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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

A call to embrace scooters

Chron business writer Chris Tomlinson is a fan of scooters.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

After years of riding bicycles in traffic, I’m comfortable riding a scooter on the street where they belong. I find them a convenient and environmentally-friendly alternative to automobile congestion. But I’m in a distinct minority, according to new polling by Zpryme, an Austin-based research and events firm.

About 72 percent of Americans do not want electric scooters in their neighborhoods, according to the survey of 1,500 U.S. consumers. More than half of Americans believe that electric scooters are unsafe.

Only 5 percent of those polled have ever ridden one.

[…]

The scooters’ average top speed is 20 miles per hour, and the range is about 20 miles. An electric scooter performs about as well as the average bicycle commuter, but without sweating.

Zpryme’s survey of scooter users found most trips were less than a mile and cost less than $10 nationwide. But a substantial number said they routinely use scooters to travel up to 5 miles.

About 70 percent said they ride scooters for fun, according to the poll, and in San Antonio tourists use them for sightseeing. More than half said they use scooters because they are faster than walking, and a third use them for a daily commute to work. Last year, scooter users made 38.5 million trips in just a few dozen cities.

Because they are electric and consume little energy, the environmental benefits of scooters are substantial. A person on a scooter also takes up much less space on the road, which helps relieve congestion.

As long as they are banned from sidewalks and there is a plan in place to ensure that abandoned scooters do not hinder the mobility of others, especially disabled folks, then I can sign onto this. I still have my doubts about the scooter sharing industry as a business model, and I’m still not convinced that they’re safer on the roads for the rider than bikes are, but I do agree that they can play a role in various urban areas to reduce car trips. And they are coming to Houston whether we like it or not, so let’s try to make the best of it.

Metro referendum is set

Here we go.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members voted Tuesday to ask voters in November for permission to borrow up to $3.5 billion, without raising taxes. The money would cover the first phase of what local leaders expect to be the start of shifting Houston from a car-focused city to a multimodal metro region — even if it does not put everyone on a bus or train.

“Even if you ride in your car, it is more convenient if there are less cars on the road,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

The item will be on the Nov. 5 ballot, the first vote for new transit projects in 16 years for the Houston region.

The bond proposition would authorize Metro to move forward on a $7.5 billion suite of projects including extending the region’s three light rail lines, expanding the use of bus rapid transit — large buses operating mostly in dedicated lanes — along key corridors such as Interstate 10 and to Bush Intercontinental Airport, and creating two-way high-occupancy vehicle or high-occupancy toll lanes along most Houston’s freeways.

“It doesn’t do everything we would like to do, but it does everything we can afford to do,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

In addition, the ballot item calls for extending the general mobility program, which hands over one-quarter of the money Metro collects from its 1 percent sales tax to local governments that participate in the transit agency. The 15 cities and Harris County use the money mostly for street improvements, but they can use it for other projects such as sidewalks, bike lanes and, in limited cases, landscaping and traffic safety and enforcement.

Local elected officials and business leaders will soon stump for the plan, which has not drawn sizable or organized opposition but is likely to require some persuasion.

[…]

Transit officials would also need to secure an estimated $3.5 billion in federal money, most likely via the Federal Transit Administration, which doles out money for major transit projects. Federal officials contributed $900 million of the $2.2 billion cost of the 2011-2017 expansion of light rail service.

The federal approval will largely dictate when many of the rail and bus rapid transit lines are built as well as where the projects run, Patman said. Though officials have preferred routes for certain projects — such as light rail to Hobby Airport or bus rapid transit along Gessner — those projects and others could change as the plans are studied further.

“Routes will only be determined after discussions with the community,” Patman said. “I don’t think anyone needs to worry about a route being forced upon them.”

Metro would have some latitude to prod some projects along faster than others, based on other regional road and highway projects. Speedier bus service between the Northwest Transit Center at I-10 and Loop 610, for example, could happen sooner if a planned widening of Interstate 10 within Loop 610 remains a priority for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which has added the project to its five-year plan. Work on widening the freeway is scheduled for 2021, giving Metro officials a chance to make it one of the first major projects.

I must admit, I’d missed that HOV lane for I-10 inside the Loop story. I wish there were more details about how exactly this might be accomplished, but as someone who regularly suffers the torment of driving I-10 inside the Loop, I’m intrigued. This would effectively be the transit link from the Northwest Transit Center, which by the way is also the location of the Texas Central Houston terminal and downtown. This is something that has been bandied about since 2015, though it was originally discussed as a rail line, not BRT. (I had fantasies about the proposed-but-now-tabled Green Line extension down Washington Avenue as a means to achieve this as well.) Such is life. Anyway, this is something I definitely need to know more about.

You can see the full plan as it has now been finalized here. Other BRT components include a north-south connection from Tidwell and 59 down to UH, which then turns west and essentially becomes the Universities Line, all the way out to Richmond and Beltway 8, with a dip down to Gulfton along the way, and a north-south connection from 290 and West Little York down Gessner to Beltway 8. The Main Street light rail line would extend north to the Shepherd park and ride at I-45, and potentially south along the US90 corridor into Fort Bend, all the way to Sugar Land. Go look at the map and see for yourself – there are HOV and park and ride enhancements as well – it’s fairly well laid out.

I feel like this referendum starts out as a favorite to pass. It’s got something for most everyone, there’s no organized opposition at this time, and Metro has not been in the news for bad reasons any time recently. I expect there to be some noise about the referendum in the Mayor’s race, because Bill King hates Metro and Tony Buzbee is an idiot, but we’re past the days of John Culberson throwing his weight around, and for that we can all be grateful. I plan to reach out to Metro Chair Carrin Patman to interview her about this, so look for that later on. What do you think?

HGAC makes its pledge to TxDOT for I-45

Lots of pushback, but not enough to change the outcome.

Local transportation officials now have skin in the game when it comes to widening Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston, approving on Friday a $100 million commitment for the project that has drawn increasing scrutiny and criticism from affected communities.

After five hours and nearly 60 residents — as well as Harris County officials — urging delay of the approval until the Texas Department of Transportation answered lingering questions, however, the go-ahead from the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council fell well short of full-throated support.

“It is one thing to listen, but it is very important we are responsive,” Houston at-large Councilman and transportation council Vice Chairman David Robinson said, telling TxDOT the city’s support comes with the expectation the concerns will be addressed.

“We will not support a project that is not in the interest of our citizens,” Robinson said.

[…]

Though the decision affects only the center segment, criticism is growing along the entire $7-billion-plus, 25-mile project from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8. TxDOT proposes adding two managed lanes in each direction the length of the rebuild, which will require the acquisition of 319 residences and 264 businesses north of Interstate 10; another 916 residences and 68 businesses would be affected by the construction around the central business district, where the project would lead to a near-total redesign of the freeway system from Interstate 69 and Spur 527 to I-10 and I-45.

A major part of the proposed project would remove the elevated section of I-45 along Pierce Street and shift the freeway to flow along I-69 on the east end of the central business district and then follow I-10 along Buffalo Bayou back to where I-45 heads north of downtown.

Construction of downtown segments could start as early as 2021, while the center segment work is not expected to start until late 2023 or early 2024.

The sheer enormity of the project has led to widespread air quality concerns and neighborhood-specific fears along the 25-mile route. That has led some to encourage slow-going before local officials commit their money.

“If it feels wrong and feels rushed, it is because it is wrong and is rushed,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told colleagues on the transportation council Friday. “It is only responsible to wait.”

Hidalgo was the sole no vote against the $100 million, after her proposal to delay the commitment to January 2020 was denied. Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia abstained on the vote to commit the money.

They were hardly the only people in the H-GAC conference room opposed to moving forward, which grew so crowded an overflow room was opened. Sixty-five people spoke during public comment, 59 of whom urged officials to delay committing the money or reject the widening plan outright.

See here and here for the background. Allyn West live-tweeted the meeting – see here and here for his tweets, which for some reason I can’t quite seem to fully capture in one thread. If you want to know who spoke and what they said, that’s where to look. LINK Houston also tweeted from the meeting, but not in a threaded fashion, so you need to look at their timeline. They do have pictures, so there’s that. As the story notes, the purpose of this vote was to get the I-45 project on the state’s Unified Transportation Program, basically a ten-year plan for major transportation projects. Someone far geekier than I will have to explain how the timing of that works. In any event, this is not the last time HGAC will vote on this item. HGAC still has to approve adding that $100 million to its own plans, so there will be another vote or two on this in 2020 and 2021, depending on when construction is scheduled to start. TxDOT is still getting public feedback, and I suppose there’s still room for the project to be changed, up till the point where something is well and truly finalized. If you want to get involved in trying to affect, alter, or arrest the development of the I-45 expansion, I suggest you read through Allyn West’s tweets, find the organizations that spoke out and best represent your viewpoint, and contact them to see how you can help. There’s still time, until there isn’t. Don’t wait too long.

Still tweaking the Metro referendum

Extending one rail line to Hobby Airport instead of two has generated some savings in the projected cost, which can then allow for other things to be done.

The expected price of extending the Green Line and Purple Line light rail to Hobby Airport, by combining the two lines and focusing on a route along Broadway, dropped from $1.4 billion to about $1 billion, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said Friday.

Metro’s board is nearing a final vote on asking voters for permission to borrow $3.5 billion for a suite of transit projects, the first portion of the agency’s MetroNext long-range plan. Officials must approve a plan by mid-August and call for an election, in order to have it appear on the November ballot.

Likely projects for the ballot proposal include extensions of the Red, Purple and Green light rail lines, 75 miles of proposed bus rapid transit and various park and ride additions or expansions.

Because of the estimated $400 million savings, those projects could be joined by a $336 million extension of the light rail line from Hobby to the Monroe Park and Ride lot near Interstate 45, and relocating the Kingwood Park and Ride closer to Interstate 69, at an estimated cost of up to $60 million.

Both projects were popular with respondents during Metro’s year-long public meeting process about a long-range transit plan, and also have support from local elected officials.

The Kingwood site was an obvious choice, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, because it was affected by flooding when Tropical Storm Harvey deluged Houston. The existing site along Kingwood Drive also is time-consuming for buses to navigate, compared to a location closer to the freeway.

The Monroe rail extension, meanwhile, would provide a place for suburban residents to park and then ride the rail to various job centers.

“I think we have some conservative votes we won’t get if we don’t do it,” said Metro board member Jim Robinson, who has pressed for more investment in park and ride locations.

I have no opinion at this time about extending the rail line beyond Hobby. I’d be very interested to see what that does to the ridership projections, which to me are the most important factor. I’m also a little curious as to why this extra rail could be added at such a late date but the proposed Washington Avenue extension couldn’t be. Maybe because there was always going to be something at the one end and we were just trying to decide the details, I don’t know. I will admit to some self-interest in asking this question. Anyway, we should have the final proposition soon, and from there the real campaign can begin.

Meet MetroRapid

That’s the new, official name for the Uptown BRT line.

Station names along the Post Oak dedicated bus lanes will have a familiar ring for riders, transit and Uptown officials decided, as they inch toward opening the region’s first foray into BRT in the coming months.

Eight stations along Post Oak will have mostly non-commercial names, aimed at helping travelers navigate the new bus line. Uptown Houston Management District is building the $192 million project, which started work in 2016 to add a dedicated bus lane in each direction in the center of Post Oak from Loop 610 to south of Richmond.

The southern end of the project will be a new transit center, which will re-route buses from the existing Bellaire Transit Center. The new site, which Metropolitan Transit Authority officials are likely to approve July 31, along with the station names, will be called the Uptown/Westpark Transit Center. It is located at Westpark Drive, just west of Loop 610 where a new ramp is under construction along Interstate 69 as part of the total rebuild of the freeway interchange.

Officials also said they have settled on MetroRapid as the name of the service, which will use large buses but offer trip times and frequencies similar to rail. The Post Oak line will not have all the elements of bus rapid transit, such as priority at all traffic lights, but will be, for most purposes, rapid service.

Though the bus project was devised and supported by officials with the management district, the board of which are major landowners or work for developers along Post Oak, station names largely avoided commercial ties.

“Where possible, the street is the major defining characteristic of a station name,” said John Breeding, president of the management district.

As a result, the stations mirror the names of cross-streets, such as San Felipe, Westheimer and Richmond.

[…]

Tentative plans call for the Westheimer and Alabama stops to have “Galleria” as part of their names, as both are within walking distance of the mall. Breeding said Uptown officials also are working with The Galleria to enhance pedestrian access from the stations to various entrances.

Service is now expected to begin in March of 2020, which is a year later than it was expected to begin the last time an opening date was announced. The HOV lane part of this project is also moving along, also with a 2020 start date. I’m ready to see what it all looks like.

HGAC gives initial approval to TxDOT’s funding demand

Approval with concerns. There will be opportunities to revisit this.

Plans to overhaul Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston inched forward this week, but not without some hesitation and a slew of caveats by some local officials who have been asked to commit $100 million to the massive project.

Approval by the Houston-Galveston Area Council Technical Advisory Committee came Wednesday with many members echoing lingering concerns over the project as currently envisioned by the Texas Department of Transportation. Among those are how the agency addresses environmental issues and communicates with the public.

“It is important to recognize that things TxDOT has done in the past are not going to be sufficient for this project,” said Carol Lewis, a TAC committee member and director of the Center for Transportation Training and Research at Texas Southern University.

Ultimately, the technical committee approved the committal of $100 million in locally-controlled federal funds to the center segment of the I-45 project, per a request from TxDOT. The final decision rests with H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council, which meets July 26.

[..]

The approval is not a final word on whether the freeway project is built, and not even the last time H-GAC will have to vote on it.

Local officials must add the $100 million to the region’s short-term transportation plan, also approved by the transportation council. That approval would not happen for a project in 2024 for about another two years.

The resolution, if approved by the regional council next week, notes some of those milestones so officials could be assured they had options if TxDOT did not adequately address community concerns.

See here for the background. Two members of the technical committee, Veronica Chapa Gorczynski, president of the East End Management District, and Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, opposed the request/demand/whatever to commit the money to TxDOT. I’d still just like to know what exactly it would be used for, or at least what are the possibilities, and what would happen if HGAC said “nope”. Not today, I’m afraid.

Another manifesto against I-45 expansion

They’re fun to read, and my heart is with them, but we all know how this works.

The I-45 project is likely to do irreversible damage to our city’s finances and ecology. It will reduce the city’s tax base by eliminating existing businesses that affect 25,000 jobs. This includes approximately 20 city blocks in EaDo, a thriving entertainment and residential neighborhood with massive unmet potential. It will wipe out homes, churches and businesses in neighborhoods including Independence Heights, Near Northside and Fifth Ward, repeating the sins of the past by building highways through historical African American and Latino neighborhoods.

This project represents a major transfer of wealth from the city to the suburbs, trading actual city of Houston homes, land, and businesses for the promise of faster trips through Houston. Researchers say that promise won’t pan out long-term: As Houston’s own history with I-10’s expansion demonstrates, adding lanes doesn’t improve freeway congestion for long.

Adding insult to those injuries, the expanded freeway will likely lead to further development on our shrinking forest and prairie lands north of Houston. That open land currently buffers neighborhoods downstream from flooding, and it filters rainwater, improving our area’s water quality.

I have been part of many of the “Make I-45 Better” discussions, hosted with the idea that, if TxDOT would come to the table with resources and an openness to new design approaches, the damage caused by the project could be offset by the benefits it could create. I no longer think this trade-off makes sense.

To move people without the putting an undue burden on the neighborhoods along the I-45 corridor, we need a better regional approach.

What might be possible if we work together on a different vision? Imagine if the state legislature allowed TxDOT act like a true department of transportation — not just a highway department. Imagine leaders from TxDOT, METRO, the city of Houston and others sitting together and figuring out how we can best connect people to the abundance Houston has to offer. Imagine a safer, sustainable and more equitable Houston, where people had choices to avoid congestion. Imagine if we implemented projects that strengthen our city instead of undermine its competitiveness.

That approach shouldn’t be limited to freeways. Given the funds dedicated to I-45 and other roadways, METRO’s METRONext plans, Harris County flood bond projects and Harvey Recovery funds, tens of billions of dollars will soon be spent on infrastructure to remake our city. We need a vision for how all this investment fits together.

See here and here for some previous point/counterpoint, and read the whole thing for the author’s suggestions. I basically agree with everything he says, but it’s all for academic interest, because there’s no mechanism to make any of what he says happen. The truth of the matter is that what we should have been doing is spending the last decade or two working to change the laws on how transportation dollars are allocated by the Lege. That wouldn’t have worked, of course, because there’s very little interest in the Republican legislature for anything other than road building, but at least it would have had a chance of success. It’s still a worthwhile goal, even if it’s too late to do anything about I-45. Lobbying Congress to appropriate more money to transit grants would also be useful. None of this is pretty or easy, but it’s the best we can do.

Add HEB to the autonomous grocery delivery trend

In San Antonio, at least. Maybe in Houston later if it goes well for them.

Customers near an H-E-B in suburban San Antoni0 can soon get their eggs, fruit and tortillas dropped off by a vehicle with no one at the wheel.

The San Antonio-based company is working with Udelv, an autonomous delivery startup in California, to test self-driving vans on streets around the store starting this fall.

“The world is changing fast and our customers’ expectations are changing,” said Paul Tepfenhart, senior vice president of omnichannel and emerging technologies at Central Market and H-E-B. “We have a growing, thriving online business, and we’re trying to figure out how in the world we’re going to keep up with this emerging demand.”

During the first phase of the pilot, a Udelv employee will drive a van developed by the startup with a H-E-B employee along for the ride to help with deliveries.

As the technology collects and analyzes data and learns the optimal routes, it will eventually take over the maneuvering. However, H-E-B will still have the ability to control the van remotely, Tepfenhart said.

[…]

Kroger, Amazon and other retailers have experimented with autonomous vehicles, and Udelv is also working with Walmart to test its vans at Arizona stores and with XL Parts to try out the technology in Houston.

We know about Kroger. I see that bit at the end about Udelv and Walmart in Houston, but a little googling around did not find anything more on that. As for HEB, much like the Kroger pilot in Houston this is being limited to one store at first, in HEB’s case in Olmos Park, with the program set to begin later in the summer. This is clearly the next frontier for grocery stores, so get ready for a more widespread deployment soon. I still think there will be demand for some old fashioned non-autonomous grocery deliveries, for folks who can’t or don’t want to haul the groceries into their residences themselves. But if there’s enough demand to support this option, I’d guess it will be the bulk of the delivery market in short order. The Current and the Rivard Report have more.

Scooters and the negative effect on disabled folks

A deep dive on the San Antonio experience.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

From the moment they appeared in cities across the country, the business model for electric scooters has depended on riders’ abandoning the machines wherever the ride ends. Users unlock scooters with a cell phone app, put $1 on their credit card plus 15 to 30 cents per minute to ride, and routinely ignore city rules against dumping the vehicles in the curb cuts that make sidewalk wheelchair use possible.

San Antonio’s new ban on riding scooters on sidewalks — if it’s enforced — will only partially restore a path to a freer life for disabled people. Scooters are still legal to park on the sidewalk itself, and the city’s “light touch” preference for warnings and education over police ticketing and confiscation leave the disabled skeptical that much will change.

Urban commentators might curse scooters as a metaphor for a hurried, narcissistic age, but disabled people generally see the glut of abandoned vehicles as a physical affront.

“We’ve spent 30 years making sidewalks accessible,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the Washington-based National Disability Rights Network, referring to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. “And then overnight we’re forced into asking cities, ‘Why have you allowed this to happen without thinking of their impact?’”

The problem is especially acute and visible in San Antonio, which U.S. Census figures show has the nation’s second highest rate of residents with “ambulatory difficulty” — 9.5 percent of San Antonians ages 35 to 64, or about 100,000 people. Among the 10 largest U.S. cities, only Philadelphia had a higher rate.

Blind people feel especially harassed by the two-wheeled whippets, said Sandy Merrill, CEO of San Antonio-based Guide Dogs of Texas, which trains service dogs for the vision-impaired.

“It’s difficult enough dealing with what’s in front of you,” Merrill said. “But now our dogs and people have to deal with something almost silent zipping behind them at 15 miles an hour. I wish young people would think about how they’re using them.”

[…]

John Jacks, director of San Antonio’s Center City Development and Operations Department and the city’s de facto scooter czar, sounds sympathetic to the complaints of disabled citizens, but is loath to criticize the scooter companies or call for aggressive policing of a breezy business culture more determined to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

The city won’t create the rules designed to change that culture. It has asked the companies to do it themselves, by submitting detailed proposals for bringing order to the scooter scrum. By October, the city will cut the number of permitted scooter firms from six to three and reduce their fleets of dockless vehicles from a total of 16,000 to 5,000. Jacks said the city’s request-for-proposals process offers the reward of a city contract to the three companies with the best ideas for reducing clutter and rider misbehavior.

“Our number one concern is the ability of all people to navigate the sidewalks safely,” Jacks said. Correcting the problem, he added, will be done mostly by creating incentives “for good behavior versus bad. It’s putting the burden on the companies for addressing the problem.”

Jacks said he had consulted the disabled community about the scooter roll-out and its concerns will be “embedded” in the process by having Malone, a former president of the National Federation for the Blind, on the selection committee.

The city’s scooter ordinance, thrown together last year to govern a six-month tryout of the new technology, contains rules against parking within a certain distance of curb ramps and other structures, but Jacks conceded that few, if any, riders actually know that.

“This is all still evolving,” Jacks said. “If the Council still doesn’t think it’s working, we may have to have more restrictive regulations.”

San Antonio Police confirm that they haven’t impounded any scooters in 2019, choosing instead to alert the scooter companies, call 311 or tidy up the sidewalks themselves.

“Sometimes I’ll just move them off to the side on the curb,” said SAPD Capt. Chris Benavides, the department’s head of traffic and special events.

Officers have given out 438 warnings since August, he said, but have written only 80 citations for scooter riders since last August, a period in which renters took nearly two million rides, according to city records. This month, SAPD deployed three overtime officers per day, seven days a week, to focus on downtown scooter enforcement.

“I like the ‘soft touch’ to scooter enforcement, if that’s what you want to call it,” Benavides said. “Our biggest problem is just educating people, especially the tourists.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. As noted, San Antonio has now banned scooters from sidewalks, which I think will help keep riders from menacing pedestrians, but those scooters are still going to be left on the sidewalk after being used, and that’s still going to be a problem for people with mobility issues. There’s clearly value in these “micro-mobility” options, which should reduce the number of short-hop car trips people take and may help encourage transit use, but their business models leave these problems to the cities to solve. I sure hope Houston’s plan for scooters will address this. In the meantime, there are federal lawsuits filed by people with disabilities in other states like California that allege that Lime and Bird and other scooter companies are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by restricting their ability to navigate their cities. That’s going to take a few years to work its way through the courts, and who knows what SCOTUS will do with it. In the meantime, cities and states need to figure it out.

TxDOT wants H-GAC to commit money to the I-45 project

I don’t understand this.

To demonstrate local support for the mega-project, the Texas Department of Transportation is asking the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council, the committee that doles out state and federal money controlled by local officials, to commit $100 million to the central 3-mile portion of the freeway rebuild, from Interstate 10 to Loop 610. State officials would cover the remainder of the $1.22 billion cost, or around 91 percent of the total.

If approved this month by the transportation council, the money would not move from HGAC to TxDOT until construction begins, estimated around early 2024. The more immediate effect would be showing support for the increasingly controversial project, and would be reflected in upcoming plans. Further, it would be $100 million that local officials could not direct elsewhere in a region rife with road improvement needs.

Committing the money would have no effect on projects already planned and funded, officials said.

During a June 28 discussion about the project and about whether to commit the money, members of the transportation council were divided. Despite years of community meetings and redesigns of the project, some on the council thought the I-45 plans lack solutions for some of the problems critics identified.

“My concern is we are forced to stick our neck out and put a down payment on a house we have not seen,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

[…]

Pass up the commitment, transportation officials said, and the state could send its money elsewhere.

“If this would not go forward,” Quincy Allen, district director for TxDOT in Houston said of the state funding offer, “I don’t know when we would have the money to go forward.”

The transportation council is scheduled to meet July 26 and is poised to decide on the money then, though officials could choose to delay. The state’s long-range plan, to be unveiled during a public meeting in Austin that will be streamed online, is set for approval in August. State officials could amend it if Houston-area leaders balk at committing the region’s share.

I have questions.

1. Is this normal? Has TxDOT ever asked any other regional transportation agency to kick in local funds like this? “Local” is a bit misleading – I think what TxDOT is asking is for HGAC to commit $100 million of future grants, which come from state and federal sources, to this part of the I-45 project. My question stands, though – is this something TxDOT has ever done before? If yes, then what were the circumstances and how did it go? If no, why now?

2. What is this money for? I recognize that the I-45 project plans have not been finalized, so a high-level answer is the best we can do. My point here is about whether this money is for the actual highway construction or some ancillary things? I’m not even sure what that would mean, so any clarification would be helpful.

3. What exactly happens if HGAC says “nah, we’re good”? Clearly we can’t answer this without knowing the answer to #2, but at a high level, does this mean there would be some piece of this project that wouldn’t get done, or does it actually threaten the project as a whole? I have a hard time believing that, which brings me back to the question of why TxDOT is making this request. I can’t help but think the answer here is that the project will happen regardless, but there would be some petty repercussions down the line if we locals don’t play ball.

I’m sure there are more questions, but I think that’s a good start. My firm position on this is No until we get some answers.

San Antonio bans scooters from sidewalks

Speaking of where scooters do and do not belong:

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Dockless electric scooters can’t be ridden on San Antonio sidewalks, per a new City ordinance that went into effect Monday, but many say they’re concerned about how well it will be enforced.

The new prohibition on sidewalk use comes a full year after rented e-scooters first arrived in San Antonio. It took months to arrive at the point where the City Council deemed riding on the sidewalk enough of a nuisance to move them off pedestrian rights-of-way and onto the street. But even though violating that law is a Class C misdemeanor that can carry as much as a $500 fine, some in the city are not sure that will be enough to deter violators.

[…]

Capt. Chris Benavides, with the San Antonio Police Department, said the sidewalk riding ban will begin with a 30-day grace period in which violators will be issued warnings about the new rule rather than citations. On Aug. 1, Benavides said, police officers will begin issuing citations in situations that call for them.

“The entire month of July will be used as an educational piece where we will issue written or verbal warnings for riding on the sidewalk,” he said.

“What we hope for is that the riders are mindful … that we’re able to work together to share that road and they’re aware of their surroundings.”

Gotta say, I appreciate San Antonio acting as beta testers for Houston’s eventual scooter experience. For sure, scooters – like bicycles – don’t belong on sidewalks, where they can endanger pedestrians. The enforcement issue can sort itself out; it’s my belief that plenty of scooter riders will now stay off the sidewalk just because it’s the law. As the story notes, there was a bill filed that would have banned scooters on sidewalks statewide, as well as capping their speed at 15 MPH (same as what the Houston commission recommended), and other things. This made it through the Senate but never got a hearing in the House. I feel like this should be a local issue, but at least this bill doesn’t appear to have done anything egregious. As with ridesharing, don’t be surprised to see this come up again in two years.

Biking and breweries

Actually, this makes perfect sense.

This started off in the gray area between a good idea and a bad one. Two years ago, Jason Buhlman and Brian Kondrach got about 30 of their friends together for an afternoon of two-wheel tourism, in which they aimed to bike between as many breweries as possible in one day.

“At the time, there were only eight breweries that we could do inside the Loop,” Kondrach explains to a group of prospective riders on a sunny Saturday afternoon in late June. “It took us 14 hours. We were way too drunk. It was a mess.”

“A mess,” echoes Buhlman, who is standing just to the right of Kondrach, wearing a baseball T-shirt with the motto, “Wheels Down, Bottoms Up,” printed across his chest.

“So we put some rules on it,” Kondrach continues. “We made it so it was only 45 minutes at each stop – just one pint each, and then we move. And we added two breweries and did it again six month later.”

The ride was still fun. But much less … sloppy. And that’s when Buhlman and Kondrach realized that a curated version of this could potentially lay the groundwork for a business that could combine two of their loves: Craft beer and bicycles.

Then last May, their business, Tour de Brewery, was born. Rather than 10 breweries in an afternoon, they offer shorter tours in distinct pockets of the city, featuring about three breweries apiece.

[…]

Across Houston, breweries are becoming more bike-friendly. At Saint Arnold, a BCycle bike-share station opened earlier this Spring; there are plans to unveil one at 8th Wonder by the time the summer is through; and hopes of opening a third in Sawyer Yard, in close proximity to three breweries. And some of the city’s breweries are forming bike teams, and hosting bike crawls of their own. But as all this happens, it raises one big question: Should people hop on bikes after drinking?

“We’ve have people approach us and ask, ‘Why would you put a station at Saint Arnold or 8th Wonder?’” says Henry Morris, a spokesman at BCycle. “And the answer is, well, they have parking spaces. People drive there and drive back and they’re expected to be responsible. So if you take a bike share to a brewery and you have too much to drink, you should call an Uber home.”

That’s why the guys at Tour de Brewery emphasize that their outings are about discovering new beers.

“If you’re going to bike and drink, it’s important to remember that it’s a tasting experience,” says Jessica Green, director of development for Bike Houston, which is on track to add 50 miles of bike lanes to the city this year, including a stretch that will help cyclists close the gap between 8th Wonder and Saint Arnold. “Have one beer, and then ride. And the riding will help you metabolize the alcohol. But don’t drink more than a beer or two an hour, which is when you get into getting drunk.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these breweries are neighborhood institutions as much as anything else, in the spirit of the old corner bar. They draw their customers mostly from their nearby surroundings, not the wider region. Also, and especially for the breweries in the inner core, parking is at a premium. That’s a combination that incentivizes biking, on both sides. For sure, as the story notes, you should imbibe carefully if you do this. Honestly, though, the same would be true if you drove. So plan your route, pick your spots, maybe give Tour de Brewery a look, and enjoy your afternoon.

Yeah, scooters are going to come to Houston

The question is when, not if.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

[E]ven though there’s a growing interest in alternate forms of transportation, you still can’t rent a scooter in Houston.

Maria Irshad, assistant director of the City of Houston’s Parking Division, said Houston’s infrastructure has had a lot to do with the lack of scooters. But with the development of new on-street bike lanes that may be starting to change.

“One thing Houston is doing, we’re taking a really cautious and deliberate approach to developing a program,” said Irshad. “So we’re watching what other cities do because this is a rapidly evolving form of transportation.”

[…]

Joe Deshotel is Texas Community Affairs Director for Lime, one of the companies hoping to do business here in Houston. He said they’re also trying to make up for past mistakes.

“When you have two or three companies that are professional and have the proper scaled operations for the city, then you really get the kind of program that you want,” said Deshotel.

As for Houston’s timetable for allowing scooter companies to operate, Irshad said there will be more public engagement later this summer. City Council will then have to draft an ordinance regulating scooters, and Irshad estimates we could see them on the streets next year.

I’m a bit embarrassed to realize that there’s been a letter to the Mayor with dockless mobility recommendations since October. It’s a fairly high level outline of proposed requirements for private operators of bikes and scooters and whatever else, and there’s an impressive list of stakeholders that helped put it together. Really, I’m just glad we’re not following the Uber/Lyft model of invade first and ask questions later, which happened in some other cities with scooters as well.

I’ve expressed doubts about how scooters would work here in Houston, as they don’t fit on sidewalks and seem to be in peril from motor vehicles on the road. That dockless mobility recommendations document partially addresses this in that they state that scooter speeds should be capped at 15 MPH. That’s basically what a pedal-powered bike does, for those of us in the non-Tour de France division, and in that case they’d be fine on the off-road bike paths. That still seems limited to me, and it occurs to me that maybe I just think there’s more danger on the streets for a scooter than for a bike. I’m sure we don’t have enough data to assess that, but maybe one of these days there will be a decent study. In the meantime, I concede that I may be overreacting. I look forward to those engagement sessions and to see what decisions Houston makes about scooters.

Uber’s vision for the future

I feel like this is more wishcasting than real planning. Still, some of it may happen, and if nothing else we should be aware of what it’s all about.

When Uber envisions the future, it not only wants to put urban air taxis and drones in the skies. It also wants to transform how people navigate cities and how they live in them.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the San Francisco-based tech company wants to turn today’s cities that are getting denser and more polluted into “cities of the future that are fundamentally green and built for people.” To do that, he said, cities need transportation options that range from cruising down the street on an electric scooter to commuting through the skies.

“We want not just to be the Amazon of transportation but also the Google of transportation,” he said.

One of the first places Uber wants that to play out is Dallas-Fort Worth: It’s one of the first three markets for Uber Elevate, an initiative to launch the aerial ride-sharing service.

[…]

Uber gave a progress report and made splashy announcements at its third annual Uber Elevate Summit. It announced the first international market for the air service: Melbourne, Australia. It revealed that Uber Eats is working with McDonald’s to deliver Big Macs and fries by drone. It touted the progress of six aviation companies that are designing the aircraft. And it dived into specifics, such as economics, safety and FAA-required certification. It showed off its different modes of transportation, from its new self-driving Volvo SUV to electric scooters.

Through splashy presentations and showroom floor exhibits, Uber and its business partners tried to build the case that urban air taxi service is not a far-fetched idea but one that’s coming to fruition.

Uber went public in May. The tech giant’s growth has been fueled by venture capital, but it is spending billions of dollars and has yet to turn a profit. That hasn’t slowed development of its aerial ride-sharing service. It expects to start flight demonstrations next year and launch commercial service in a few cities, including Dallas, in 2023. Eventually, it wants the urban air taxis to become autonomous.

Mark Moore, Uber’s director of engineering for vehicle systems, said he’s already seen some of the aircraft take flight. He declined to name the companies that are flight testing, saying they’re keeping quiet for competitive reasons.

“It’s incredibly impressive,” he said. “They’re nothing like helicopters.”

We first heard of Uber Elevate back in 2017. They had a goal at that time of rolling out a demo in 2020, so as far as their public pronouncements go, they’re on schedule. There re other operators in this space, one at Texas A&M that is working on flying motorcycles, with a test date of 2020, and a different kind of flying vehicle, based on battery power, that is farther away from reality. Beyond those two, we’ll just have to take Uber at their word that there are other companies testing prototypes now.

The challenges are not just technical.

Moore said the next four years will focus on demonstrations that “prove out the safety, noise and performance” of the vehicles.

In 2023, he said it will launch to paying customers in Dallas — but with a limited number of vehicles and limited operations. He said he expects five aircraft per manufacturer at launch. That will grow to about 50 per manufacturer in 2024. But, he said, some manufacturers may not be ready in time.

In Dallas, the average trip is expected to be 20 to 25 miles, Moore said.

But one of the major questions is whether Uber can win over regulators and the public. Unlike other tech innovations, early adopters won’t just use a new kind of technology. They’ll fly in public, so that affects the people driving, walking or living on the ground below, whether or not they choose to opt in.

[…]

“Uber is obsessed with making these vehicles as quiet as possible,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s acting administrator, Dan Elwell, said he’s enthusiastic about urban air taxis but acknowledged that their development gives him more to worry about.

“Everyone is riveted by this, especially me, but then I put on my FAA regulator hat and I got a whole new bucket of stuff to lose sleep over,” he said in a speech at the summit. “What you see is the ideal way to transporting people across cities. When I look at it, I see car-sized vehicles with multiple rotors hanging over dense urban populations.”

All that was discussed in the first Uber Elevate link I posted above. Noise is also a concern – much is done to abate highway noise for residences, but the only way to do that for aerial vehicles is to make the vehicles themselves as quiet as possible. How t ameliorate the “death from above” concerns, well, that’s going to be a key question. All this from a company that burns money faster than 747s burn jet fuel. I’ll keep an eye on this, but don’t be surprised if the next major update is that the timelines have been pushed back.

Another look at scooter mayhem

From the Associated Press:

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

As stand-up electric scooters have rolled into more than 100 cities worldwide, many of the people riding them are ending up in the emergency room with serious injuries. Others have been killed. There are no comprehensive statistics available but a rough count by The Associated Press of media reports turned up at least 11 electric scooter rider deaths in the U.S. since the beginning of 2018. Nine were on rented scooters and two on ones the victims owned.

With summer fast approaching, the numbers will undoubtedly grow as more riders take to the streets. Despite the risks, demand for the two-wheeled scooters continues to soar, popularized by companies like Lime and Bird. In the U.S. alone, riders took 38.5 million trips on rentable scooters in 2018, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

[..]

Data on injuries or fatalities linked to scooters is hard to come by because the industry is so new. In Austin, Texas, public health officials working with the Centers for Disease Control counted 192 scooter-related injuries in three months in 2018. Nearly half were head injuries, including 15% that were traumatic brain injuries like concussions and bleeding of the brain. Less than 1% of the injured riders wore a helmet.

Bird, one of the largest scooter-sharing companies, dropped its scooters on the streets of Santa Monica, California, in September 2017 and within a few months riders were showing up at the emergency room, according to Dr. Tarak Trivedi, an emergency room physician in Los Angeles and co-author of one of the first peer-reviewed studies of scooter injuries. The following year, Trivedi and his colleagues counted 249 scooter injuries, and more than 40% were head injuries. Just 4% were wearing a helmet.

“I don’t think our roads are ready for this,” Trivedi said.

Bird and Lime both recommend that riders wear helmets, and they’ve handed out tens of thousands for free. But last year, Bird successfully fought a California proposal that would have required helmets for adults, maintaining that scooters should follow the same laws as electric bikes that don’t require adult helmets.

Bird says helmet requirements are off-putting to riders and could lead to fewer scooters on the road. Almost counterintuitively, the company argues that it’s better to have more riders than less because it forces drivers to pay attention to them.

“There’s a safety in numbers effect, where the motorists know that there’s people out on the street, so they act accordingly,” said Paul Steely White, director of safety policy and advocacy for Bird.

Getting people to wear helmets is a challenge. Riders don’t want exposure to lice or germs that could be found in shared helmets, and many make a spontaneous decision to scoot while they’re already out and about.

You can add this to the Austin study, which is now beginning to paint a consistent picture. Here’s the problem as I see it: Scooters on sidewalks are a danger to pedestrians, while scooters on roads are a danger to themselves, with worse potential consequences. They’re all right on bike paths and bike trails, as long as those are not used by pedestrians, but there aren’t enough of them to support the scooter business model. I don’t know how they’re supposed to fit into an urban street system. There’s something to be said for the “safety in numbers” effect – the same is known to be true for bicycles – but how many scooters will there need to be to get to that effect, and how long might that take? I just hope that we can figure out some better strategies to minimize the damage until we get there.

(That definitely means making helmets mandatory. I mean, come on.)

Metro and the Mayor’s race

This went pretty much as one would expect.

Delivering his fourth State of Mobility speech to Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston Chapter, Mayor Sylvester Turner echoed previous years, noting the region needs more options than solo driving if it is to handle the deluge of new residents in the future.

“We need to find ways to move people efficiently and quickly, and that means more than just building more highways,” Turner said.

While touching on the many improvements needed in the region, including deepening the Houston Ship Channel to keep the Port of Houston an attractive call for ships and support of a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas, much of the session was spent on the upcoming transit plans.

“We cannot continue to operate a transportation system as if it was 30 years ago,” Turner said.

[…]

“Given the congestion we have now… we must build out our system,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

Patman and others said most of the summer will be spent selling voters on the plan, though officials believe it has strong support.

“Of course, we will have some naysayers,” Patman said.

That includes some of Turner’s opponents in the mayoral race, which also will be on the November ballot. Bill King and Tony Buzbee both have said Houston has invested too much in public transit to the detriment of suburban commuters.

Asked during a June 10 Kingwood forum on transportation solutions, King said “it is not transit or light rail” while congratulating Metro on its commuter bus efforts.

Buzbee focused his remarks at the event on the need to improve neighborhood streets and synchronizing traffic lights for better efficiency. He called the Metro plan too focused on a small portion of the city.

“It is more about career politicians telling us public transit is good,” Buzbee said.

So, Bill King cares more about people driving in from The Woodlands than anything else, while Buzbee demonstrates zero grasp of the topic at hand. As for Dwight Boykins, he wasn’t quoted in the story, probably because he wasn’t at the event. Insert shrug emoji here.

Look, Metro has come a long way since the dark days of Frank Wilson and David Wolff. There are more HOV lanes, a vastly improved bus system, more light rail, good ridership numbers, and forward-thinking planning from the Board and the Chair. All that is at risk, not just with the MetroNext plan on the ballot but also Mayor’s race. All the good work being done goes right out the window if a transit-hostile or transit-ignorant Mayor gets elected. Sylvester Turner is the only choice if you care about transit. It’s not even close.

In defense of the I-45 expansion

Jeff Balke rises in opposition to the anti-I-45-expansion clamor.

We have seen comments on social media and rantings about how our city should be more bike friendly and pedestrian safe. How we need commuter rail, better bus service and rapid transit like expanded METROrail. In fact, we could not agree more. We have written time and time again that we must be open to alternate methods of transportation if we are going to grow intelligently as a city over the next two decades.

However, one area where differ quite sharply is the idea that we should do nothing. That the only way to solve the problem is to force motorists to change their habits, give up their cars, and one way to do that is to make traffic worse.

Here is our biggest issue with that: size. Houston is massive. This isn’t New York or Chicago or even Los Angeles. We are 600-square miles inside the city limits alone. Add the entire region and it’s more than double that. Our centers of commerce are all over the place from downtown skyscrapers to medical center hospitals to office towers in the Galleria to warehouses and refineries on the east end to tech companies well north.

It would be virtually impossible to entirely give up a vehicle unless you were able and willing to live close to your job, and that isn’t often possible thanks to our lack of zoning and the far flung nature of our region.

We have seen many suggest projects like these are for the benefit of suburbanites who use our city resources and then retreat to the comfort of their neighborhoods outside the city limits while we are left to deal with the fallout. That is not abnormal. Most big cities deal with the very same issues. Space comes at a premium and not everyone can afford to live inside the Loop.

More importantly, there are things like hurricane evacuations and emergency vehicle movement that must be considered. The fact is we cannot solve our traffic problems in Houston with one thing. Rail, biking, walking, urban planning, wider freeways, none of those things will save us alone. We need a massive, concerted effort with a lot of growing pains to re-build the city the way it probably should have been designed 100 years ago.

Jeff didn’t single out anyone who argued for doing nothing, but as I was one who examined that idea, I’ll give him equal time. My post was more about considering the alternate universe in which we spent the same amount of money on transit as we do on highways – spoiler alert, we could have much better and more expansive transit if we did that – but that’s not how this works. And I did suggest that doing nothing might be better than going forward with this plan, so I’ll own that. Jeff is right, we can’t improve mobility on the wildest dreams of transit alone, and I-45 is a critical evacuation route for hurricanes, so there is a critical need to improve it. (And hope like hell we don’t need that evacuation route while it’s all torn up.) For sure, we will need multiple modes of travel to improve mobility in Houston. I just wish, and I’m sure Jeff agrees with me, that we put some more emphasis on, and resources into, those other modes.

What if we didn’t expand I-45?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy (bike) trails to you

Trails connecting to trails. It’s a beautiful thing.

With roughly four miles of new trail in the neighborhood along Sims Bayou and a electric transmission route, officials in southern Houston’s Five Corners District as well as park advocates said they expect a lot more running.

“It really is a milestone and I think it is going to open up all kinds of possibilities for us to complete the system and demonstrate that people will use these corridors,” said Beth White, CEO of Houston Parks Board, the nonprofit spearheading the Bayou Greenways 2020 effort.

The trail runs north of Sims Bayou for about 1.5 miles, parallel to Hiram Clarke Road to West Airport. The path, open to walkers, runners and bicyclists, runs along a CenterPoint Energy utility easement. A host of destinations, including three schools, and hundreds of single family homes are within 1,500 feet of the trail, the first in the city to run along a utility easement.

Perhaps more critically than what is along the route, is the connection it provides to the trail system along Sims Bayou, recently spruced up and expanded with nearly 2.6-mile segment featuring vibrant murals. The new portion runs from Heatherbrook Drive to Buffalo Speedway. Though unconnected to the rest of the trail system, the two southwest Houston segments offer some relief from on-road riding, and greatly expand the number of people who can easily and safely travel to Townwood Park near Orem and Buffalo Speedway without a car.

[…]

Getting even this short segment of utility easement trail open, however, has been a long journey. City and CenterPoint officials celebrated an agreement in 2014 that untied some of the thorny issues related to public use of the utility right of way. The deal even became the template for state legislation passed in 2017 allowing counties and municipalities to partner with companies for combined use trails along power line routes.

“In a built-up city you have to take advantage of every corridor that you can,” White said.

Then slight delays set in for the first trail, from working out the final language of cooperative agreements to planning and design approvals. By 2017, the connection still was just a blueprint.

The slow-going hasn’t dampened expectations for more connections, more miles of bayou and utility easement trails, providing more people easy access to trails, White said. The parks board remains on pace for its 2020 goal of 150 miles of trail along seven Houston bayous, she said.

I hadn’t realized it from the story, but looking at the map made me realize this is a connection to the Sim Bayou trail, using the utility easement so it’s still off the street. The original bill that allowed for bike trails on CenterPoint rights of way was passed in 2013, and the great thing about it is that these easements generally run north-south, while the bayous go more or less east-west. That would allow for a real connected network and a whole lot more of the region that could be safely biked off-road. I hope we hear about a lot more of these getting finished up soon.

Here comes the driverless pizza delivery vehicle

Gotta admit, this has me scratching my head.

No Noids were harmed in the writing of this post

There goes another high schooler’s job: Domino’s Pizza Inc. plans to test unmanned pizza delivery in Houston later this year.

The chain, known as a technology leader in the restaurant industry, is teaming up with Nuro, a Bay Area robotics startup run by a pair of former Google employees. To start, Domino’s will send food to customers from a single store in the Texas city using one of Nuro’s fully autonomous vehicles.

The test is scheduled to start late this year and could expand in 2020, according to the companies. Domino’s has more than 6,000 restaurants in the U.S. and, with the labor market tight, the company is experiencing a driver shortage, with as many as 10,000 open positions nationwide, according to Kevin Vasconi, the company’s chief information officer.

The Nuro partnership will help the chain determine if autonomous vehicles are a way for its restaurants to keep up with demand during busy times when drivers are in short supply, he said.

“Consumers are ready for this,” Vasconi said. “I have been surprised by the overall positive reaction people have had to an autonomous vehicle delivery experience.”

[…]

Domino’s previously tested autonomous delivery vehicles in a partnership with Ford Motor Co. The pilot began in 2017 to see how customers would react to stepping out of their homes to fetch pizza from a locked warming chamber in the vehicle. That program has ended.

Pizza Hut, a chain that made its name with sit-down dining and is now trying to catch up with rivals on delivery, teamed up with Toyota last year to work toward driverless delivery.

Nuro is the same outfit doing the Kroger autonomous grocery delivery testing. See here and here for background on that. I wish there were some information on how the earlier pilot went (I didn’t find anything in a cursory search). With groceries, you get a cheaper delivery price if you go out and lug them into your place on your own. Will that entice people to do the same for pizza? I guess you’d save the cost of a tip, if nothing else. I haven’t ordered from Domino’s in a million years, so I’m the wrong person to react to this news. How do you feel about this? TechCrunch has more.

Metro’s driverless shuttle finally debuts

Nice to have good weather.

TSU’s Tiger Walk isn’t just for pedestrians anymore.

The region’s first autonomous shuttle to carry passengers debuted Wednesday along the tree-lined walk, the center of the Texas Southern University campus. Operated by Metropolitan Transit Authority, the vehicle will ferry students and others along the Tiger Walk as part of a pilot program to gauge how driverless vehicles can solve some of the region’s travel obstacles.

“We have to plan for the future,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said, noting some Houstonians need reliable local transit to link them to major bus and rail stops, a hurdle in transit circles referred to as “first-mile/last-mile.”

“Autonomous vehicle technology has the ability to serve those needs and many more,” Patman said, standing in front of the blue shuttle. “Once these things become commonplace, we can have these autonomous vehicles lined up.”

[…]

The vehicle for now uses an established route with three stops around campus, relying on sensors to detect when it is safe to proceed and avoid others along the Tiger Walk, which is a closed part of Wheeler Avenue across the college. The Tiger Walk intersects with the Columbia Tap Trail.

The second phase, likely in 2020, will extend the shuttle’s route to the Purple Line rail stop near TDECU Stadium and the University of Houston campus. That will be the first foray into automobile traffic for the shuttle, along a stretch of Cleburne Street. The third phase of the trial will extend the shuttle service to the Eastwood Transit Center at Interstate 45 and Lockwood.

See here, here, and here for the background. I approve of this kind of usage, with the shuttle acting as a connector between the campus and (right now) a bike trail and (eventually) a light rail stop. That’s how you make it easier for people to not use their cars for short trips. I’ll be very interested to see how many people use this thing, and how many of them come from or go to other non-car modes of travel.

Still filled with dread about I-45

Anyone got a paper bag I can breathe into?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Independence Heights and I-45

Sometimes, with everything else that’s going on in the world, I forget that the I-45 expansion is still out there, looming like a battleship in the harbor. But there it is, and we can’t not worry about it.

For Tanya Debose, Independence Heights is rich with history. Before it became a Houston neighborhood, it was a city, one of the oldest — if not the very first — Texas cities to be founded by African Americans. Debose’s great-grandfather became one of the city’s original homeowners in 1924; now, as executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council, Debose imagines tours taking visitors to sites such as Harris County’s first African American city hall.

So when the Texas Department of Transportation released an analysis of how the I-45 expansion would impact historical resources, Debose scrolled through the document looking for what the agency had to say about the project’s impact on Independence Heights, where dozens of homes and a storied church lay in the right-of-way.

Independence Heights is bounded on the south and east by I-610 and I-45, respectively, and while the 2,309-page report mentioned that the community could potentially be impacted by the project, it did not address specific effects.

The omission could impact how the neighborhood, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is compensated for any historical losses.

[…]

Independence Heights has been impacted by highway construction before. In the early 1960s, Loop 610 was built through the neighborhood, with 330 residences demolished to make way for the highway, according to Lone Star Legal Aid.

Since then, Independence Heights has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places, a preservation program that also has roots in highway construction.

Here is the draft Historical Resources Survey Report, which is 2309 pages long, so you may be excused for not having read all the way through it. The revised design schematics for I-45 are here, so take a look at what may be in store near where you live. It’s coming, and we better be ready for it.

Metro still talking how to get to Hobby

At some point, we gotta make a final call.

Transit and city officials took turns Tuesday trading barbs over the best way to route light rail from Houston’s East End to Hobby Airport.

In a sometimes-testy back and forth, District I Councilman Robert Gallegos and Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman sparred over various scenarios to route rail from the Green Line’s terminus along Harrisburg near 75th to Hobby.

“You are destroying the East End and I am letting you know now I will not support it,” Gallegos said of one plan that would use 75th Street. “If you are going to do this, do it right.”

Patman later fired back that transit officials had gone out of their way to address the concerns, but some compromise was required.

“I have tried to draw them and it has blown up in my face,” Patman said of efforts to find alternatives.

See here and here for the background. There are a lot of considerations to balance, including how much property would need to be taken, what ridership numbers might look like, and how to connect to employment centers. There’s no solution that satisfies everyone, but Metro wants the best plan it can get that will not lose votes for the overall project. I wish them luck.

As rail in the East End remains under review, officials cooled on proposed plans for light rail along Washington Avenue to Heights. The proposal, advocated by the Houston Downtown Management District, would have extended rail service from Houston’s municipal courthouse near Memorial Parkway and Houston Avenue farther west, mostly via Washington Avenue.

The idea generated wide support among transit advocates, but Patman said it may be too late to add more rail to the plan voters will approve.

“We haven’t had a chance to fully vet it and I am not comfortable going to the community with something that is not fully vetted,” Patman said, noting some people have raised concerns.

I hope it’s not too late. This idea makes a lot of sense. Honestly, the biggest problem may be that just ending the line at Heights Boulevard will leave people clamoring to extend it further, and that may be too much to do right now. I’m okay with putting this off for a little while if what we can get in the end is the maximal extension that can be done. Table this for now if we must, but by all means get back to it ASAP.

DART to study driverless buses

We’ll see what this means in practice.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit has joined a national association of transit and transportation agencies to explore how autonomous buses could shuttle people around cities in the future.

The Automated Bus Consortium plans to research driverless buses and run pilot projects with “full-sized, full-speed buses” to better understand how they could be rolled out nationwide, according to a news release. The group will study the safety of the buses and how they could reduce congestion. By working together, the transit agencies aim to lower the cost of testing and share best practices, the news release said.

The group is made up of about a dozen members, including the transit agencies of Los Angeles County and Atlanta and the Michigan Department of Transportation. The group was created by Los Angeles-based engineering firm AECOM.

For the first 12 months, the consortium plans to study the feasibility of the autonomous buses, according to the news release. It will buy an initial fleet of 75 to 100 full-sized, automated buses, which it will test in 2021 or 2022 on routes chosen by the transit and transportation agencies.

DART does not have a timetable for testing autonomous buses, spokesman Gordon Shattles said. He said joining the group is another way that DART can keep up with emerging transportation technologies.

This feels more like pie in the sky noodling than a practical roadmap, but whatever. There’s value in looking for current applications of existing technology, and seeing where that can take you. I lean towards that timeline for testing being overly optimistic, but we’ll see. Ask me again in 2021 or so.

Where hyperloops are headed

Henry Grabar looks at trends in hyperloop development and notes an interesting trend.

Last year, I checked in with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a company that hopes to pioneer terrestrial transit at the speed of sound using a cadre of far-flung engineers collaborating on Google Docs. It has been two-plus years since HTT’s co-founder told Wired, “We’ve solved all the technical issues,” but the team has yet to test a full-scale prototype. That hasn’t stopped HTT from getting government funding from Ohio to the Chinese hinterland.

Something interesting is happening as HTT and other firms move forward with their plans: The Hyperloop is starting to look more familiar than space-age. The HTT car, for example, is not the bobsled-size carriage imagined by Musk, but closer to the size of a needle-nosed Shinkansen train car. That design choice brings the idea of Hyperloop infrastructure away from Musk’s initial vision of a nimble, easy-to-build pipeline and closer to the costly, time-consuming right-of-way whose pursuit characterizes the construction of roads and railways.

The vehicle isn’t the only part of the Hyperloop that’s coming to resemble more traditional transportation options.

Recently, I sat down with Josh Geigel, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Virgin Hyperloop One, the more serious Hyperloop venture. What Hyperloop One has going for it is an actual test track where reporters have been invited to watch a pod achieve speeds of 240 miles per hour.

But that’s just the technology. As a transportation solution, Hyperloop One is starting to lay down some parameters on what will and won’t work. (It may be the influence of CEO Jay Walder, who ran transit systems in Hong Kong and New York.) Carrying small numbers of people, as the initial concept aimed to do? “I can’t imagine a system moving less than 4,000–5,000 people an hour and paying for itself,” Geigel said. Routes stretching across the country? The sweet spot, said Geigel, would be under 200 miles.

When Geigel outlined how his tubes would load up 16,000 passengers per hour on its first projected route near Mumbai—a carrying capacity approaching the Tokyo–Osaka Shinkansen, the world’s busiest high-speed train line—he explained that the system would launch “convoys” of “pods” that would leave the hub together and wind up in different destinations.

In short, Hyperloop One’s project is beginning to sound a bit like a high-speed rail line. Not coincidentally, Geigel is now estimating the system costing 60 to 70 percent the cost of high-speed rail—not, as Musk once projected, 10 percent or less.

Yeah, that’s not what I was expecting, either. Still pretty cool, but not what I was envisioning. How much that may change the competitive landscape for high speed rail versus hyperloop, I couldn’t say. Clearly, we’re going to need one of these things to finish getting built so we can do a real comparison. Hurry up, y’all.

In case you thought scooters were not enough of a menace

How do pogo sticks grab you?

San Franciscans may soon be able to bounce their way around town, if a Swedish-based mobility company has its way.

Earlier this month, start-up company Cangoroo announced plans to deploy hundreds of pogo sticks in select cities to directly compete with electric scooters as a transportation option.

Cangoroo officials said they plan to first launch their pogo sticks in the Swedish cities of Malmo and Stockholm sometime this summer.

After that, they would deploy the sticks in both London and San Francisco.

[…]

[Cangoroo CEO and co-founder Adam] Mikkelsen said Cangoroo would be ready to work with city officials, including the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, on regulations and safety before launching the product.

“We don’t have specific details about this company but we will review any new transportation service to ensure compliance with existing laws,” SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said in a statement.

My sister-in-law, when she was a kid, managed to bite through her lower lip as the result of a pogo stick mishap. Maybe pogo stick technology has advanced in the last thirty or forty years, but still. Good luck with those safety regulations, is what I’m saying. What do you think is the over/under on when these things show up in Austin?

Look, up in the Skai

The flying cars we’ve long been promised may not look like cars.

A transportation company is betting its sleek new hydrogen-powered electric flying vehicles will someday serve as taxis, cargo carriers and ambulances of the sky, but experts say they will have to clear a number of regulatory hurdles before being approved for takeoff years in the future.

With six rotors on the roof and seats inside for five people, a passenger model of the Skai (pronounced “sky”) unveiled Wednesday near Los Angeles resembles an oversized drone crossed with a luxury SUV.

Like a drone, the vehicle from Alaka’i Technologies takes off and lands vertically. It’s one of many similar electric flying crafts in production, including prototypes from Boeing and Airbus that made successful test flights this year, according to Vertical Flight Society, an industry group.

Most are powered by batteries, which can add a lot of weight. The Skai instead uses very light hydrogen fuel cells to run its rotors, giving it a range of 400 miles (644 kilometers) and the capacity to carry 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) in people or freight, the company says.

“We just couldn’t get to the point where we could have enough batteries to get to the payload that we knew we needed,” CEO Stephan Hanvey said of the choice to switch to hydrogen power.

Alaka’i says it’s planning a test flight near its Massachusetts headquarters.

It would be flown by an on-board pilot using a pair of joysticks, but the technology exists to eventually fly it remotely and even autonomously, Hanvey said.

As the story notes, we’re probably a decade or so out from seeing these things in operation. That’s assuming all the engineering issues get worked out, and the regulatory matters get settled. I’m always fascinated by stuff like this, but a bit of skepticism is warranted. It needs to be viable, it needs to be practical, and it needs to be safe to use in populated areas. Good luck with all that.

The driverless shuttle at TSU is ready to roll

I spotted this on Twitter earlier this week.

You may have heard the term autonomous vehicles. These are vehicles that can guide themselves down the road on their own. This technology is being adapted for public transportation. A 2017 statute approved the operation of autonomous vehicles on Texas roads.

METRO has partnered with Texas Southern University for a pilot program in which an autonomous vehicle will operate on a 1-mile, closed loop route along TSU’s Tiger Walk beginning Wednesday, June 5.

To ensure customer safety, an attendant will be on board the shuttle during this pilot program but will not actually be operating it.

The all-electric vehicle seats 6 people, with standing room for 6 others and will operate on weekdays only during these times:

• 8:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
• 5 – 8:00 p.m.

How to Ride
The vehicle is intended for usage by TSU students, faculty, staff and campus guests. Rides are free, with riders required to show a current TSU ID or valid METRO Q® Fare Card.

All riders must be 18 years of age or older. All mobility devices (including wheelchairs) and service animals are welcome. But please note: the vehicle doesn’t have wheelchair securements.

See here and here for the background. According to a subsequent press release I received, there will be a ribbon-cutting at the Leonard H.O. Spearman Technology Building at 2 PM, if you want to be there. This is later than originally promised, but better late than never. I can’t be there for the grand opening, so I need to take a day off from work later on and make my way over to TSU so I can try this thing for myself. I’ll report back when I do.

UPDATE: This event has been postponed due to the weather. No word yet on when the makeup date will be.

The timeline for driverless cars

We know they’re coming, but how long it takes them to get here really matters.

For Elon Musk, the driverless car is always right around the corner. At an investor day event last month focused on Tesla’s autonomous driving technology, the CEO predicted that his company would have a million cars on the road next year with self-driving hardware “at a reliability level that we would consider that no one needs to pay attention.” That means Level 5 autonomy, per the Society of Automotive Engineers, or a vehicle that can travel on any road at any time without human intervention. It’s a level of technological advancement I once compared to the Batmobile.

Musk has made these kinds of claims before. In 2015 he predicted that Teslas would have “complete autonomy” by 2017 and a regulatory green light a year later. In 2016 he said that a Tesla would be able to drive itself from Los Angeles to New York by 2017, a feat that still hasn’t happened. In 2017 he said people would be able to safely sleep in their fully autonomous Teslas in about two years. The future is now, but napping in the driver’s seat of a moving vehicle remains extremely dangerous.

In the past, Musk’s bold predictions have been met with A-for-effort enthusiasm and a smattering of polite skepticism. But the response this time has been different. People have less patience for PR campaigns masquerading as engineering timelines. “That’s bullshit,” says Sam Abuelsamid, a research analyst for Navigant, a consulting firm that ranks companies on the viability of their autonomous vehicle plans. “At best, they may be able to create a system that functions under certain limited scenarios. It will not be fully autonomous in 2020 or anytime in the next several years.”

What’s changed? Self-driving cars—and their associated building blocks such as machine learning, computer vision, and LIDAR—continue to improve, but executives other than Musk have been admitting that reports of their impending deployment were greatly exaggerated. Ford CEO Jim Hackett said last month that the industry had “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles.” Chris Urmson, the former leader of Google’s self-driving car project, once hoped that his son wouldn’t need a driver’s license because driverless cars would be so plentiful by 2020. Now the CEO of the self-driving startup Aurora, Urmson says that driverless cars will be slowly integrated onto our roads “over the next 30 to 50 years.” That’s nearly as long as it took computers to evolve from IBM’s first mainframe to Apple’s first iPhone.

I touched on this recently in the context of ridesharing companies and their existential future, which is based in part on self-driving technology. I’ll say again, the prospect of driverless cars has an effect on current policy debates. If you believe they will be in common usage in the next five to ten years, then it’s reasonable to expect that they will begin having a significant effect on driving habits and traffic patterns in the short term. In particular, this argues for a change in approach to how we invest in infrastructure and mass transit. As that link suggests, why spend on rail projects when you can build souped up HOV lanes that will accommodate autonomous buses that travel at 80 to 100 MPH?

But if we’re on a thirty to fifty year horizon, then basically nothing has changed and we should proceed as if driverless cars are no more a part of the landscape than the flying cars we were once promised. Fifty years is forever in infrastructure terms. Hell, thirty years is a very long time. All but six MLB stadia are thirty years old or less, and many of the new stadia replaced other facilities that were between 30 and 40 years old. I’ve lived in Houston for 31 years, and every single highway in this town has been substantially rebuilt during that time frame, some more than once. The same argument about whether or not to invest in light rail should apply to the planned mammoth rebuild of I-45, which last I checked isn’t geared towards high-speed robot buses. I say nothing is worth delaying or deferring for a possible future with a timeline that may be measured in decades. I guarantee this issue will come up when the Metro referendum is officially put on the ballot. I’m happy to discuss how we should integrate autonomous vehicles into our traffic and transit planning, but let’s keep this in mind.

HOV for Uptown BRT update

Checking in on this long-time project.

Uptown’s bet on buses is getting a lift from TxDOT in a first-of-its-kind venture that has state highway dollars going to a mass transit project along one of Houston’s most clogged freeways.

Come next year, buses traveling in their own lanes will ascend to the middle of the West Loop 610 for traffic-light trips between Post Oak and Metro’s Northwest Transit Center via a busway that will swing over the southbound freeway and then parallel to it.

Making all the pieces fit along what by many measures is the busiest freeway segment in the state has taken some engineering creativity, as well as a change in policy for the Texas Department of Transportation that many critics say remains too focused on being the “highway department” in a Houston area that is increasingly urbanizing.

“It is a tremendous recognition of how mobility in this region is changing,” said Tom Lambert, CEO of Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The $58 million project, which is becoming more visible along the Loop by the day, adds two lanes in each direction specifically for buses. Though other projects around Houston have benefited buses in the past three decades, such as the Katy Managed Lanes along Interstate 10, this will be the first Houston-area transit-only project using highway money since TxDOT was created in 1991 by merging the aviation and highway departments with the Texas Motor Vehicle Commission.

Just for some background, it was six years ago that City Council voted to approve the Uptown TIRZ plan that included the BRT lane construction on Post Oak as well as the HOV construction on 610. A bit more than a year later came the no-light-rail-conversion conditions, which still chap my rear end. The Post Oak construction started in 2015. If we’re really on track to have everything done by next year (woo hoo!), then among other things that would prove how prescient Uptown Management District President and CEO John Breeding was when he told me in a 2010 interview that it would take five to ten years to finish the project. Based on that timeline, we’re more or less on schedule. Have patience, y’all.

Still working on the light rail options for MetroNEXT

The most interesting part of this discussion of where a proposed extension of the Green and/or Purple lines to Hobby Airport may go is unfortunately not on the drawing board at this time.

Speaking before the METRO board, District I City Council Member Robert Gallegos said he’s heard a lot of objections to one proposal that would take the train down 75th Street. He said he worries a rail line would interfere with a big park improvement project.

“We have a beautiful green space, Mason Park,” said Gallegos. “We have a master plan. I’ve met with community three times. They’ve had input on what they’d like to see at that park.”

Other proposals for the Hobby line would put the train on major thoroughfares like Broadway Street and Telephone Road. Board Chairman Carrin Patman said the challenge is finding the most efficient route along existing streets.

“The time to get to airports matters for people using it for that purpose,” said Patman. “The more zigs and zags you have the more time is added.”

At their May meeting, board members also viewed a proposal for light rail on Washington Avenue between downtown and Heights Boulevard, but that plan was presented only for discussion.

The Chron story has some more details.

The long-range plan already includes a 0.2-mile extension of the Green and Purple Lines from their western end in the Theater District of downtown to the Houston Municipal Courthouse. The new proposal, suggested by officials with the Houston Downtown Management District, would continue that extension further, likely by taking the line along Houston Avenue and then west on Washington Avenue. Additional stops would be at Sawyer and Studemont.

“I would be really curious what the ridership models will show,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

Officials stressed the proposal is being evaluated and is not part of the plan, yet.

“We’re looking at it,” Patman said.

With few specifics outlined, many residents of the nearby Sixth Ward, bordered by Buffalo Bayou and Washington Avenue, and the Heights cheered the possibility.

See here for the background. Dug Begley of the Chron tweeted what a Washington extension might look like. I like the idea, but I agree with the commenters who ask why stop there. I proposed what was then a stand-alone and now would be an extension of the existing Green and Purple lines all the way to the Galleria way back in 2009. None of this is remotely feasible now, and there would be engineering challenges even if it were politically and financially doable, but it would be high-quality transit through a part of town that could easily support it, and would offer multiple connections to high frequency bus lines as well as to the Uptown BRT line, which in turn could get you to the high speed rail terminal at 290 and 610. The idea is free if you ever decide to use it, Metro.

How secure is the future of ridesharing?

Just a couple of recent stories that got me thinking. Item One:

Uber’s business model isn’t all there: While there’s optimism about elements of the core business, the company lost more than $3 billion on operations in 2018, revenue growth slowed between Q3 and Q4, and there’s a possibility that the company might continue to offer big incentive payments to drivers for quite some time and never reach profitability.

But one detail in particular caught my eye. About 24 percent of Uber’s bookings—all the money that customers pay through the app and in cash, including driver earnings—occur in just five cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and São Paulo.

[…]

This vulnerability casts a new light on, for example, Uber’s 2015 humiliation of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, when the company fought off the City Council’s proposed vehicle cap. That was a warning to other politicians, and a show of power, but it was also a vital business move. The company’s filing also mentions, as a cautionary tale, what happened afterward: Just three years later, the City Council approved minimum rates for drivers and a cap on the number of new ride-hail vehicles. The company also mentions its regulatory challenges in London and San Francisco.

During Uber’s previous skirmishes with cities, I always thought the company’s huge reach and light footprint (very few local employees or inventory) gave them a lot of leverage. They could afford to play hardball with Austin, Texas, one week and San Antonio the next, with little impact on a business distributed so widely.

The filing reveals that certain cities actually have a pretty strong negotiating position. So do the company’s drivers in those places. And its rivals. What appears to be a global, decentralized platform is in fact highly dependent on the whims of a few local politicians, drivers’ groups, and taxi cab unions that can engineer big chokepoints for the company—as London Mayor Sadiq Khan must have done when he revoked the company’s license in 2017. (They got it back last year.)

Another example of the company’s vulnerability by concentration: 15 percent of the bookings pot comes from trips that begin or end at an airport. That might not be so surprising, since airports tend to be cab trips even for car commuters, and being a long way from town, produce high fares. But airports offer a preview of the changing municipal economics that could be coming for Uber. The airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, made more money in 2017 from parking fees than it did from American Airlines. Parking accounted for more than a quarter of the airport’s revenue. As passengers shift to ride-hailing, airport revenues are declining. Airports are an easy place where public authorities can implement a fee on Uber rides to make up for the lost revenue.

That same dynamic is set to play out in cities as well. Congestion pricing, which will soon exist in two of Uber’s biggest markets (New York and London), is just the first way that governments are exerting more fine-grained control over how cities raise money from automobile use.

So Uber continues to burn through money with no end in sight, and is particularly vulnerable to the regulatory whims of a handful of large cities. Hold that thought as we look at Item Two:

Lyft’s initial public offering headache just got worse.

Bloomberg reported Wednesday that following Lyft’s initial public offering, which didn’t exactly go super well, the company is now looking at two separate lawsuits from its investors. At the time the company went public last month, Lyft’s shares were initially priced at $72. But shortly after, its share price began to fall—and kept falling—with the company at $58.36 as of Thursday.

According to Bloomberg, investors allege in their suits—both of which were filed in state court in San Francisco—that Lyft’s claim to 39 percent market share was maybe not quite in line with reality.

The suits also reportedly faulted the company for failing to alert investors ahead of its recent electric bike recall, yet another problem facing the company at present (aside, of course, from ongoing controversy over Lyft’s labor practices).

Lyft, which also loses money hand over fist, had a disappointing IPO and is dealing with shareholder lawsuits and problems with their bike-related subsidiaries. They would also face the same potential regulatory challenges as Uber.

My thought in reading these stories is that the future of urban transportation is increasingly being sold as ridesharing powered by autonomous vehicles. We should be wary about investing in big transit projects because 10 or 20 years from now we’re all going to be taking robot-powered Ubers. But what if Uber and Lyft fail as companies before we get there? What if a combination of technology challenges, cash flow problems, regulatory roadblocks, and competition from other interests stop them in their tracks? Maybe light rail will be seen as as white elephant in twenty or thirty years, but right now our existing light rail lines move tens of thousands of people around every day; in a different political climate, that number would be much higher.

If Uber and Lyft do fail, it is very likely that some other companies will spring up to fill in the gap. Driverless car technology is moving forward relentlessly, regardless of what its ultimate applications may be. Autonomous vehicles are going to be in the transit mix going forward, in some form and with some corporations behind it. I just remain wary of the bold predictions, and I remain convinced that we need to continue investing in things that we already know will work.

Bullet train dodges more bullets

More good news for Texas Central.

The Dallas-Houston high-speed rail project dodged a bullet this week when lawmakers hashing out the state budget released their decision to strike a provision that could have delayed the project.

A committee of Texas House and Senate members ditched language that would have prevented the Texas Department of Transportation from coordinating with a high-speed rail company so its project could cross state highways until a court definitively affirms the company’s ability to use eminent domain with an unappealable ruling. That provision, called a budget “rider,” could have delayed the project for several years, according to Patrick McShan, an attorney for an opposition group and more than 100 landowners along the train’s planned route.

Project developer Texas Central Partners LLC lauded the legislative move. The company has been battling legislative efforts that it says could cripple the project and impose unfair requirements that other similar projects, like natural gas pipelines, don’t have.

“Today’s action ensures the project continues to be treated like any other major infrastructure project in Texas,” said Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs.

[…]

The Senate added the rider in its proposed 2020-21 budget, but the House’s spending plan didn’t include the language. So that was one of several differences that a conference committee of members from both chambers are hashing out behind closed doors. Once that process is done, both chambers will vote on the revised budget.

Houston Democrat state Rep. Armando Walle, one of the members of the conference committee, said the rider was removed out of fear that a lawmaker could argue the language changes general law, something that House rules don’t allow the budget to do. If such an argument were successful, that could have threatened the entire spending plan.

“In order to not have the whole appropriations bill go down, I think that was the safest way to address the issue,” Walle said.

See here for some background. In the time it’s taken you to read this post, the odds of anything bad happening to Texas Central have decreased. I’ve said this twice before, and so far I’ve been wrong each time, but I’ll take my chances and say again that if Texas Central can make it through this session without anything bad happening to them, they ought to be in good shape going forward. I mean, at some point they’re going to have full-blown construction happening, right? Anyway, one more session mostly over, one less thing for Texas Central to worry about.