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congestion

Zipcars and parking

Let’s sort this out.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TxDOT accelerates I-45 construction timeline

Gird your loins.

For many long-suffering Houston drivers, a solution to the infuriating bottleneck on Interstate 45 through downtown is likely something they thought they wouldn’t live to see.

More than a decade ago, a plan pitched to solve the problem – moving the interstate to the east side of downtown and demolishing the Pierce Elevated – appeared so preposterous they thought it would never get off the ground. It was too big of a change, too ambitious, too expensive and too disruptive.

Turns out it was also too good to pass up, leading to efforts by local transportation officials to now include the first phases of the project in an updated, expanded statewide transportation plan. So the project some only dreamed about is, at least on paper, a reality, pending the allocation of more than $900 million for the reconstruction of two major interstate intersections in the downtown area.

Though these first steps are incremental compared to the overall plan, officials say they are important and send the clear message: The I-45 freeway is relocating and the elevated portion along Pierce will be abandoned and maybe demolished within the next dozen years.

“We are turning the key and starting the engine and moving,” said Quincy Allen, district director for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.

Work on revamping the freeway intersections is slated for late 2020 or early 2021, years ahead of when state officials first predicted when they unveiled their construction plans in 2014.

For the Houston region, it might be the most significant freeway project in anyone’s lifetime. That’s because it reconfigures the three interstates that form the backbone of how Houstonians move – I-45, I-69 and Interstate 10 – in the one area where they are so closely tangled and reliant on drivers making transitions from one to another as smooth as possible.

No doubt, those interchanges are the worst, but let’s not forget that a big part of the reason why is because one or both of the intersecting highways has narrowed or will soon narrow down from three or more lanes to two at these points of intersection. I guess the massive reconstruction plan will address that in some fashion, but that’s the problem in a nutshell, and there’s only so much you can do to engineer it away. And oh Lord, the mess even this preliminary construction is going to make. My head hurts just thinking about it.

One more thing:

The first part of the project, along I-69 near Spur 527, aims to lessen the congestion caused where traffic from the Greenway Plaza area flows into a bottleneck where I-69 drops to three lanes, with two others for the spur. It would add another lane, and widen the already depressed freeway through Montrose and Midtown.

The project’s next part takes that even further, burying the portion of I-69 that now is elevated east of Spur 527. Local streets that now flow beneath the freeway will stay where they are, but cross atop it.

“I expect us to continue to progress and go in a counter-clockwise motion around downtown,” Allen said.

Based on projections, when the entire downtown ring is completed and I-45 is in place parallel to I-69, the amount of congestion drivers endure will be cut in half, based on 2040 traffic estimates.

[…]

Eventually, the proposal is to widen I-45 from downtown to the Sam Houston Tollway in Greenspoint. Combined with the downtown efforts, it is estimated to cost at or near $7 billion.

Remember when we spent nearly $3 billion to widen I-10 from 610 to whatever point out west we stopped? On Friday, I had to be at the Lifetime Fitness in the Town and Country mall area at I-10 and Beltway 8 by 6 PM. I hit I-10 at Heights at 5:20. As I approached 610, there was one of those TxDOT marquees telling me the travel time to the Sam Houston Tollway was 29 minutes. That turned out to be a bit of an overestimate, but not by much. How many years do you think we’ll have to enjoy the lessened congestion this is promising to bring us before we’re right back to where we were before we began?

Conroe is growing up

Good for them.

Conroe native Jay Ross Martin says he never imagined his rural hometown in the piney woods developing bustling retail centers, a thriving housing market and a population that’s more than doubled in the past 20 years.

The change has catapulted Conroe, the county seat of Montgomery County, into a “new world,” says Martin, a former city councilman.

Increasingly, that new world is more like the city than the country.

This year the U.S. Census Bureau made it official by designating an area surrounding Conroe and The Woodlands as a “large urbanized transit area.” The designation, based on its population exceeding 200,000, makes the area eligible for federal transportation dollars.

Thirty-six new large urbanized areas were added to the Census Bureau list this year. Conroe-The Woodlands was the only new designation in the Houston region.

The population within the area, which extends north to Willis and south to Spring in unincorporated Montgomery County along the Interstate 45 corridor, increased to 240,000 in 2010, nearly triple the 1990 level.

“It’s an indication of large growth between The Woodlands and Conroe,” said Bruce Tough, president of The Woodlands Township, the governing body of The Woodlands. With the new Exxon Mobil campus planned just south of The Woodlands, he added, “we’re going to see a lot of energy and manufacturing companies coming to Montgomery County contributing to unprecedented growth. People better put on their seat belt.”

[…]

Traffic congestion is the most serious downside of growth, residents said.

More people now commute to work into The Woodlands than out of it, community leaders said. Travel time on major roads, such as Woodlands Parkway and Research Forest, has increased dramatically.

“I avoid going to the mall like the plague,” said Woodlands resident Tom Sadlowski. “It’s so crowded.”

Obligatory Yogi Berra Quote: “No one goes there any more. It’s too crowded.”

I think the issue of traffic congestion for these fast-growing areas is bigger than its boosters would like to admit, and merits more attention than these three little paragraphs at the end of an otherwise hagiographic story. Suburban development, with its one-way-in-and-out-of-subdivisions design and complete dependence on freeway access, is a recipe for congestion. There’s no easy way to deal with it, either – adding lanes only does you so much good if everyone is headed for the same on-ramp. I hope now that the Conroe/Woodlands large urbanized transit area is eligible for federal transportation dollars that they will give some thought to regional transportation solutions – buses, and if they’re really smart, commuter rail. That Houston-Galveston rail line that’s been in the works forever would be even more valuable as a Conroe-Galveston rail line. If they’re not thinking about it now, I guarantee they’ll regret it later.

For the money, I sure hope so

News flash: Travel times on the newly-expanded Katy Freeway have improved.

The expansion of 23 miles of roadway along the Katy was completed in October. The $2.8 billion project took five years to complete and added 18 lanes between the Loop and Texas 6. Each direction has four main lanes, three frontage road lanes and two toll lanes.

TTI researchers compared commutes before construction began in June 2003 to average speed and travel times in November 2008.

Darrell Borchardt, a TTI senior research engineer, concluded that morning commutes for eastbound travelers between Barker Cypress and the West Loop had improved by 13 minutes and 12 minutes in the evening.

For westbound drivers, the morning time savings was just four minutes, but jumped to 18 minutes during the evening. Midday travel times also showed improvements of six minutes headed eastbound and five minutes westbound.

Well, of course travel times have improved. I’ve experienced that myself on the rare occasions when I have the need to use the Katy west of the loop. (Inside the loop, not so much.) That was never in doubt. The question has always been whether it would be worth the cost – and here I’m not just talking about the much more than initially advertised dollar amount of $2.8 billion, I’m also talking about the cost of the environmental impact and the opportunity cost of not including room for a commuter rail line in the future – and how sustainable this is. The pre-construction Katy Freeway once had adequate throughput, too. How long will it be before the old familiar complaints about rush hour traffic begin anew?

One more thing:

“Opening up the Katy Freeway has been a tremendously effective way to strengthen our economy and improve our quality of life,” U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, credited with advancing the expansion project, said in a statement. “It’s given us more time on the job and more time with our families.”

Yes, you might even say that all that government spending has had a stimulative effect on the local economy. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

We’ll always have bottlenecks

Andrew Burleson points out an ugly fact.

Has anyone else noticed that traffic on I-10 is still not great?

I have a ‘reverse’ commute on I-10 every day. Before the expansion traffic was fine inside the loop outbound in the morning, slow outside the loop. Inbound in the evening it was slow outside the loop, fine inside, except near the 10-45 interchange.

Now things are much smoother outbound, no delay at all. Inbound, however, is a nightmare. Traffic comes to nearly a complete stop approaching the 10-45 interchange, and is usually very slow all the way back to Shepherd / Durham.

Observing the ‘regular’ commuters across the median, things are of course worse. In the mornings the backup to get onto the loop or through the 10-45 interchange is insane, it’s bad in the evenings as well.

The reason for this is pretty simple. The interchange from I-10 to I-45 is one lane for each direction. It’s the exit to I-45 south, which is the way into downtown and points south like the Medical Center (via 288) and Greenway Plaza (via 59), that’s the biggest mess, and with more traffic being brought in thanks to the out expansion of the freeway, the bottleneck is that much worse at this point. I can confirm Andrew’s observation, because one way I have to get to work after I drop the girls off at preschool is I-10 to I-45 to SH-288. In theory, it’s the fastest way for me to get to where I work by the Astrodome, even though it’s a longer-distance drive. But just about every day as I approach I-10 from Height Blvd, and I can see that traffic is basically at a crawl from before there onward, I say the hell with it, and I take my chances on the surface roads instead. It’s not really any faster, but I find it to be less stressful, and it offers me the chance to take an alternate route if it turns out there’s a real obstruction beyond just the sheer number of vehicles.

That’s kind of the dirty secret of all the highway construction we’ve had in Houston over the past two decades or so. We can spend billions of dollars to improve the drive out to the burbs – and we have! – but driving in town is still hell. This is just one example. The others I have in mind are no doubt familiar to you:

– US 59, northbound from roughly Kirby through downtown. It’s truly amazing just how unutterably horrible traffic is on that stretch of highway. I’ve been southbound on 59 coming from downtown a couple of times in recent weeks at around 2 PM on a weekday, and it’s all clogged up. I can only imagine how much worse it must be during rush hour; actually, I don’t have to imagine it, as I recently experienced it. The reason for this is simple: Five lanes of northbound traffic squeezes down into three lanes that go past the downtown spur, then into only two lanes as one peels off for the ramp to I-45. You do the math.

– I-45 on the Pierce Elevated, both directions. It’s the same problem as above: Multiple lanes of traffic coming in narrow down to two lanes at the interchange with 59 and 288. I’ve hammered on this point many times during the longstanding discussion about widening I-45 north of downtown, because as long as the Pierce is this way, you’ll just be pouring an ever bigger bucket of water into the same size funnel, with predictable results.

I should note that I-10 at the I-45 interchange also slims down to two lanes passing through, with one lane going to 45 South and another going into downtown via Smith Street, but unlike the other two examples above, I don’t think most of the traffic is continuing on – in my experience, things flow a lot better once you get past the exit for 45, despite the paucity of bandwidth. That may change some day, if there’s a reason for more traffic to keep going east at that point, but for now it’s not a big deal.

What all of these choke points have in common is that there’s not a damn thing we can do to add capacity. We can’t widen the Pierce Elevated. We can’t widen 59 entering downtown. Remember, we just spent a chunk of money renovating the Pierce, and redoing 59 in that area, which included putting all of it beneath street level. There’s simply no room to widen them. Because we can’t widen the Pierce, we can’t improve the interchange from I-10, for the same reason: no room to add capacity. If your daily routine includes any of these routes, it will never get any better for you. In all likelihood, it will just get worse. It’s no wonder to me that the plans for the I-69 part of the Trans Texas Corridor bypassed Houston altogether. Why would you want your long-haul truckers getting stuck in this mess when they don’t need to?

So what can we do about this? We can do what I’ve been agitating for over and over again around here, which is to create transportation alternatives for the inside-the-loop traveller that gets them where they need to be without the need for these hot spots. Yes, I’m talking about more light rail. In particular, I say my Kirby Drive route would do a lot to keep the 59/45 problems from getting even worse, since it would provide a north-south alternative for a very dense part of town. I proposed that route mostly because I think it’s the best answer to the increasing congestion on the surface roads, but let’s face it, one reason for that increasing congestion on the surface roads is because of people like me who are turning to them as alternate routes to the highways. It may not be an alternative for that guy who needs to get from Greenway to the Woodlands or Humble, but if it keeps a few Greenway to Heights commuters off the road he’s traveling, it still benefits him.

The bottom line is simply this: We cannot add capacity to the highways inside the Loop the way we can outside it. Just as we cannot add capacity to the surface roads, our only viable option for ameliorating the greater volume of traffic in Houston’s inner core is to add transit. I’ve made these points before, and I’ll keep making them because it’s everywhere you look. Either we add transit, or we’re doomed to lousy mobility in Houston’s densest areas.