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May 4th, 2013:

Saturday video break: Superman

Song #21 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Superman”, originally by The Clique and covered by REM. Here’s the original:

Add this to the long list of “I didn’t know this was a cover” songs. Of those, this might be my favorite previously-unknown original. Unlike a lot of them, which really needed a strong reinterpretation to become good songs, this one stands on its own. No wonder a group with songwriting chops like REM covered it:

How is there not an official video for that? Anyway, I find this version to be just a little better because the Clique singer had a slightly odd quality to his voice. But either one would do fine. What do you think?

Bike trails bill

A bill that will clear the way for bike trails to be built on CenterPoint utility rights of way in Harris County has passed both chambers in the Lege and now awaits Rick Perry’s signature.

“We are really, really pleased to have finally put the ball across the goal line,” [author Rep. Jim] Murphy said. “Now, we can start building these trails that are sorely needed at a fraction of the cost.”

Though CenterPoint spokeswoman Alicia Dixon said there are 923 miles of right of way in the county, including 410 in the city of Houston, Murphy said about 100 miles run under large transmission lines, which make the most sense for trails. Brad Parker, president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, which helped negotiate the compromise bill, said there are 142 such miles of local right of way available.

“If you think about our bayou system, they run west to east, not a whole lot of north-south,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “Using utility easements will allow us to vastly expand the opportunities for hike and bike trails and put some really critical connectors north-south.”

Houston voters last fall approved $100 million in bonds to expand the city’s trail system along bayous, to be combined with private and grant funds as the $205 million Bayou Greenway Initiative.

“What is so important about this is (that) these, along with the bayous, will serve as our bicycle interstates,” said cyclist Tom McCasland, director of the Harris County Housing Authority and former lobbyist for the Houston Parks Board. “For those people who don’t want us out on the busy roads, this is the answer. Let us ride these, and then we’ll jump to the side roads to get to our final destinations.”

Houston Parks Board Executive Director Roksan Okan-Vick said the bill would help put under-utilized land to good use. She said there is much to be done, however, from signing agreements with CenterPoint and determining which utility corridors make sense to funding the trails.

[…]

Clark Martinson, a cyclist and general manager of the Energy Corridor Management District, said his group’s plan for west Houston includes a north-south utility corridor west of Beltway 8 that would go from Brays Bayou all the way into Bear Creek Park.

“There’s an amazing number of people that are riding the existing trails. This just opens up safer routes for more neighborhoods,” Martinson said. “With these utility corridors, we’ll be able to tie in neighborhoods that are north of I-10. It gives closer-to-home, safe routes for families, too, not just the commuters.”

Tom Compson, of Bike Houston, said the extension of a trail along a north-south utility corridor that parallels the railroad tracks through Memorial Park and the Galleria would allow a safer route for Galleria bike commuters, keeping him from “taking my life in my hands” in the bike lane on Wesleyan.

“It’s very encouraging,” Compson said. “I don’t think you could find a bike advocate that would be opposed to it.”

The bill in question is HB200; see here and here for the background. The main question had been the amount of liability that CenterPoint would face for allowing this use of their rights-of-way, and in the end I think a reasonable balance was struck. There are a bunch of these throughout the county, and they’re all fairly wide swaths of green land on which the big transmission towers sit. It makes a whole lot of sense to use them for this purpose, and the timing is excellent after the passage of the bond issue last year. We’re still a ways away from anything actually getting built, but this is an important hurdle to clear, and I expect we’ll begin to see some plans and some activity in the next few months. Kudos to all for getting this done.

Auto dealers versus Tesla

I’m pretty sure the dealers will win this round, but I doubt they can win in the long run.

Texas auto dealers and their lobbyists in Austin are targeting legislation that would allow Tesla Motor Inc. to sell its all-electric vehicles directly to customers — upending a longstanding protection of dealers in state law.

After quickly compromising on or abandoning interest in other bills, dealers have dug in their heels after a Texas House committee this week advanced a bill that would permit the Silicon Valley-based company to circumvent a mandate that automakers sell new cars and trucks only through franchised dealers.

“They’re looking to take the franchised dealer out of the loop,” said April Ancira, vice president of operators for the Ancira Auto Group.

“What this does is it takes a lot of competitive pricing away,” she added. “You would only have the manufacturer, and there would be no dealers to compete, which is always better for the consumer in the end.”

[…]

Lobbyists with the Texas Automobile Dealers Associations concede that Tesla, which sells all-electric sedans, is a small niche player. But dealers fear even the narrowest of legislation could open the door to other manufacturers that would like to cut out the middleman.

“It’s an easy gateway for the manufacturers to start piling in,” Ancira said. “All of the sudden, you see the franchised dealer model disappearing, and that could spread into other arenas outside of the automotive industry.”

[…]

Citing an Austin Business Journal survey that found 86 percent of respondents support allowing Tesla to bypass dealerships, the company said the ability to sell directly to customers “is the best chance that a new electric car company has of succeeding.”

“For (TADA) to claim that restricting competition is in the best interests of the public is wrong and defies obvious common sense,” [Tesla CEO Elon] Musk said in a statement.

He has visited the Capitol several times recently, hoping to foster support for the legislation among state lawmakers.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said she has met with Musk and said he was persuasive. Still, “I’m really uncomfortable at this point,” she said. “I’m not convinced.”

I’ve compared Tesla to microbreweries, and it’s in the response from the dealers that the parallel becomes apparent. Tesla’s a small new player in a niche market that has a different business model that doesn’t fit with what the big established players do. More to the point, existing decades-old laws preserve the status quo and make it impossible for the new player to operate the way it wants to. The new guys go to the Legislature to get a bill passed that would carve an exception into the laws for their business, and the established guys go ballistic. My favorite part is where the established guys claim that by restricting the ways that consumers can buy the products they all make, they’re protecting the interests of the consumer. In the meantime, legislators who aren’t terribly familiar with the new business model but who hear a lot from the established guys about how dangerous this newfangled stuff is, are hesitant to take action. As they say, it’s deja vu all over again.

But here’s the thing. The new guys have tapped into something that a small but growing number of people want, and those people are passionate about it. They don’t accept that what they want is dangerous, and they have no desire to be “protected” from what they want. Over time, the new business model becomes more familiar, and more legislators come to understand and support it. It takes a few sessions, and a lot of grassroots organization, but eventually enough pressure builds up to force a way in for the newbies.

Obviously, I’m projecting for Tesla. I’ve not heard of a movement to replicate what the fans of craft beer have done as yet. But I think Tesla is smart enough to recognize that this is the best way forward for them, and like the microbreweries they benefit from the fact that the existing setup is archaic and stifling and makes no sense. It’s hard to defend the indefensible, and sooner or later something has to give. I don’t know how this will play out, but my money is on Tesla, or whoever succeeds them in the marketplace, eventually winning out. It’s just a matter of how long it takes.

The updated TRIP app is here

This came in last week:

If you’ve got a smart phone, we’ve just made riding our buses or trains a lot easier.

Today, we officially launched the METRO T.R.I.P. app – a tool that retrieves our schedule information, predicts real-time arrival of buses and helps you plan your trip on our system.

T.R.I.P. stands for”transit route information and planning” – and this free app can expertly guide you, giving you the info you need at your fingertips.

Here are some cool features:

  • Where Am I – This will use the GPS in your phone to find your location, then show you the buses, routes and rail lines closest to your location.
  • Next Transport – You’ll get real-time bus arrivals, as well as scheduled bus and train arrivals.
  • Plan Trip – This will find a route for your trip, based on arrival time or transfers and walking distance.

The app works on iPhones, Androids or Windows phones. You can scan a QR code here to download or go to the iTunes store, Google Play store or Windows store.

“This is version one,” Randy Frazier, vice president of IT and chief information officer, told the METRO board today. “We want to have continuous improvement. We’re going to take feedback and roll into it the things people most want.”

The original version of this came out in October, 2011, and the new version of it was supposed to have been out in late 2012, but that’s the way it goes sometimes with software. The real-time arrival information is the key, since waiting for the next bus is the most inefficient part of travel by transit. There’s nothing worse than just missing a bus. With this app, you should have no reason to. Check it out.

UIL moves to limit high school football practice time

They are doing it to limit the risk of concussion.

Established in 2001, the University Interscholastic League’s Medical Advisory Committee has done its best to be proactive and stay ahead on issues.

That’s been the case in requiring schools to have automated external defibrillators, dealing with concussions and establishing protocols.

On Sunday, the committee did just that, unanimously recommending a resolution to the UIL legislative council to limit in-season, full-contact practice. Each athlete would be limited to 90 minutes per week of game-speed tackling and blocking to the ground during the regular season and playoffs.

Every recommendation from the advisory committee has been approved by the executive council.

[…]

D.W. Rutledge, the executive director of the Texas High School Coaches Association and a committee member, said there could be pushback from coaches but little resistance once they understand the wording on the rule.

“I think with the vast majority of coaches, that fits into their practice schedules without them having to make any adjustments at all,” said Rutledge, who led Converse Judson to four state championships.

Not clear to me how much difference this will make if coaches are generally adhering to this schedule already, but it’s still a step in the right direction. State Rep. Eddie Lucio III has filed HB887 that would do basically the same thing; it was passed unanimously out of the Public Education committee on April 9 and is awaiting a slot on the House calendar. We sure have come a long way from the Bear Bryant days, haven’t we?