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Paying to park at Memorial Park

Let the pearl-clutching begin!

A quarter of the parking spaces at Memorial Park will be metered starting later this year, as the city and the park’s nonprofit operators scrape together dollars for maintenance amid an ambitious renovation.

Visitors who park near the golf clubhouse, the tennis center, the gymanisum and pool, and the new parking lots being completed near the renovated Eastern Glades area will need to pay $1 per three hours of parking.

The Memorial Park Conservancy expects the new meters to net $135,000 in the fiscal year that starts July 1, rising to $375,000 annually in about four years; both figures account for paying off the up-front cost of the meters.

Shellye Arnold, president of the nonprofit Memorial Park Conservancy that took over the park’s operations and began fundraising to implement a new master plan three years ago, said declining funding for public spaces has made parking revenues a key revenue source for parks across the country. It costs about $2 million a year to run Memorial Park, she said.

“There are two realities that make Memorial Park different than most other parks in Houston in regard to the needs of care and maintenance. One is its sheer size; at 1,500 acres, it’s nearly twice the size of (New York’s) Central Park,” she said. “Also, what we heard in the master planning was that Houstonians don’t want to commercialize this park. When you do that, it limits your ability to collect concessions and revenues to operate.”

In all, 572 of the nearly 2,250 spaces at the park will be metered. About 60 percent of the parking spots north of Memorial Drive will remain free; all the spots south of it will.

A buck for three hours, and 75% of the spaces will remain free. Seems like no big deal to me, but of course it’s got a certain former Mayoral candidate all indignant. Because free parking in Houston is our God-given Constitutional right, or something like that. This is a good idea, both as a funding source for the Conservancy, and also as a way to ensure that parking spaces open up on a regular basis. Honestly, they could have charged more – like, a buck for two hours, or two dollars for three hours – and it would still be a good deal. Complain if you want, but parking there, like parking downtown, is a scarce resource, and putting a (very modest) price on it just makes sense.

Zipcar parking arrangement approved

Good.

The City Council on Wednesday said companies can start immediately applying for agreements with the city that allow them to use on-street parking spaces so vehicles are visible and easily available to users. Companies such as Zipcar allow people to check out vehicles with a smartphone app and rent them by the day or hour. Drivers can then leave the vehicles in any designated spot.

Council members also approved continuing the current agreement with Zipcar for four on-street parking spots in Midtown.

With citywide rules in place, Mayor Sylvester Turner said he hopes more companies come forward to offer vehicles. A handful of companies — typically subsidiaries of larger well-known car manufacturers or car rental agencies — have entered the industry.

After delaying approval two weeks ago, council members approved the proposal by the city’s regulatory affairs department, with some changes. District I Councilman Robert Gallegos, sought more focus on using renewable-energy and fuel-efficient vehicles, as well as greater oversight of exactly where the spaces will be located.

Up to 20 spaces total will be used for car-sharing at first, and any additional ones must be approved by council. Before any spaces may be used for car-sharing — following approval by a traffic engineer and ParkHouston — city staff must notify any property owners within 200 feet of the space and the appropriate city council district office.

See here for the background. As the previous story notes, Zipcar is leasing these spots from the city, which seems like a reasonable arrangement to me as long as they’re paying a fair market rate. We need to find ways to encourage people to use cars less on a daily basis, and one way to accomplish that is to make it easier for them to get a car when they do need one. This is a step in the right direction.

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.

Can we share these lanes?

Metro is rethinking how the light rail lines run in parts of downtown.

Traffic woes and collisions along the newest light-rail lines in downtown have Metro leaders toying with the idea of backpedaling on their promise not to close parts of the lanes to cars.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s new Green and Purple lines in downtown that run eastbound along Capitol and westbound along Rusk for about a mile continue to confuse traffic signal timing and drivers. The trains and vehicles have had several collisions in these shared lanes as drivers make turns, as well as enter and exit parking garages for downtown buildings.

Now Metro is – albeit cautiously – considering ideas to close the lanes to vehicular traffic where practical.

“There is zero intent to change this without getting a lot of input with the stakeholders,” board member Christof Spieler said, while acknowledging some changes may be needed to improve timing and safety for trains, drivers and pedestrians.

City officials, downtown business leaders and drivers, however, remain skeptical that dedicating the lanes to trains is going to be a solution.

“(Former Metropolitan Transit Authority CEO) Frank Wilson promised the community and the City Council that these would ‘never’ be train-only lanes in order to get agreement to allow them to operate downtown,” said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of Houston Public Works in charge of traffic operations and maintenance.

I guess I’m not surprised there are issues with the trains sharing a lane with car traffic, but I did not know there was such resistance to the idea of separating the two. I suppose the entrances to and exits from downtown parking garages, which by the way can snarl traffic pretty effectively themselves, are a major obstacle to any kind of change. I’m sure there are some minor tweaks that can be made to improve things a bit, but more than that seems unlikely.

The Complete Transportation Guide To Super Bowl LI

For which the tl;dr version is don’t drive in or near downtown if you can at all help it.

More than 1 million people are expected to converge on downtown Houston during the week leading up to Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5, officials emphasized Tuesday as a transportation guide for the festivities was unveiled for visitors and locals alike.

[…]

The transportation guide – part of a #KnowBeforeYouGo social media campaign – details options for efficient movement around downtown, Midtown, the Uptown-Galleria community and areas surrounding NRG Stadium, the game venue. The manual can be found at www.housuperbowl.com/transportation – which is an area of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee website.

Among new features for 2017:

There will be prepaid downtown daily parking available beginning in January via the committee’s app for motorists to reserve spaces for light rail passes.

Super Bowl Live downtown will feature a bike valet for those who prefer to travel on two wheels.

Free shuttles will circulate in downtown and Midtown; an Uptown-Galleria area link to downtown from Feb. 1 to Feb. 5 is $2 each way.

A game-day shuttle between the Galleria area and NRG Stadium will be $2 each way.

Metro will have extended rail hours from Jan. 28 to Feb. 5 beginning around 4 a.m. and running until at least midnight daily.

Click here for the official guide. My advice, if you work downtown, is to take the week off. I’m already getting a cold sweat thinking about how many tourists I’m going to have to dodge in the tunnels at lunchtime. A staycation is sounding pretty damn good the more I consider it. If you must come downtown, Metro or a bike are your best bets to not be part of the problem. The Press and Write On Metro have more.

Take transit to the game

If you can, you should.

HoustonMetro

The transformation of downtown from a work place that empties after dark to a true community is finally underway in earnest, with residents, retail shops, and restaurants that remain open long after the lunch rush. The building boom is everywhere, and that includes the area around Minute Maid, which had been the domain of abandoned warehouses and repeating squares of blacktop.

As new development gradually alters the timeworn tableau of skyscrapers, hotels and parking lots, the matter of where to put all the cars that flood into the area – be it for work in the day, governmental dealings, or nighttime entertainment – becomes a bit less obvious. Nowhere is that more true than in downtown’s eastern precinct, home to the Astros, Rockets, Dynamo, George R. Brown Convention Center and Discovery Green.

For the sold-out baseball games, competition for the close-in surface lots will become increasingly fierce. The Astros control about 3,000 parking spaces in their own lots east of the stadium, but high-demand games see most of those spaces sold when tickets are purchased. Parking in their lots is reserved for ticket buyers, though a small number last-minute cash sales typically are offered for lower-demand games.

Another 4,000 to 5,000 parking spaces can still be found in surface lots mostly north of the stadium. The pricing for many of them is dynamic, fluctuating game to game, or sometimes hour to hour, depending on attendance. Some parking management companies offer advance online purchase, some don’t. An Astros spokesman said that a range of $10-20 is likely for lots within a two to three-block radius.

When those lots are filled, drivers will have to look toward the garages to be found to the west and south. Costs will vary according to distance from the stadium. Fans willing to walk a half-mile can get a good deal, well below $10, though the sweaty summer months make for a challenging trade-off.

One option, which may become more common in future years, is for drivers to park on the west side of downtown in or near the theater district and take the Metro rail purple line across town. It has a stop just two blocks north of Minute Maid. A drop-off lane also is available in front of the stadium on Texas Street.

The Downtown Houston Management District says that 26 construction projects with an estimated cost of $2.2 billion currently are underway. Another $2 billion worth of projects are on the drawing board, it says. There will be a day, perhaps sooner than once thought, when a majority of the remaining surface lots will give way to new development.

[…]

Because Houston’s central business district is large, plenty of parking remains available and will continue to be. It’s just not so close anymore. Or as cheap. For high-demand games, the available lots near the stadium will go early, with the choicest locations fetching $50 or more for the most desirable games.

The eventual thinning out of the visually unappealing and space-hogging surface lots will please urban designers and downtown advocates, but no doubt will annoy some baseball fans. As [Marcel Braithwaite, the Astros’ senior vice president of business operations] points out, Houstonians love the freedom that comes with their cars and the easier ingress and egress that these lots offer. Some may fondly recall the old days at the Astrodome, which was surrounded by acres of parking and nothing else.

But in a broader sense, the replacement of blacktop by new homes and businesses means that the decades-old dream of a lively city center is taking form. When it comes to taking in a ball game, a new way of thinking will be required.

“It’s neat to see this resurgence,” Braithwaite said of the residential development as well as new clubs and restaurants. “The city is getting life back into it. I’m excited about the urban redevelopment, but that means change. There is no getting around that.”

As was the case for lots of people with the Final Four and the rodeo, taking transit to the game is going to be cheaper and in many cases more convenient than driving. Just the prospect of paying $20 to park, never mind $40 or $50, should make most people at least consider this. It’s also in the Astros’ best interests to get people to not drive to the game if it’s feasible for them. It’s like I’ve said about bike parking in places like Montrose and on White Oak where parking is scarce: It’s in everyone’s interests for the people for whom it is reasonably convenient to take transit to be encouraged and enabled to do so. Note that you don’t have to actually live near a bus or train stop to do this. Drive to a station that has adjacent parking, like the Quitman stop (which has a small Metro-owned free parking lot) or the Ensemble/HCC stop (where there’s a parking garage), and go from there. Again, those of you that have no choice but to drive and park really ought to want everyone for whom this is a decent option to choose it, for they each represent one fewer car competing with you for a parking space and clogging up the roads after the game. Are there any park and ride buses that run to and from the games like they do for the Rodeo? If not, maybe the Astros should inquire with Metro about that. Everyone wins with this.

New parking meters coming

No more paper receipts to clutter up your dashboard.

Some things about street parking in downtown Houston are unlikely to change: It will always require a keen eye for available spots and the courage and skill to wedge your car between large trucks.

A paper receipt, however, is becoming unnecessary as the city replaces its parking meters with newer models that give drivers more options and can even send a text message alerting them that their time is about to expire.

Rather than place a receipt on the dashboard indicating payment, those parking downtown can now input their license plate number when paying by cash or credit card. The machine relays the list of paid vehicles to parking enforcement officers, who simply verify the vehicle is accounted for. If drivers prefer, they can get a paper receipt for the dashboard as before.

“Hopefully it is easier on our customers and it is easier on us,” said Maria Irshad, who oversees ParkHouston, the parking division within the city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department.

The first 276 meters have been installed in northern parts of downtown, primarily around the county courthouse. Parking rules have not changed, and the new meters, like the old ones, require that a button be pushed to activate them.

Over the next five years, 1,054 meters – some dating to 2006 – will be replaced. The city is spending about $10 million on the new meters, which essentially pay for themselves via parking fees.

[…]

The meters being replaced were a vast improvement over old-style machines that required coins, but they also had some problems. Powered by a solar panel atop the kiosk, some of the meters had trouble staying on during “the four months without sunshine” in Houston, said Lara Cottingham, deputy assistant director in the regulatory affairs department.

People also left cups and other litter on top of the panel, disabling it, said Jerry Keeth, division manager for meter operations for ParkHouston.

Paper receipts became a major hassle. Humidity and heavy rain gummed up the slot where the machine spits out the receipts. The paper jams led to broken meters and frustrated drivers.

“I’ve tried to park downtown and both machines on the block would be broken,” Roger Reese said.

Irshad said the new meters were designed with a sensor to alert ParkHouston when the paper dispenser jams, which also shuts down the meter so someone doesn’t inadvertently pay and not receive a receipt.

Eventually, parking officials hope fewer and fewer receipts are needed.

“Definitely the future of parking is your cell phone,” Irshad said.

The app to use on your phone for parking downtown is ParkMobile, which has text-reminder and add-more-money-remotely features. I’m old school enough to want to use the meters themselves (and I’m cheap enough to want to avoid the extra 35 cents per transaction fee that ParkMobile charges), but not having the paper receipts is nice. A press release from the city on this is here, and KUHF has more.

What’s coming to the Yale Street post office location

Some more news from my neighborhood.

A Houston developer plans to replace a shuttered U.S. Postal Service building in the Heights with a two-story mixed-use development with space for offices, shops and restaurants.

MFT Interests last month scooped up the full-acre property, and the development company is in the planning stages of bringing a low-rise project dubbed Heights Central Station to the corner of Yale and 11th, said Glenn Clements, the development group’s chief financial officer.

The existing 1970s-era structure will be demolished. The project will include a pair of two-story buildings with office space on the upper floors and retail on the ground. The developers hope to attract professionals and fitness studios in the office space and perhaps two restaurants and up to eight shops at ground level.

The building is not historically significant. But because the site is partially in a historic district, the development may need approval from the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission. Clements said MFT wants the project to have a “retro feeling” to it. The neighborhood was developed roughly between 1900 and 1920, and Clements said MFT hopes the new building would blend in with the older architecture.

“We’re building it in 2016, but it will look like 1916,” he said.

See here for the background. Swamplot reported this a few days earlier, and there’s a lively discussion in the comments about what the parking situation will be like, which ought to be interesting given that both the new Eight Row Flint across the street on Yale and Lola’s on the opposite side of 11th have used the old post office lot as overflow. There’s no street parking on 11th or Yale, and there’s usually not much available on Heights Blvd. Folks who wind up parking offsite are going to need to walk a few blocks, which means that the nearby homeowners are likely going to start complaining. CM Cohen may need to designate a staff member to handle the complaints. Anyway, I look forward to seeing who moves in.

Allen Parkway 2.0

Changes are a-comin’.

Lane closings are scheduled to start soon along Allen Parkway – slowing traffic – so workers can complete a redesign of the road – meant to slow traffic.

The long-planned overhaul, which will add parking along Buffalo Bayou’s popular trail system and improve connections between the parkway and intersecting streets, starts next Monday, officials with the Houston Downtown Redevelopment Authority said. Work on the $11 million redesign should conclude before the Free Press Summer Festival at Eleanor Tinsley Park in late May or early June.

In the interim, motorists on the parkway will have fewer lanes in some places and will lose access to certain streets for a few weeks. The payoff, eventually, will be a much better, slower parkway, officials said.

“For us this project has been about safe access and parking,” said Ryan Leach, executive director of the downtown redevelopment authority. “Safety was foremost in our minds and getting access to this great asset we have been building for the past few years.”

Joggers and cyclists now must make a mad dash from one side of the parkway to the other.

“It’s Frogger,” said Cliff Eason, 30, comparing the trip to a video game.

[…]

By the time thousands descend on the music festival – which downtown officials said will return to the bayou from its site this year at NRG Park – the parkway will be a parkway again. It will still have three traffic lanes in each direction, but with wider, tree-lined medians and improved pedestrian crossings at Taft, Gillette and Dunlavy. A special pedestrian crossing signal will be installed at Park Vista Drive, making it much easier to access Buffalo Bayou and the park and trail system from south of the parkway.

City officials say the changes are vital to make the most of the bayou park system and to return Allen Parkway to its intended purpose as a slow drive. As changes were made over the years to help facilitate automobile traffic, many drivers got into the habit of speeding up.

Drivers on the road commonly exceed the 40 mph posted limit. A number of high-profile crashes also have occurred on the road, including a 2009 crash that killed lawyer John O’Quinn. Investigators said O’Quinn was speeding on the rain-slicked street and he and a passenger, Johnny Lee Cutliff, were not wearing seat belts. Cutliff also died in the accident.

In addition to crossings and intersection changes, the project will add another critical component for access to the park: parking. By shifting the parkway south – eliminating a frontage road that runs along the eastbound lanes – officials are adding 149 diagonal parking spaces along the bayou trail.

See here for some background. Swapping the little-used service road for parking makes a lot of sense, given how much the trails and the dog park have become a destination. I’m never crazy about adding traffic lights in this town, but I can’t argue with the one at Dunlavy. I don’t know that lowering the posted speed from 40 to 35 will actually slow things down – I think there would need to be a steady presence of traffic cops writing tickets to make that happen – but again given the presence of a lot of non-car traffic, that makes sense. As the story notes, the total time added for a trip all the way from Kirby to downtown at 35 instead of 40 is less than a minute. Surely we can all live with that.

From the “Good problems to have” department

Metro will have a few million dollars left over when it is done building the remaining light rail lines.

After more than three years of construction, Metro officials estimate $39.9 million of the $900 million awarded by the Federal Transit Administration is left over and unlikely to be spent as work wraps up. Contingencies for cost overruns often are built into financial estimates for large transportation projects, notably rail. Metro’s costs have stayed largely in line with estimates of $1.58 billion for the two lines.

None of the federal money applies to the Green Line, which was locally funded. Both the Green Line to the East End and the Purple Line to the southeast are scheduled to open in April.

[…]

Most of the leftover money, $24.9 million, is dedicated to the northern segment of the Red Line light rail route, which opened in December 2013. Another $14.5 million is available along the Purple Line, between downtown and the Palm Center Transit Center south of MacGregor Park in southeast Houston.

If the money from the October 2011 agreement isn’t spent, it would go back to federal coffers.

The money can be used only for those two lines, and only for projects related to developing the rail routes, though that does give Metro officials leeway.

Officials on Thursday outlined for a Metro committee some projects they are considering, though more talks are likely as the list is winnowed.

Two of the most significant projects are at the ends of the rail lines, near Northline Commons along the Red Line and at Palm Center Transit Center where the Purple Line terminates.

Metro has a bus transit center near the Red Line terminus, a few steps from the tracks on land owned by Houston Community College. Officials said tying the bus center and rail line together with an elevated walkway would improve conditions for riders.

Metro’s lease for the bus center land expires in 2021, and the agency is working with HCC on a long-term plan for the area incorporating the campus and the transit connection.

Lambert said a rail-bus terminal at the location would be years in the making but would be more affordable if included in the long-term, federally backed rail development.

Additional parking spaces at Palm Center Transit Center would serve a similar purpose, giving more potential riders a way to park at a rail station.

Board members Thursday said it was vital the money be used in ways that benefit riders and residents near the rail lines.

“I think we should be looking at projects that increase ridership,” Christof Spieler said, noting rail use can often be affected by how people arrive at the station. “I absolutely want to look at bus stops.”

Board member Dwight Jefferson said more stations closer to where people live could be beneficial.

“You have the station at Elgin and you do not have another station until a mile down on the other side of the freeway,” Jefferson said. “You have a whole huge stretch of neighborhood that is totally not served on the rail line.”

Remember how the I-10 widening was originally supposed to cost $1 billion, then wound up costing about $2.7 billion? I love having another excuse to bring that up. As far as this goes, I’m with Spieler – projects that would help boost ridership should take priority. That leaves a lot of possibilities, and I hope Metro takes the time to brainstorm and get public input for more suggestions. This is a great opportunity, so let’s make the most of it.

Making open data better

Some positive news.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston leaders in the last year or so have cheered the promise of “civic hacking,” pushing to make the mountains of data the city collects accessible to tech enthusiasts capable of building programs to help citizens better understand and interact with their government.

Two “hackathons” and a few dozen “app” ideas later, however, the city still requires formal public information requests to release many popular records and has no set processes to decide which data can be freely released or how to keep it up-to-date.

Officials and local programmers alike hope a new “Open Data Policy,” enacted as an administrative procedure by Mayor Annise Parker late last month, will change that. The policy mandates citywide cooperation with a task force that will decide what to release and how to keep it up-to-date. The procedures also require all future city technology contracts to allow for the free release of records in a useful format, such as a spreadsheet rather than a PDF.

“Right now we have a coalition of the willing,” said city Finance Director Kelly Dowe. “We’re trying to create broad participation. It’s encouraging now that every department in the city had representation on the creation of this. What you see here is a level of commitment, by signing off on this, to work with the administration and put this data forward.”

It would be inexact, perhaps, to highlight this “coalition of the willing” or reveal the departments being territorial with their records; some collect more information than others, and some have more antiquated records systems than others.

Jeff Reichman, a principal at consulting firm January Advisors, said the quality and relevance of the datasets are what matter, not the volume. Still, gaps are noticeable: The city’s existing Open Data Portal, launched for the hackathons, shows the planning department boasts 48 datasets and the regulatory department 21, while the municipal courts and the city’s airport system each has posted one. The portal holds information on everything from code enforcement violations and taxis to alcohol permits and radioactive waste sites.

The new policy calls for an advisory board to be formed within 30 days and to have open data standards drafted within 90 days, guiding all city departments in complying with the directive. The task force, Dowe said, will start by identifying the information citizens are most interested in and how best to unleash it.

I’ve written about Hackathons before. There’s a lot of value in making city data available to app developers in a format they can use. For one example of the possibilities, consider this from San Antonio.

The City has paired up with a mobile application company to help drivers find and pay for downtown parking spots in San Antonio. On Oct. 23, Pango will release an app for San Antonio that enables drivers to find available parking before they reach their destination. Pango is considering the introduction a mobile payment option in the future.*

The city is sharing the data it collects from parking meters for use on the app, which updates every five minutes. That means every spot with a parking meter will be mapped out as available or not on the phone, potentially eliminating the sometimes fruitless, frenzied scramble to find a parking spot, clogging up streets.

Would you like to have something like that in Houston? With this Open Data policy, it could happen.

The downside to downtown’s boom

More traffic, less parking, and lots of construction. Where have we heard those complaints before?

Construction crews are clearing city blocks once dedicated to surface parking, readying the sites for multistory office buildings, hotels and residential towers. Adjacent sidewalks and traffic lanes are cordoned off, and two major downtown cross-streets are tied up with light rail construction.

Combined, the parking crunch and cutoff sidewalks and streets have downtown drivers and pedestrians on edge, and many say the problem has worsened in recent months. Building occupancy is putting more workers downtown, and few have convenient transit options, so they drive. More cars means more crowded streets and a mad dash to find parking.

[…]

Development is certainly putting a premium on parking, said Bob Eury, president of Central Houston and executive director of the Downtown Management District.

“We came into this period with some excess supply,” Eury said, explaining there are about 75,000 garage spaces, 28,000 surface lot spots and 3,500 to 5,000 available on-street spots in the central business district, depending on time of day. “Now there is more demand, but over time that might work itself out.”

For now, though, it’s more difficult and more expensive to find a space.

[…]

As more of the central business district shifts from surface lots to towers looming over the sidewalk, Houston’s skyline isn’t the only thing changing. Scarce parking might lead some to options like transit, Eury said.

“Look at what (the Metropolitan Transit Authority) is doing with the buses,” Eury said, referring to a planned overhaul of bus service. “That is meeting that challenge and offering a solution. Maybe not a solution for everybody, but a solution for somebody.”

Officials are looking for new nighttime parking options and discussing how to handle major events and high-traffic entertainment areas, said Angie Bertinot, marketing director for the downtown district. Some lots near Market Square Park often pull double shifts, catering to workers during the day and diners and drinkers at night.

As residential options and nightlife return to downtown, parking for visitors also is changing. The district is working on maps and signs to help visitors navigate downtown and mark parking options clearly, Bertinot said. Officials are planning another parking lot at the George R. Brown Convention Center in connection with development of a new hotel.

It’s the same basic complaint as the Medical Center, with the same underlying causes: there are only so many ways in and out, and only so much room to accommodate cars. New buildings are more valuable than space for parking. Ultimately, the solution will be for more people to enter downtown via something other than a car, or at least something other than a car in which they are the only passenger. That’s a lesson that will almost certainly have to be learned the hard way by a lot of people, but it’s got to be learned. The opening of the Southeast and Harrisburg light rail lines will help, Metro’s bus reimagining will help (though as it happens that won’t help me; I’m one of the ten percent or so whose service will be a little worse with the new routes), and if we ever build commuter rail, that will help as well. In the meantime, remember that an empty downtown generally means bad economic times. What we have here is what’s known as a good problem to have. Texas Leftist has more, including some pictures.

It takes time to park, too

The Atlantic Cities had an article a couple of weeks ago about light rail in Houston. It’s an overview written for people who aren’t from Houston, so other than the extremely high opinion of themselves of some rail opponents – who knew we needed Daphne Scarbrough’s permission for infrastructure projects in this town? – there isn’t anything there you don’t already know. There was one bit at the end, talking about the North Line extension, that I wanted to discuss.

Wandering this neighborhood, now a ten-minute train ride from downtown, I came across Del’s Ice Cream, a small shop one block from a brand-new light rail station. Owner Delfina Torres has a front row seat for Houston’s transit experiment, but she has doubts. “Houston is a vehicle town,” she says. “They love their cars. It’s going to be a long way coming to a city with less driving and more walking.” Though it is now a direct light rail trip from her home to the Houston Rodeo, eight miles away, she says she can get there and back faster in her car.

I live north of downtown, likely a comparable if not closer distance to Reliant Stadium, and I commuted by car from here to there for more than a decade. On a good day, I’d agree that you can drive from here to there faster than the train can take you. It’s not quite the slam dunk that Ms. Torres makes it out to be. Your main options are I-45 to 288 to either Old Spanish Trail or 610 and Kirby, or the non-highway route which for me means either Studewood/Montrose to Main or Shepherd all the way and for her likely means Main all the way. The former swings you a couple miles east of Reliant because that’s where 288 goes, and you will almost certainly run into at least one stretch of non-highway speed, on the Pierce Elevated. The latter leaves you at the mercy of traffic lights and road construction. In my experience, the former is a 20-25 minute trip while the latter is more like 25-30, though either can take longer if your traffic karma is bad that day. A train ride from the Quitman station (where Del’s Ice Cream is located) is probably 32 minutes, but it’s unlikely to vary by more than a minute or so, as neither traffic nor red lights are factors.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s my observation that if you ask someone in Houston how long it takes to drive from point A to point B, they will most likely base their estimate on the highway driving part of the trip. If there’s a significant non-highway part of the trip – maybe the destination is a half mile from the exit, or something like that – I think that tends to get discounted. And if parking is something other than a free, adjacent lot or street parking right in front – if there’s a parking garage or a mall-style expanse of parking, or if there’s a fee to be paid on the way in, it’s not factored in at all. As such, what might be ten minutes on the highway can easily mean fifteen minutes or more to the front door.

That matters. It makes a difference if you’ve got an appointment, a job with a designated start time, tickets to an event, or anything else where you need to think about when you have to leave in order to get there on time. I work downtown, and it usually takes only five minutes or so to “get” there, but I carpool with my wife and we park where she has subsidized parking, which is much closer to her building than to mine. It’s a good fifteen minute walk from the car to my desk, counting elevator time in my office. If Ms. Torres has tickets to a Texans game with a noon kickoff, I seriously doubt she’d head out from Del’s at 11:30. It might take you longer to get into the parking lot than it did to get from your house to the point where everything ground to a halt and the lines to get into the parking lots formed. That’s part of what I was getting at with my post about Medical Center mobility. You can do whatever you want with I-45 and you can add toll lanes and express bypasses on 288, but you’re not going to get into the parking lot at Reliant or Texas Children’s any faster. You might estimate the time it takes you to actually reach your destination a bit less accurately, however.

That’s one advantage of light rail, BRT, and other transit with dedicated right of way. Your trip times are generally more predictable, and in some cases at least you get dropped off closer to the front door of your destination than you would if you parked. That’s not always the case, and for Reliant Stadium there’s still a significant walk from the rail station, but it’s something people don’t think about. I do, because the bus stop I use when Tiffany takes the car to run errands after work is a two-minute walk from my office. Even when I have to wait a few minutes for a bus, I usually get home about the same time as I would have if we’d driven as usual. It matters more than you might think.

One other thing people often don’t think about: If parking isn’t free, it’s often expensive. There are very few free-parking destinations along the Main Street Line, so if you’re headed south from Del’s to someplace that the line serves, it’s going to cost you a few bucks to park. And driving itself isn’t free. Going eight miles, the stated distance from Del’s to Reliant, in a 25 MPG car with gas at $3.50 a gallon costs about as much as as one-way rail ticket. These things add up.

Enabling bike parking at restaurants

Good to see this effort is making progress.

Public House on White Oak

It has taken some time, but a community effort to add bike racks in the Heights is seeing results.

Heights resident Mitch Cohen has placed two racks along 19th Street this year that can each store about 10 bikes and will continue raising money for more.

“I haven’t exactly taken over the area with bike racks, but it has been fun,” said Cohen, who manages the Heights’ First Saturday Arts Market and began working on the rack project about two years ago.

This grassroots effort was inspired while Cohen and other organizers of White Linen Nights in the Heights were cycling from business to business in the area to encourage them to participate.

Cycling is a popular activity and mode of transportation in the Heights, but the volunteers noticed there weren’t many bike racks along the community’s busiest streets, including 19th Street and White Oak Drive.

Cohen knew the Houston Heights Association had placed some racks in the area, and he decided to start a similar effort.

Fred Zapalac of Blue Line Bike Lab, 3302 White Oak Drive, agreed to help Cohen buy the racks at cost.

The fundraising effort got a boost in September 2012, when a couple of artists at the First Saturday Art Market raised $200 in one day by selling pins.

Cohen used that money to buy “Property of the Heights” T-shirts designed by then-Heights resident Leigh Hajovsky. From there, he was able to raise $400 by selling the shirts for $20 a piece during White Linen Nights. With Zapalac’s help, Cohen bought two bike racks with the money.

See here and here for the background. I’m not at all surprised by Mitch Cohen’s persistence in getting this done, but it sure would be nice if he had a little more help. You could probably put a bike rack in front of every business in the greater Heights for a few thousand bucks. Surely the various civic organizations, or maybe a generous donor or two, could help Mitch get this done in a much shorter time frame. The city is now officially encouraging bike parking for businesses in dense neighborhoods. We should be doing more to embrace that.

Medical Center mobility

The problems they face today pale in comparison to the problems they will face in the future.

TMCMobility2035

Already the world’s largest medical complex, the Texas Medical Center is poised to get much bigger, prompting a raft of ideas ranging from routine to grandiose for expanding traffic and parking capacity.

Medical Center officials predict another 28 million square feet of offices and health care facilities will be developed on the campus over the next two decades. More development means more visitors and workers, which planners estimate will require an additional 50,400 parking spaces, along with wider roads and more transit capacity.

City officials, Medical Center administrators and consultants developed a long list of options to unclog roads and add transit and bike choices in the Medical Center area as part of a months-long study prepared by a team of consultants.

[…]

The problem is that freeway-like traffic volumes come into the Medical Center daily. Planners expect the deluge of vehicles will only grow as more doctors’ offices and hospital rooms are built.

Even if just more than half of the projected Medical Center development occurs, and the number of parking spaces per square foot remains constant, about 26,000 new spots – roughly the same number now available at Reliant Park – would be needed.

Getting people to those spots will require bigger roads to handle greater demand.

Based on traffic predictions, OST between Kirby and Fannin will carry 56,000 cars daily in 2035, more than double its 2013 volume. Though traffic on other roads will not grow nearly as much, all major thoroughfares in and out of the area will carry more traffic.

The cure, according to the study, is a combination of bigger roads and more transit choices, though the list tilts toward road-building for long-term needs. OST and Holcombe Boulevard would each expand from six lanes to 10 in some scenarios, including express lanes that funnel traffic out of the area toward Texas 288, where the Texas Department of Transportation has plans for toll lanes.

The alternative to some road widening is parking garages and improved transit within the Medical Center, said Ramesh Gunda, president of Gunda Corp., the engineering firm that conducted some of the traffic modeling.

“If you take the traffic coming into the Texas Medical Center, and hold it at what I call the gateways, and there are lots at (Texas) 288 and Loop 610, look at how we improve these intersections by reducing cars,” Gunda noted.

You can see the presentation, from which I got that embedded image, here. As someone who worked near the Medical Center for almost 20 years and saw traffic in the area get steadily worse, I’m sure there are things they can do, mostly at intersections, to help a little. I don’t think bypasses and extra lanes can do much. This isn’t like adding capacity to I-10, where much of the traffic is passing through the trouble zone on its way to other destinations. Nobody drives through the Medical Center on their way to somewhere else if they can possibly help it. If you’re driving in the Medical Center, you’re going to or coming from somewhere in the Medical Center. As such, you can increase the size of the hose, but the bucket can only hold so much water at a time. You can improve the flow on OST or Holcombe or wherever, but things will still back up at stoplights, at turns, and at parking lot entrances. There’s very little you can do about that.

What you can do is try to limit the growth of vehicles coming into the Med Center over time. That means giving people more non-car options for getting there, and improving the existing options. That was touched on in the presentation, but I wouldn’t say it was emphasized, and I don’t think they’re really considering all possible options. Here are three things I’d aim for if it were my job to think about how to manage future demand.

1. Empower bicycles. There is a slide on bikes and pedestrians in the presentation, but I can’t tell what exactly they’re proposing. I know there’s a bike trail along Braes Bayou, and it does run along the southern border of the Medical Center. It’s not the best trail in the world, but it does mostly keep you off the street, which is important. I don’t know what bike access inside the Med Center is like, and I don’t know what bike parking – in particular, covered bike parking – is available. Addressing this is probably the simplest and cheapest thing they can do, and the quickest to implement.

2. Push for the US90 rail extension. This is a single bullet item on the Transit slide, but it needs to be much more than that. An awful lot of people commute from Fort Bend into the Medical Center, and that number is also set to grow a lot in the next 20 years. There’s already an Environmental Impact Study in progress for this. There’s political support for the rail extension. They need Fort Bend to get its act together to allow Metro to operate there – this extension will be much more useful if it goes to Sugar Land – and that may take an act of the Legislature. After that it’s a matter of running the FTA gamut and getting funding, which is always dicey but should be doable. This could be ready to begin construction in six to eight years, but it will need a push to get anywhere.

3. How about some more places for people to live that don’t require driving to work in the Medical Center. Let’s really think outside the box here, because the biggest driver of change here (no pun intended) will be changing where people live in relation to where they work. There’s been a lot of development near the Main Street line, but there’s still a lot of empty spaces. There’s been an empty lot at Greenbriar and Braeswood, across the street from apartments and the Smithlands Med Center extension parking lot, for as long as I can remember, and the former Stables location remains undeveloped. Both of those could provide a lot of housing for Med Center employees who wouldn’t need to drive in. But why stop there? There’s going to be a whole bunch of inner city lots coming to the market in the next few years, some of which will be near transit that goes to the Medical Center. Maybe the Medical Center interests should look at them and see if any of them might be a wise investment. But why stop there? Here’s a Google map link for Hiram Clark at US90. If you switch to Google Earth mode, you can see just how empty the land on the west side of Hiram Clark is. This is a major thoroughfare, and there’s nothing there. Why not build a bunch of apartments and have them connect to the Medical Center via dedicated shuttles? I’ll bet a bunch of future Med Center employees might find that enticing.

None of these are complete solutions, of course, because there is no one Big Answer to this question. There are a bunch of little answers, each of which can contribute in a small way to managing the problem. The one thing I know to be true is that the problem won’t be solved by fixing intersections and adding lanes. One way or another – really, one way and another, and another and another – they have to try to manage demand as well as supply. As long as demand is growing the way it is now, there are no good answers. The Highwayman has more.

Park and Ride parking

I have no problem with this.

Park and ride buses are among the cheapest options for suburban commuters who work downtown, in part because Metro provides free parking.

But just as new highways increasingly require drivers to pay tolls, officials are considering changes to the park and ride system that would shift more costs to consumers.

“This city has changed and we are going through an economic explosion right now,” said Burt Ballanfant, a Metropolitan Transit Authority board member. “We have got to look at those changes and realize the costs are changing.”

A Metro committee Thursday directed staff to report back in 60 days with analysis of parking policies at Metro’s 28 park and ride lots, including whether charging for parking is warranted.

“We want to take a look at this in terms of the economic issues, get board direction and go from there,” Metro president Tom Lambert said.

Only one of the 28 park and ride lots, Fannin South, charges a parking fee. Drivers pay $3 per day to use the lot. Another park and ride location in Cypress charges those who park, but the fee is waived with a valid fare on a park and ride bus.

[…]

The discussion occurred as board members considered a proposal to move the Grand Parkway park and ride location about three miles west by leasing parking spaces from Katy Mills Mall.

On average, the current 423-space lot near the I-10 interchange with the Grand Parkway has 188 fewer spaces than needed, based on an October count, and sometimes 200 or more commuters are forced to park in spots Metro isn’t supposed to be using.

Staff members are working on a proposal to lease around 800 spaces at Katy Mills Mall, west of the current spot. Metro’s board would have to approve a deal to move the lot, then adjust schedules to accommodate the change.

The existing lot would house carpool and vanpool users, while all park and ride commuters would relocate.

Moving the park and ride lot would cost between $400,000 and $500,000 per year, mostly by renting the 800 spaces from the mall property owner, said Miki Milovanovic, Metro’s real estate and property management director. Another $120,000 would be spent preparing the site with signs and bus shelters.

At every site, whether Metro owns it or not, those costs have been borne by the agency.

“The sort of unspoken agreement was we would not charge for parking,” Ballanfant said.

If Metro is not recovering enough of its cost on park and ride parking, then a fee for parking is one possible option for it to consider. By the same token, if Metro needs to fund the acquisition and/or construction of more parking spaces, a fee for parking is again a possible option. There are certainly other possibilities like shared parking, as discussed above, and it should by all means explore those as well. But I don’t see why parking in these lots has to be free if the cost and revenue structure doesn’t support it. Fares have gone up on buses and the light rail before; this to me is no different than that. The Highwayman has more.

Good news and bad news on the Washington Avenue parking benefit district

As you may recall, a bit more than a year ago Council approved a plan to create a “parking benefit district” for the Washington Avenue corridor, which is a fancy way of saying they approved the installation of parking meters whose revenue would then be used to help pay for infrastructure improvements in the area, which could certainly use them. The first parking meters were installed last May, with the idea being that after 18 months Council would rewiew how it’s going and possibly make changes or even scrap the whole thing. So how is it going? Like the title says, there’s good news and bad news.

Meet the meter

Defying doomsday scenarios, paid parking doesn’t seem to have dented sales along Washington, which is set to welcome new shops, restaurants and bars this year. The wait at restaurants is as long as ever, and revelers dash across the street at all hours of the night while the clubs are open.

But parking revenue is below expectations, potentially delaying improvements like wider sidewalks and trees.

Residents worked with the city to form the parking district and start metered parking along Washington last May, in the hope of curbing the problem of people swarming the neighborhoods and flooding the streets with cars late into the night.

Businesses worried the new rules would drive business elsewhere, saying parking hassles might threaten the economic growth that made the corridor desirable in the first place.

Parking problems seem to be reduced after nearly nine months of paid parking, and taxable sales at businesses have not slumped.

“Nobody’s office phones are getting lit up anymore” with parking complaints, said Christopher Newport, spokesman for Houston’s regulatory affairs department.

Most visitors are parking farther away, either to avoid paying a meter or because no spots on Washington are available at peak times, Newport said. Where parking used to be a headache two or three blocks off Washington, diners and drinkers now are dispersing six and seven blocks away. Even so, residents haven’t rushed to file paperwork to restrict parking along their streets, Newport said.

“They either do not think people parking in front of their house is a big deal or they don’t want to go through the program,” he said.

[…]

The city’s agreement with the local board requires total revenue of $250,000 before any sidewalks, landscaping or other improvements can begin. Based on current rates, the district won’t reach that amount until 2021.

If the city lowers the threshold to $100,000, reduces the staff patrolling the district and shares some of the citation revenue with the local district, some small projects could be considered later this year.

See here and here for some more background, and here for the Washington Avenue PBD page. I always like having actual numbers with stories like these, so I sent an email to Christopher Newport for more details. He sent me the original presentation with the initial revenue projections, and this updated presentation that shows where things are now. Let me summarize the main points because it’s a little confusing.

  • The city did a survey over several weeks of how many cars were parked on a nightly basis in the affected area prior to the creation of the PBD. The count was usually right around 270-280 cars, so the projections were based on that.
  • In practice, about 170 cars per night have been parking at the meters. The total number of cars parking was the same as before, but now some drivers were going farther into the surrounding neighborhoods to avoid paying to park. This is the reason why meter revenue has fallen short of projections.
  • There is another source of revenue related to the PBD, however, and that’s revenue from parking citations, particularly for expired meters. That revenue all goes to the city, not to the PBD. One of the changes that will be made going forward is that a portion of this money, from citations that are a direct result of the creation of the PBD and the installation of the meters – i.e., citations for expired meters, not citations for things like parking too close to a stop sign or blocking a driveway – will be used to help pay for the overhead costs of the PBD. These revenues can’t be used to pay for infrastructure improvements in the PBD, but by using some of this revenue to pay for the overhead of the PBD, it will allow enough money to be collected and used for the hoped-for improvements.
  • The change described above is administrative, so it can be done with a stroke of the pen. The other change, to lower the threshold of revenue needed to begin doing improvements from $250K to $100K, will require Council approval. Assuming it is granted, that threshold should be reached in a couple of months.
  • Finally, the city will continue to talk with the surrounding neighborhoods about residential parking permits, which would serve to send those wayward parkers back to the meter zone. If the neighborhoods are okay with how things are, that’s fine, too.

So the bad news isn’t really bad, and with a couple of tweaks improvement projects can be proposed and approved this year. There will be another review of the program around the end of the year, eighteen months after the ordinance was passed, as specified in the ordinance. If things continue on this course, I would expect the PBD to be renewed.

Texas cities embracing bicycles

It’s a good thing.

In Fort Worth, the mayor hosts occasional bicycle rides called “Rolling Town Halls.” The Dallas City Council could may soon require new businesses to set aside space for bicycle parking. Over in El Paso, officials are developing plans for a bike-share system, which is expected to be the fifth such program in the state after Austin’s makes its debuts this year.

In car-clogged communities around Texas, a biking movement is gaining speed. Midsize and large cities are expanding bike trails and putting roads on “lane diets” to accomodate bike lanes.

“Biking has just exploded over the last year in Houston,” said Laura Spanjian, director of Mayor Annise Parker’s office of sustainability.

While curbing traffic and air pollution prompted earlier interest in such initiatives, those concerns are now overshadowed in some cities by other motivating factors, particularly boosts to public health, quality of life and economic development.

“It’s really being embraced for solving a lot of problems. It’s not this sort of fringe, tree-hugger issue anymore,” said Linda DuPriest, a former bicycle-pedestrian program coordinator for Austin who is now a senior planner for Alta Planning + Design, a Portland, Ore.-based design firm that focuses on bike infrastructure. In June, DuPriest opened the agency’s Texas office in Dallas.

“Texas is really ripe” for an expansion in bike infrastructure, said Mia Birk, the firm’s president and a former bicycle program manager with the City of Portland, widely regarded as a national model for biking infrastructure. “There’s so many cities that are growing and thriving, and really looking for ways to create healthier opportunities for residents and businesses.”

[…]

“People who are trying to attract people and businesses to their cities get it,” said Robin Stallings of BikeTexas, an advocacy group. “If they want to get their kids to come back after college, if they want to get any kind of high-tech industry, they need this stuff.”

“Our population is trending younger, and I think younger populations are wanting more density and want to live closer to where they live, play, shop and eat,” Spanjian said.

[…]

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that within two years of each other, we have four Texas cities with bike-share programs,” Spanjian said.

Developing such programs in Texas poses unique challenges, Birk said, because the cities are more spread out and less crowded than in many other states.

“When you have very high density but that smaller footprint, you also have a competition over space and a lot of humans debating how we use that space,” Birk said. Many Texas cities, she said, have almost the opposite problem: so much space that it is more difficult to convince people that biking is a practical way to get around.

Advocates often stress the value of biking for short trips and as a means of connecting with public transportation.

“About two to three miles is the sweet spot where it really can be more efficient and faster to take a bike,” said Annick Beaudet, a City of Austin planner who had previously worked as bicycle program manager for the city.

Here’s more about Austin’s forthcoming bike share program, and about El Paso’s program, which has run into some obstacles. This is a quality of life issue first and foremost, even more than it is a transportation issue. A lot of people want to live in the inner urban core, younger people especially. Driving and especially parking becomes problematic because there isn’t the space to easily accommodate everyone and their cars. Facilitating biking, especially for short trips, alleviates a lot of these problems and makes it more practical for amenities like bars, restaurants, and small retail to exist. That often requires ordinance and code changes as well, but the cities are dealing with those as well. The cities are competing with the suburbs and outlying areas for new residents and businesses. Solving these problems, and making their spaces be the kind of places new residents want to live is the key.

Parking Panda

Interesting

Parking Panda, an online parking reservation system, launches Tuesday in Houston and Dallas. The site’s already up and running, taking reservations for lots around many area venues, including Minute Maid Park, Reliant Stadium and the Toyota Center.

The concept is pretty simple: Go online, find the parking lot you want, based on price and location, and reserve a spot. In some cases, Parking Panda co-founder Nick Miller said, people can even reserve a select spot.

In places where parking can be problem, like around a Texans game, having a guaranteed spot removes the hassle of hunting around or timing your arrival to find a close enough spot. Even if you’re ten minutes late, the spot is there waiting for you.

In Washington, D.C., where Miller said the company has seen one client use the service 125 times in the past year, the use is branching out beyond major venues to include parking around museums and entertainment districts.

That could be where things head in Houston, too, he said. Take the crowded Montrose corridor or Washington Avenue, where the city recently enacted strict parking rules. Before heading out for the night, someone potentially could find a spot ahead of time and leave the car there for the evening.

[…]

Major events and large parking garages aren’t the only places touched by the technology gains in parking. Though the bulk of the business is commercial lots, Miller said Parking Panda has some spot sellers who are, essentially monetizing their driveways.

“We have people who are making a couple hundred dollars a month,” he said.

Not everyone has a driveway worth renting, but for those in high-density areas, or near offices, the opportunity is out there.

The larger point, Miller and others say, is cities have finite space to store cars. If someone who lives a block or so off Westheimer is commuting downtown, someone in Sugar Land who works off Westheimer may be willing to rent the vacant driveway during the day to guarantee a spot.

I guess this is our week for vehicle-related innovations. It’s an interesting concept, and you can see what they have available for Houston here. I’m thinking the rent-your-driveway option might be quite appealing for events like the Art Car and Pride parades, if one lives in those areas. For that matter, I’m thinking some of my neighbors who live close to White Oak might check this out – if people are going to be parking in front of their houses anyway, they may as well make their driveway available and earn a few bucks for it. What do you think?

Chron wonders where B-Cycle is going

Last week in an unsigned editorial, the Chron asked a provocative question about B-Cycle.

Are bicycle rental programs supposed to be legitimate transportation or merely toys for urban bohemians? New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante revealed Friday that her city’s attempts to make bike share more affordable, such as distributing free helmets and subsidizing Citi Bike memberships for low-income New Yorkers, have so far reached few people.

Houston’s policies don’t paint a better picture. We do have a bicycle helmet fund, which was created to raise money to provide bicycle helmets for very low-income families. But the list seems to stop there. We lack a program to subsidize B-Cycle memberships for needy families, though one has to wonder how much of an impact that program would have. After all, there are no B-Cycle stations in the poor neighborhoods surrounding downtown’s B-Cycle core. It is not as if these neighborhoods aren’t bike-friendly. The Fourth Ward is accessible by West Dallas St., a designated bike-share road that connects directly with downtown. And the Columbia Tap bicycle trail stretches from east of downtown through the Third Ward to Brays Bayou – one of the most convenient bicycle paths in the city, utterly wanting for a B-Cycle station.

Here’s that NYT article the editorial refers to. I can’t speak to Citi Bike, which is a new program and has its share of kinks to be worked out, but the point about making B-Cycle more accessible to more Houstonians is very much a valid one. I sent an inquiry to Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian about the editorial, but she had already sent a letter to the editor in response, which she pointed me to.

Houston B-Cycle appreciates the Chronicle’s calling attention to a wonderful three-month old program – and the call for more bikes and greater coverage. When first launched, some thought this could never work in Houston.

But Houstonians are proving the skeptics wrong. Houston B-cycle is well ahead of projections with over 5,000 unique users and an average of 1,300 bikes checked out each week. And in a city accused of being too fat, these riders have burned an estimated 4 million calories! But we recognize that we have more work to do.

The Houston bike share system, like successful programs in other cities, has used a proven formula, placing the first bikes in the densest part of our city … the downtown urban core and dense adjacent neighborhoods. We want to expand the program across the city, and the Chronicle is right to push for broader coverage.

B-cycle’s growth will build off of the current network. The existing program is a great example of private and public partnership, built with zero local tax dollars. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas has been a key partner and financial supporter. They share our goal of making Houston B-cycle the best in the nation.

We need more partners to continue expansion plans. If you want to help, please visit us at http://houston.bcycle.com/.

Laura Spanjian, director, city of Houston Sustainability

Michael Skelly board member, Houston Bike Share

I agree with what Spanjian and Skelly say here, but they don’t exactly get into specifics in their response. I think there’s a more fundamental point that needs to be addressed, but before I get to that, let me point to the story that I suspect was the genesis of the Chron editorial, which was in one of the neighborhood section and thus probably wasn’t widely noticed. (I only saw it because it was on the B-Cycle Facebook page.)

As cycling’s popularity rises in Houston, city officials and planners see the west side of the Inner Loop as the logical next place to focus energy on developing a more prominent role for the quiet, eco-friendly mode of transportation.

Rice University, the Texas Medical Center and area shopping districts already attract cyclists, said Laura Spanjian, sustainability director for Mayor Annise Parker.

“There’s a lot of bike commuters to Rice,” she said. “There’s already some good infrastructure there.”

The city is looking at ways to expand offerings in the neighborhood, with one option being a project where certain streets will close to vehicles and open only for bicycles on Sundays, Spanjian said.

Will Rub, director of Houston Bike Share, hopes that the city’s B-cycle bike rental program can become more established in the area.

“We have very high hopes of expanding the bike share program into the medical center,” he said. “Bike share is an ideal supplement to the Texas Medical Center environment and would go a long way towards reducing a significant number of ‘intra-center’ car rides and eventually reducing some of the shuttle trips.”

He said the next natural step would be to expand the program to Rice Village and at Rice University.

“I’ve had discussions with a few representatives from the school, but no plans or commitments at this time,” he said.

Spanjian said the mayor’s office is working to expand bicycle routes into the medical center and other neighborhoods by year’s end.

I talked about the logical next steps for B-Cycle expansion, and this story makes sense to me. Ideally, as Spanjian and Skelly said, B-Cycle is going to go where the biggest bang for the buck will be – dense places where parking is at a premium and it’s often not convenient or practical to retrieve your car for a short trip. B-Cycle will mostly be a convenience in these locations, helping to reduce short-trip driving, which in turn helps relieve parking congestion, while extending the range of places that a non-driver can get to. This is all to the good.

What we need to keep sight of is that at its core, B-Cycle is a transit network. Extending that network by adding more stations makes it more useful and valuable, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The B-Cycle network can and should integrate well with our existing transit network.

Last month, we recorded 15,232 bikes on buses – that’s 15 percent more than the same month a year ago. And that’s 28 percent more than the previous month of April’s boardings.

Now, no one is going to put a B-Cycle bike aboard a Metro bus. But if we locate some B-Cycle kiosks near bus stops in parts of town that are heavily dependent on buses for local transit, that not only makes both networks more extensive, it also helps to address the Chron’s concern about who is being served by B-Cycle. As we know, Metro is re-imagining its bus system. I say this redesign needs to be done in conjunction with B-Cycle and its future expansion plans. Having these two networks – and the light rail network, and the Uptown BRT line – complement each other will make the whole that much greater than the sum of the parts. To address the question about the helmet fund, perhaps Metro could kick in a little something for that, and perhaps there’s some H-GAC mobility money available to help as well. The point I’m (finally) making here is that we need all these components to work together. I’m sure I’m not the first person to think about this, but I haven’t seen it addressed anywhere else. We have an opportunity here to really make non-car transit in Houston a lot more convenient and attractive. Let’s take full advantage of it.

Making downtown parking easier

Makes sense.

NoParking

In downtown Houston, there are about 3,200 parking spaces on the street – and a whopping 5,800 signs drivers must decipher to use them without getting towed or ticketed.

Aiming to fix this “confusing mishmash of signs,” as Mayor Annise Parker put it, City Council on Wednesday approved a $1.3 million contract with a Houston firm that will spend the next year removing signs and replacing them with a standardized set.

The types of parking signs posted downtown will drop from 120 to as few as 16.

“The goal is to have people be comfortable coming downtown knowing where they can park and not having a nasty surprise with their car being towed,” Parker said. “The theory apparently was previously that it’s better to have specific signs to say, ‘On this block you can do this between these hours.’ I don’t believe that. I think there ought to be consistency across downtown.”

Downtown Management District staff spent a week in a golf cart traveling streets, cataloging and photographing parking signs. The list showed, for example, at least 22 different versions of the same “no parking” message. In some places they found five or six signs stacked on the same post pointing in various directions, in what Councilman James Rodriguez called a befuddling “totem pole.”

Such proliferations of placards make it easy to miss the one that applies to you, Parker said, adding that the city also must keep curbs painted yellow in no-parking areas.

“I don’t want any ‘gotchas’ out there,” she said. “We want people who come downtown for a festival to have a great time at the festival and go back and find that their car is still in the same place they left it. Hear me: My goal is to write fewer parking tickets in downtown Houston and encourage everybody to come down and have a good time.”

I think everyone who has parked downtown has experienced this. It’s a welcome effort, and one that is not without cost to the city – as noted elsewhere in the story, the city collects $9.1 million from parking tickets but only $6.1 million from parking meters. Clearly, this is part of the recent focus on downtown retail, to help remove one of the obstacles to successful retail downtown by making people feel less confused and intimidated by the parking situation. I don’t know how much difference it will make, but it can’t hurt. Oh, and turning the old signs into an art project is all kinds of awesome. I can’t wait to see what that looks like. KUHF has more.

By the way, tacked on to the very end of the story is a note that Council approved the Uptown/Memorial TIRZ. You’d think after all the buildup leading to that vote that it might have warranted its own story, but apparently not. I understand that CM Helena Brown did vote no. That isn’t newsworthy anymore, either.

The Washington Avenue parking benefit district is now operational

From CultureMap:

Meet the meter

It took a while, but nearly five months after Houston City Council approved the first citywide Parking Benefit District for the Washington Avenue corridor, the meters started charging at 7 a.m. on Wednesday.

The City of Houston’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department hopes to solve a handful of issues with the new parking system, including a lack of curbside parking and congested neighborhood streets, while promoting alternate means of transportation like walking, cycling and public transit

By defining the bar-studded thoroughfare as a PBD, approximately 60 percent of the proceeds from the meters — which stretches from Westcott Street to Houston Avenue and charges $1 per hour during daytime hours and $2 per hour at night Monday through Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. — will fund neighborhood improvement projects like landscaping, street maintenance, public safety, lighting, sidewalk and pedestrian improvements.

Visitors can pay to park with credit card or via the Parkmobile App (one that will allow you to add time via smartphone if you get caught up at happy hour); neighborhood residents and business owners will have designated permit parking areas Thursday through Sunday from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Here’s the official city webpage on the PBD; I blogged about it before here, here, and here. Council will review the district and its results in 18 months. I hope it works as advertised. It’s a straightforward solution that recognizes parking is a scarce resource in some parts of town, and scarce resources should be valued appropriately. It would be great if the PBD provides enough funds to make some infrastructure improvements to Washington Avenue, which has some of the worst sidewalks for what should be a very walkable area anywhere. Via Swamplot, which has some good maps.

Why we need flexibility in our parking regulations

Here’s the story of Coltivare.

Coltivare and the vegetable garden space

As many of you know, we are in the process of opening Coltivare, our interpretation of an Italian-inspired, American, neighborhood restaurant, at the corner of White Oak and Arlington Streets.

Undoubtedly, one of the most unique aspects to Coltivare, is the potential to have a 3,000 square foot, fully-functioning vegetable garden, directly to the East of our building.

From day one, we envisioned the green space as having the potential to become that, but knew we faced a few hurdles with the City of Houston, fulfilling our parking code requirement. We didn’t let ourselves get our hopes up just yet.

Many of you have probably noticed a lot of “not much” going on with the construction process. This is because we’ve been going through the variance process with the City of Houston Planning Department.

The variance that we are seeking is one allowing us to utilize parking lots that we have leased adjacent to Coltivare, as spaces to count towards our code requirement.

The warehouse space

Across Arlington Street on the North side of White Oak, sits a warehouse space that has been in existence since 1938, best we can tell. Dating back to the 50’s, via Google satellite images, those same spaces have been used for parking. They are used for parking today as they will continue to be used for parking tomorrow. Over the last 80 years, as White Oak’s right-of-way has widened, it has slowly encroached on the depth of these spaces. They sit between 15′-16′ deep now. The City likes 19′. However, there is another 13′ from the back of the spaces to the actual street, leaving plenty of room to maneuver safely. These spaces are already legally being used by the warehouse during they day; we simply want to use them at night.

These spaces are what we are trying to get the Planning Commission to approve regarding our variance. Spaces that are already in existence and being used for parking.

We have historically had a very good relationship with the Planning Commission and do not envy their jobs. Given everything that is thrown at them, they do a phenomenal job keeping the City moving in the right direction. The idea of turning existing green-space into another parking lot does seem counter intuitive to Mayor Parker’s green initiatives though.

Regarding our variance, they have afforded the Heights community an opportunity to voice your support in their approving our parking plan.

Warehouse parking spaces

In a perfect world, we would love for you to inundate their emails with a quick note saying you support our variance to utilize existing parking, rather than turn one of the few green-spaces the community has, into another ugly parking lot.

Contact Planner Dipti Mathur Dipti.Mathur@houstontx.gov

Dipti has been graciously reading through all of these emails, but she needs to hear from you.

Also wouldn’t hurt to cc:

pd.planning@houstontx.gov

Marlene.Gafrick@houstontx.gov

We also would like to invite you to the Planning Commission hearing, March 28th, at 2:30pm, to verbally support the variance. We will send a follow up email as that date approaches, with more details.

Thank you all in advance for your support. We at Coltivare look very forward to serving you for years to come, and cannot imagine doing this in another neighborhood in Houston. The Heights is our home too.

Best Regards,

Morgan Weber & Ryan Pera
Owners, Revival Market & Coltivare Houston

Here’s some background on Coltivare, and here’s a mention of the story on Eating Our Words. For what it’s worth, the neighborhood seems to support Coltivare – I’ve seen emails about this on two separate Heights discussion groups. Embedded in the post are some photos I took of the space in question. The first, if I’ve read all the emails and whatnot correctly, is where the restaurant itself would be, on the northeast corner of White Oak and Arlington. To the east of the building is the grass lot that they want to use as a vegetable garden but which current rules say needs to be used for parking. The second picture is the warehouse across Arlington, where Coltivare would lease parking space. The third photo is the view down White Oak of those parking spaces – there are a few more on Arlington as well. Where I stood to take the picture is basically where the line between the sidewalk and the parking spaces would be. One could argue that any full-size vehicle would be too long for the parking spaces, and would partially block the sidewalk. This is true, but there would still be enough room to walk around such vehicles, and this western end of White Oak has much less pedestrian traffic than the section between Oxford and Studewood does. The inconvenience for pedestrians would be minor, especially if this were only used at night by Coltivare. All in all, I see a lot of merit to their variance request. I hope the city gives it all due consideration; you of course can help with that, as noted above.

One more thing: The blue structure to the east of the Coltivare site and proposed garden is the Blue Line Bike Shop. The Heights Bike Trail is a block away to the north and to the east. I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere, but surely Coltivare will take advantage of the recent changes to the off-street parking ordinances and max out their bike parking in return for a smaller car-park-space requirement. It would just be wrong not to do so.

Another reason why bike parking matters

This comment of the day on Swamplot points out a salient fact about bike parking.

In all honesty, I only ride my bike for fun with the family on the weekends. However, after a couple of very frustrating attempts to park around White Oak to go out to dinner, I recently rode my bike down there with the family for dinner at BBs. While there is a dearth of bike racks, it was so easy to just hop on the bike path, lock up the bikes and go to dinner than weaving in and out of parking lots and side streets trying to find a space for parking. And that is why cycling will eventually become an essential for Houston. We are piling people inside the loop at an unprecedented rate. There is not enough parking in a number of hot spots (Montrose, White Oak, Washington Ave, etc.). People now live close enough to ride their bikes to go out to eat in these areas but don’t because bike amenities are woefully lacking. Or, to put it another way, if you love your car, you should support cycling so there are more parking spaces available for you.

Public House on White Oak

That comment was left on this post. Like this person, my preferred way of getting to White Oak establishments is by bike. I live close enough that driving there should be the exception, but I totally agree about the convenience of bike parking versus the hassle of car parking. The point, though, is that for places on White Oak and Washington and other high-traffic/crowded parking areas, there are basically two types of people: Those that can get there by means other than cars, and those that can’t. It’s very much in the interest of those who have to drive and park to make it as easy and convenient as possible for those that don’t have to drive so that as many of them as possible choose not to. Every one of them who chooses to walk or bike is one less car taking up a parking place, after all. The same is true for places like the Medical Center and midtown, where everyone who arrives via light rail is one less person competing with you for a parking place. The people who have to drive to these places should be the most vocal supporters of pedestrian, bicycle, and transit access to them, and the steady progress of rail line construction should should be taken as especially excellent news. It’s for their own good even if they never use those arrival methods themselves.

Along those same lines, the arrival of more bike share kiosks is as good a thing for the drivers as it is for everyone else.

With the opening of the Ensemble stop and the additional bikes, riders can for the first time check out or return a bike to a station outside the central business district. Previously only three locations — City Hall, Market Square Park and the George R. Brown Convention Center — featured a B-cycle kiosk.

According to a map on the Houston B-cycle website, a station at the Houston Zoo is coming soon.

Hair Balls has more on this. The point I’m trying to get at here is that being an occasional bicyclist is a good thing in and of itself. It’s good for you, and it’s good for the people who are driving to the places you are biking. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. Along those lines, if you look at those two Swamplot posts above, you’ll see the inevitable comments from those who claim it’s too hot in Houston to ride bikes. Well, it’s not too hot right now. In fact, it’s not too hot about nine months out of the year. Personally, I find that even when it is hot out, the nice thing about riding a bike is the cool breeze you get while riding, and at no time were you sweltering in a car that had been left out in the sun. I would also note that one of the most successful B-Cycle cities in America is Minneapolis, and their winters are at least as long and unfriendly to biking as our summers are. But so what? Like I said, this isn’t all or nothing. Bike when the weather is agreeable to you. It’s all good.

Who says you can’t park there?

This story about parking in Houston is kind of fluffy, but this was something I didn’t know:

Smaller developments like strip centers along frontage roads are moving away from dedicating parking to certain tenants, Hernandez said, realizing that opening spaces for everyone helps move people in and out.

“If there is anything, there is a push away from exclusive parking,” he said, adding that office developments still crave dedicated parking.

Signs can be misleading

Besides, landlords and tenants said, many signs declaring a space off-limits are for show.

“They can’t tow you if it is not posted that you will be towed and where to call,” Hernandez said.

Two landlords and a lawyer representing commercial clients said property owners often permit the signs as a courtesy to tenants, but they rarely represent a real threat to tow. State and city laws require private property owners to follow rules about signs and notice to the vehicle’s owner.

I’ll be darned. I see those “so-and-so’s customers only” signs all the time – it’s often for a dry cleaner, or some other business with quick transactions – and I always heed them, which is sometimes really annoying because they’re the only spaces available. It had never occurred to me that it’s basically a bluff. I can’t say that knowing there are no real consequences to using one of those spots when patronizing some other business will change my behavior – I still have a fairly strong guilt reflex – but you never know. Have you ever taken one of these spaces when you weren’t supposed to?

One size does not fit all, parking regulations department

This makes a lot of sense to me.

A proposed rewrite of Houston’s off-street parking rules could allow some areas to alter the new requirements or ditch them altogether, part of what Mayor Annise Parker said is an effort to allow tailored solutions in this “city of neighborhoods.”

City planners say the off-street parking ordinance, barely touched since it first was passed in 1989, has been made more flexible with the revisions, none more adaptable than the advent of “special parking areas.”

The idea would allow neighborhoods, with Planning Commission and City Council approval, to create parking districts suited to their needs. City planners say the ordinance deliberately is vague about what rule changes would be allowed and who can apply – described only as “management entities” with a “perpetual commitment” to the area – to allow applicants room to find creative solutions for their unique areas.

“What we’re trying to get away from is a one-size-fits-all policy for the city of Houston,” Parker said. “If we pass these changes, we will have the ability to structure solutions on the micro level instead of just the one macro ordinance. I’m very excited about the possibilities.”

The proposed ordinance also loosens rules on how close parking lots must be to a building’s front door, makes it easier for businesses to share parking, allows substitution of bike parking for car spaces and cuts parking for historic buildings.

There’s a lot here to like. All the places where the rules are being loosened are exactly where I’d want them to be loosened. The increasingly dense inner core is not the same as more outlying areas, and businesses in the inner core should not required to provide suburban amounts of parking for their customers if they don’t think it’s needed. Giving neighborhoods the freedom to come up with their own solutions for their own unique problems, as was done for the Washington Avenue corridor, is the way to go. I’m impressed by how flexible the city has been, and judging by the reactions from stakeholders it seems they’ve addressed a lot of their concerns. Council has now approved the changes, with a further improvement added:

Added to the changes Wednesday was an amendment, suggested by Councilwoman Melissa Noriega, that will allow businesses within a quarter-mile of a transit station to get a 20 percent reduction in parking requirements if they build to city guidelines for development in transit corridors, meant to encourage pedestrian-friendly environments.

Good job, y’all. I look forward to seeing how this develops. CultureMap has more.

City proposes bike parking alternatives

Nice.

Public House on White Oak

Bicycle advocates are cheering a city proposal that would give businesses an incentive to offer bike parking and would require some properties to provide it for the first time, saying the ideas mark a cultural shift in Houston.

“This is a first for Houston and a sign of how our city is evolving,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “It recognizes the popularity of cycling and gives a nod to the fact that there are other modes of transportation besides automobiles.”

The bike-related ideas are included in a proposed rewrite of the city’s off-street parking ordinance, largely untouched since it was passed in 1989. The proposal is expected to go before City Council soon. Debate over the rewrite mainly has focused on its impact on bars and restaurants, many of which would be required to provide more parking.

The city initially had exempted only freestanding restaurants and bars smaller than 2,000 square feet from the higher parking requirements; independent restaurateurs wanted all establishments smaller than 4,500 square feet to be exempt. The sides appear to have reached an agreement that would exempt all restaurants smaller than 3,000 square feet and all bars smaller than 2,500 square feet.

[…]

Under the proposed revisions, new retail, commercial and office buildings 5,000 square feet or larger would need to provide one bike parking space, with another bike space required for every additional 25,000 square feet, up to a maximum of six spaces.

The ordinance also would allow any property, other than single-family homes, to reduce required car parking by up to 10 percent by trading one car space for four bike spaces. A 10,000-square-foot retail business, for instance, could drop its required 40 car spaces to 36 by increasing its bike parking from the required one space to 17.

As you know, I wholeheartedly approve of this. I wouldn’t mind seeing more flexibility on trading car spaces for bike spaces, but the fact that it’s happening at all is a big deal. Even better, the group that has been agitating the most forcefully for this sort of accommodation supports the proposal.

Brian Crimmins, chief of staff in the city Planning Department, also noted that the ability of any business (except single-family homes) to trade up to 10 percent of its required parking for additional bike parking spaces would still apply to all restaurants and bars (even those exempt from the higher parking requirements). That would allow these businesses to drop their car parking to essentially match OKRA’s proposal, he said.

In an email to top city staffers confirming the agreed changes, OKRA president Bobby Heugel said his group plans to vocally support the ordinance if it moves forward as negotiated.

“The manner in which our views were received and incorporated into Chapter 26 is exciting and encouraging as OKRA is new to the local political process,” he wrote. “It’s nice to know that participation can make a difference, and that the sharing of perspectives can result in policies in which a variety of stakeholders concerns(‘) are represented.”

You can see some more detail about the proposals as well as the full text of what the city has out forward and what OKRA had countered with.

The Chron editorializes in favor of the new approach, also with a desire to see it go farther.

We’re pleased that the new regulations include cutouts that allow different neighborhoods to create systems that are right for them. Among the added flexibility – such as reducing parking requirements for historic districts, letting bicycle parking replace a certain number of car spots and allowing shared parking lots – are Special Parking Areas. These would allow management entities to set their own parking management plan – with approval from City Hall.

This flexibility makes the proposed changes a vast improvement over the previous regulations, and the folks at City Hall say they’re trying to engage business owners so they can take advantage of the new rules on day one. City Hall could show more good faith by adopting recommendations by OKRA – the Organized Kollaboration of Restaurant Affairs – to allow more types of bars to be exempted from the higher parking minimums.

Residents worried about parking overflow can protect their neighborhoods by applying for permit parking on their streets, as many cocktail fans have learned while chasing down a tow truck.

But there is a price for living in walkable, dynamic neighborhoods, and it includes folks parking in front of your house. That is a price inner-loop Houstonians should be happy to pay.

Agreed.

The off-street parking debate

I believe the new offstreet parking requirements that have been proposed and are being debated are at least as big a deal as the Chapter 42 revisions. We really need to get this right.

Public House on White Oak

Under the new rules, some eateries – dessert shops, carryout restaurants – would need less parking, but requirements on most restaurants would go from eight spaces per 1,000 square feet of floor area to 10, with most bars going from 10 spaces to 14.

The revisions also would allow neighborhoods to create special parking areas tailored to their needs, reduce parking requirements for historic buildings, allow the substitution of bike parking for car spaces, loosen rules on how close lots must be to a building’s front door and make it easier for businesses to share parking.

As Houston seeks greater density in other initiatives, Councilman Ed Gonzalez said, the city must ensure the best use of its land.

“We’re still going with the basis that we’re going to be a car-dependent community going forward,” Gonzalez said. “What about the pedestrian? How can we better align transit to meet the needs of certain neighborhoods? We should be creating conditions to create more small businesses and more jobs, not more parking lots.”

That is an argument Bobby Heugel, the force behind several nationally acclaimed Houston restaurants and bars, has been making since 2011. He helped form OKRA, an Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs, to advocate for the next wave of independent restaurateurs, who he says would be barred from the market by the proposed parking changes.

[…]

The city proposes exempting freestanding restaurants and bars smaller than 2,000 square feet from the higher parking requirements; OKRA wants the threshold set at 4,500 square feet, regardless of whether a business is freestanding. City officials say they are willing to reconsider both points.

“The only opponents we have are city officials who incorrectly interpret residential concerns,” Heugel said.

As I said before, I have some sympathy for neighborhood residents who are tired of dealing with packed streets full of overflow parkers from nearby eateries and drinkeries, but any solution that requires more paved-over spaces or that discourages future innovation and growth in Houston’s dynamic food scene is a non-starter. The problem is that there’s been a lot of growth in many established inner core neighborhoods, with a lot more residents crowded onto the original plats and new businesses moving in to formerly abandoned spaces, but without a corresponding amount of growth in transit infrastructure. The influx of people and businesses is great and desperately needed, but the huge increase in vehicular traffic and demand for parking in places that were never built to handle it isn’t. As with other places that are dealing with more traffic than they can bear, providing viable non-car alternatives has to be a key component of the solution. Allowing food and drink establishments to trade bike parking for car parking is good, but the ultimate answer is bigger than anything the bars and restaurants themselves can do. Still, we need to remember that a lot of these new places, and a lot of the planned new places, are intended to be part of the neighborhood, and for the neighborhood. Their customer bases for the most part don’t need to drive and park to get there. The off-street parking regulations need to allow them to fulfill that vision. If we’re treating a neighborhood coffee house the same way as a franchise restaurant that fronts a highway, we’re doing it wrong.

And maybe we won’t need as much road capacity as we think, either

Felix Salmon writes about the possible implications of driverless cars.

While I’ve generally been a fan of just about any alternative to the automobile, now I’m not so sure: I think that smart car technology is improving impressively, to the point at which it could be the most promising solution, especially in developed parts of the world like California.

One reason is simply fiscal. Projects like the self-driving car, and the Sartre platooning project in Europe, move the costs of new technology onto companies (Google) and individuals (people buying smart cars). As such, while the total amount of money spent might well be enormous, the money doesn’t need to be spent up-front by any state or national government. That stands in stark contrast, of course, to rail projects, which cost billions of dollars up front; if they ever do pay for themselves, they do so only very slowly.

It makes perfect sense for dense urban areas to invest in subway systems, of course — as China is doing; India should follow suit. A pedestrian-friendly city with a great bike-path network and a fast subway system is basically any urbanist’s dream, both energy-efficient and reasonably low-tech. But between cities and suburbs, or between cities, you need other ways of getting around. And here there are real choices to be made, between rail and roads. Or rather, given that roads are necessary, do you build roads and railways, or can you solve all your problems with roads alone?

[…]

If and when self-driving cars really start taking off, it’s easy to see where the road leads. Firstly, they probably won’t be operated on the owner-occupier model that we use for cars today, where we have to leave our cars parked for 97% of their lives just so that we know they’re going to be available for us when we need them. Given driverless cars’ ability to come pick you up whenever you need one, it makes much more sense to just join a network of such things, giving you the same ability to drive your car when you’re at home, or in a far-flung city, or whenever you might normally take a taxi. And the consequence of that is much less need for parking (right now there are more than three parking spots for every car), and therefore the freeing up of lots of space currently given over to parking spots.

What’s more, the capacity of all that freed-up space will be much greater than the capacity of our current roads. Put enough platoons and self-driving cars onto the road, and it’s entirely conceivable that the number of vehicle-miles driven per hour, on any given stretch of road, could double from its current level, even without any increase in the speed limit. Then, take account of the fact that vehicle mileage will continue to improve. The result is that with existing dumb roads, we could wind up moving more people more miles for less total energy expenditure in cars — even when most of those cars continue to have just one person in them — than by forcing those people to cluster together and take huge, heavy trains instead.

This vision creates a dilemma, when we start facing choices about building rail lines or new suburbs. We’re not in a self-driving-car utopia yet, and the transportation problems we have are both real and solvable using rail. So do we use the tools we have, or do we wait and hope that future technology will solve our problems in a more efficient way?

Via Kevin Drum, who is particularly bullish about this. The implication here is that maybe, just maybe, we don’t really need all that extra road capacity that TxDOT says we need but can’t pay for and for which we’re currently groping around for funding sources. Sure, this is all pie in the sky, but driverless cars do exist, and they’re surely going to be a disruptive force. Predicting the future, especially that far out, is hard, you know? Just something to keep in mind, that’s all.

Ready or not, here comes Chapter 42

Changes are coming to Chapter 42, the section of Houston’s ordinances that deal with density and development, and to Chapter 26, the section on off-street parking for bars and restaurants and what have you.

The revisions would allow neighborhoods to create special parking areas tailored to their needs, reduce parking requirements for historic buildings, allow the substitution of bike parking for car spaces, loosen rules on how close lots must be to a building’s front door, and make it easier for businesses to share parking.

Bar and restaurant owners would be most impacted by the new rules. Some eateries – dessert shops, carryout restaurants – would need less parking, but requirements on most restaurants would go from eight spaces per 1,000 square feet of floor area to 10, with bars going from 10 to 14.

“We’re trying to redevelop our city, we’re trying to bring renewal and think over the next 10, 15, 20 years. Part of that is to build more walkability into our city,” said Councilman Ed Gonzalez. “I don’t want the parking requirements to be onerous for a small mom and pop shop. The focus should be on building more businesses in those communities, not building more parking lots just to meet, maybe, an arbitrary number that we’re coming up with.”

David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit that works on quality of life issues, has quibbles with both proposed rewrites, but said his key concern is broader.

“We’re not having the right conversation,” he said. “Rather than do all these Band-Aids – and there’s so many of them going on and they often actually disagree with each other, they’re in conflict – why don’t we just do a general plan for the future in which you say, ‘This is how we want to develop and these are the goals we want to have, and so we’ll build transportation and so forth to meet those goals.'”

[…]

“If council fails to adopt these amendments, many areas between 610 and the Beltway will remain underdeveloped, blighted and abandoned, while development will rapidly continue inside the Loop and outside the city limits,” said builder Ed Taravella.

Some residents are wary, however, saying the push for density inside the Loop has hurt neighborhood aesthetics and created infrastructure problems, compounded by a lack of city enforcement. That would only worsen if development density extends citywide, they say.

The evidence from the 1999 changes to the ordinance is clear, said Jane West, president of Super Neighborhood 22 in the Washington Avenue area.

“Although it was hoped that this redevelopment would create transit-served pedestrian-friendly environment, in most cases that has not happened. And in many cases, problems such as flooding, inadequate drainage, traffic congestion, and lack of sufficient on-street parking have worsened,” she said. “There’s no reason to believe the expansion of Chapter 42 urban standards beyond Loop 610 will yield a different result.”

What I said about this the last time still holds true. There is a need to unify the development code and treat outside the Loop in the same fashion as inside the Loop, but the issues Jane West addresses are real. Ideally, what I want to see out of this is the encouraging of development in parts of town that really need redevelopment, greater emphasis on walkability, more investment in transit, and a sense of urgency about making life closer in more attractive and affordable. A lot to ask, I know, but we only do this every couple of decades, so let’s try to get it right.

Some of the concerns about revising Chapter 42 and the effect it would have on inner Loop neighborhoods can be addressed via increased enforcement, as Mayor Parker noted in the story. I would hope that this acknowledged need for increased enforcement can be addressed in the next budget, since I’m sure there aren’t enough inspectors and whoever else is needed to handle the current caseload, let alone the caseload that would result from the hoped-for boom in construction that updating Chapter 42 would bring. I feel this is even more true for Chapter 26, the off-street parking ordinances.

Heugel’s Anvil bar is just south of the Cherryhurst neighborhood, where June Spencer is civic club president. Heugel has been a good neighbor, she said, but other area bars and clubs and the popular Hugo’s restaurant, despite its on-site parking lot, have created parking problems.

“I have them parking all along the side of my house, the front of my house. They’re loud at night, they don’t even try to be considerate. They throw garbage,” Spencer said. “They shouldn’t give these people permits to open businesses unless they have the appropriate parking.”

While I have some sympathy for folks like Ms. Spencer, let’s be real here: We don’t own the street space in front of our homes. People are allowed to park there. This is a totally normal thing in most cities. Requiring more off-street parking, especially in inner neighborhoods, will result in more parking lots and fewer new establishments being opened. Neither of these are good things. People parking on the street and then walking to a nearby restaurant or bar are not a problem. People creating disturbances and littering are problems. That can and should be dealt with in a way that doesn’t necessitate restricting parking to a special, permitted few. Let’s please aim for that. While we’re at it, let’s also encourage alternatives to more car parking such as more bike parking. We just approved $100 million plus for expanded bike trails, let’s act like we plan to use them.

Finally, as I noted yesterday, you can give feedback on these and other proposed ordinance here. This affects all of us, so if you have something to say, please make sure you say it.

Council approves Washington Avenue parking benefit district

We’ll see how this works.

The Houston City Council on Wednesday formed a special parking district along Washington Avenue, intended to ease the woes associated with the bustling corridor’s mix of bars, restaurants and residential streets.

The plan will add parking meters on about 350 spaces along Washington, and will make it easier for residents to require parking permits on sleepy side streets. The district extends one block on either side of Washington between Westcott and Houston Avenue.

After paying for the meters, two parking enforcement officers and a meter mechanic, the new revenues will be split between the district and the city, with the district keeping 60 percent for enhancements. Projects will be chosen by a committee of local business owners and residents and could include security, lighting, sidewalks, shuttles or a parking garage.

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who, with Councilman Ed Gonzalez, represents the area, cheered the approval, saying it will spur turnover for businesses and protect residents. She said data from other cities shows the meters will add patrons, not drive them away.

“People that go out to restaurants and are prepared to spend a significant amount of money want to find a place to park,” Cohen said. “They’re certainly prepared to spend a little bit more to find a place and pay for it.”

See here for the background, and here for more information about what this means. Once the meters are in place, the clock will start on the 18-month pilot period, after which the program can be modified, renewed, or terminated. I think this is a perfectly reasonable response to the problem, certainly a better solution than just giving out residential parking permits, which would only exacerbate the shortage. I look forward to the announcement of the first improvement projects that result from the revenue that this will raise.

On the Parking Benefit District

A proposed ordinance to create a parking benefit district in the Washington Avenue corridor was on Council’s agenda this week, but it was tagged and will wait a week while everyone gets up to speed on it.

CM Ellen Cohen

District C Council member Ellen Cohen says the city has been working with business owners to come up with a plan to test having parking meters,not only better regulate the constant influx of traffic, but:

“To deal with the issues of parking, increased crime, of safety, and neighbors live several streets off, and they walk in the evenings to restaurants and other services there. It’s a great place, but we want to make sure that it works, and so we’re gonna give it an 18 month trial and see how it goes.”

Mayor Annise Parker says contrary to some belief, they’re not creating an entertainment district.

“We’re trying to create a tool, so we can better manage the intersection between the businesses and the neighborhoods, and the public that needs to travel these major thoroughfares. I do hope that taking some of the lessons learned from creation of this parking benefit district will have 18 months to prove itself. We are not trying to create a one-size-fits-all model of this is what a parking benefit district looks like.”

Jane West is president of the Washington Avenue Coalition. She says money generated from parking meters will go to things like more sidewalks, better lighting and overall improved safety.

“This is a rare example of where members of our residential community, our business community and our development community have come together in a consensus opinion, for a proposal before city council. We’re disappointed that is wasn’t vote on this week, but we anticipate a favorable vote next week.”

See here for some background. I think this is an idea that makes a lot of sense. It’s based on the simple principle that parking is a valuable commodity, and it seeks to leverage that commodity and invest the revenue it generates back into the district. If you’ve ever tried to walk along Washington Avenue, you know how badly the infrastructure there needs work. Anyway, courtesy of CM Cohen’s office, here are some documents to help familiarize yourself with this proposal:

The PBD FAQ and flyer, plus the full presentation put together by the city. Be sure to at least read this document.

The left and right halves of the map of the area in question.

We’ll see what Council does with this, but I fully expect it to pass. What do you think about the idea?

Washington Avenue parking

The city of Houston has been trying to tackle the problem of insufficient parking in the busy Washington Avenue entertainment corridor.

What to do about Washington Avenue is Houston’s latest public policy discussion of what government’s role should be in growing business, in helping a fledgling business strip turn into a destination district.

The players all seem to want the same thing: Turnover at the restaurant tables, safe revelry in bars and clubs, pedestrians strolling a well-kept avenue and sprinkling their cash at the storefronts. All the while, people should be able to sleep through it two blocks away.

The city’s parking czar is rolling out plans for what he calls a parking benefit district, which would include residential parking permits to protect nearby homes, better lighting and security, and spruced-up sidewalks. It would be paid for by charging for spaces along the curb.

Don Pagel, whose official title is deputy director of Houston’s Department of Administration and Regulatory Affairs, says the avenue’s very success threatens to undermine its future. It is a Yogi Berra philosophy summed up in the Yankee legend’s oft-quoted remark that a New York restaurant “is so crowded nobody goes there anymore.”

Parking is a commodity, Pagel said, just like groceries or furniture, and should be priced accordingly to derive the maximum economic benefit. In practice, this means it should cost more when it is scarce. Charging for parking will not only bring in money that can be reinvested into the neighborhood, Pagel said, but it will ensure that the folks who have money to spend will get the premium spots at the curb. Someone who tries to avoid a $2 parking charge, Pagel suggests, is unlikely to spend $50 on dinner.

“Folks with the most money have the least amount of patience,” Pagel said. They will make one pass along Washington, he speculated, and if they don’t find a space they’ll move on to Montrose or Midtown.

I’m not particularly thrilled about residential parking permits, but everything else sounds pretty good. It’s particularly encouraging to hear officials like Pagel talk about parking as a valuable commodity, one that should be priced accordingly. Among other things, the sidewalks on Washington Avenue are atrocious, so if this parking benefit district can genuinely raise some money, perhaps that can finally be addressed. I have to think that any long-term solution must include better ways to get to Washington Avenue’s recreations without driving and parking – i.e., bikes, mass transit, and remote parking areas with shuttle service. But this sounds like a good start and the right direction, so let’s see how it goes. The Chron’s editorial page has more.

More bike racks

The Chron notes that Houston is on the verge of becoming an actual bike-friendly city, and that we ought to recognize that and do something to help facilitate it.

Public House on White Oak

Notably, many downtown buildings lack accessible and visible bike racks. For those who live close enough, biking to downtown destinations, whether work or the Theater District, is a tempting alternative to the cost and hassle of downtown parking – especially with the new Buffalo Bayou path. Signposts and benches may have once sufficed, but Houston is steadily approaching the tipping point of actually being a bicycle-friendly city, and we’re going to need enough places to park all those bikes. And for huge buildings like those downtown, sometimes one rack is not enough.

But rather than an infrastructure burden, this is an opportunity to invest in functional public art. Cities from New York City to Louisville, Ky., have turned to local artists to create racks that reflect the spirit and creativity of their towns.

As we know, there’s a restaurant-driven effort to supply bike racks to restaurants in some parts of the city. It makes all kinds of sense to me, because you can add a lot of parking capacity in a small amount of space. Some folks in my neck of the woods are working on this:

When Mitch Cohen was planning White Linen Nights in the Heights last summer, he and the other organizers spent much time on their bikes, cycling from business to business to talk to owners.

“We could get most anywhere in 10 to 20 minutes,” said Cohen, who also manages the Heights’ First Saturday Arts Market. “But there weren’t as many bike racks as we expected.”

Now Cohen is working with other community members to raise money for more racks, which they’re hoping to place in front of businesses along 19th Street, White Oak and other Heights streets.

Cohen said their efforts will complement the work of the Houston Heights Association, which has placed a number of bike racks in the community.

“There are racks here and there, but there’s been no strategic effort to place them where people go shopping,” Cohen said.

“We’re going to tackle that.”

Awesome. More like this, please.