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June 9th, 2014:

Christof Spieler: On reimagining the bus network

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

At METRO, we’re proposing to redesign every bus route in Houston. We call it Reimagining, and I think that it will be one of the most important improvements in the modern history of Houston transit — alongside the park-and-ride system, the light rail lines, and the creation of METRO itself.

We started this process because our riders told us that the current bus system isn’t working well. We saw this in comments we got at public meetings, and we saw it in a 20% drop in ridership from 1999 to 2012 — a drop that occurred even as the amount of service METRO operates increased. I can say from personal experience that our riders are right. I ride the bus often; for several years, before I got a new job on the rail line, it was my daily commute. Too many of our routes are infrequent and circuitous. Too many connections are unreliable and out-of-the-way. The system as a whole is too hard to understand. Weekend and evening service is minimal.

We knew we could do better. But until we engaged a team of local and international consultants, assembled a task force of stakeholders representing the people who use the system, and worked through the process of designing a new system from scratch based on all the data we have of where people live, where people work, and where people are riding transit today, we had not idea of how much better.

It turns out that we can do a lot better.

We can make frequent service available to more people. Frequency is the most important component of high-quality transit. If a bus comes every 15 minutes, you can just show up at the stop without consulting a schedule. You don’t have to plan your life around the bus; it is there for you when you need it. Today, 534,000 people live within 1/2 mile of 7-day-a-week frequent bus service; under the reimagined system 1,126,000 do. Of our 207,000 current riders, 99,000 will see their trips upgraded from infrequent service to frequent service. Within that zone of frequent service, they have access to 998,000 jobs, to colleges and universities, to retail centers, to parks, to places of worship, and to medical care.

We can dramatically increase weekend service. If someone depends on transit, they need to get to the store on Sunday, not just to work on Monday, and the people who work at that store need to get to work on Sunday. Today, METRO operates only 40% as much local bus service on Sunday as on a weekday. 20 of METRO’s local routes don’t run at all on Sunday. In the reimagined system, every route will run seven days a week, and the bus will come as often on Sunday morning as it does at midday on a weekday. 10,000 current riders who have no Sunday service today will get it.

We can make it easier to get around a multicentric city. Today, nearly every bus route goes Downtown, but most of our riders are trying to go elsewhere. We’re forcing them to go Downtown first to transfer to go wherever they want to go. That takes them out of their way and slows them down. The reimagined system will create a grid of east-west and north-south routes, creating connections all over the city and serving major employment centers from Greenspoint to Westchase. Today, someone going from the Heights to Memorial city has to first go east to Downtown to catch a bus west. In the new system, they ride west to the Northwest Transit Center and connect there. That will reduce an 89 minute trip to 50 minutes, saving that rider 6 hours over a five day workweek.

We can make the system easier to understand and to use. METRO’s current routes are accidents of history. Some date back to old streetcar routes, tweaked over time but never rethought. The results are confusing. Shepherd, for example, is served by the 26/27 south of 20th, the 50 from 20th to Crosstimbers, the 44 from Crosstimbers to Tidwell, nothing from Tidwell to Parker, and the 66 north of Parker, (plus a few other overlapping routes.) The new system is designed to make routes as logical as possible. On Shepherd, for example, there will be one route that runs the entire length of the street. That also makes it easier to name routes in a way that describes where they actually go.

We can make trips faster. By making routes more frequent to reduce wait times and by making trips more direct with the grid, we can make trips a lot faster. The team looked at 30 locations all over the network and analyzed all possible trips between them. 58% will be at least 10 minutes faster with the new network; 28% will be at least 20 minutes faster. We can also make trips more reliable, reducing by 30% how often our buses cross freight rail lines at grade.

We can provide service tailored to neighborhoods. A grid of fixed route buses works will in areas like Southwest Houston, with high population density, well spaced and connected arterial streets, and destinations that line up along those streets. In the Northeast, though, we have lower densities, a fractured street network, and scattered destinations. Today, we serve those areas with meandering low-frequency routes. We have the budget to keep doing that, but we think we can serve these areas better with flex zones: buses that circle a neighborhood and deviate on request to where ever someone wants to get picked up or go. These connect to fixed routes at transit centers, connecting those residents into the entire network.

This plan is about making people’s everyday lives better. It will give our current riders faster, more reliable, more frequent service. It will also make transit a useful option for more people; we project it will grow ridership by 20%. It will do all this with minimal negative impacts — 93% of current riders will be able catch a bus at the same stop they do today, and 99.5% within 1/4 mile of their current stop — and within current resources. We think the reimagined network plan will also build a foundation for the future: the system structure makes it easy to extend routes, increase frequency, add more lines to the grid, and overlay express service as the region continues to grow.

Now that we’ve unveiled this draft plan, it’s time for our riders and everyone else who lives in the METRO service area to have their say. Nobody knows a neighborhood as well as the people who live or work there, so we know we’ll get some good ideas for improvements. We’re holding public meetings across the area, and setting up information tables at transit centers to get input from our riders, but the easiest way to see the plan and send us your comments is to go to transitsystemreimagining.com.

Why, people have asked me, didn’t METRO do this long ago? Because change is hard. Few cities ever undertake a blank sheet reexamination of their bus systems; they tend to focus on route expansions, and big capital projects. Few transit agency staffs are willing to let go the systems they know well, few boards are willing undertake something so complicated, and few elected officials want to take the inevitable pushback that comes with any change to a system that people depend on every day. METRO has always spent a lot on money on operating the local bus network, but in the past agency leadership never paid much attention to it. This board knows that the bus system is at the core of what we do, and once we got the agency back on a sound financial footing, we committed to making sure we run the best system we can. If you think this plan does that, we need your support to make it happen.

Christof Spieler, PE, LEED AP is a METRO board member and chair of the Strategic Planning Committee, Director of Planning at Morris Architects, and Senior Lecturer at the Rice School of Architecture. He relies on METRO for most of his daily trips.

Ed. note: See also Christof’s article in Offcite.

A tale of two perspectives

The Democratic perspective.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Much has been written about the importance of groups like suburban women and Hispanics in the 2014 Texas governor’s race.

But Democrat Wendy Davis said this week in her first interview of the campaign focused on LGBT issues that another, less-talked-about demographic—LGBT voters—could also be critical to her chances of upsetting Republican Greg Abbott in November.

“It’s been tremendously important, and it will continue to be,” Davis said of the LGBT community. “I’ve received some widespread support both through volunteer hours and through donations to the campaign, and what I see on the ground as I’m traveling around the state is an excitement and enthusiasm for this race by members of the LGBT community in a way that probably hasn’t presented itself for a long time. I think they understand and see that they have someone who’s a champion for them, and I’m really proud and feel privileged to have that support.”

[…]

Davis said although her gubernatorial campaign has focused primarily on issues like education that affect everyone, she’ll continue to speak out in support of LGBT rights—whether or not pro-equality stances are politically advantageous in a statewide race in Texas.

“I think Texas, just as the rest of the country, has evolved on this issue, but I want to be very clear that this is my position and perspective, and whether Texas has caught up to believing that’s a favorable position to have or not, I’m proud to hold it,” Davis said.

Even if Davis wins, it’s questionable whether she could accomplish much legislatively for the LGBT community in a Republican-controlled statehouse. But she said her voice would be important in setting the tone on LGBT issues in next year’s biennial session.

“Leadership and vision are a terribly important part of what it means to sit in the governor’s office in this state,” Davis said. “I certainly as a legislator have experienced what it’s like to see our current governor set the tone for what our work will look like, and I think that setting a tone of inclusion and respect on this issue, as well as many others that have been absent in our conversation in the state, is very important.”

Of course, Davis would also be in a position to veto any anti-LGBT legislation, and she said she could help halt the state’s legal defense of Texas’ same-sex marriage ban, which has been led by Abbott.

“As we saw happen in a couple other states recently, when the courts have favorable decisions in that regard, their attorneys general first decided they would not oppose that, unlike our attorney general, and then secondly the governors also very proudly stepped in and allowed those decisions to stand,” Davis said. “That I think is going to be something that will likely face the person who is elected in November.”

Asked whether she would, as governor, issue an executive order protecting state government employees against anti-LGBT job discrimination, Davis said she was unsure of the legal ramifications. The executive branch is diffuse in Texas, and experts say such an order likely would apply only to employees who are directly under the governor’s supervision.

“If indeed the power exists or rests with the governor to do that, I would most certainly and proudly sponsor that, sign that,” Davis said.

It’s true that there are still a few holdouts among Democrats on this, but they’re a small and shrinking minority in the caucus. The overwhelming majority of Democratic candidates and officeholders reflect the beliefs of the party faithful and a growing majority of Americans, who support equal rights for the LGBT community. This is as it should be.

And then we have the Republican perspective.

At the Republican state convention in Fort Worth, GOP leadership has been trying to cattle-prod the base in the direction of immigration reform, with mixed success. But there are other issues in the platform that fall under the general question of party “inclusivity,” issues that are stuck in neutral—perhaps none so much as the question of how the party should treat gay people.

Earlier this year, a federal court nixed the state’s anti-gay marriage amendment—and while that’s being appealed, it increasingly feels like gay marriage will become a reality across the country soon. Republicans in bluer states have acquiesced to that reality. But for a considerable number of people in Texas, the idea of homosexuality remains absolutely terrifying. And the state’s biggest names and brightest stars are still resolutely on their side.

On Thursday night, hundreds of convention attendees gathered in the ballroom of the swanky Omni hotel, at the heart of the action, at an event sponsored by the Conservative Republicans of Texas, one of the state’s largest Republican PACs. The emcee for the night was Houston megachurch Pastor Steve Riggle, who’s been active in opposing Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance and famously compared making Christians sell products for gay weddings to forcing a Jewish baker to make a swastika cake.

[…]

Enter Ted Cruz, the night’s first speaker, who Riggle called “the next president of the United States.” These are Cruz’s people, and they love him as they would Moses. Earlier, Riggle joked that each of the night’s long list of speakers would get five minutes, but Cruz could talk as long as he wanted. He was greeted by riotous applause.

Cruz lived up to their expectations. “From the dawn of time, marriage has been the foundation of our civilization. The basic building block, going back to the Garden, where God said it was not good for man to be alone. And so God made Adam a companion from his own rib so they might live together and raise children up in the world.”

Heterosexual marriage was the bedrock of the natural order. “There was a time that that was not considered to be a controversial statement,” he said. “There was a time that a duck hunter in Louisiana wouldn’t be threatened with losing his TV show for saying something like that.”

Marriage is “under assault in a way that is pervasive and unrelenting,” and the assault was emanating, first, from President Obama. Three things needed to be done to beat him back, Cruz said. Prayer was one. Legislation to protect state laws on marriage was another. And the third was to win elections, including the presidential election in 2016.

Are you scared yet? Doesn’t really matter what you’re scared of, as long as you’re scared of something, Ted Cruz is happy. There are a few confused young gay Republicans out there who think that somehow they will be able to overcome Ted Cruz and make their party officially not homophobic. I’ll just note that fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, there are still plenty of Republicans that oppose it. If these young gay Republicans do eventually succeed in their quest, I’m confident in saying it won’t be while they’re young. Maybe they can work in immigration reform, too, while they’re at it. They’ve got plenty of time to get it all done, right?

We’ve got slogans, yes we do

We’ve also got No Limits, apparently.

Alex Tonelli, a 2011 graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a San Francisco entrepreneur, has never visited Houston. But he has impressions: Extreme heat, strip clubs, NASA and an oil-dominated economy.

His friends who have moved here have positive things to say, Tonelli added. But for the most part, among his peers, “Houston is not a commonly mentioned place where people consider moving.”

Well aware of such attitudes, the Greater Houston Partnership on Tuesday launched – to fanfare that included a three-minute video featuring everything from an astronaut bouncing on the moon to musicians rocking at the local House of Blues – a new image campaign designed to highlight some of the city’s amenities, from parks and museums to restaurants and the Galleria.

The campaign slogan, “Houston: The City With No Limits” also was unveiled to civic leaders and media gathered at NRG Stadium.

The image campaign will include television spots that reflect Houston’s upbeat spirit, diversity of opportunity and fun atmosphere, said Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership.

TV spots will run locally this year, and Harvey said the campaign will go worldwide next year.

Around $12 million will be spent over the next five or six years, either on marketing the city through the image campaign or targeting degreed young professionals. Starting next year the Greater Houston Partnership will visit college campuses, Harvey said.

Many outsiders consider Houston a good place to find work, but may not think of it as a great place to live, said Jamey Rootes, president of the Houston Texans and chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership’s image campaign.

Misperceptions about the quality of life in Houston impede the city’s ability to attract new companies and young professional talent, Rootes said. He wouldn’t name names or give dollar amounts, but he said specific opportunities have been lost in recent years.

The “City With No Limits” website is here; scroll down a bit to see the aforementioned video. It’s pretty good, with catchy music and visuals. If you didn’t already know it was about Houston, you might not clue into it until towards the end when there are clips of the four pro teams plus the Shell Houston Open. That may be the intended effect, to have it sort of sneak up on you. Anyway, I thought the hipness campaign from last year was pretty decent, but that was a Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau effort, whereas this is the Greater Houston Partnership aiming at getting people to move here. I’m not sure if the two different themes will build on each other or if they and they myriad others we’ve had over the years are just a confusing jumble. I wonder if anyone has any data to track the effect of these campaigns, some of which have surely been more successful than others. Be that as it may, if nothing else we’re more confident about the product we’re selling these days; all that love about our food scene has to have helped. Swamplot and CultureMap have more.

Almost nobody is following Rick Perry’s lead in defying the Prison Rape Elimination Act

Emily dePrang has the story.

Back in March, Gov. Rick Perry sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declaring his intent to defy a federal law designed to reduce sexual assault in prison. It was a very Perry letter, slinging around terms like “ridiculous” and “unacceptable” and “costly regulatory mess.” But perhaps the most Perry part was his vow to “encourage my fellow governors to follow suit.”

Now, saying a law is wrong for Texas is one thing. Saying governors of other states—you know, just anywhere—should defy the Prison Rape Elimination Act suggests Perry believes the law is wrong in general principle, not specific application. Or else he’s just grandstanding. (A Google search for “Rick Perry” and “grandstanding” returns 173,000 results.) Either way, Perry appears to have had limited success. May 15 was the deadline for governors either to certify their state prisons were compliant or promise to become so, and the Associated Press reported last week that just four other states joined Perry in saying they planned not to try: Idaho, Indiana, Utah and Arizona.

“Perry is sort of out on his own on this one, which is fantastic news,” says Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, who works for an advocacy group that fights prison sexual assault, Just Detention International.

Lerner-Kinglake is one of many observers who can’t work out why Perry picked this particular battle in the first place. The problems with the law that Perry lists are relatively minor, though he describes them as insurmountable—and some don’t actually exist. Lerner-Kinglake says Perry’s letter contains “so many basic errors. It’s really kind of simple stuff that anyone who took a minute to look at the standards would know.”

For example, Perry writes that governors must certify their state’s compliance “under threat of criminal penalties,” but that’s not true. The only enforcement mechanism is that a state can lose 5 percent of its federal corrections grant money. Perry also says the act’s compliance dates are “impossible to meet,” but governors can—and at least 10 did—give assurance letters by the May 15 deadline promising that they were actively working toward compliance.

Perry also seems to think the new requirements apply to “local jails” and would be too expensive for small counties to implement, but they wouldn’t have to, since the act covers only facilities under Perry’s operational control.

The further you get into the letter’s nitty-gritty, the stranger Perry’s defiance seems.

[…]

Perhaps the most understandable of Perry’s objections is that while the Prison Rape Elimination Act requires the state to keep prisoners under 18 separate from adults, Texas considers 17-year-olds to be adults, so the two standards conflict. But none of the other nine states that incarcerate 17-year-olds as adults appear to have defied the law, and the separation requirement doesn’t kick in for three years. Just in March, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee held a hearing on raising Texas’ adult prosecution age from 17 to 18. Yet this issue and the alleged gender discrimination problem were the sticking points Perry reiterated in a May 16 letter that was much milder in tone.

Present in the first letter but missing from the second was Perry’s claim that Texas already effectively prevented sexual assault in its prisons. Actually, Texas reports almost four times as many prisoner sexual assaults as the national average, according to a federally-funded study from the JFA Institute. Elizabeth Henneke, an attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, warned at a House hearing that noncompliance could leave the state open to litigation and pointed out that one ex-inmate, who says he was raped at the Travis County Jail, is already suing for $2 million, alleging officials “displayed deliberate indifference to his safety by failing to comply with PREA.”

See here and here for the background. I’m as shocked as you are that Rick Perry could be ill-informed and off base on a political issue. What is annoying about this is that Perry himself is completely shielded from any accountability for his unilateral action. Texas stands to lose some grant money as a result of this, but Perry will be out of office by the time that happens, and I think it’s fair to say that few if any GOP Presidential primary voters will be swayed against him by this. Our next Governor can undo Perry’s action, but it still seems to me that there ought to be a way to make him feel some responsibility for defying a federal law. For once, Rick Perry should not be able to get away with doing whatever the hell he feels like doing regardless of the consequences for others.