to plan a little trip to TSU during the pilot phase to see how this goes.

The state of the high speed rail line

A good long read from the Trib.

Private developer Texas Central Partners LLC plans to build a train that will shuttle people between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes along a 240-mile route roughly parallel to a highway corridor that normally takes four hours to drive. This new link between two of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation — home to roughly half of the state’s 28 million residents — will help create “a super economy” says Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs.

Texas Central sees the line as a mammoth example of a private entity addressing an infrastructure demand that government agencies are increasingly unable to tackle — and a chance to hook Americans on an alternative to highways that’s long connected major cities in Asia and Europe.

“There’s no doubt once people ride this train, they will want trains like this to go other places,” Reed adds.

The company’s ambitious vision has arrived just as American cities are starting to grasp the detrimental side effects and financial unsustainability of car-centric infrastructure that’s dominated urban planning since the end of World War II.

Texas Central officials say they have raised and spent at least $125 million, of which at least $75 million has come from Texas investors and individuals. In September, the company announced that it secured an additional $300 million in loans from two Japanese entities. But before Texas Central can create an interstate high-speed network in the United States, it’s got to prove high-speed rail is viable in Texas. Even as the company pushes forward with development — and brings on construction and operations partners — it faces daunting hurdles.

The company is embroiled in legal and bureaucratic debates about whether a private company can use eminent domain, a process that allows entities to condemn land it needs for a project and forcibly buy it from owners who aren’t willing to sell.

At the state Capitol, the bullet train represents the collision of two things that Republicans — who control Texas government — hold dear: private property rights and an unrestrained free market. And for two legislative sessions in a row, the free market has largely come out on top. The project has emerged relatively unscathed after bills aimed at hamstringing or killing it failed to get much traction.

“Big business is a big deal in the state of Texas,” says Kyle Workman, who heads the grassroots opposition group Texans Against High-Speed Rail, an organization that has galvanized rural Texans to lobby local and state leaders to stop the project. Workman says they’ll keep trying when lawmakers reconvene in January.

The political debate is an outgrowth of a larger question confronting a state where most people now live in urban areas: How much should rural residents have to sacrifice to solve problems born in the cities they intentionally avoided or outright fled?

We’re all familiar with the outline of the debate, so read the story for some more details and personal experiences. I do have sympathy for the folks in the rural counties who are in the path of the rail line, but if we were talking about building a new highway, or expanding I-45, no one would blink an eye. I mean, look at how much got bulldozed and paved over during the Katy Freeway widening. There’s a great unmet need for transportation capacity in this state, and given a choice between building high speed rail lines and building more interstate highway lanes, I’ll pick the former 100% of the time. I wish there were a way to do this without taking someone’s property, but until we perfect Star Trek transporter technology, there won’t be. I don’t know what else there is to say.

Metro’s post-Culberson future

You might not be aware of this, but famously anti-Metro Congressman John Culberson lost his bid for re-election on Tuesday. What might that mean for Metro?

Lizzie Fletcher

In one of the more stunning defeats of incumbent Republicans on Tuesday night, Lizzie Fletcher beat out long-time Congressman John Culberson in the Texas 7th District. It is the first time this seat has been held by a Democrat in more than 50 years.

While Fletcher campaigned primarily on inclusiveness and healthcare, one portion of the platforms on her campaign website should not go unnoticed. “We need to partner with cities, counties, and METRO to bring additional resources and improvements to our region,” she says on her website. “We need an advocate for policies that both maintain and expand our region’s mobility infrastructure. And we need to make sure that Houston receives its fair share of transportation funding to move our citizens across the region.”

This seems like a logical and rational position given Houston’s congestion issues and rapidly growing size. But, she adds one additional note. “John Culberson has failed to be a partner in this effort. Even worse, his record shows that he has actively worked against expanding transportation options in Houston.”

Some might dismiss this as campaign rhetoric, but the thing is, she isn’t wrong. In a now infamous 2014 fundraising event at Tony’s, the posh Italian eatery in Greenway Plaza, Culberson bragged about preventing light rail from expanding to a line planned for Richmond Avenue. “I’m very proud to have been able to protect Richmond and Post Oak from being destroyed as Fannin and Main Street were destroyed,” he said. “This is the end of all federal funding on Richmond.”

[…]

Now that Culberson’s aversion to rail is removed from the district, it will be interesting to see if Fletcher takes up the mantle of public transportation and acts as less of a hindrance — or even an advocate — for programs that would increase rail and other public transit programs through the Houston-Galveston region.

KUHF also asked those questions.

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said she thinks Lizzie Fletcher will be a huge help as the agency moves ahead with a new regional transit plan.

[…]

But what does Fletcher’s election mean for any Richmond rail plans?

Patman said for cost reasons they’re now considering bus rapid transit for the Richmond corridor, to help provide better connections between downtown and The Galleria. But she added that project would also require help from Washington, D.C.

“Just as we built two of the three rail lines with a federal match, we will need federal money to help implement our expanded transit in the region,” explained Patman.

So first and foremost, Culberson’s defeat means that when he officially opposes the Metro regional transit plan, as I expect he will, he’ll do so as just another cranky member of the general public. And not just with Lizzie Fletcher in Congress but Democrats controlling Congress, there should be a good chance to get the Culberson anti-Richmond rail budget rider removed. That’s all very much to the good, but it’s a start and not a done deal. But as Christof Spieler helpfully reminds us, there’s a lot of work still to be done, as any federal funds only exist as matches to local money. We need to put up the cash first, then we can try to get federal help. Christof has a few suggestions, and I would submit that the changeover in Harris County Commissioners Court, as well as having a potentially friendlier-to-rail representative from the county on the H-GAC Transportation Policy Council, could be game changers of equal magnitude. You want to see this gap in Metro’s transit infrastructure get filled? Start by engaging on the 2019 transit plan referendum, and tell your local officials to support Metro in this effort.

When train companies fight

Can’t we all just get along?

A competitor of the company trying to build a Dallas-to-Houston bullet-train connection has blasted the notion that a high-speed rail line can be built without public money.

“The whole thing is just a dream,” said Alain Leray, president of SNCF America, the Maryland-based arm of the French national railway company. “It’s not going to happen on private financing.”

Those remarks came after Texas Central Partners announced last week it had secured a loan of up to $300 million from Japan Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corp. for Transport & Urban Development and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation. Both institutions are backed by the Japanese government.

That drew the ire of SNCF, which has a rival plan to bring speedy rail service to the state. The Texas Central “project is right for Japanese companies subsidized by Japanese taxpayers and wrong for Texas,” said Scott Dunaway, spokesperson for SNCF America, in a statement Tuesday. “Nowhere in the world have high-speed rail projects become reality without government participation.”

SNCF America leaders also called on the Texas Legislature to give direction to the high-speed rail policy debate. The company last spring lobbied state legislators to consider its plan to serve the Interstate 35 corridor with “higher-speed” rail, rather than bullet-train technology.

See here for some background on SNCF and their counter-proposal for high speed rail in Texas. I don’t have the technical knowledge to evaluate their claims about the merits of their system versus TCR’s, and whether one thinks “Japan Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corp. for Transport & Urban Development and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation” count as “public money” when none of it came from US taxpayers is a matter if taste and semantics. What I do know is what I’ve said before, which is that I wish both SNCF and TCR would build their proposed rail lines so that we can get as much of it as possible. The Dallas Business Journal has more.

Second look at Metro’s long range transit plan

Still a work in progress, but there’s beginning to be some focus.

Transit officials inched closer Wednesday to asking voters next year for up to $3 billion for two-way express bus service along many Houston freeways, along with a few more miles of light rail.

The first stop for a new transit vision, however, is additional communication with community groups before a more refined plan is approved by Metropolitan Transit Authority, which ultimately will need voter approval to build any of it.

“The target date is still November 2019,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said of a voter referendum.

During a Wednesday workshop discussing the regional transportation plan, dubbed MetroNEXT, Metro staff detailed a number of proposed projects, developed after months of public meetings during the past 18 months.

The consensus preferences from the meetings, Metro vice president of systems and capital planning Clint Harbert said, is “really taking what we do well and making these trips faster and more reliable.”

As a result, many of the projects rely on roads and freeways, rather than rail. Metro has spent most of the last two decades mired in light rail debates and construction.

Instead, the early draft of the plan – which still will undergo months of community input before it is approved next year – includes only 12 miles of light rail, extending the Red Line north to Tidwell and south to Hobby Airport and the Purple Line to Hobby Airport.

Meanwhile, more than 34 miles of bus rapid transit – using large buses along mostly lanes solely for bus use – would spread westward from downtown. One of the key lines follows much of the path of the proposed University Line, a long-dormant light rail project that has been one of Metro’s most contentious.

The major bus rapid transit corridor would connect Kashmere to downtown, then head west to Greenway Plaza and Westchase. It would have a key connection to the bus transit planned along Post Oak, now under construction.

See here for some background. This represents the least ambitious of the possible plans, and it’s a combination of what’s most doable and what’s least controversial. Nothing wrong with that, I just wish we lived in a world where those conditions allowed for something more expansive. Even at this level, I expect plenty of friction from the usual suspects. Getting the eventual referendum passed will take a lot of engagement. I look forward to doing an interview with Metro Chair Patman about the final version of this for that election.

Speed kills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Rise and Fall of Dockless Bike Sharing in Dallas”

Amazing story.

Several dockless bike-share companies first converged on Dallas last August after promising local officials that their services would come at no cost to taxpayers, and the impact was immediate. The dockless feature allowed bike-share companies to distribute its fleet untethered and controlled by apps. By February, the presence of five bike share companies (VBike, Spin, LimeBike and Beijing-based companies Ofo and Mobike) had transformed Dallas from the largest American city without a bike-share system to the city boasting the largest fleet in North America—a whopping 18,000 bikes, way more than New York City’s 12,000 or Seattle’s 10,000—and Dallas was deemed the “bike-share capital of America” by D Magazine. “Let’s not screw this up,” they warned in February.

But it was clear from the beginning that the program was growing way too big and way too fast. The city reported in February that it had received thousands of comments regarding its dockless bike-share program through its 311 phone number for constiuents, with commenters complaining about bikes that were vandalized, left behind in neighborhoods for extended periods, blocking sidewalks, or mounting in “excessive” numbers. “Some of the bikes are left for days, weeks, or months, in some cases without being moved,” Jared White, who manages alternative transportation in the Dallas Department of Transportation, told CNN in February.

“It’s making people a little bit hostile,” Fran Badgett, the owner of Transit Bicycle Company in Dallas, also told CNN. “From my front door you can see about 200 bikes. Not a single one is parked in a way I’d call respectful or helpful.”

In March, the Wall Street Journal wrote that Dallas was “ground zero for a nascent national bike-share war,” as bike-share companies stormed cities across the country in the past year or so, hoping to capitalize on a booming new business while simultaneously flooding the market beyond sustainability. Companies operating in Washington, D.C. have lost half their fleet due to theft. One dockless company recently pulled out of France, citing the “mass destruction” of its bikes. In China, oversupply led to absurd, mountain-like heaps of discarded bikes. Just a few weeks into its dockless pilot program, New Yorkers are already complaining about dockless bikes requiring maintenance and clogging city sidewalks. Some cities have responded by implementing regulations, like capping the number of bikes that companies can have in the streets, or clearly demarcating curb space designated for dockless bikes.

Rarely have these systems failed with as much gusto as the one in Dallas.

[…]

The bike-share business was so poorly regulated and the public reaction was so overwhelmingly caustic that Dallas’s city council was eventually forced into action, unanimously approving an ordinance in June that requires bike-share companies to pay the city $808 for a permit to operate, plus an additional $21 for each bike in their fleet. The bike companies will now be responsible for responding to 311 complaints of bikes that are blocking sidewalks or have fallen over, too—they have two hours after each complaint to clean up the mess themselves. The council also forced the companies to fork over more specific ridership data to get a better sense of where and when people are riding dockless bikes.

You need to click over to see the pictures, if nothing else. It boggles my mind how any of this could be coexistent with a viable business plan – these two stories, linked in the TM piece, helped answer some of my questions – but the bike companies Did Not Like It when the city got involved. All I can say is that I now appreciate the implementation and managed growth of B-Cycle here in Houston that much more.

Autonomous cars in Arlington

Who wants a robot to drive them to a Cowboys game?

Arlington visitors and residents will soon be able to request an autonomous vehicle on demand in the city’s entertainment district.

The city approved a one-year contract with Silicon Valley-based Drive.ai to offer a new way for people get to Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys games, attend concerts at the stadiums or go to restaurants or bars nearby. Arlington City Council approved the contract Tuesday.

The service will begin with a fleet of three autonomous vans on Oct. 19, according to a news release. Each van will hold three passengers. The vans will travel alongside other cars, but will be programmed to operate in a designated area. They will travel at up to 35 miles per hour.

Initially, each van will include a safety operator. The fleet may expand to five vans, if needed.

As the story notes, Drive.ai is also piloting a program in Frisco, where as it happens the Cowboys are headquartered. This kind of fixed-route, short-distance, low-speed use of autonomous cars makes sense to me, though if it’s ever going to be more than a novelty it will need to be done at a higher volume than this. Starting out like this is fine – I’m sure there will be plenty of refinements to make to the idea – but to make sense and be cost-effective and a means to reduce traffic you’re going to have to figure out how to move a lot more people at one time. We’ll see if Arlington is thinking along those lines.

The autonomous cars/mass transit debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Antonio looking at driverless car pilot program

Interesting.

Driverless cars could be sharing the road with San Antonio motorists in the not-too-distant future.

The City is requesting information about a potential autonomous vehicle pilot program that would inform how driverless cars are eventually used and regulated.

“As part of planning for the future, the City is seeking to better understand how emerging technology, such as autonomous vehicles, may improve connectivity by filling transportation service gaps, improve safety by reducing potential driver error, and also shift the focus to moving people and not just vehicles,” City officials stated in a request for information, or RFI. Issued Friday, the RFI calls for responses to be submitted by Aug. 20.

[…]

The City Council’s Innovation and Technology Committee in June identified three zones in which to test so-called smart city technology, innovation geared toward making residents’ lives more efficient. The Medical District, Brooks, and downtown were chosen as proving grounds for future initiatives that would be eventually be rolled out citywide.

City officials have said the medical center would likely serve as the local nexus of autonomous vehicle testing.

You can see a copy of the RFI here. The city had announced its intention to make this request back in May. Here’s a bit more about what this means.

The RFI is part of the city’s overall transportation plans for the expected population increase in the region, which will mean millions more vehicles on the roads in the coming years. Potential pilot projects may include autonomous vehicles used within properties like Brooks — the 1,300-acre, mixed-use development on the city’s South Side — which could be used in conjunction with a VIA Metropolitan Transit bus route, or the 900-acre campus of the Medical Center, which has more than 27,000 medical facilities and tens of thousands of employees. Other options include an autonomous shuttle on Joint Base San Antonio military installations or between those properties.

The city of Frisco is doing something like this, though they are (or should be) already at the implementation phase. As an enhancement to transit, using fixed routes in last-mile locations, it makes a lot of sense. I figure something like this will eventually come to Houston – I’m sure Metro is thinking about this sort of thing – but until then I’m happy to wait and see what other cities’ experiences are.

First look at Metro’s long range plan

It’s big, with smaller components that could be done as lower-cost alternatives.

After a bus system overhaul that garnered the attention of other cities looking to do the same, Houston’s transit agency is in the midst of creating its long-range plan, MetroNEXT, to take the multimodal system well into the future. The agency presented several preliminary draft plans Thursday that would update the previous long-range plan created in 2003 and that include projects like rail extensions to airports, a bus rapid transit network and big increases in potential riders.

The agency was careful to say, however, that, given current projections, any plan would likely face serious financial limitations, partly due to federal policies. “We’re going to have to pick and choose because we can’t do it all,” said Carrin Patman, the board chair.

Patman added that little was set in stone and that even the types of transit modes used in the draft plan were provisional; “it is entirely possible that new technologies will supplant some of the modes we use in this study.”

The agency offered three plans: a blockbuster conceptual plan and two, smaller alternatives given the agency’s current financial projections.

“This is big, it’s bold,” said Clint Harbert, vice president of system and capital planning for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, told the board of the $35 billion vision. “It would create a 460 percent increase in people served and a 120 percent increase in employment areas covered within one-half mile of high-capacity transit.” In total, the plan includes 90 miles of new bus rapid transit, 100 miles of extended light rail with 211 new light rail vehicles, 448 new buses and investments in 33 high-frequency corridors.

The plan would expand access to light rail and bus rapid transit for low-income households by 440 percent in the mayor’s Complete Communities, according to Thursday’s presentation. “A lot of this focused where we have transit-dependent populations,” said Harbert.

The preliminary plan was developed after 25 public meetings plus dozens of other meetings attended by board and agency representatives.

[…]

Patman described that vision as “almost a pie in the sky plan” given the financial constraints facing the agency, which estimates only 3 to 8 percent, or roughly $1 billion to $2.8 billion-worth, of the projects included in the long-term vision plan could be completed by fiscal year 2040. Art Smiley, Metro’s chief financial officer detailed those constraints, including projections about available tax returns, maintenance costs and cash reserves.

“I’m very curious about what we’re really accomplishing,” asked board member Troi Taylor. “It seems like it’s going to be a very small drop in the bucket.”

Given the projections, Harbert laid out two alternative plans.

You’ll need to click over to look at the diagrams and explanations. There’s also a long story in the Chron that captures a lot of the discussion and feedback. Nothing is close to being finalized, so what we will eventually vote on on 2019 is still very much up in the air and dependent on what feedback Metro gets and how much the usual gang of anti-transit ghouls scream and wail. The project website is here, with an events calendar and various ways to get updates and give input. It’s early days so there’s not much there yet, but there will be. What about this interests you?

Uber scooters

Somehow, you knew something like this was going to happen.

Uber is getting into the scooter-rental business.

The ride-hailing company said Monday that it is investing in Lime, a startup based in San Mateo, California.

“Our investment and partnership in Lime is another step towards our vision of becoming a one-stop shop for all your transportation needs,” Rachel Holt, an Uber vice president, said in a statement.

Uber will add Lime motorized scooters to the Uber mobile app, giving consumers another option for getting around cities, especially to and from public transit systems, Holt said.

[…]

Rival Lyft is looking for new rides too. Last week, it bought part of a company called Motivate that operates Citi Bike and other bike-sharing programs in several major U.S. cities including New York and Chicago. It will rename the business Lyft Bikes.

It makes sense, I guess. They’re both app-based transportation services, and they both have a, shall we say, laissez-faire attitude towards local regulation. San Antonio is trying to make things work for the scooter invasion there, and when I saw that story my first thought was “eh, it’s just a matter of time before the scooter venture funders start lobbying the Lege for their own rideshare-like legislation”. I was kind of joking when I thought it, but now it doesn’t seem so crazy. Anyway, look for this on your Uber app soon.

Dallas hyperlooping

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

I got those “too many traffic lights between Houston and Austin” blues

But maybe not for long. Depending on which route you drive.

[T]he Texas Department of Transportation is in the final stages of a decadeslong effort to at least make that 170-mile trip from Austin to Houston free of traffic lights.

Right now, there are just five traffic signals left on Texas 71 between Interstate 35 in South Austin and I-10 in Columbus, all of them between Austin and Bastrop. And TxDOT has engineering plans and money set aside to eliminate four of those lights by adding overpasses over the next four years. The fifth one — at FM 1209 just west of Bastrop — is in the cross hairs as well, but the timing of its removal is less certain, TxDOT Austin district engineer Terry McCoy told me.

[…]

Texas 71, other than in Austin and through Bastrop’s commercial district, has no frontage roads. And it has scads of roads and private drives entering it throughout the other, more rural sections. So to turn it into interstate now would require TxDOT not only to acquire a lot of right of way for what would be a wider highway in many places, but also to pay some property owners for lost access to the road.

Or, more likely, to build many, many miles of frontage roads. Either way, the cost would be enormous. This isn’t a project that’s going to happen in the foreseeable future.

What TxDOT is doing instead — trying to eliminate traffic lights little by little — is the next best thing.

During my youth in Austin, through the mid-1970s, a trip to Houston included going through Bastrop, Smithville, La Grange and Columbus, including a few lights in each town and the odd right or left turn. The towns broke up the trip and were interesting to look at out the window, but going through them added a lot of time to the trip. By the early 1990s, TxDOT had completed loops around all those towns and few traffic lights remained east of FM 973 in Del Valle.

But little by little, as development stretched southeast of Austin, traffic lights were added first to that Bastrop bypass and then to several other spots along the way. About 15 years ago, TxDOT began to take those on, building overpasses and associated frontage lanes at several spots in Bastrop and major roads along the way like Texas 21. More recently, TxDOT installed a deep underpass on Texas 71 at Riverside Drive and a short tollway to bypass traffic signals at Texas 130’s frontage roads.

But lights remain at Ross Road and Kellam Road in Del Valle, at Tucker Hill Lane and Pope Bend Road about halfway to Bastrop, and at FM 1209.

TxDOT has set aside $48 million to build overpasses at Ross and Kellam — work set to begin as soon as fall 2019 and be done by summer 2021 — and $52.6 million for overpasses at Tucker Hill and Pope Bend. That second set of projects, TxDOT hopes, will start in fall 2020 and be done by summer 2022. All of this, TxDOT officials caution, could be delayed somewhat by environmental clearance work and acquisition of right of way.

The FM 1209 overpass, TxDOT estimates, would cost an additional $35 million. That money has not been nailed down.

McCoy, by the way, said he would like to make similar progress on U.S. 290, the northern route to Houston, but it has far more traffic signals standing in the way.

So, something like five years from now, a driver might be able to get to and from Houston on Texas 71 without hitting a red light.

So good news if you take the I-10/SH71 route between Houston and Austin, which puts you into (or takes you out of) the southern end of Austin. If you’re coming to or from the northern side via US290, hang in there. That may be a more interesting challenge, since there are traffic lights far away from both endpoints, in places like Chappell Hill and Brenham. And like SH71, the story of how US290 has evolved over time is similar. It used to wend its way through lots of small towns – I still remember a McDonald’s in Hempstead that was the best available bathroom for miles in either direction – but has now ruthlessly bypassed them all, making the drive faster and more efficient but much less scenic. We’ll see what comes of this. In the meantime, if you’re wondering why I-10 doesn’t connect Houston directly to Austin instead of San Antonio – look at a map, if you drew a more-or-less straight line from Houston to El Paso, you’d go through Austin – click over and read the answer.

Mayor makes Metro appointments

Only one change, but it’s a big one.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has nominated Teresa “Terry” R. Morales to serve in Position 5 of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) board of directors, for a term that expires April 7, 2020.

The METRO board consists of nine members. Five are nominated by the Mayor of Houston and confirmed by Houston City Council. Two are appointed by the mayors of METRO’s 14 other member cities and two are appointed by the Harris County Commissioners Court.

Morales is a Senior Vice President of Amegy Bank in the Corporate Banking Division. She is involved in various internal group activities including the Amegy PAC, the Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee, and the Amegy Women’s Initiative Diversity Markets Committee.

She replaces Christof Spieler whose term expired April 7, 2018.

Morales is a native Houstonian and grew up in Houston’s East End. She earned a BBA in Finance from the University of Houston, and is also a graduate of Leadership Houston and the Center for Houston’s Future. Her involvement in the community includes being a Senior Fellow of the American Leadership Forum Class XXXIV, and an active role in several community organizations.

“Terry’s background in business combined with her community involvement make her an exceptional addition to the METRO board,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “As roads get more crowded, more Houstonians are ready to start using transit, but we have to make it more efficient and more convenient by building connections to destinations in high demand.”

Mayor Turner also announced his intention to reappoint four current METRO board members whose terms will expire April 7, 2020.

  • Lex Frieden, position one
  • Sanjay Ramabhadran, position two
  • Troi Taylor, position three
  • Carrin F. Patman, position four

Houston city council is scheduled to vote Wednesday, July 11, on the mayor’s appointments.

You can see the current Board here. Christof Spieler was and is a visionary and probably the most knowledgeable person about transit and transportation the Board has ever had. The bus system reimagining was his baby. All things come to an end, and if we’re lucky he’ll get back to blogging about transit now that he’s free to talk about this sort of thing in public again.

Ms. Morales comes onto a Board that has gotten a lot done in the past few years and which now has the challenge of defining and selling a vision for the future to its constituents. I wish her and her returning colleagues all the best with that task, and I wish Christof all the best in his post-Metro life.

Scooters come to San Antonio

Beware, y’all.

Scooter!

Electric scooters started popping up on the streets of San Antonio early Friday morning as part of an initiative by Los Angeles-based scooter-sharing company Bird to provide an alternative mode of transportation, mostly for those downtown.

The scooters, or “Birds” as the company calls them, are reserved through a mobile app that charges a base fee of $1 per ride with an additional 15 cents charged per minute of use. A map on the application shows the location of available scooters, which are typically clustered with others in a “Nest.” They may, however, be picked up and dropped off almost anywhere.

“As San Antonio rapidly grows and develops, it’s clear there’s an urgent need for additional transit options that are accessible, affordable, and reliable for all residents and local communities,” according to a statement released by Bird to the Rivard Report on Friday morning. “Birds are a great solution for short “last-mile” trips that are too long to walk, but too short to drive.”

[…]

“Right now, more than one-third of cars trips in the U.S. are less than two miles long,” according to Bird. “Bird’s mission is to replace these trips — get people out of their cars, reduce traffic and congestion, and cut carbon emissions.”

While the idea might seem like an environmentally friendly mode of transportation for San Antonians, City officials aren’t quite on board — yet. The City had hoped to delay local operations until rules could be established for dockless transportation options.

Releases of similar vehicles around the country have surprised city officials, prompting some, such as those in Austin, to temporarily impound the scooters.

John Jacks, director of the Center City Development and Operations (CCDO) department, told the Rivard Report on Thursday that while the City hopes to coordinate with companies to keep their scooters on the street, it has the right to remove obstructing vehicles left in places such as public right of ways like sidewalks, streets, or trails.

The department first considered regulating dockless bikes in January, before the scooters became a widespread and highly-funded phenomenon. Jacks said his department would likely pitch a more comprehensive pilot ordinance to the City Council’s Transportation Committee in August.

“We’ve asked them to hold off until we at least have a briefing or some kind of pilot program for Council committee,” Jacks told the Rivard Report earlier this month. “There’s currently not any specific ordinance that prohibits it. … We may do nothing, it just depends [on the circumstances].”

Other scooter companies have expressed interest in entering the San Antonio market. Blue Duck Scooters, LimeBike, and Spin all have communicated with City officials in recent months.

See here for some background. Unlike Austin, San Antonio appears to have had some warning about the impending arrival of these thing, so maybe it will be a bit less disruptive. I guess the scooters are positioning themselves not just as an alternative to cars for those short trips, but also to bikes. I can’t speak to the San Antonio experience, but when I was working downtown and I needed to get somewhere that was too far to walk, I used BCycle. To be fair, that was dependent on the kiosk locations – there was one about a block from my office, so I just needed to pick my destination carefully – which is an advantage the scooters have, at least until dockless bike sharing gets implemented. Whether people will give up car travel for these short trips is likely more a function of how safe people think scooter travel is, and how inconvenient driving is. I’m skeptical, but I’m also old and cranky and not the target demographic here, so pay me no mind.

Waymo moves forward on a self-driving car service

Get ready, because they’re coming.

Waymo, the driverless-technology company spun out of Google, has agreed to purchase as many as 62,000 minivans from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for use in a ride-hailing service set to begin commercial operations later this year.

The announcement on Thursday is the latest sign that Waymo is counting on a rapid liftoff for the service. In March, it agreed to purchase up to 20,000 compact cars for the service from Jaguar Land Rover beginning in 2019.

Both the Chrysler Pacifica minivans and the Jaguar cars will be equipped with the radars, cameras and sensors that Waymo has developed to enable the vehicles to drive themselves on public roads. Waymo plans to start its service in Phoenix, then expand to the San Francisco area and to other cities across the country.

Waymo began working with Fiat Chrysler in 2016 and has built a fleet of driverless minivans that it has been testing in Phoenix; Mountain View, Calif.; Austin, Tex.; and Kirkland, Wash.

According to the Associated Press, Waymo aims to have an automated vehicle rideshare service in Phoenix by the end of this year, so look out for that if your travel plans include Phoenix. We could begin to see them in Texas following that – one presumes initially in Austin, since that’s where the tests have taken place – as a bill to regulate automated vehicles passed the Lege last year. Waymo appears to have taken the lead in getting this technology to work, so we’ll see how this goes. Would you ride in a driverless car if one is available in the next few months? I gotta say, I’ll probably wait till version 2 is available, but maybe I’m just being a wuss. What about you?

Who’s gonna clean up that self-driving car?

Here’s a question I hadn’t pondered before.

Who will clean self-driving vehicles?

I found myself wondering this recently as my son and I tidied the family car after a road trip. We’d been driving for only five hours, but we had produced two grocery bags of trash: water bottles, parking stubs, wrappers from lunchtime hoagies, reading material, a roll of Scotch tape, and a ping-pong ball among other miscellany that had accumulated over the short time. It wasn’t unusual. In my family, I’m the one who remembers to clean out the car, so I’m all too familiar with the volume and medley of mess that can be generated in vehicle regularly used by adults and kids.

Yet with companies like Uber, Waymo, and Lyft planning to launch their first generation of self-driving cars as shared taxis, it’s not yet clear who or what will be there to clean up the half-drunk Starbucks cup, wipe down the mystery stickiness on the seat, or handle even less hygienic situations. It’s not just a trivial matter: it’s an issue of sanitation and rider well-being—one more pressing for future users than you might imagine.

Consider the many dimensions of mess. As I thought about mess in cars, I wasn’t just thinking about cleaning up the slightly gross piece of lettuce from my son’s hoagie that had fallen on the floor mats. I was thinking about cleaning up an even grosser kind of mess—the kind that you make if you are carsick.

[…]

I spoke with Molly Nix, the UX lead for self-driving Uber cars, and one of only two product designers working on what the company deems the “self-driving Uber human experience,” which includes everything from the app interface to the logistics of motion sickness. As it turns out, Uber’s haptic feedback technology might not become reality. Nix explained that the patent is a reflection of the kinds of things the Uber team is thinking about, but that, “It’s important to remember there is such a thing as overengineering a solution to a problem like motion sickness,” she said. “Nothing beats windows.” Staring outside may be the best remedy for passengers, and choosing when you need to open a window may be better than relying on a hyperdesigned haptic feedback system giving you bursts of air.

But even less thought seems to have been put into cleaning. When I asked Nix what would happen if someone made a call on a porcelain telephone in a self-driving car, she declined to answer. I asked if she and her team talk about it at the office. She again declined to answer. What will any kind of self-driving car garbage cleanup look like in reality? “We are still envisioning what it might look like,” said Nix.

Sarah Abboud, an Uber spokesperson, said that the company doesn’t have a plan for dealing with the aftermath of people getting sick or making other serious messes in self-driving cars, in part because the vehicles Uber’s testing now still have backup human drivers. “Since we have an operator in the car, we have not really explored exactly what that looks like,” Abboud said. She added she imagines that such messes would probably be handled in the same way the company plans to handle general cleaning: dispatching the car to a facility for a human to clean it and get it back on the road. There are currently two operation centers that clean the driverless cars Uber is testing, one in Phoenix and one outside Pittsburgh. Perhaps Uber would create more of those, Abboud suggested.

The same seems to hold for other companies. Waymo, for example, has partnered with rental car titan Avis for routine maintenance of its self-driving vehicles in Phoenix—though the few available details a Waymo spokesperson sent to me simply suggest that cars will “need to be charged and refueled, cleaned, and presentable for riders.” The overview did not include information about how, exactly, this happens. (Lyft did not respond to a request for comment on the cleaning issue.)

It’s possible that companies could program cars to return to a home base for upkeep after every ride. But it’s an unlikely solution considering the potential for wasted time, wasted energy, and increased congestion. Instead, as of now, solutions still seem to rely on human intervention. Someone will likely need to alert Uber or Waymo to any mess in a car. Then someone will need to clean it. (No Roombas for car interiors yet.) Abboud alluded to a potential mechanism that might help Uber’s systems identify such messes in the future, but wouldn’t say if that would be a video camera inside the car or something else. “We don’t really have that figured out yet,” she said.

There are other categories of mess that will surely appear in the self-driving cars of the future, some of which you won’t be able to get out of your head once you’ve been forced to think about them. I apologize in advance, but these are the questions we must grapple with. Self-driving cars are supposedly going to eliminate traffic and provide a superior option to mass transit and car ownership, but not if everyone is grossed out by the user experience. If your response to that is “well, buses and rail cars are often dirty, too”, then my response to you is “yes, and that’s one big reason why many people who could use transit choose not to”. There’s more to this than just engineering, and if the companies that are vying to bring us this future don’t solve these other problems, they’re in for an unpleasant surprise.

Enabling better transit

This is great.

For less than the cost of a single bus, however, Metro might be the first transit agency in the country to take a significant step across an entire bus system that could open riding options to scores of vision-impaired customers with the use of a smartphone.

The secret is a small beacon about the size of a garage door opener, placed atop every one of those bus-stop poles.

“It is amazing when you see a need you can address it with new technologies,” said Lex Frieden, a member of the transit agency’s board and a nationally acclaimed disability-access advocate.

Users can plot their location using a mapping program, then the beacons are integrated into the directions. Often, the biggest challenge for some users is finding precisely where a bus stop is located at an intersection, or in the middle of a long block.

“It is about getting that information and getting it in your hands,” said Randy Frazier, Metro’s chief technology officer.

As someone approaches their intended stop, their phone receives signals from the beacon, which can send an alert to their phone. Alerts can be delivered either as audio instructions, such as how a mapping program gives drivers voice instructions to turn left or right, or as tactile directions that use pulsing so someone can understand the instructions via sense of touch. As they draw closer to the stop, the pulses increase until the rider knows they are in the correct spot.

[…]

The beacons are a relatively inexpensive leap that could put Metro at the forefront of making transit more accessible for many potential riders. In addition to an aging population of Baby Boomers, many of whom will need transit in the future as they lose the ability to drive, Metro and other transit agencies struggle to lessen para-transit costs.

MetroLift, which offers door-to-door service for elderly and disabled passengers, costs Metro $2.47 per mile, according to 2016 data. Providing a taxi, where applicable, reduces the cost to $1.26 per mile a passenger is carried.

Conventional transit, meanwhile, costs Metro less, about $1.11 per mile for a bus and $1.17 for light rail. When that’s considered across nearly 590 million miles of transit travel in the Houston area, shifting some of the riders to buses and trains could save millions of dollars and give elderly and disabled riders more freedom to travel without prearranged plans.

Installing a beacon at all of Metro’s roughly 9,000 bus stops is expected to cost $375,000, meaning for less than the cost of a single bus every place that a bus stops will be accessible to the visually impaired and others.

Better service for more people at a lower cost. Gotta love that. I don’t have a point to make here, I just want to make sure you keep this in mind when you hear all the blather from the usual blowhards when Metro rolls out its comprehensive transit plan later this year.

Let’s kill fewer pedestrians and bicyclists

Crazy idea, right?

Houston officials will find the 10 most dangerous intersections in the city and make safety adjustments where possible following a series of fatal bicycle crashes in 2018.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the initiative on Bike to Work Day, noting that streets need to be safer for bicyclists if the city expects to promote cycling.

[…]

The program will come as a citywide expansion of Houston’s Safer Streets initiative, a pilot project that was implemented last year in five Houston communities to make streets more friendly for bicyclists and pedestrians, Turner said.

The city’s public works and planning and development departments will work with the city’s Bicycle Advocacy Committee and bike safety nonprofit BikeHouston to identify the 10 intersections that will be adjusted.

Narrowing that list down to ten may be a challenge. Here’s a map showing the major incidents over the past two years. Most of them, anyway – as Swamplot notes, locations for about fifteen percent of crashes weren’t identified, so add another hundred dots to that map. Like I said, sure would be nice if we could reduce that number.

NASA to test Uber’s flying cars

Just simulations, thankfully.

NASA will soon begin testing in Dallas how Uber’s on-demand air-taxi concept would affect crowded areas.

Uber is in the midst of designing an air-taxi service, called UberAIR. Officials hope to conduct flight demonstrations starting in 2020 and start operating commercially in Dallas and Los Angeles by 2023.

And on Tuesday, NASA announced that it would help the company “ensure a safe and efficient system for future air transportation in populated areas.”

“NASA is excited to be partnering with Uber and others in the community to identify the key challenges facing the [urban air mobility] market, and explore necessary research, development and testing requirements to address those challenges,” Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “Urban air mobility could revolutionize the way people and cargo move in our cities and fundamentally change our lifestyle much like smartphones have.”

Under this agreement, Uber will provide NASA with its plans for implementing this cutting-edge ride-share network and NASA will use computer modeling and simulations to determine the impact of this kind of aircraft. The simulations will take place at NASA’s research facility at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.

NASA personnel will analyze safety issues that could arise from small passenger-carrying aircraft flying through the airport’s airspace during “peak scheduled air traffic,” according to the space agency.

See here for the background. There are still a lot of issues to be worked out, and there’s no real reason to think any of this is practical. But hey, we were promised flying cars, so onward we go. I just hope they remember to simulate a few falling-debris scenarios, because I’m pretty sure we’re going to need to know what to do with them.

Texas Central and Amtrak

Connectivity is good.

Amtrak and Texas Central announced a partnership Friday to link the proposed bullet train from Dallas to Houston to the national passenger rail network.

Passengers will be able to book their bullet train trips through Amtrak. The partnership also commits the high-speed rail operator to transport passengers between Amtrak’s Dallas endpoint, Union Station, to the Texas Central’s multilevel station between South Riverfront Boulevard and South Austin Street.

Texas Central will also provide similar shuttle service between the Amtrak endpoint and the former mall site it has chosen for a terminal in northwest Houston.

[…]

The agreement also makes Amtrak training, marketing and sales capabilities available to Texas Central.

See here for the press release. I don’t know how many people might take advantage of this networking between Amtrak and Texas Central, but being able to plug into Amtrak’s ticketing system instead of having to build their own is a win for TCR. And seriously, all of the connections, from the proposed extension to D/FW Airport to the Uptown BRT and whatever else Metro may build to this, they’re all good and make the overall system better. Keep it coming.

Zipcars and parking

Let’s sort this out.

A plan to allow more on-street parking spaces for cars Houstonians could rent by the hour hit a bump Wednesday, when city council members balked at moving beyond the pilot program they approved nearly two years ago.

Expansion of the city’s car-sharing program will wait at least another week, as staff address some of the concerns raised. As devised, the program would allow Houston to enter into agreements with car-sharing companies, firms that allow via smartphone app someone to check out a vehicle and then drive it wherever, which usually requires a membership that comes with a monthly or annual fee. The car could then be left at any designated location, including returning it to the original spot.

Skeptical council members struggled with the idea of reducing public parking or allowing a private company control over the spots.

“These parking spots belong to the city and to give them to private companies for their use, it just doesn’t seem to make sense to me,” At-Large Councilman Michael Kubosh said.

[…]

Though it is growing, the Houston area’s car sharing program lags other cities, such as Boston where hundreds of pickup locations dot the region, and Denver, which worked out city regulations allowing companies to purchase on-street parking spaces or buy a placard allowing cars to be parked at any public spot within a specified area.

The Houston area has about two dozen spots where cars can be accessed from a handful of companies, but only one of those firms — Zipcar — has an on-street location. The rest are located in private lots, such as Bush Intercontinental Airport and major universities in the area.

The companies have aggressively marketed to transit riders and others who would prefer not to own a vehicle in dense urban areas, while maintaining the ability to grab a car when they need it.

Zipcar leases four spots in Midtown, as part of pilot with the city that started in January 2017. Typically, the company keeps a variety of cars in the downtown area, including “Polar Bear,” a Nissan pickup and “Mayor Turner,” a Mazda 3 that on Thursday was parked in one of the on-street spots on Bagby and available for $9 per hour or $74 for the entire day.

According to a city presentation on the program, membership in car sharing programs has increased 3.9 percent since the on-street pilot began, with 16 percent of members giving up their automobiles.

While supporters say more is needed to convince increasing numbers of Houstonians to ditch their cars and choose transit, bicycles and shared cars to get around, skeptics question whether the benefits outweigh the costs in terms of lost parking spaces for vehicles that only a limited number of people can use.

Under the proposal, Houston could enter into master licenses with the various companies interested in on-street spaces, and designate which spaces could be used. As Zipcar does now, the companies would pay the city for use of the parking spaces on a monthly basis.

I must have missed the story about expansion in 2017, but there was a previous expansion in 2014. You can see their current locations here. I don’t really see a problem with leasing some parking spaces to Zipcar, as long as the city gets paid a fair price for it. I agree with Mayor Turner, one of the few ways we have available to us to combat traffic is to provide ways for people to get around without driving. Services like Zipcar allow people to get by in their daily life without needing a car all the time. We should take reasonable steps to enable that.

Self-driving car service coming to North Texas

Coming to the city of Frisco in July, a public-private venture pairing up with a California-based outfit called Drive.ai, for something that’s a little like shuttle service and a little like mass transit on a small scale.

The initial service will be available to transport the 10,000 employees working at offices at Hall Park to retail and dining options nearby at The Star in Frisco, where the Dallas Cowboys are headquartered. For many, the distance (just shy of a mile) is too far to walk but too short to warrant a trip by car.

People will be able to request a ride through a smartphone app. The service will be free during a six-month test run. Negotiations are already under way to bring a more permanent service to Frisco after that.

[…]

Safety is a priority, Andrew Ng of Drive.ai said at the Frisco event. And that’s why working with local authorities is so important. The company will be able to coordinate with first responders, help with public awareness campaigns and offer routes that add value. Local officials will also coordinate with the company when there are special events or road closures that affect traffic flow.

“Together we can make this thing as safe as possible,” Ng said.

Artificial intelligence is great at maneuvering fixed routes but has difficulty recognizing hand signals from a construction worker directing traffic, Ng explained. That’s where local leaders can step in and help.

He asks people to be aware of the bright orange self-driving vehicles, be lawful and be considerate around them — just like drivers are when they see school buses on the road. The vehicles also have four external screens to communicate with pedestrians and other drivers on the road.

Initial trips will have a human available in the driver’s seat of the orange vehicles to take over at a moment’s notice. The next stage puts the person in the passenger seat as a chaperone to answer passenger questions. The final stage lets the self-driving cars go solo with a remote operator available if needed.

Drive.ai is shouldering all of the costs involved in the pilot project. A dollar amount is not being disclosed.

“We’re invested in the region,” said Conway Chen, vice president of business strategy for Drive.ai. “We see this as a great test ground for other cities.”

James Cline, president of the Denton County Transportation Authority, said he believes self-driving vehicles have a place in public transportation and mobility. Whether that role is transporting people on that last mile from a bus stop to their house or replacing buses entirely remains to be seen.

“The challenge is going to be getting people to accept it,” he said.

This Fortune story has a bit more about Drive.ai, which I’d never heard of before now, as well as a map of the rute this car will follow. It’s not to scale, but given the description in the story my guess is that if it were more pedestrian-friendly, maybe more people would walk instead of needing a ride. Or maybe I’m just projecting. If the idea here is to make transit more feasible in these non-pedestrian-friendly places by solving the last-mile problem, that seems like a good thing. If not, we’ll just have to see. For this arrangement, Drive.ai – more likely, the venture capitalists funding Drive.ai – are paying for everything. How this might work in the real world is another question I’d like to examine. We’ll check back later in the year. The Trib and Texas Monthly have more.

No Metro vote this year

One thing that won’t be on your ballot this fall.

Voters will have to wait a few more months to decide Houston’s transit future, as Metro officials said Monday they are taking a more deliberative approach to developing a long-term plan for bus and rail service.

“We really want to get it right,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board of directors.

As a result, Patman said she has no intention of placing any bond referendums in front of voters in Harris County and Missouri City in November, a delay from earlier plans for the MetroNEXT process.

[…]

Patman said she wants more analysis of possible modes along certain routes, something that could take staff more time to develop.

“We need to do a more thorough evaluation for each mode along each corridor,” she said. “Before we go to the voters, we need to take our best information back to them.”

Plans for MetroNEXT should be finalized by the end of the year, she said.

It was about this time last year that we learned there would be no Metro vote in 2017. I was hoping we’d get a vote this year, but ultimately I’d rather Metro get all their ducks in a row before they put something out there. We know there’s no such thing as a non-controversial Metro referendum, so best to have all the details nailed down and as much support as possible in place for each item. I am very much looking forward to the finished product.

Time for an update on that other high speed rail line

It’s been awhile.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

Backers continue to move along on plans to build a bullet-train route between Dallas and Houston, but it’s not the only high-speed passenger rail project on Texas drawing boards.

With a proposal to run between cities such as Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, San Antonio and Laredo, the project recently got a green light for new money to do further study.

“We’re still an embryo,” said Kevin Feldt, a North Central Texas Council of Governments program manager overseeing the high-speed rail project regionally. “We’re still in the first week or two of pregnancy.”

Nobody has begun buying right of way or buying trains, let alone figured out funding and finance — topics that can fire skepticism about the passenger rail’s ability to break even or turn a profit — but there’s now an environmental impact statement, and potential investors have come calling.

“Suffice it to say, there’s interest in developing (from) Fort Worth southward, possibly to Monterrey, Mexico,” Feldt said. “We’ve had the French and Chinese and Spanish come to us and meet with us to talk about it.

“Some wanted to do one piece; we had others who wanted to do everything.”

The proposed line from North Texas cities — Dallas and Arlington included — is part of an 850-mile project called the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Program Corridor.

[…]

Feldt said that whatever comes out of the next round of study, actually building a high-speed passenger rail — not to mention a Hyperloop system — will be “a lot more complex” than the challenges the private company working to roll out the Dallas/Houston passenger train has encountered.

The Dallas/Houston corridor is not only flatter and easier to run a high-speed train across, but less populous.

Still, like Feldt, Bill Meadows, who chairs the Commission for High Speed Rail in the Dallas/Fort Worth Region, noted the interest from Chinese and French rail representatives in discussing a public-private project here.

And, said Meadows, “They like the (Interstate) 35 corridor better than the (Interstate) 45 corridor.”

See here for the last update that I have, from July of 2016. Since then, the Draft Environmental Study has been completed, which “formally identifies seven Selected Alternatives that will serve as the framework for future investment in new and improved conventional and high-speed passenger rail service in three regions between Oklahoma City and South Texas”. The story also mentions the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, for which Texas remains in contention, though it’s not clear to me from the story how it fits in here. There’s lots of other obstacles that will need to be cleared for anything tangible to happen here, from choosing a single route to putting together financing and governance, to overcoming the inevitable political opposition. But things continue to move, and at this stage that’s about all you can ask for.

A flock of electronic scooters descending on Austin

Not actually one of the signs of the apocalypse, though I’m sure it was annoying.

Scooter!

Seemingly overnight, Austin was buzzing with electric scooters last month. Scooter riders weaved through crowded sidewalks and traffic downtown and zoomed out of drivers’ blind spots near the University of Texas campus, catching motorists and pedestrians alike off guard.

Bird Rides, a dockless scooter company, deployed a fleet of thin, black scooters in April that quickly grew to almost 700. Then came LimeBike, which flooded the streets with their own white and green Lime-S scooter models on April 16.

Then, just as quickly, they disappeared last weekend.

The appearance of rentable scooters across the city briefly threw Austin’s political leaders into a frenzy as city government officials rushed to roll out a plan to regulate the businesses, which had started operating before a city-led pilot program could begin.

“In order to forestall a predictable and unmanageable swamping of our streets with thousands of vehicles, ATD recommends a more nimble response than our previously expressed pilot timeframe,” Robert Spillar, director of the Austin Transportation Department, said in a letter to the mayor and Austin City Council members.

The council worked until after 2 a.m. Friday to change city code and prohibit leaving dockless scooters or bicycles on city sidewalks and streets until a permitting process begins. Violators can have their scooters impounded and face a $200 fine for each seized scooter.

Over the weekend, both California-based companies pulled their vehicles from Austin city streets — but not before the city’s transportation department impounded about 70 of them.

[…]

Both companies placed their scooters on sidewalks and street corners throughout the city. Customers could download a smartphone app that allowed them to see the vehicles’ locations in real time, unlock them and pay the rental fee. Both Bird and Lime-S charge a base fee of one dollar, then 15 cents per minute of use.

Austin initially planned to begin a pilot program for what it calls “dockless mobility” — meaning vehicles that aren’t kept in racks or docking stations — starting May 1, but Bird and LimeBike deployed their scooters before it went into effect.

So the city pivoted to the new permitting process, which will require a $30 fee for each vehicle and cap the initial number of vehicles per licensed operator at 500. The city plans to roll out the new process shortly.

And not a minute too soon: The Austin Transportation Department said it’s coordinating with 15 different dockless mobility companies that have expressed interest in coming to Austin.

If you’re having flashbacks to the early days of Uber in Texas, congratulations. You’re not alone. At least in this case the scooter companies were noticeably less pugilistic in their press releases. But then, both of them had done the same thing in San Francisco; as my old music teacher used to say, once is a mistake and twice is a habit. So be forewarned, Mayor Turner and Houston City Council, because these guys are coming, sooner or later. And that rumbling sound you hear in the distance is the early gestation of a lobbying effort to pass a statewide rideshare bill for scooters in the Lege. Again, don’t be caught off guard. We’ve seen this movie before.

Metro will pilot automated vehicle shuttle at TSU

from the inbox:

Texas Southern University students may have another transportation option on campus in the fall semester: an autonomous shuttle. Today, METRO’s Board of Directors gave the nod to the autonomous vehicle (AV) project, a first for the agency.  Although the low speed vehicle will drive itself, an operator will be on board at all times.  The pilot will take place along TSU’s mile-long, famed Tiger Walk. Several members of the public spoke at the meeting in support of the project.

“We are so fortunate to be able to partner with Texas Southern to pilot this autonomous vehicle. The location is ideal and its transportation studies program provides the type of academic expertise needed. It also allows us to explore how this technology can be applied on a greater scale,” said METRO President & CEO Tom Lambert.

Riders will not be charged to use the shuttle, which will be about the size of a minivan, similar to those used in Las Vegas and Arlington at AT&T Stadium.

“Our Texas Southern University family, led by President Dr. Austin Lane and Provost Dr. Kendall Harris,  is thrilled about the METRO decision today. Student, faculty and visitor access will be enhanced, especially for nighttime classes and activities,” said Dr. Carol Lewis, professor and emeritus director of TSU’s Center for Transportation Training & Research.

If successful, the project is designed to eventually extend the AV shuttle route to connect with METRORail and the Eastwood Transit Center.

METRO’s Board approved spending up to $250,000 for the first phase.

“The Board’s action clears the way for us to request proposals from vendors and select a vehicle.  We are excited to begin studying how this could enhance our service overall,” said Kimberly Williams, METRO’s chief innovation officer.

The pilot will help METRO study how autonomous vehicles could be used to improve first and last mile transit connections, as well as other uses in places, such as business parks and medical centers.

Along with METRO, the planning committee for the project includes Texas Southern University, the city of Houston, the Houston-Galveston Area Council and the Houston District of the Texas Department of Transportation.

“Our university transportation research center will work with the partners to assess a myriad of variables associated with AV operation, such as user acceptance, vehicle operation, accessibility for persons with disabilities and electrical utilization and recharging. The university looks forward to contributing to the advancement of technologies for our Houston community,” Dr. Lewis added.

METRO was a key part of the application that helped Texas secure a designation as an AV proving ground by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2016.

This was also reported on the Metro blog, and Swamplot noted an earlier mention of automated vehicles for Metro outside of this pilot. Using this as a way to help conquer the first/last mile problem makes a lot of sense – I’ve advocated a tighter integration with B-Cycle for the same purpose – so I’ll be very interested to see how this goes and what Metro’s vision for this is beyond the TSU campus if this is a success. For what it’s worth, though, as Streetsblog notes, in a different world we’d already have a light rail line in this same place on the TSU campus. What might have been, you know? Anyway, we’ll keep an eye on this because it’s very likely to start showing up elsewhere in the city. KUHF has more.

Smart Cities Collaborative

It’s a thing we are part of.

Houston will join 21 other cities in a national partnership aimed at addressing persistent transportation challenges as technology and mobility choices have planners rethinking how streets, sidewalks and private spaces interact.

The upcoming Smart Cities Collaborative, organized by the Transportation For America advocacy group, will last for a year and include four gatherings of the cities selected. They will focus on the topic areas of “ride-sourcing technology, curbside delivery, dockless bike and scooter systems, and the increasing desirability of sidewalk space and some of the hottest real estate in cities.”

[…]

Houston’s participation will involve its public works and parking management departments. The goal, officials said, is to build on current projects such as the city’s flood warning and traffic management systems, while readying Houston for increased transit and vehicles that drive themselves.

“The big matzo ball hanging out there is automated vehicles,” said Russell Brooks, director of Transportation For America’s Smart Cities Initiative.

To handle self-driving cars, cities will need to rethink how streets operate, with traffic devices that could relay information to vehicles and protect pedestrians. Autonomous cars also are expected to upend parking in job centers such as downtown Houston, the Texas Medical Center and Energy Corridor, while perhaps increasing the need for electric charging stations.

Here’s a report from the first meeting, which happened last week, and a Transportation for America blog post about the collaborative. The next meeting will be in July. I figure it’s never a bad idea to talk about transportation solutions, because we sure could use them.

Ellis puts up money for city’s bike projects

I like this plan.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Monday announced a one-year $10 million commitment to bicycling projects in Houston, in the hopes of jump-starting the city’s transformation into a bike-friendly place.

“Working together, we can better leverage scarce resources from governmental entities and the private sector and share our collective expertise to serve the people in this region,” Ellis said.

A year after Houston leaders approved an ambitious plan for hundreds of miles of protected, safe bike trails, little progress has been made, something cycling supporters said Ellis’ pledge will change. Officials estimated the money would build at least 50 miles of protected bike lanes considered crucial to providing usable bike access to neighborhoods and jobs.

“​This really gives us a boost we needed,” Houston Planning Director Patrick Walsh said.

The money, along with city funds from its capital improvement plan, will go toward repainting bike lanes, developing safer intersections and other improvements aimed at making riding a bike in Houston easier and safer.

[…]

Projects will be chosen for their ability to start soon. Ellis stressed officials have one year to spend the money he committed, and any unspent funds will return to other priorities in his precinct.

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner said the funding, along with $1.1 million the city plans to spend in each of the next five years, will act as seed money for upcoming projects, including planned bike lanes along Austin and Caroline and new space for cyclists along Hardy and Elysian on the city’s Near Northside.

See here for some background. This is about putting up some money for projects that are already in the pipeline but have been delayed for a variety of reasons. Commissioner Ellis is an avid cyclist himself, so it’s not a surprise to see him make this a priority. Much of his precinct intersects with the city, and as you know I’m delighted to see some county investment in the not-unincorporated territories. I hope the city takes full advantage of this.