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RIP, Peter Brown

A dedicated public servant and a heck of a nice guy.

Peter Brown

Former Houston city councilman, mayoral candidate and civic leader Peter Brown has died, his family said Tuesday.

Brown, an architect and urban planner, was 81.

“A loving father, committed public servant, and fearless advocate, former Council Member Brown passed on to the next life the same way he lived in this one – surrounded by his family in the city he loved most,” his son, the elected City Controller Chris Brown, said in a statement.

“The Brown family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers, and asks for privacy during this very difficult time.”

You can see Chris Brown’s statement here. After the 2009 Mayoral election, Peter Brown went back to his roots, talking about urban design and making city streets safer and more user-friendly for people on his Pedestrian Pete website. He was a visionary and an advocate for building a better city to the end. Rest in peace, Pedestrian Pete.

Improving Metro service for disabled riders

It’s a work in progress.

Many elderly and disabled people in the region rely on the bus, and a 6-foot stretch of missing sidewalk can cut off their access completely. Advocates expect better from the city with the world’s largest medical center, home to the former president, George H.W. Bush, who signed the Americans With Disabilities Act – and who now uses a wheelchair to get around himself.

Largely via prodding from [Metro board member Lex] Frieden, who helped craft the Americans With Disabilities Act, Metro officials are taking another look at increasing access for disabled and elderly riders by improving their paths to mass transit. As Metro revamps its own policies that might drive away disabled riders – such as tense interactions with bus operators – the larger issues remain smoothing over Houston’s bumpy sidewalk system and repairing Metro’s crumbling concrete slabs at many bus stops.

City leaders agree there are major problems, ranging from poorly maintained sidewalks to ill-placed utility poles and electrical boxes.

“I am very sensitive about that, especially with the disabled community,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Aside from the city’s own sidewalk plans, Metro officials expect to spend $16.5 million over the next five years, including more than $3.5 million in the current fiscal year on “universal accessibility,” a hodgepodge of projects aimed at making it easier for everyone to get to a bus. Projects include improved sidewalks, rebuilt ramps, making bus stop slabs level and even adding trash cans.

Still, problems persist even as Houston enjoys new development that brings new sidewalks and street crossings.

“Overall, it is getting better,” Frieden said on a recent tour of problem spots old and new along Metro’s routes. “Any time there is new development, there is new construction that is up to code and often it is better. The problem is that one exception that keeps me from benefiting from the new development.”

Increasing access to Metro buses also helps curtail the growing demand for costly, door-to-door paratransit provided by MetroLift.

MetroLift cost $54 million in 2014, about the same the agency spent on commuter bus services to park-and-ride lots, which provided four times as many trips. On a per-trip basis, each 2014 MetroLift trip cost $22.51 for a taxi ride or $30.46 for a small bus equipped with a wheelchair lift, according to the Federal Transit Administration. Every conventional bus trip costs Metro $4.78 on average.

I wrote about the need for good sidewalks in my Vision for Metro post about boosting bus ridership. I admit I didn’t think of it in terms of making the system more accessible for disabled riders, which as this story notes would allow Metro to provide fewer of the more expensive MetroLift rides, but the principle was the same. People can’t and won’t ride the buses if they can’t get to and from the bus stops in a safe and convenient manner. It’s good that Metro is putting some money into addressing the issue, but let’s be clear that this is not, and should not be, strictly a problem for Metro to solve. It’s a Houston issue and a Harris County issue, too. We all need to treat it like the pressing concern that it is.

What makes transit successful?

It’s pretty basic, as this report lays out.

A new report released [Tuesday] by TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to improving urban mobility, finds that developing transit in walkable areas and offering frequent, fast bus and rail service is the key to increasing urban transit ridership.

The report, “Who’s on Board 2016: What Today’s Riders Teach Us About Transit That Works” draws on results from three focus groups and a survey of 3,000 people in 17 U.S. metropolitan areas with varying levels of transit development and ridership. It builds on the findings from TransitCenter’s first Who’s On Board report released in 2014—the largest-ever attitudinal survey of transit riders—which showed that Americans from coast to coast think about and use public transit in remarkably similar and often unexpected ways. The latest edition of the Who’s On Board series offers several core findings to inform how government agencies and elected officials approach transportation, land use, and development policy:

  • The most important “first mile/last mile” solution is walking. The majority of transit riders, including 80 percent of all-purpose riders, typically walk to transit. This finding underscores the importance of putting transit stations in busy, walkable neighborhoods; building offices and housing within walking distance of transit; and providing more and safer pedestrian routes to transit.
  • The two most important determinants of rider satisfaction with transit are service frequency and travel time. The availability of information and conditions at the station or stop were also important, suggesting that real-time information and shelters are important amenities for transit agencies to provide. On the other hand, power outlets and Wifi were rated the least important items out of a list of 12 potential service improvements.
  • There are three common patterns of transit use: occasional riders who take transit once in awhile, commuters who take transit regularly but only for work, and all-purpose riders who take transit regularly for multiple purposes. Transit agencies should strive to grow this third category of rider, as they are the most reliable and financially efficient customers to serve. All-purpose riders are more prevalent where it’s easy to walk to transit, and where transit is frequent and provides access to many destinations.
  • Transit riders are sensitive to transit quality, not “captive” to transit. For decades, transportation professionals have talked about two kinds of transit riders: car-owning “choice riders” who use transit when it meets their needs, and carless “captive riders” who will use transit regardless of its quality. Who’s On Board finds that the “captivity” of carless riders is severely overstated. People who live and work near better transit ride transit more often, whether or not they own cars. When transit becomes functionally useless, there are very few people who will continue to use it; agencies can take no one for granted.

Who’s On Board offers several recommendations for local governments and transit agencies to improve transit service, including creating dedicated lanes to reduce travel time, improving frequency on routes with high ridership potential, and zoning to concentrate development around transit corridors.

“There’s no magic bullet for transit, but there are some simple rules. Make it easy for people to walk to transit, put it close to important destinations, and make transit frequent, fast, and reliable,” said Steven Higashide, Senior Program Analyst for TransitCenter and leader of the foundation’s opinion research program. “Transit lines that don’t follow these rules–like commuter rail with parking lots at every station or slow streetcars that don’t connect to other transit–tend to perform poorly. Frequent transit networks in walkable neighborhoods reduce reliance on cars, spark economic growth, and create vibrant urban places.”

“Who’s On Board shows that discussions about transit often ignore what really drives transit ridership. In Houston, we bucked the trend by redesigning our entire local bus network to improve frequency and travel time—and total ridership is up more than 10 percent,” said Christof Spieler, a Houston METRO Board Member. “If every city followed the report’s advice and focused transit investments on frequency, travel time, and walkability, we could make transit useful to millions more people across the country.”

The full report is available for download here.

More information about the report is available here. If you look at the Recommendations on page 12 of the report, you’ll see that pretty much everything there was implemented by Metro in its bus system redesign. The main thing that still needs to be done, which is the first recommendation for local governments on page 13, is improving sidewalks. Every dollar that we can reasonably spend towards that goal will be worth it. Read the report and see what you think. The Chron story on this is here, and Urban Edge has more.

The latest attempt to kill the Uptown BRT line

Whatever.

“See this right turn lane filled up?” asked consultant Wayne Dolcefino to about a dozen angry Uptown residents, standing along Post Oak Boulevard near the intersection with San Felipe Street on Monday morning. “That’s going away. The right lane at Westheimer? That’s going away too.”

A woman’s jaw dropped, as though what Docefino said was inconceivable.

But pretty soon, it will happen. One of the most congested roads in Houston will soon be ripped up by construction for two-and-a-half years — brought down to just two lanes, plus a left turn lane where necessary — as Uptown Houston makes ground on a public transit project that residents have been protesting for a year: the Post Oak Boulevard dedicated bus lanes project.

Uptown Houston, the neighborhood management district, claims the biggest problem facing the overcrowded Uptown area is the “lack of effective commuter transit service.” To solve that problem, the district has decided to rip out the center median and replace it with two elevated bus lanes — similar to how the rail works in the center of Main Street. The buses will come every six minutes, running from the Northwest Transit Center along 610 and Post Oak to a new Bellaire Uptown Transit Center at Westpark and U.S. 59. While Uptown Houston will pay for construction and development, Metro has agreed to team up and provide the transportation once the project is complete.

On Monday, though, Uptown residents held a press conference along Post Oak as part of a last-ditch effort to ask Mayor Sylvester Turner to halt the $192 million project. Among many things, residents claim this project is going to make traffic worse, will put stores along Post Oak out of business because drivers won’t want to bother with the headache, and that the project is “stained ethically” because of conflicts of interest within Uptown Houston.

[…]

John Breeding, president of Uptown Houston, denied every accusation Dolcefino and the residents made. He said that no one at Uptown Houston has made any money off these deals, and also said that “this project has been vetted more than any public project I’ve ever been associated with” in response to critics saying it hasn’t been transparent.

Complaints about the Uptown line are nothing new – they go back to 2010 at least. A lawsuit was filed last year claiming that the project was in conflict with the 2003 referendum because it wasn’t light rail (!); that lawsuit was dismissed a few months later, though there was no resolution in the dismissal. A criminal complaint was filed in April over the way land was acquired for the project; there’s been no word yet as to whether there’s anything to that or not. Campos has the text of a letter this “Save Uptown” group has sent out, which calls on Mayor Turner to stop the project and says another lawsuit is in the offing. It’s not clear to me that the Mayor could stop this if he wanted to – Council approved funding as part of the overall Uptown/Memorial TIRZ expansion, but funding for this comes from other, non-city sources as well. It’s also not clear to me why Mayor Turner would want to top this given his emphasis on rethinking transportation. My question for “Save Uptown” or any other foe of this project is this: What’s your alternative to the status quo? I mean, if you think the traffic situation in the Uptown/Galleria area is fine as things are and nothing needs to be done, then fine. Say it loud and proud. If you don’t think it’s fine, then please tell me 1) what you would do about it, 2) how you would pay for it, 3) how much disruption any of your planned upgrades would cause over the next two years, and 4) what you have been doing since, oh, 2010 or so, to bring about your vision. Maybe the Uptown BRT project isn’t the best possible idea, or maybe the cost is too high, but you can’t beat something with nothing. This plan has been in motion for a long time. What have you got that’s better than it? Swamplot and the HBJ have more.

Uptown BRT construction officially begins

Here we go.

Crews are relocating trees in preparation for two years of construction, starting in July.

The Uptown Dedicated Bus Lanes Project will unfold in three phases, moving from north to south and starting with the West Loop to San Felipe segment. Designed to solve the area’s crushing mobility problem, the $121.5 million boulevard project is one part of a three-prong plan to make it easier for 80,000 employees to get to work.

“We’ve done about all we can with the freeway, but we need to improve how automobiles move through the area. We essentially have no commuter bus service,” said Uptown Houston District president John Breeding.

The boulevard will be widened from 120 to just over 136 feet. Buses will be moved to central lanes, with landscaping and sleek shelters, replacing the current esplanades. The project preserves six auto traffic lanes and their signalized left turn lanes.

The Uptown TIRZ is contributing $76.5 million and getting $45 million in federal funds for the boulevard. An additional $25 million in TxDot funds and nearly $70 million in federal funds will be spent to tie the boulevard’s buses to the Northwest Transit Center and a new Bellaire/Uptown Transit Center that will tap into the Westpark Tollway and the Southwest Freeway HOV lanes.

“We’re going to have the level and quality of service that the light rail system has with all the flexibility that the bus system offers,” said Uptown Houston District president John Breeding, whose group is also working with Metro to develop a new bus prototype for the boulevard that will be a hybrid of commuter rail vehicles and current buses. Giving the buses their own roadway will reduce travel time along the boulevard by 40 percent, Breeding said.

But his group also wants to create a more walkable environment for growing numbers of residents and visitors in the area.

The district estimates that Uptown’s current population of more than 45,000 people will mushroom to more than 69,000 by 2040.

To that end, the sidewalks are being expanded from four to 12 feet and planted with a shady canopy from two rows of new trees.

“If we can get people to walk to lunch, it really does take cars out of the intersections,” Breeding said. “We will not be successful just by adding mobility improvements. We have to make it a better place.”

Sleek light towers will also make the sidewalks more inviting at night. The boulevard’s trademark steel “ring” signage will remain, and its shiny arches will be re-engineered to accommodate the wider sidewalks.

“We don’t want you to walk out of a restaurant or an office building and go, ‘That’s a really great bus street,'” Breeding said. “We want you to think about how beautiful the environment is.”

There was a symbolic groundbreaking almost exactly a year ago. I guess I hadn’t realized there hadn’t been much done since then, other than more legal thrust and parry, anyway. My opinion on this project remains the same: I think it’s a good idea, I think it’s necessary, and I think that if it provides a good service, people will use it. I’d feel better about its short term prospects if the University line hadn’t been reset to zero, but if the Uptown line can be viable and useful, then that will make the case for trying again on the University line that much stronger. In the meantime, having express bus service go into the Galleria area will help provide some level of potential Uptown Line riders, and if the high speed rail line really does get built with a terminal at the Northwest Transit Center, then that’s another way to connect in. As with pretty much every rail or rail-like project ever, if it can overcome the hurdles people keep putting in the way of its construction, I think in the end we will be happy it got built. But first we have to get there. This is the beginning of that.

One more thing:

Breeding admits the project has one serious shortfall: No bike lanes are included.

“That’s an important, emerging issue,” he said, calling access for bikes “a holy grail” that couldn’t be accommodated, given “the national mood on the widths of thoroughfares.” He said the district is developing a master plan that could encourage bike traffic on other streets in the area.

That is unfortunate. I’ve been an advocate for integrating bikes into the plan for Uptown (and for transit in general), so I’m sorry to see this. I hope that master plan can find some decent alternatives that will still work well with what they’re doing.

Carrin Patman’s vision for Metro

I commend you to read Christopher Andrews’ report of a recent meeting between Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman and group of local transportation-interested bloggers. I quote here from his recap of what Patman has in mind for Metro while she is Chair:

HoustonMetro

1. A Regional Transportation / Transit Plan
The last plan dates back to 2003, and much has changed in Houston since then. The plan gave us the existing rail lines, except for the University Line, which has now lost any form of federal funding that was once available. Patman said that it is time to start a new plan, likely asking for bonding authority to pay for future improvements, possibly specifying routes or modes of transit. As Houston continues to grow, it’s inevitable that there will need to be increased opportunities for transit, not simply adding highway lanes.

Patman said that the agency needs to continue to look at adopting every mode of transit, whether rail or bus rapid transit. She also noted the possibility of a Hobby Airport rail extension as part of the plan, and the need to establish an east-west connection into Houston’s Galleria / Uptown District area. It is arguably Houston’s fastest growing center, but still does not effectively tie into METRO’s Park and Ride system, although this problem is slated to be relieved with the Uptown BRT line. (It’s worth noting that the Galleria is linked to Downtown Houston through the 82 bus route, which has been the backbone of the bus system for a long time, and has routes with peak 6 minute frequency, and off-peak frequency of 10 minutes.)

2. New Bus Network Improvements
In her most recent Houston Matters interview Patman noted that change sometimes brings unintended consequences, which METRO has experienced in select areas with respect to the New Bus Network. Selected bus routes were changed, especially in low ridership areas, leaving some riders without bus options. this is especially difficult because many of those left without bus options rely on the bus for transit.

Patman assured that the agency will not leave out those that are without bus service. I think that’s a tough promise to keep as many parts of METRO’s service area may not justify a route that transports a small number of riders. As seen with the New Bus Network, there is a balance for the agency in providing coverage compared to frequency. Without adding additional resources, likely at a cost, greater frequency (which is probably the more important of the two to many riders) cannot happen.

METRO has been using their Community Connector service in Acres Homes, with fair ridership according to METRO staff. The Community Connector acts as an “on-demand” service within a particular zone to provide connectivity between major destinations and the Acres Homes Transit Center. This program was compared to Helsinki, Finland’s now-defunct Kutsuplus program, which acted somewhat as an Uber Pool-type program. Aimed at decreasing the need for private cars and providing a connection between many of Helsinki’s north-south oriented bus lines, the program was initially successful, then came to an abrupt end at the end of 2015. The program needed a larger scale in order to be more profitable, and the cost of doing so would have been heavily supplemented by taxpayers. It’s important to remember that this is a method for supplementing trips in areas that may not warrant as many frequent bus routes.

3. Marketing and Ridership Experience
Patman’s final major goal was the continuation of improving the ridership experience on METRO’s bus and rail lines, as well as marketing the system to new users.

Andrews notes my post on how Metro might market itself, then goes on to make his own suggestions. There are themes from my other posts as well. Patman specifically said that she reads what those of us who were there have to say about Metro and what it is (and should be) doing. My reaction after that meeting is that they’ve already got this figured out, and are doing or at least studying plenty of the things all of us had in mind. It’s encouraging to see, and again I urge you to read Andrews’ report as well as the one that was posted on the Metro blog.

I still have a post to write about where things are and where they may go with rail, but I’m still thinking about it. In the meantime, there were some more tweaks applied to the new bus network.

The transit agency makes service adjustments three times a year. Those changes are made in January, at the end of the school year, and at the start of classes in the fall. The latest changes affect over thirty Metro routes and that includes both local buses and park and rides. They went into effect last weekend.

Metro’s Jerome Gray says one thing they’re trying to do is ease overcrowding on some of the more popular routes.

“We’ve added some trips earlier in the morning to accommodate people asking for that,” Gray says.

Changes also affect the park-and-ride buses. Gray says ridership usually dips toward the end of the school year and they also thought they’d have fewer riders because of oil and gas layoffs. But it turns out that wasn’t the case.

“Interestingly enough on several of those park and ride routes we’ve actually seen an uptick in the ridership,” says Gray. “I think a number of people are just opting to not drive their car all the way into work. They’re opting to park it and get on the bus.”

You can see all the changes here. As the KUHF story notes, there will be more to come, with a new Manchester/Lawndale route to the Magnolia Transit Center set to debut in July. I promise to have my rail post done before then.

Reimagining Lower Westheimer

This ought to be interesting.

Lower Westheimer is one of Houston’s most well-known streets, but on some fronts its reputation isn’t a positive one. Narrow and bumpy, the street is both a hub of retail and recreation activity and also a harrowing bike or automobile trip from time to time.

Everyone has a story or a suggestion of how to make it better – and next week the city is going to carve out time to listen to them in hopes of improving one of Houston’s premier streets.

“That is one of the most economically vibrant, critical corridors in the city,” said Geoff Carleton, principal at Traffic Engineers Inc., a local transportation planning and consulting firm. “The priority there should be the place-making and developing walkability where it helps keep that tax base in place.”

As part of ReBuild Houston, officials are considering design changes for the street, a months-long process started by an advisory committee, moving to public comment on Monday evening. Officials guiding the process said while no final designs will be shown for what Westheimer should look like from Shepherd to Main. Westheimer turns into Elgin at Bagby.

“We will be presenting background material and existing conditions information and asking the public for their preferences and priorities,” said Matthew Seubert, a senior planner with the Houston Planning and Development Department.

Swamplot has a map of the area in question. One of the things hampering transit in the area is the curve in the street between Mandell and Commonwealth, combined with the narrow lanes that make it impossible for one of the articulated (i.e., longer and higher-capacity) buses to run on Westheimer. That’s a problem, given how busy that bus line is. Seems to me the obvious solution is to reduce Westheimer to one lane each way for that stretch. It’s functionally one lane each way between Hazard and Mandell anyway, thanks to there being on-street parking. I’m sure the subject will come up, and you can make your own voice heard at that public meeting. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of this.

My vision for Metro: Buses

HoustonMetro

I’ve said before that I would have some suggestions for new Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman and her team as they take their places. This post is where I start sharing those suggestions. The idea is to focus on proposals that I believe are doable in the current political and economic climate, in the short term as well as in the longer term. Ideally, all of these things could at least be begun by the end of Mayor Turner’s second term in 2023. Some of these things can be done by Metro on its own, but many will require at least some level of cooperation with one or more other agencies. in all cases, the goal is to get more people to use Metro. As always, your feedback on these ideas is welcome.

Let’s start with the backbone of the system, the local bus service. The good news here is that Metro’s current bus system map is basically as good as it’s going to get to maximize ridership, which by the way continues to improve. The bad news is that this means Metro has less control over what it can do to improve the bus system further. But the other good news is that the means by which they can improve the system further, and thus get more people to use it, are clear and easy to understand.

Really, it all comes down to two things: Sidewalks and bicycles. The new bus system does a really good job of getting you from one neighborhood or part of the city to another. But you still have to get yourself to your bus stop from your point of origin, and from your bus stop to your final destination. When your bus stop is on a well-maintained sidewalk, with safe street crossings, this is easy. When it’s not, it’s a strong disincentive to use the bus in the first place. The 85, for example, is a frequent route that runs along Washington Avenue, a part of town with a lot of destinations close together and a shortage of parking. It also has some of the crappiest sidewalks for a neighborhood that really ought to be pedestrian-friendly. People won’t take the bus if they think it’s not easy to get to or from the bus stop. Bad sidewalks are a big hindrance to bus ridership.

To their credit, Metro knows this. I feel reasonably confident saying that the Metro board will do what it can to work with the city of Houston as it plans out its Rebuild Houston projects (assuming the Supreme Court lets it), which now that the city operates under Complete Streets guidelines, means that sidewalks will receive proper attention. The budget that Council just adopted includes Metro money for each Council district earmarked for infrastructure repairs, so those pieces are in place. Metro also needs to work with Harris County, especially now that the Commissioner of Precinct 1 is and will be willing to work on infrastructure inside Houston, with the various TIRZes, HISD and the other school districts, and any other entity that is able to put up a few bucks to re-pour a sidewalk. Harris County Commissioners Court – all four precincts – really needs to be in on this, since it was the county’s insistence that the 2012 sales tax referendum bar using marginal revenues for light rail that helped lead to the bus system re-do. Put some skin in the game, Commissioners Court. These are your residents, too.

As far as bicycles go, we know that more and more people are riding their bikes to bus stops, then using the bike racks on them to get their bikes to their stop. This has the effect of extending the bus network, since it’s a lot easier and faster to ride a bike a mile to a bus stop than it is to walk that far. The city of Houston and to a lesser extent Harris County have done a lot to build up their bike infrastructure, and thanks to the Bayou Greenways bond issue plus the legislation to allow bike trails on CenterPoint rights of way, there’s a lot more of that to come. Metro needs to be part of the planning process so that bike trails that connect with high-frequency bus routes get priority, and to ensure that connectivity between trails and bus routes is always taken into account. Metro should also be at the table when the next phase of BCycle is being planned, to ensure that kiosks are deployed at or near bus stops and train stations whenever possible.

Speaking of the trains, while the bus system redesign was done in part to maximize the use of the new train lines, I feel like there’s a lack of information at train stations about what bus stops and bus routes are nearby. As an example, I’ve taken the train to the Wheeler station/transit center recently a couple of times to get to an appointment out near 59 and Kirby. From Wheeler, I could reasonably take either the 25 bus along Richmond, or the 65 bus along Bissonnet. The problem was that when I got out at Wheeler, I had no idea how to find a stop for either of these buses. Turns out, the 65 is right there, while the 25 (at least westbound) required walking over some pedestrian-unfriendly turf to get to a stop on Richmond just east of the downtown spur. I was able to figure it out for myself, and I’m sure the Metro trip planner could have helped, but a little signage at the station would have been very nice. A little signage at every station, showing you exactly where the nearest bus stops are and which ones go to which destinations, would be even nicer.

Anyway, that’s a brief overview of what Metro and its new Board and Board Chair should focus on to improve the bus service even more. I’ll refer you back to this post by Chris Andrews from two years ago, right when the bus system makeover was first announced, for some further thoughts; pay particular attention to the bolded paragraph in his Conclusions at the end. Next we will talk about how Metro can do more to market itself.

Feds rescind Universities line funding

Not a surprise at this point.

A proposal for a light rail line along Richmond Avenue, long left for dead because of strong opposition and years of languishing, has lost its shot now for funding from the Federal Transit Administration.

In a letter released Friday by U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, FTA associate administrator Lucy Garliauskas confirmed federal money is no longer available for the University Line light rail project “due to inactivity and lack of demonstrated progress on the project’s design and local financial commitment over the last several years.”

Culberson, a long-time opponent of the line proposed in his west Houston district because it runs along Richmond, applauded the decision.

“My primary responsibilities as a congressman include protecting the taxpayers and protecting the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” Culberson said in a statement.

[…]

The effect is limited, however, because the University Line plan had been bogged down for years, and could be revived at any time should Metropolitan Transit Authority restart the process and gain voter approval for more transit funding.

Metro officials received notice of the funding recision earlier this month, spokesman Jerome Gray said.

“I am not sure it does anything with the project because the project was dormant,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

[…]

Culberson and Metro officials last year came to an agreement that any further rail development using federal funds in the Houston region first will go back to the voters. If Metro receives approval and the local money needed, transit officials could go back to Washington looking for funding.

Patman, who took over as Metro chairwoman last month, said inaction on the University Line should not be construed as the end of a broader discussion about better transit in Montrose and along U.S. 59.

“A corridor between downtown and the Galleria and Post Oak is a priority, and I expect that to be a part of the regional transportation plan,” Patman said, referring to Metro’s interest in assessing area-wide bus and rail needs. “We are looking at alternatives, of course, to going down Richmond… And we’re looking at what mode would be best.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background on the Culberson/Metro peace accord, which was announced just over a year ago. Because of the terms of that agreement, Metro was always going to have to go back to the voters to get a Universities line going, and in fact then-Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia, who negotiated the treaty with Culberson, was already talking about a sequel to the 2003 rail referendum. New Chair Carrin Patman has also spoken of a need to go back to the voters for more bonding authority. If I had to guess, such a vote is a couple of years out, almost certainly after Mayor Turner has had one to repeal or modify the revenue cap. When that happens, if it passes, Metro will have to start from scratch, including the designation of an actual route, but given how old the existing work was by now, that’s probably for the best anyway. I choose not to cry over spilled milk but to work for a better outcome next time.

Two things to think about as we look towards that hoped-for future day. First, here’s a Google Earth view of the area around Westpark at Newcastle:

Westpark at Newcastle

Westpark at Newcastle

The original Universities line route had shifted over to Westpark at Timmins, so the line was on Westpark at this point, and there would likely have been a stop at Newcastle. (My in-laws live near there, so I’m quite familiar with this area.) Notice all the apartments west of Newcastle and south of Westpark, as well as the HCC campus. Those would all be easily accessible from a train station at Westpark and Newcastle, except for one tiny thing: There’s no sidewalk on Newcastle south of Westpark. Any pedestrians would have to walk in the street, which is a two-lanes-each-way thoroughfare, or on the grass. Once you cross into the city of Bellaire, just south of Glenmont Drive, there’s a beautiful, wide sidewalk that’s basically a hike-and-bike trail that goes all the way to Braeswood, but until you get there you’re on your own if you’re on your feet. What you could do is move the fence back ten feet or so on the empty lot on the south side of Newcastle – I suspect this is Centerpoint property; the lot on the north side of Newcastle has power grid equipment on it – and build a nice sidewalk there to at least get you to Pin Oak Park, which has its own sidewalks and can get you to the other places from there. The Westmore apartment complex between Pin Oak Park and Glenmont fronts on the street so you’d have to close off a lane on Newcastle to extend this hypothetical sidewalk further, but it’s not like this is a heavily-trafficked section of road. It’s all doable if one has eminent domain power and a reason to take action. If we’re going to talk about near-future rail referenda and Universities Line 2.0, I hope someone other than me is thinking about this sort of thing as well.

Second, among the things that Culberson and Metro agreed upon last year were the following:

Second, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can use all of the federal dollars not yet drawn down from the $900 million in previously approved federal transit grants for corridor specific transit projects, particularly the new North and Southeast rail lines as well as the 90A commuter rail line. These proposed changes will be consistent with the goals of the FTA in order to allow METRO to match these funds with credits from the original Main Street Line or other Transportation Development Credits so that local funds will be freed up for new projects to improve mobility in the Houston area.

Third, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can count $587 Million in local funds spent on the East End Rail Line as the local matching credit for a commuter rail line along 90A, and secondarily for any non-rail capital project, or any other project included in the 2003 Referendum. Rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or Post Oak Boulevard would only be eligible to utilize these credits once approved in a subsequent referendum.

Fourth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to help secure up to $100 million in federal funds for three consecutive years for bus purchases, park and ride expansion and HOV lane improvements. These funds will also facilitate METRO’s expanded use of the 2012 referendum increment to pay down debt. All of these efforts will enhance and improve the bus system that is already one of the best in the nation.

Anyone know if any of these things are happening or have happened? I would hate to think that Congressman Culberson has not kept his word. An update on these items would be nice to hear.

What do you do with a problem like I-10?

From a conversation that Cite Editor Raj Mankad conducted with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro, who co-teach a survey of landscape architecture at the Rice School of Architecture.

Mankad: Let’s come back to I-10 and the failure of its…

Alfaro: … hubris …

Mankad: … its massive expansion. We talked about designers finding opportunities in the most problematic of sites. What is the opportunity there?

Albers: There is a bottleneck that exists at the reservoirs in the Energy Corridor. The Energy Corridor has been a huge economic driver for the city. And where Eldridge Parkway meets I-10 and then Memorial Drive is at its heart. These intersections are routinely blocked with traffic creating quality of life issue for those who find themselves in the area. Partially in response to these concerns, The Energy Corridor District assembled a team to investigate the future of the corridor. The district commissioned a master plan to address these and other issues.

This master plan documented ideas that could be implemented throughout the city. Very simple ideas that have been around since the birth of cities. Greater connectivity. Parallel roads. The answer is not more lanes, the answer is more options. The plan looks at ways to transform the existing infrastructure that we have—park-and-ride lots and bus lanes. METRO can adjust them to create a system that offers options and that gets people away from the reliance on the single-occupant car.

A circulator bus would move people around the Energy Corridor. If you go to lunch in the Energy Corridor, you have to get to your garage, get out of your garage, drive to where you want to go, find parking. By the time you have done that, it is 30 minutes. Then you have to repeat the whole process coming back. Your lunch hour is consumed by going and coming. So take that out of the equation with a circulator bus.

Instead of driving to the Energy Corridor, maybe you could get on a bus and come to the Energy Corridor, get off at the park-and-ride, get on a circulator bus, and get to where you are going. So it is about making linkages, creating different approaches to the problem of traffic.

Additionally, I-10 serves as a manmade barrier to pedestrians and bicyclists. The Energy Corridor is split between north and south by I-10. The scale is so immense. The plan looks at ways to links these parts of the city back together; for pedestrians; for bicycles; and for alternative transportation.

Mankad: I understand that the big detention basins and drainage ditches scooped out for the I-10 construction could provide more opportunities for cyclists and pedestrians at Langham Park. There is always this positive and negative, this yin yang, especially with hydrology.

Alfaro: If it we were to get crazy about I-10, imagine rail or bus rapid transit going through the center in both directions to get all those commuters in and out, parks on either side, and provide the connectivity elsewhere. You would have these amazing green spaces in the middle of I-10. That’s what I would want. Make it a landscape. Use the terrain, use the topography. Screw it.

The Energy Corridor is itself seeking feedback on this issue, so it’s not just the pointed-headed academics who are thinking about these things. The travel-to-lunch problem that Albers describes is even worse when you consider that a lot of those trips involve taking indirect, roundabout routes because you can’t get from Point A to Point B directly thanks to the presence of I-10. Circulators would help a bit with traffic, and would also enable more people to take transit to work in that area, as would making life easier for pedestrians. We do a lot of things to facilitate highway driving in this town, and a lot of those things have negative effects on local traffic that we just haven’t given any thought to in the past. The Energy Corridor is trying to deal with those effects now, as well they should. I look forward to seeing what they do.

Turner wants to rethink transportation

I like the way he’s thinking.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, in less than a month on the job, has hit the streets at full speed. First he tackled potholes. Last week he tackled a state transportation department that’s spent the past half-century developing a highway network that is increasingly getting farther from Houston’s core and, according to the mayor, is worsening a congestion crisis.

“If there’s one message that I’d like to convey, it’s that we’re seeing clear evidence that the transportation strategies that the Houston region has looked to in the past are increasingly inadequate to sustain regional growth,” Turner told the Texas Transportation Commission [recently]. “Our agencies must look beyond these strategies if we are to successfully accommodate the growth that Texas’ major urban areas are anticipating.”

[…]

Annise Parker was both cheered and criticized for her support of alternatives to driving such as expanded light rail and many new bicycling projects. The two local leaders Turner took with him to Austin for the meeting, the city’s planning and public works directors, were installed by Parker and praised by local transit advocates for their breaks from previous agency philosophy.

But Turner, at least in tone, said what none of his predecessors ever publicly uttered. To a dais filled with sate highway officials, he declared: You’re doing it wrong.

“The traditional strategy of adding capacity, especially single occupant vehicle capacity on the periphery of our urban areas, exacerbates urban congestion problems,” he said. “These types of projects are not creating the kind of vibrant, economically strong cities that we all desire.”

That story is from last week, right after Turner’s address. This is more recent, with some reactions to what Turner said:

Clark Martinson, general manager of the Energy Corridor District, called Turner’s speech “the boldest, best thing I have heard from a mayor in the 30 years I’ve been in Houston.” Martinson said more mass transit and nicer, safer routes for pedestrians and cyclists are as important for his west Houston area as they are for the blocks around City Hall.

To attract the sort of workers nowliving in Midtown and working downtown, Martinson said, the Energy Corridor must seek better streetscapes and more transportation options. Citywide, he said, that meanssidewalks near schools, better access to the Bayou Greenways trail network, and working with land owners to plant shade trees as city streets are rebuilt.

“I believe you cannot solve our congestion problems by building traditional highway projects,” Martinson said. “Once you build all the highways, you have now acknowledged that we’re always going to fill up those highways with cars. If we want to move more people, the way you move more people is you shift your resources from accommodating the single-occupant vehicle to encouraging high-capacity mass transit.”

It remains an open question, however, whether the paradigm shift Turner seeks is attainable.

Alan Clark, director of transportation planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional planning group of local governments, noted that most state highway funds are restricted only for freeways. HGAC’s Transportation Policy Council, which divvies up regional transportation funding, also will play a key role, Martinson said, as council members work to change minds on a board that includes many representatives from far-flung counties with different needs.

“Making a major change in how the money is invested would be a big challenge,” Clark said.

[…]

One of the five state transportation commissioners Turner addressed last week was Jeff Moseley, a former director of the Greater Houston Partnership who said it struck his colleagues that Turner would travel to Austin in the midst of his mayoral transition to address them.

“That just speaks volumes about this mayor’s strong interest in working with all parties to make sure that the demands Houston is facing in its future have a comprehensive response,” Moseley said. “The mayor’s office over the last several administrations has looked at Metro as being the city’s response. What we see is that the mayor’s interested in Metro and all the other opportunities to address mobility.”

Moseley said he and TxDOT’s district engineer met with the leader of Turner’s transition team, David Mincberg, and the two heads of the mayor’s transportation transition committee recently, discussing everything from freight moving through the Port of Houston to pending work on U.S. 290, Texas 288 and Texas 249, and the concept of light rail expansion to Hobby and Bush airports.

It is good timing for Turner to seek a shift in thinking, Moseley said, because TxDOT will confront a legislative review during the 2017 session, having gotten the message in each of its last two so-called sunset examinations that its approach must broaden.

“The Legislature has been very, very clear that we are a Department of Transportation,” Moseley said. “When we were created about 100 years ago, we really were a highway department.”

Good to know. The main naysayer quoted was County Commissioner Steve Radack, who likes doing things the way they have always been and has no interest in the city. People like him are the obstacle that Turner will have to overcome to get anything done differently.

Let’s look a bit more closely at what Turner said. Here’s a trasnscript. The main points:

First, we need a paradigm shift in how we prioritize mobility projects. Instead of enhancing service to the 97% of trips that are made by single occupant vehicles, TxDOT should prioritize projects that reduce that percentage below 97%. TxDOT should support urban areas by prioritizing projects that increase today’s 3% of non-SOV trips to 5%, 10%, 15% of trips and beyond. Experience shows that focusing on serving the 97% will exacerbate and prolong the congestion problems that urban areas experience. We need greater focus on intercity rail, regional rail, High Occupancy Vehicle facilities, Park and Rides, Transit Centers, and robust local transit. As we grow and density, these modes are the future foundation of a successful urban mobility system. It’s all about providing transportation choices.

Second, I believe we need to focus the highway resources for our urban regions in the urban core, where congestion is most severe. Urban cores are the crossroads where freeways, railways, and ports such as the Port of Houston come together, and where the region’s mobility systems often bear the greatest stress. Spending limited resources on the region’s periphery, rather than the core, exacerbates the City’s already severe urban congestion and dilutes TxDOT’s ability to address the most vital challenges to economic development and mobility in the urban core.

Third, our agencies should to continue to collaborate to find comprehensive solutions for the traveling public. TxDOT and local partners like the City of Houston should work together to ensure TxDOT’s projects are coordinated with enhancements to the local street system – the “last mile”. Highway improvements impact our local thoroughfares, and that last mile must have adequate capacity to receive increased volumes resulting from highway improvements. Cities need to be at the table throughout project development to ensure highway improvements do not create new congestion problems along local thoroughfares with inadequate capacity.

The argument that widening the highways causes at least as much “last mile” congestion on the local streets as it relieves on the freeways is one I’ve made before, usually in the context of proposals to add lanes to 288 in town, with some kind of “dedicated lanes’ for the Medical Center. At some point, people still have to get into parking lots, one car at a time. To me, there are two basic principles that need to be understood and observed. One – and this is a point I’ve made in the context of providing bike parking, too – is that it’s in everyone’s best interests if we make it easier for the people who can walk or bike or carpool or take transit to do so. The more people who can find alternate means of transportation that do find it, the fewer single-occupancy vehicles that are competing for highway lanes and parking spaces. That’s a win all around.

What that requires is more robust transit, a more extensive bike infrastructure, better and safer sidewalks and crosswalks, not just for getting to and from work but also for going to lunch and running the basic kinds of errands that people who have cars do during the work day. Tiffany and I carpool into work downtown, and we face this all the time. Metro has been our solution for when one of us needs to go somewhere else after work, and recently for when we both needed to go somewhere at lunchtime. She wound up taking the 82 bus to her appointment, which with its 10-minute off-peak headway made it a viable option. This is what I’m talking about.

The other principle is simply that we are reaching, if we have not already reached, a point at which it no longer makes sense to prioritize minimizing travel times for single occupancy vehicles over other transportation solutions. Yes, the Katy Freeway needed to be expanded, and yes we were going to get a lot of extra traffic out that way whether we built more capacity or not. But that project was sold from the beginning as an answer to traffic congestion. That has not been the case, and any further “solution” of a similar nature will be a lot more expensive and convoluted and destructive to the environment, including and especially the built environment. Hell, just look at what’s being proposed for I-45 downtown to see what I mean. It has to make more sense at this point to find and implement ideas that encourage and allow people to drive by themselves less often. That’s my way of thinking, and I’m glad to know that not only is it also Mayor Turner’s way of thinking, it’s something he’s willing to say to those who need to hear it. CityLab, Streetsblog, and Houston Tomorrow have more.

Houston Tomorrow presents its Vision Zero plan

Here you go.

Following other “vision zero” programs nationally, Houston Tomorrow encouraged officials – especially Houston lawmakers – to crack down on speeding and distracted driving while investing more in rebuilding streets so that vehicles can share them safely with pedestrians, cyclists and other users.

“Vision Zero does not discriminate based on how you choose to get around,” the report’s authors said. “We want people riding in cars to be safe. We want everyone to be able to ride their bike to work safely. We want people walking around town without risk of losing their life or someone they love.”

Among the 10 largest U.S. cities, Houston and other southern cities where car travel is more common have a far higher incidence of traffic fatalities – a figure that includes drivers, vehicle passengers, pedestrians and cyclists. In 2014, 227 people were killed in Houston in traffic-related incidents. New York, despite having 6.2 million more residents, reported 269 fatalities.

“Almost as many people die on the streets of the City of Houston as are murdered each year,” the report read. “Our response to this shocking statistic should be simple: We must treat traffic deaths in the Houston region as seriously as we treat homicide, as a major public health and security crisis.”

Here’s the full plan, here’s the executive summary, and here’s Houston Tomorrow’s announcement. I’ve written about Vision Zero, for here and elsewhere, several times. The figure Houston Tomorrow cites for the 13-county greater Houston area is 667 deaths for 2014; there were also 135,170 total crashes and 3,468 incapacitating injuries. For Houston, those 2014 numbers are 60,472 crashes, 1,222 injuries, and 227 deaths. They didn’t include a figure for all of Harris County, which I think would be useful, but at a guess I’d say 400 to 450 deaths. I’d bet that the total number of Harris County traffic fatalities exceeded the total number of Harris County homicide victims.

Some parts of what Houston Tomorrow is calling for is already in the works. Complete Streets, coupled with the ongoing work of ReBuild Houston, will accomplish a lot to improve road safety. Some of what they want will require changes to city ordinances and/or state laws, and some of those things, like texting-while-driving bans and reduced speed limits, will cause a fight. And some of what they want will involve more enforcement of existing laws – speeding, running red lights, the 3 foot rule for bikes, etc. Mostly, they emphasize the need for better metrics. You have to be able to measure something accurately to know how it is trending and whether any of the things you are trying to do about it are having an effect. Read the report and see what you think.

Metro bus system tweaks coming

From the inbox:

You spoke, and METRO listened. Beginning Jan. 24, 2016, METRO will put in place a series of route and schedule modifications based on feedback received from riders and bus operators since launching the New Bus Network Aug. 16, 2015.

These service enhancements are expected to reduce overcrowding and improve on-time performance, and are the next phase in METRO’s five-year plan to create a more comprehensive transit network with bus and rail. Click here to see a complete list of changes.

HoustonMetro

Like Chris Andrews and several other folks, I got to attend a presentation by Metro about its redesigned bus network – how it has gone so far, what the changes that are to come at the end of this week are about, where they go from here. I can’t compete with Chris’ detailed writeup about the conversation we had with Metro, so let me encourage you to read his post. I do have a few observations to add:

– The most common statement on the list of changes is “Adjusted running times to improve service”. What that means is that Metro scheduled departure times from each endpoint for all routes, based on estimates and test drives of the routes. In some cases, the actual amount of time it took for a bus to get from one end of the route to the other was less than Metro expected, so rather than have buses sit and wait before heading back out again, they adjusted the official schedule. The end result of this should be more frequent departures from endpoints.

– As has been previously reported, Metro has already seen a significant increase in bus ridership, only a few months into the new system. I asked if they could tell if it came from regular riders who were now using buses more often, from completely new riders, or some combination of both. In reply, Metro Board member Christoph Spieler pointed out that they turn over about 20% of their ridership every year, just due to people moving, reaching teenage years or dying, and other life changes. The key for them is to capture a larger share of the people whose changed life situations – new home, new job, retirement, new school, whatever – has them at a point where they are considering how they will get to the places they need to go. In an ideal world, more people will consider those things, and will choose transit-conducive options, as these changes approach and before they happen.

– Other challenges Metro faces: Sometimes, destinations that are frequently used by transit-dependent populations get moved without Metro knowing about it. And sometimes, the new locations for said destinations are not at all conducive for being served by transit; they’re on side roads far away from main arterials, there are no sidewalks, etc. Social Security offices and HCC campuses were cited as examples. In general, communication between Metro and other government agencies has improved greatly, but there is still room for improvement.

– Sidewalks in general are a challenge for Metro, because people can’t or won’t use Metro bus service if they can’t easily or safely get to and from the bus stops. Chris Andrews had a detailed look at the sidewalks and street crossings along his to-be-changed route back in May of 2014. A lot of the routes and numbers he discusses there are different now, but the challenges are the same. Building and repairing sidewalks isn’t Metro’s job, it’s the city and the county’s job. The more that can be done to fix and improve sidewalks at and around high-use bus stops, the more people will ride.

– In a way, the fact that Metro is just tweaking these routes has buried the lede. As Spieler put it, the fact that there are no major changes to be made means that they basically got it right the first time. That’s an amazing accomplishment, and the ridership increase numbers bear out the reasons for making the change. In my exit interview with Mayor Parker, I said that Metro and its many accomplishments over the past six years are something she deserves a lot of credit for. You can add in the bus system reimagining to that, because as well as it has gone, it was a huge risk to undertake. A whole lot of things could have gone wrong, and if they had they would have landed at the Mayor’s feet. That she had the confidence in Metro and its ability to pull this off says a great deal about them both. Now transit agencies around the country, which had been closely watching Metro and not quite believing that they “had the guts” (as Spieler put it) to do this are thinking about doing it themselves. Having the political will to go through with this was key.

– Yes, these changes have come at a cost to some people. It’s been documented, and it was openly acknowledged at the meeting. I don’t think that anyone can credibly argue that the benefits have not outweighed the costs, however real they are to the people who were directly affected. Still, this is another indicator of how well the whole process has gone, and how good a job Metro did at designing and implementing the new system. You may note in the article that was linked in that post that one of the louder critics of Metro and the system reimagining project, a man who predicted widespread disaster as implementation approached, said he was preparing to file a Title VI complaint with the Federal Transit Authority, accusing Metro of discrimination by diverting transit resources away from minority neighborhoods. That was back in September. I checked with Metro on this, and they confirmed that no such complaint was ever filed. Make of that what you will.

So that’s my impression of where things are now. I hope some of the other attendees write up theirs as well. I have some further thoughts about what Metro ought to be working on over the next few years, but this post is long enough and I’m still working through it. I’ll post that at a later date. Has the new bus map changed how you use transit? Leave a comment and let us know.

Uptown living

It’s a thing that is happening.

Home to the city’s glittering epicenter of retail, with a dramatic skyline dominated by the towering Williams Tower and other office buildings, Uptown Houston is best known for the places where people work and play. Increasingly, it’s a place where people want to live as well.

A $1.7 billion investment in condominium towers and apartments over the last five years there has pushed residential development past retail as a percentage of overall real estate. Uptown is now 28 percent residential, compared with 25 percent retail.

Leaders at Uptown Houston, which runs the tax increment reinvestment zone and management district there, say residential opportunities are still in their infancy. Another 4,000 living units are under construction.

“Office, residential, retail and hotel all sort of blend and work together to create an urban neighborhood,” Uptown Houston president John Breeding said. “I think we’ve reached a new level of urbanization.”

The office market still dominates in Uptown, which ranks among the top 15 biggest office centers in the nation. Office makes up 37 percent of the district.

But residential is on the rise. O’Brien’s complex recently opened at 1900 Yorktown, the eight-story building advertising units with built-in wine cellars, oak floors and a large “Vegas-style” pool.

Announced residential projects in the Galleria area include a 26-story development called Belfiore being built at Post Oak Lane and South Wynden Drive, and a 28-story condominium tower called Astoria on Post Oak Boulevard. The Wilshire, a 17-story condominium project, and the SkyHouse River Oaks apartments replaced a 1960s-era apartment complex on Westcreek, now adjacent to the recently opened River Oaks District.

[…]

The regional housing market, long dominated by spacious single-family homes in suburban areas, is evolving as buyers increasingly are attracted to urban locales where it’s possible to walk to nearby attractions, said Jacob Sudhoff of Sudhoff Properties, a high-end real estate brokerage firm specializing in condo sales.

The Uptown-Galleria area is ground zero for this change as international buyers, oil executives and downsizing empty nesters trend toward the luxury for-sale units.

“Houston has finally turned into a condo market, and in the past we never were,” Sudhoff said. “There’s a correlation between amenities, walkability and the location of these condominiums.”

I think it’s a good thing that formerly non-residential areas such as Uptown now feature actual residences. The best way to avoid and reduce traffic is for people to be places where they don’t need to get into a car to go about their business. This is why things like sidewalks, bike paths, and transit matter. Some number of people who work and shop in the Uptown area have no choice but to drive there. If the people who do live there or live close to there can do those things by walking, biking, or taking Metro – and if there are more of those people to begin with – then they’re not competing with the folks who have to drive for space on the Loop. (I’ve made the same argument about parking for bikes at restaurants.) Doesn’t that make sense? Now if we could figure out how to get some more affordable housing into and around places like Uptown, then we’d really have something. I’m sure the next Mayor will get right on that.

San Antonio implements Vision Zero

Good for them.

Tuesday marked the official launch of San Antonio’s Vision Zero, a multi-national awareness and educational initiative that calls for zero traffic fatalities. It’s a lofty goal, but proponents of the plan say these deaths, especially those of pedestrians, are preventable accidents that can be systematically addressed with infrastructure and safety education.

Last year 54 pedestrians were killed while walking in San Antonio, an average of one death per week. To pay tribute to those individuals, 54 people stood on the steps of City Hall as Mayor Ivy Taylor, Council members, and City staff launched the initiative.

“We suffer human losses because of culture and public policy decisions that have resulted in the built environment we have today,” said Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5), who has long advocated for more City investment in complete street, or multimodal, infrastructure and led the Council’s backing of Vision Zero.

According to the ethos of Vision Zero, individuals and roadway design should share the burden of ensuring safe passage. Priority is often given to vehicles, leaving pedestrians and cyclists to fend for themselves in an environment built for tires and steel.

“We have a high number of traffic fatality rates because we have a fundamentally dangerous environment,” Gonzales said.

Aside from infrastructure like better sidewalks and safer street crossings, the City is looking into reducing speed limits to create a safer environment for those walking and bicycling.

“We’ve made and continue to make policy decisions and direct City staff to construct projects that keep everyone and every mode of transportation in mind,” Mayor Taylor said.

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for the city’s official plan. The basic idea here is that the way our streets are constructed now, it’s dangerous for anyone who isn’t in a car, and this is reflected in the number of accidents and fatalities involving pedestrians and bicyclists. This doesn’t have to be the way things are, it’s the way we currently choose to do them. If we do them differently, and think in terms of everyone who uses the streets and not just the cars, we could have fewer accidents and fewer deaths. That seems like a worthy goal, no? I look forward to seeing what kind of results they get, because that is how this will ultimately be judged. The Current has more, and you can sign petitions to bring this to Houston and Austin if you are so inclined. Streetsblog has more.

Pushing for Vision Zero

Jay Crossley opines in the Chron for a lower speed limit in Houston.

Texas law requires a 30 mph speed limit in the city of Houston on local residential streets unless a different speed limit is posted. If you are walking and are hit by a car traveling 30 mph, you have a 60 percent chance of survival, while at 20 mph, you have a 95 percent chance of survival. In the legislative session that just ended earlier this month, Houston Tomorrow worked on SB 1717 with the city of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department and Houston state Sen. Rodney Ellis to change the local street speed limit to 25 mph and allow the city to use 20 mph where appropriate. Unfortunately, the bill was never taken up for consideration by the Senate Transportation Committee.

[…]

We need streets and sidewalks designed for little boys doing what little boys do. Two urban road safety approaches address this need. The Complete Streets concept, which the city has embraced, is the idea that all Houstonians matter – whether they’re in cars, on two wheels or on foot. And it’s a crucial element of Vision Zero, a multinational road-safety project. Specifically, it is the idea that we should design, allocate funding and build our transportation system for the safety and comfort of all users, regardless of age, ability or mode of transport.

[…]

We must treat traffic deaths in the Houston region as the public health crisis it is.

Cities around the world are taking a comprehensive approach to bringing the number of people who die on the streets to zero. New York City, Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, San Jose and Austin are all committed to Vision Zero. While we have made progress on bicycle deaths with the Goal Zero bicycle safety program, Houston is now the largest city in America without a Vision Zero plan that would attempt to eliminate traffic deaths for people using all modes of travel.

The Houston region’s 134 mayors should commit to Vision Zero by the end of this year, starting with Houston Mayor Annise Parker. And every Houston mayoral candidate should commit to pursuing this vision and making serious progress over the next six years. This crisis will not be fixed overnight, but we can begin making progress immediately.

See here for some background on Vision Zero, whose goals were just approved by the US Conference of Mayors. Crossley is not the first person to call for this in Houston, though I couldn’t say how much traction the idea has gotten. Part of the Bike Plan that the city is currently working on includes Goal Zero Fatalities, which doesn’t specify a speed limit but does call for creating “streets that encourage safe speeds”.

You may be wondering what all the fuss is about. This would be the reason.

Crashes involving a motorist and a pedestrian or bicyclist have jumped 63 percent here since 2010, contributing to more than 220 related deaths, and Houston has the dubious distinction of leading the state in such accidents.

More than 4,000 wrecks between motorists and pedestrians or bicyclists were recorded in Houston city limits from 2010 to June 2015, according to data obtained from the Texas Department of Transportation. Austin places second with a little more than 2,580.

Motorist-pedestrian collisions saw the largest increase, according to the data, jumping 71 percent since 2010.

The string of fatal crashes here in the past month alone has motivated local enthusiasts to demand that city leaders fulfill their promises to provide safer roadways.

[…]

The recent uptick in fatal crashes is significant for Houston, which has reported an average of five fatal bicyclist accidents per year in city limits since 2010.

“It’s unusual, and that’s very concerning,” said Michael Payne, BikeHouston executive director. “These weren’t accidents caused by reckless cyclists or cyclists who were drinking. These were cyclists who were obeying the law.”

Payne says the city needs to get serious about reducing collisions for pedestrians and people who ride bicycles. In 2014, the city recognized a need for improved cyclist safety and partnered with Payne and BikeHouston to launch a major bike safety campaign designed to enforce road safety.

That’s an awful lot of death and injury to pedestrians and bicyclists. Yes, sometimes it is the fault of the pedestrian or bicyclist, but let’s be real here: The automobile always wins these collisions, and the person not in the vehicle pays a vastly disproportionate share of the price for it. Surely we can do better than this, and yes, it’s something the Mayoral candidates ought to be speaking about.

Houston’s transit deserts

From the Kinder Institute’s Urban Edge blog:

HoustonMetro

A new study suggests that despite METRO’s launch of several highly-touted and publicized improvements, the agency is still struggling to address the needs of some communities that depend heavily on transit.

With operations beginning on METRO’s two new light rail lines and the reimagined bus system set to begin service in August 2015, the Houston region’s transit system is undergoing drastic changes.

There is no denying the merits of these new elements. On the whole, the new rail lines and the streamlined bus system will benefit many riders. The agency said that its bus system changes will double the number of potential riders who live within a half-mile of a frequent bus route to 1 million people. Meanwhile, the new light rails are providing faster, consistent service to two areas of town with high transit demand.

But, according to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin who have mapped what the changes mean for Houstonians’ access to transit, the results of the new systems offer more of a mixed bag.

Junfeng Jiao, an assistant professor of community and regional planning at UT-Austin, and Aaron Nichols, a graduate student in the same department, have studied and mapped the “transit deserts” of major Texas cities.

Their concept is adapted from the more widely-known idea of food deserts, or areas where residents lack access to fresh, nutritious food. By tracking transit deserts,

Jiao and Nichols can highlight the parts of cities that have greater demand for transit than supply.

The researchers released their findings for Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio in January.

To find out where the gaps in transit service exist, Jiao and Nichols collected two types of information about every census block group in a city: the transit demand and transit supply.

Transit demand is based on the percentage of people in an area that depend on public transit. Researchers arrived at that figure by subtracting the number of cars at a household from the number of eligible drivers living there and extrapolating it across the wider area. From that, the researchers determined the percentage of transit dependent people per acre.

They calculated transit supply by determining the number of transit stops and routes within each block group, as well as the frequency of transit service. They also considered the length of sidewalks, bike routes and low-speed roads as well as the density of intersections. The numbers were aggregated into a transit-supply per acre measurement.

Transit demand was then subtracted from transit supply. If the number is negative, the area is considered a transit desert.

The researchers acknowledge that the approach isn’t perfect. The number of cars per household is certainly not the sole factor that determines use of transit. For example, a household of five in which all members are over the age of 16 is unlikely to own five cars. By the study’s mechanisms, such a household would be considered transit dependent. In reality, though, this car-to-person gap does not automatically make a household transit dependent. Indeed a household might get along fine with three or even two family vehicles.

Despite this shortcoming, as a basic measure, the transit gap analysis offers a baseline for isolating transit-needy areas, evaluating existing service and helping planners and policymakers direct future transit investment to places that desperately need it.

The study is here. It was done using the existing bus map, not the new one that is coming in August, and only counts on rail line for Houston. The Urban Edge blog notes that the authors did produce an updated map for the (still being tweaked) reimagined bus lines, though for some reason they still didn’t account for the Harrisburg and Southeast rail lines. I’m not sure where they got that map, but it’s included in the blog post, and it does clearly show the effect of the new bus lines in that there’s far less oversupply of transit in the downtown area.

One key factor of this study is that it wasn’t just about where transit stops are. From their “Conclusions and Limitations” section at the end:

This main difference between this study and previous studies is that more emphasis was placed on access to public transportation, and not just the actual transit service. Factors that are typically associated with walkable landscapes, such as small block lengths and low speed roads were taken into consideration for transit supply. Essentially every transit trip is going to begin and end with walking. If someone is not willing, or unable to walk to or from a transit stop, then a transit trip will not likely be made. This is why the physical characteristics of the built environment that might contribute to or discourage walkability are vitally important when considering access to or from a transit stop at the beginning or end of a transit trip.

Total sidewalk length for each Texas city studied was one of the data points they used. That figure is apparently unknown for Houston, which may add some uncertainty to the results for our fair city. Better and more ubiquitous sidewalks – a point made by some at the latest system reimagining public meetings – would make transit more available, with an accompanying boost to ridership.

A few other thoughts…

– The maps for Houston are literally for Houston – there are big blank spaces where Bellaire and West U would be. I find that odd, since they (and many other small cities withing Houston’s borders) are also served by Metro. I doubt there are any transit-deficient areas within them, but still. It would have been nice to see a more filled-in map.

– Another improvement I’d like to see would be more detail in the data itself, so that one can tell which factor or factors led a particular area to be transit-deficient. Was it a lower rate of auto ownership for over-16 household residents, a lack of sidewalks, distance from the nearest bus stop, something else? Just looking at these maps, I have no idea what policy prescription if any might improve matters.

– Comparing the present and future gap maps for Houston, you can see how system reimagining will benefit outlying areas in the west, southeast, and northeast. The bulk of the areas with the largest deficiencies are in the southwest in both maps, though it’s a little better with the new bus routes. Again, it would be nice to know more about the specifics. I will note that one place named on the list of five most deficient areas is Gulfton, which would be on the western end of the Universities Line, if we ever do build it. Another reason to hope that the Culberson peace accord bears fruit.

– If these researchers would like to be more ambitious, I suggest expanding the study to something more like the Houston metro area. You don’t need to go full ten-county HGAC region, but including Montgomery, Fort Bend, Brazoria, and Galveston Counties in addition to all of Harris would give a much more complete picture of how people in greater Houston can get around. I would recommend including household income as a factor, as the authors have suggested they might in the future, as otherwise there would likely be a large transit gap in and around the Woodlands, when in reality you have a bunch of people who only ever drive. Doing this might also help pinpoint holes in connectivity between disparate transit systems and how many people are affected by them. May as well get a regional planning benefit out of this, right?

Anyway, those are my thoughts. What are yours? Link via Gray Matters.

Uptown BRT construction begins

I’m really rooting for this to succeed.

Dignitaries will gather Monday to symbolically start construction of wider sidewalks and dedicated bus lanes meant to enhance Post Oak Boulevard and offer improved transit service, even as some residents and business owners continue fighting to block a project they consider a huge mistake.

Though it has passed a number of government hurdles, the $192 million project has faced increasingly stiff headwinds as opponents question the decision-making process as well as the data justifying the bus lanes.

Plans call for adding two dedicated bus lanes – one in each direction – along the center of Post Oak. Riders would board and exit the buses at stations, similar to how light rail operates. Special lanes also would be added along Loop 610 between a future Bellaire Transit Center and the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10.

Post Oak would be widened, without reducing the current number of general use lanes.

The project is led by Uptown Houston, the management district for the Post Oak area. The Metropolitan Transit Authority would operate the bus service. Funding comes from local, state and federal sources, and the project has been approved by Uptown Houston’s board, the Houston City Council, the Houston-Galveston Area Council and Texas Department of Transportation.

It has faced some political hurdles, despite broad agreement that peak-hour traffic congestion on Post Oak was hindering the area’s ability to further develop. Supporters said transit was the logical next step, noting that in most other U.S. metro areas, Uptown’s job and business scene would make it the urban core and a transit hub. Its employment numbers are on par with downtown Denver’s.

“I think it is the correct solution,” said John Breeding, the president of Uptown Houston. “But it is not that I think it – it was voted on by public agencies and planners looked at it.”

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s now a dispute over projected ridership numbers, which are being recalculated by Metro as a result. I have no idea what ridership numbers will be, but I see no reason to be pessimistic. People will use it if it provides a worthwhile service. It may take some time to build, and it will definitely help if the Universities line ever gets built and gets connected to it, but if I worked in the traffic congestion hellhole that is the Uptown/Galleria area, I’d sure be interested in an alternative to driving. We’ll see how it goes.

System reimagining is going to be hard

Because change is hard. It always is.

Transit officials might have reimaginged bus service in the Houston area, but the riders who rely on it for daily trips are asking them to rethink it again.

Since the redesigned bus system was approved in February, concerned riders have appeared at every Metropolitan Transit Authority board meeting worried the changes will leave some riders — notably elderly and low-income Metro users — a farther walk from convenient bus stops and with less effective bus service. Those concerns amplified this week during public hearings to discuss the changes.

Dozens of riders, ranging from disabled transit-dependent downtown workers to late-shift restaurant employees at Houston’s airports to elderly users afraid of half-mile walks, have voiced concerns about the new bus network, set to debut Aug. 16.

“It is the only transportation I have,” said Sharon Bomar, one of many residents of a senior apartment building at 2100 Memorial to oppose the changes.

This is going to be hard. It was hard work getting to here, and it will be hard going forward. This change affects everyone who currently rides a Metro bus, and some of those people will be worse off as a result. The goal, and the hope, is that far more people will be better off, and that some number of people who currently don’t ride Metro buses will be persuaded to do so because the new routes are sufficiently more convenient for them. But again, some people are going to lose. They’re likely the only ones showing up at a meeting like this, since there’s not much for those who like the new routes to say. The good news for Ms. Bomar and her neighbors is that an alternate route that restores her service has been proposed, and it already has the approval of board member Christof Spieler. If any further changes are coming, I figure that will be one of them.

Along with the route displacement, residents in northeastern and southern Houston have raised numerous concerns, including a lack of sidewalks to get to bus stops.

“Look at the reality of my mama, your mama, a grandmother having to walk four blocks for the bus,” Houston Councilman Dwight Boykins told Metro officials.

Boykins, who said he is exploring what the city can do to improve streets and sidewalks, noted some bus stops are “so close to an open ditch that I am sure (riders) fear they will fall in.”

“The last thing I need is for one of my senior citizens to have to walk, and then get hit by a car waiting for the bus,” Boykins said.

No question better sidewalks would be a huge help here, but that’s not something Metro can control. They can do more to improve stops, especially at transfer points, and we should expect to see more shelters at stops thanks to the extra sales tax revenue that Metro is receiving. The thing is, I don’t think we will be able to judge how good the new system is until people start using it. Does ridership increase? Do people say they like it? How does Metro adjust if things don’t go as well as hoped? We’ll see what changes they make in response to this feedback, then we’ll see how it goes in August. Let’s please have a little patience and some appreciation of the fact that there will be some bumps in the road no matter what.

Fixing sidewalks

I like this.

Houston’s leaders often decry the condition of city sidewalks, whether missing, overgrown or buckled by tree roots. Then there’s the safety risks when pedestrians are forced to walk on the crumbling concrete or adjacent streets.

But the city is unwilling to assume responsibility for all sidewalks in Houston – or foot the accompanying billion-dollar bill. That’s why Mayor Annise Parker and City Council members instead are discussing making it easier for homeowners to keep their own sidewalks up to par.

The council [considered] hiring two sidewalk repair contractors with whom fixed prices have been negotiated, as well as changes to city rules that would waive the need to submit detailed plans up front and more than $100 in permitting and related fees homeowners today must pay when replacing sections of sidewalk.

Countless homeowners do not know city rules make them responsible for their own sidewalks, Parker said, but for those who know, the new program could help residents unsure of whom to call for a fix.

“This is designed to allow an easy process for a citizen to say, ‘I want to repair my sidewalk, I want a contractor I can trust, I want to know what the fair price is,’ ” Parker said. “They don’t have to hire our contractors, but we’ve vetted the contractors, we’ve established a price. Even if they don’t use ours, we think it will be helpful because they can go and say, ‘I can go to the city and this is what I’ll pay … can you beat that price?’ ”

The program would allow residents to fill out a form on the Department of Public Works and Engineering website, triggering a visit from a city employee who would decide if the repair was feasible, and, if so, give the homeowner a cost estimate. The homeowner could then pay the city, which would collect a 7 percent administrative fee and pass the rest of the money to one of the preselected contractors. City staff would inspect the company’s work afterward.

The ordinance was passed unanimously by Council on Wednesday. You did know that homeowners are responsible for fixing their own sidewalks, right? As the story notes, this is far from unique to Houston. Ideally, what this plan will do is make it easier, and perhaps a bit cheaper, for someone who wants to do that to get it done. How much effect that will have is unclear to me, but it’s a simple enough thing to do and it won’t cost the city anything. There’s plenty of sidewalk to fix in this town, so every little bit helps.

Uptown needs bikes

So says this op-ed.

Always susceptible to gridlock, especially at Christmastime, the traffic jams now happen year-round and last longer each day. Clearly, Uptown badly needs convenient, reliable alternatives to cars for the tens of thousands of workers and residents who live, work and shop in the area, the largest business district in the nation outside of a traditional downtown.

One such alternative is bicycling. Houston has made impressive progress in recent years to make bicycling safer and more convenient.

The Bayou Greenways Initiative, Safe Passing Law and Complete Streets policy are recent examples, and an updated Bikeway Master Plan, now underway, will identify additional on- and off-street facilities to fill in the gaps in Houston’s bikeway network.

Uptown, however, remains dangerous to navigate by bike, especially during rush hour. Surrounded on three sides by major freeways, there are few safe options to enter the area by bike. Once there, a cyclist must navigate streets designed solely to move cars as quickly as possible, with few accommodations for cyclists. Post Oak Boulevard, Uptown’s signature street, is an obvious example. While biking there can be a death-defying experience, even walking is a daunting and frightening prospect, with sidewalks located right next to speeding traffic.

The proposed Uptown dedicated bus lanes project (“Bus project along Post Oak appears ready to roll ahead” Page B3, Jan. 29) will provide one alternative to driving, especially for commuters in the suburbs who have access to park and ride routes that run to the existing Northwest and proposed Bellaire/Uptown transit centers. The project features a total rebuild of Post Oak Boulevard to add dedicated bus lanes in the middle, while preserving existing lanes for cars.

Unfortunately, the plan as currently proposed includes no bike lanes, and maintains wide, high-speed main traffic lanes. Thus, while it will provide an alternative to driving for suburban commuters, the current dedicated bus lane plan does nothing for Uptown workers who live close enough to bike to work, but who won’t risk their lives (and their families’ livelihoods) to do so. It also does little for local residents who might like to bike to local shops and restaurants or into adjoining neighborhoods and parks, including Memorial Park (now a part of the Uptown tax increment reinvestment zone.)

Adding dedicated bike lanes to the dedicated bus lane project would provide an additional alternative to those who want access to shops, workplaces and restaurants along Post Oak, as well as provide connectivity to adjoining neighborhoods, Memorial Park and the Greater Houston bikeway network.

Bike lanes would also enhance the pedestrian realm by providing a buffer between sidewalks and automobile traffic.

I agree completely. It doesn’t make sense to spend all that money redoing Post Oak Lane and not end up with a street that is more bike and pedestrian friendly. There are two ways to deal with excessive traffic in destinations like Uptown: Make it easier to get there without driving, primarily for commuters, and make it easier for those who are already there to get around within the area without driving. Downtown does both of those things. Uptown is working on the first one, with the BRT line and the HOV lane. It really needs to do the other, and the opportunity to do that begins with the BRT line construction on Post Oak. I want to be clear that this is the Uptown Management District’s responsibility. Metro will operate the BRT line once it is built, but the Management District is doing the design and construction. Please do it right the first time, y’all.

Remaking Allen Parkway

It’ll be different, but it makes sense.

Next summer, after workers have spent months shifting lanes, adding crosswalks and planting trees, Allen Parkway will be a parkway again, at the cost of a slight slowing of vehicle traffic and the reintroduction of traffic signals.

Partnering with the Downtown Houston Management District, city officials expect to start construction on a redesigned parkway after July 4, the date of the Freedom Over Texas celebration in Eleanor Tinsley Park just north of the parkway. The goal, downtown district president Bob Eury said, is to finish the work in time for Free Press Summer Fest in late May 2016.

When completed, the $10 million in changes planned will improve pedestrian and bicyclist access from Midtown and Montrose to the Buffalo Bayou park system and add up to 175 parking spaces for visitors to the growing outdoor offerings along the bayou.

“The goal we have is how do we improve access to this park,” said Andy Icken, chief development officer for the city.

[…]

The work planned doesn’t dramatically change the parkway’s design, only its intersections and medians. Allen Parkway is essentially three strips of pavement separated by small concrete medians. The westbound and eastbound main lanes are accompanied by an access road south of the parkway.

The redesign shifts the eastbound and westbound lanes south and converts the existing westbound lanes into an access road and parking area.

Between the lanes, officials plan grassy medians planted with small trees, meant to calm traffic and bring back some sense of an enjoyable drive.

“We are making Allen Parkway a real parkway and not a raceway,” [CM Ellen] Cohen said.

The most dramatic adjustment for drivers will be signals at four key places.

At Dunlavy, Taft and Gillette, traffic signals will give pedestrians and drivers a safer way to turn onto the parkway. Closer to downtown, officials plan a pedestrian-activated crossing, similar to the signals used along the new light rail line near the University of Houston campus.

The light stays green most of the time until activated by someone needing to cross the street. It then warns drivers by following the traditional shift from green to yellow to red, stopping traffic to let the person cross, then turning green again.

As a driver, I will miss the stoplight-free experience (except for Taft Street eastbound) that has always made Allen Parkway such a pleasure. As someone who would like to take more advantage of the new dog park and other non-car amenities, I approve. There’s no safe place to cross the street east of Montrose. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen, so taking action now is the right move. As the story notes, those lights will be green most of the time, and will add at most a minute to one’s driving time end to end. We can all live with that. If you need something to help you achieve inner peace with this, let me recommend the Psalm for Allen Parkway, which I’m going to copy here because I can’t believe that the defunct Houstonist website is still available:

1 On Allen from Shepherd, I shall not stop.

2 She maketh me to drive down concrete pastures:
she weaveth me beside the brown waters

3 She adoreth my stroll:
she leadeth me to the paths of Montroseness or the Waugh’s take.

4 Yea, though I haul through the valley of the radar of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art speedy;
the cops on Memorial they shake fists at me.

5 Thou preparest a jog path before me in the presence of El’nor Tinsley:
thou doth pointest to down-town toil,
my trip almost over.

6 Surely good views quite worthy shall carry me all through haze and the blight:
and I will dwell on your curves with my Ford forever.

Amen.

2015 Mayoral manifesto: Transportation

Preliminaries

Please note that I have called this part of my manifesto “Transportation” and not “Traffic”. I agree that traffic sucks and that the Mayoral candidates ought to have some ideas for how to deal with it. It’s my opinion that the best answers involve providing as many viable alternatives to getting into the car and contributing to the problem as possible. I believe a lot of progress on this has been made under Mayor Parker, but there’s a lot of unfinished business, a lot of business that’s just getting started, and a lot of business that hasn’t started or may not even be on the drawing board yet, but needs to be. I’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started.

Metro

The reclamation and revitalization of Metro has been one of Mayor Parker’s greatest successes. That agency was a dumpster fire when she took office – I had no idea how far off track it had gotten. It was Mayor Parker’s appointment of a stellar Metro Board and their subsequent tabbing of George Greanias as CEO/general fix-it man that started the salvation process and got us to where we are now, on the cusp of the last two rail lines opening, the bus reimagining, the marginal sales tax revenue collection, and the generally restored trust in the agency by stakeholders and the public. All Mayors get to appoint their own Metro boards. It should be a priority for all of the Mayoral candidates to ensure they appoint a Board as good as this one has been, and to build on the good work they have done.

Rail

As noted, by the time the next Mayor is inaugurated, all of the current Metro rail construction (with the exception of the Harrisburg line overpass and extension) will be done. With the Universities line in limbo, you’d think that might be the end of rail construction for the foreseeable future, but that’s far from the case. The Uptown BRT line is expected to be operational by mid-2017. There are three commuter rail lines under discussion, one of which – the US90A Southwest Rail Corridor (SWRC) line – was included in the 2003 Metro referendum and which was moving forward as recently as 2012 before being put on hold while the other lines were being finished. Another proposed commuter rail line, along the 290 corridor, would connect to the Uptown BRT line and might wind up sharing space, if not tracks, with the proposed Houston to Dallas high-speed rail line. That privately-financed venture, which is undergoing environmental review and discussion with potentially affected communities, is still seeking a terminus in Houston, and while downtown is preferred it presents some big challenges. One possible solution to that might be to have it end at the Northwest Transit Center, and connect to a light rail line that would need to be built and which could be shared with that 290 corridor commuter line. It’s hard to know how much of this might happen – very little is set in stone, and much could change, or could just not come about – but the potential is there for a lot more rail to be built, and while the Mayor would not be directly involved in any of this, it’s fair to say that he could have an impact on the outcome if he wanted to. For that matter, who’s to say that the Universities line couldn’t move forward someday? I want a Mayor that’s willing and able to advocate for and abet these projects.

Bicycles

As has been noted several times, Houston is a much more bike-friendly city now than it was a few years ago. We have a growing bike share program, an extensive and also growing network of off-road bike trails, a pioneer dedicated on-road bike lane downtown to help connect one trail to another, a local safe passing ordinance with a more comprehensive plan for bike safety in the works, and we have tweaked parking requirement regulations to enable bike parking. But as with rail, with all that progress there is much to be done. Most of the bike trail work has yet to be done; for the work that has been enabled by the passage of a bill making CenterPoint rights of way available as bike paths, it’s still in the conceptual stage. B-Cycle has been a big success but some kiosks are more successful than others, and it’s all still within biking distance of downtown. Moving it farther out, and integrating it more tightly with existing and future transit should be on the to do list. And of course, better connecting people to the present and future bike infrastructure, perhaps via Neighborhood Greenways or something similar, needs to be on it as well. More people on bikes means fewer people in cars. Surely that will help ease traffic woes a bit.

Pedestrians and sidewalks

Again, there is progress here, with Complete Streets and a focus on making residential streets more residential. But Houston is a dangerous place to walk, and a lot of streets have no sidewalks or essentially useless sidewalks. Improving the pedestrian experience is key to making transit more attractive. Improving pedestrian safety may require lowering speed limits. What do our Mayoral hopefuls think about these things?

Roads

So, um, what’s going on with ReBuild Houston? It would be nice to get some clear direction, and a lot more regular information, on that. Beyond that, all I really care about is keeping an eye on TxDOT and making sure they don’t do anything too destructive to existing infrastructure and neighborhoods in their quest to do something with I-45. The next Mayor needs to stay on top of that and do whatever it takes to prevent anything bad from happening.

That’s my view of transportation issues. What would you add to this list?

From industrial to residential

More changes coming to my neck of the woods.

Some of the old warehouses lining a stretch of Sawyer Street across Interstate 10 from the Heights are being primed for new development, as this First Ward area continues to morph from industrial hub to an upscale artsy neighborhood.

Houston-based Lovett Commercial is transforming a 1950s warehouse at Sawyer and Edwards into Sawyer Yards, which will have about 40,000 square feet of space for restaurants, retail or offices.

The company is looking to fill another 5-acre parcel at 2000 Taylor just south of I-10 at Spring Street. The property is across from the Sawyer Heights Target.

H-E-B quashed rumors that it was considering opening a store there, though the grocery chain has been looking around.

“That’s not a piece of land we’re looking at,” said spokeswoman Cyndy Garza-Roberts. “We’ve had an interest of moving into the Heights area for several years now. We just have not been able to identify a location.”

Jon Deal, who has developed artist studios in the area, is planning another project at the old Riviana rice facility at Sawyer and Summer.

The project is called the Silos on Sawyer, and it will include artist studios, creative workspaces and some retail.

The main building contains more than 50,000 square feet.

Deal said he, Steve Gibson and Frank Liu of Lovett Commercial own – separately or in partnerships – at least 35 contiguous acres in the area.

They hope to master-plan the acreage.

“Ideally we’re going to be a campus-type creative community,” Deal said. “It’ll look and feel like a master-planned development in the end, although it’ll keep its raw edge.”

The area is part of a cultural district recognized by the state, Deal said. The program is not currently being funded, he said, but when it is, it will allow artists to seek grant money.

There’s an awful lot of activity going on in this general area, which stretches from Studemont to Houston Avenue between I-10 and Washington Avenue. I consider it a positive for the most part – the existing industrial area didn’t exactly add much to the quality of life in the larger area, and a lot of it is not actively used now anyway – but there are concerns. Mostly, traffic on the north-south streets – Studemont, Sawyer, and Houston – is already a problem, and there are limited options to ameliorate it. Sawyer, for example, is a narrow one-lane-each-way street south of the Target retail center, and as you can see from the embedded image or this Google Map link, there aren’t any other options thanks to the active freight train tracks, which by the way regularly block traffic on Sawyer and Heights. (This is part of the corridor that would be used for some variation of commuter/high speed/light rail, if and when it ever happens.) There is at least the off-road Heights bike trail along Spring Street that connects the area to the Heights (passing under I-10) and downtown (passing under I-45), and there is a sidewalk along Sawyer; it definitely needs an upgrade, and there’s a lot of potential to make it much nicer when the properties west of Sawyer get sold for development, but at least it’s there. The potential exists to turn this part of town into a compelling modern urban residential/mixed-use area. In the absence of any unified vision for the myriad developers to draw inspiration, I hope at least no one does anything to permanently derail such a thing.

Heights-Northside mobility study

Mostly of interest for folks in my area, here’s the city’s report on mobility for neighborhoods in the upper left quadrant of the Inner Loop.

HeightsNorthside

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study

The Planning and Development Department, in partnership with the Department of Public Works and Engineering and Houston-Galveston Area Council, is pleased to announce that the Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility study has been finalized and can be downloaded (see links below).

After an extensive public comment period, the City received 125 comments regarding study recommendations, and letters from area organizations. Over the last several months, the project team has worked with City staff to evaluate all comments and provide responses to questions that were raised. Where appropriate, recommendations were modified to ensure that all final recommendations resulting from this study best serve the needs of the City and community, alike.

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study
Download Full Version (31 MB)

Download by Chapter:
I. Introduction
II. Existing Conditions
III. Community Involvement
IV. Defining Future Mobility Conditions
V. Changing Mobility Considerations
VI. A Balanced Approach: Corridor Sheets
VII. Outcomes
VIII. Next Steps

Appendix A: Data Collection
Appendix B: Thoroughfare Types
Appendix C: Transit Analysis
Appendix D: Hardy-Elysian Option Considerations
Appendix E: Travel Demand Results

Here’s the project website, which has archives of past community meetings and won’t be around much longer. I was alerted to this by Bill Shirley, who highlighted the following bit from the Corridor Streets section that was of interest to me.

“Pedestrian facilities along Studewood Street are in great condition north of White Oak Drive, but virtually nonexistent along the 4-lane segment of the roadway south of White Oak Drive which includes a 4-lane bridge. However, the use of this segment by pedestrians is evident by foot paths flanking both sides of the corridor. The contra-flow lane confuses drivers who are not familiar with its function, and additional signage could help mitigate this issue. The contra-flow lane also causes problems at major intersection due to the lack of protected lefts. At its northern boundary, the corridor terminates into a 6-legged intersection with E 20th/N Main Street/W Cavalcade Street. The current intersection configuration creates confusion, particularly for the pedestrians and bicyclists to navigate.”

I wrote about this awhile back, in the context of the new housing development that will be coming in across the street from the Kroger at Studemont and I-10, and how that area could be a lot more desirable, and a lot less of a burden to vehicular traffic, if that sidewalk were finished and bike options were added. The latter is known to be coming as part of the Bayou Greenways initiative, and it’s exciting to see that the sidewalk is at least on the drawing board as well. I don’t know how long term some of these projects are, but I’m looking forward to them.

Neighborhood Greenways

I really like this idea.

Complete Streets means that our local governments prioritize the safety and comfort of all a street’s users regardless of age, ability, or mode of transport. Fixing our streets will be a long-term project, but if we head in the right direction, we will have neighborhoods for our grandchildren to live healthier, happier and more prosperous lives.

Now is the time to make the next big push.

It’s time to build on the Bayou Greenways network, the remarkable trail system that brought together Harris County Flood Control District, the City of Houston, the Houston Parks Board, voters and private funders. Bayou Greenways simultaneously improve flood control, add green space, and provide safe, attractive hike-and-bike trails. If we connect Bayou Greenways to other trails — including the Utility Line Easement Hike and Bike Trail concept — the Houston region will have a massive large-scale grid allowing safe long-distance trips.

That will all be terrific once you’re on that network, on one of those trails. But even if the trail network expands radically, before we can use it, we have to get there from our homes.

The Houston region needs something new — not just Bayou Greenways, but Neighborhood Greenways that would connect those trails to all users, regardless of age, ability, or mode of transport.

[…]

Houston could add 200 miles of Neighborhood Greenways for $50 million — roughly the same cost as adding two lanes to one mile of freeway. We could connect most of the Houston region’s dense urban core — the Inner Loop and the same-sized area just west of the 610 Loop — with safe walking, biking, and driving infrastructure for less than 5 percent of one year’s regional transportation spending budget. For about 10 percent of that regional budget, we could connect most of the city of Houston. That small investment would create a Houston that is dramatically more family-friendly for generations to come.

See here for a full presentation of Neighborhood Greenways. The basic idea is to use side streets as connectors to bike trails and the like, with some modifications to these side streets to make them safer and more attractive to bikes and pedestrians. It’s another way to extend the already-growing network of hike and bike trails, since in order to take advantage of them you have to get to them in the first place. It’s a concept that’s being used in other cities, like Portland and Seattle. The cost of all this is fairly small, and there are federal funds available. What’s not to like? As I’ve said before, there’s no one big solution to reducing traffic and adding capacity. There are a lot of smaller solutions that together add up to much more. It’s up to us to take advantage of these smaller solutions.

Astrodome Park: The population isn’t the problem

Greg Wythe addresses one of the central questions about the proposed Astrodome Park in this comment that I thought was worth highlighting on the front page.

As it turns out, there are a number of apartments situated to the east and north of the Dome. Checking Census data, the counts on the area “un-highlighted” in this map view comes to 13,360 for the immediate Dome walking area.

If we look at just downtown, we have only 4,690 total people there to seed Discovery Green with foot traffic. So, on the surface, the Dome area is significantly better situated. If we factor in Midtown and a generous interpretation of EaDo, we get 13,243 people in the “un-highlighted” version of the downtown map. Still less than would be accessible to the Dome park.

Both maps are from roughly the same elevation, so the expanse of territory of those maps should give a good interpretation. Obviously, not all parts of downtown (let alone Midtown or EaDo) are considered “walkable” to Discovery Green and not all parts of the Med Center apartments are going to be “walkable” to a Dome park.

But even if the downtown area were more populated, I don’t think it would make a case in and of itself – highways and a rail line to the Dome generally mean easier access. If there’s a problem with the proposal, proximate population and access aren’t going to be among them.

Greg’s input – and his maps! – are always appreciated around here, so I’m glad he was inspired to do this bit of research. I have three takeaways from it.

1. It seems clear that the residential population around the Astrodome is not an impediment to it becoming a successful park like Discovery Green. Honestly, when you think about it, Houston’s best parks – here we include Hermann and Memorial, for starters – are destinations. People get there by whatever means is most practical to enjoy their amenities. If Astrodome Park is worth going to, people will go to it.

2. That said, I wouldn’t completely dismiss the walkability question, nor the point that Astrodome Park would be a small oasis of green surrounded by a sprawling desert of asphalt, which may have a dampening effect on attendance. Walkability is about more than just distance to travel, it’s about the experience and utility of walking as a mode of transportation. People associate walking with downtown, if only because wherever you’re going downtown, you’re likely going to park a couple of blocks away from it, and once you do park it’s often expensive and inconvenient to move and re-park. That asphalt desert that would encircle Astrodome Park feels like it might be a psychological barrier to the park. I don’t know how to test that hypothesis without actually building the park, and even I will admit that the total effect of what I’d describing here is likely to be minimal in reality, but I do think one reason why people are skeptical of the idea is because of this. It just doesn’t fit with our perception of the place. Of course, there were people saying the same thing about Discovery Green not too long ago, so take this all with an appropriate amount of salt.

3. Really, what Greg highlights here just enhances what Lisa Gray wrote about and I commented on: It’s the programming. The people that conceived, built, and now run Discovery Green have put a ton of work and a few million bucks into making it a place that people want to go. The evidence that we have so far is that other than invoking Discovery Green as an optimistic analogy, the proponents of Astrodome Park haven’t done any of that thinking or planning or fund-seeking. If and when they show their work on this, we can evaluate their plans and compare them to Discovery Green and see how we feel. Until then, it’s just some pictures on a set of PowerPoint slides.

Studemont Junction

Swamplot has an update and some pictures from the to-be-redeveloped Grocer’s Supply truck lot near Studemont and I-10, basically on the north doorstep of my neighborhood.

SIGNS ARE UP at the soon-to-be-former Grocers Supply distribution center across Studemont from Kroger just south of I-10 announcing Studemont Junction, the name meant to bring some . . . uh, conjunction to the odd-shaped 15-acre food-storage facility Capcor Partners bought late last year. To judge from the proposed site plan for the project, that’ll be quite a task.

Developers plan to rope in (beginning at the northern end of the property) some sort of fast-food drive-thru, a bank (with its own drive-thru in back), and enough retail operations to fill a couple of “pad site” retail boxes and a more conventional broken-L shopping center on the site, each structure surrounded by its own dedicated rows of parking. Later, Capcor’s partner Kaplan Management plans to build a 400-unit apartment complex on the western end of the site.

According to the marketing copy on the leasing broker’s website, this multifamily structure, bounded by a small railyard on its south, will “reinforce the urban character of the site and will encourage heavy pedestrian activity along the corridor.” Residents will be able to get to the new complex’s front door from Studemont St. either by wending their way through the retail parking lot or by driving along a proposed new extension of Summer St. past Olivewood Cemetery to a circular drive at Wichman St.

The developer’s webpage for this is here; I encourage you to click the links under “Downloads” to see how they envision things. The comments on the Swamplot post are always useful to read – reaction is more negative than positive, due mostly to the size of the parking lot and the general feeling that this stretch of land near I-10 between Yale and Taylor is being turned into East Katy. My reaction can be summed up thusly – it’s hardly an urbanist’s dream, but given the constraints of that particular property, what did you expect? As I said before, what I really want to see out of this is an improved sidewalk along Studemont/Studewood, all the way from Washington to White Oak, and better bike access, which a couple of commenters on my post say will be part of the Bayou Greenways 2020 plan, then I’ll be happy. Basically, don’t do anything that will later be an impediment for future developers in this area or the city to improve mobility in all forms. I hope that’s not too much to ask.

Redefining residential streets

Streets are about more than just cars. Where the rubber will meet the road on this, as it were, is on busy residential streets like Dunlavy in Montrose, where new city planning codes will have an effect.

Dunlavy is, at least in theory, a four-lane street between Allen Parkway and U.S. 59. Some drivers question whether the outside lanes really count.

Uneven gutters, often filled with debris or small mounds of dirt deposited by passing cars and trucks, line the traffic lanes. Cyclists willing to brave the road dodge potholes and passing cars. Trucks, and most cars, tend to stay in the inside lanes.

“It is not effectively working as a four-lane roadway,” said Amar Mohite, who manages the transportation group in Houston’s planning department.

So in a departure from what many consider the Houston model, the city is calling for reducing the space for cars and trucks. Plans for Dunlavy, along with a handful of other street segments between River Oaks, downtown and U.S. 59 and along the Washington Avenue corridor, will decrease driving room in favor of retaining trees and making parking, bicycling and walking easier.

The proposals, part of a list of amendments to the city’s transportation plan, guide future construction and give developers an idea of what to expect. The changes would appear in the 2014 major thoroughfare and freeway plan.

What’s significant, officials said, is the decision to reduce driving lanes in some spots. The traditional Houston method of improving a four-lane road – turning it into a five- or six-lane road – is falling out of favor in many neighborhoods, with residents reluctant to lose more private land to roads.

[…]

Residents along Dunlavy, and generally around Neartown, told planners they wanted their streets maintained to allow for biking and walking, rather than widened to accommodate more traffic.

“What we said was, make it a neighborhood where you could ride your bike or take a walk,” said Greg LeGrande, president of the Neartown Association, a coalition of civic groups.

Here’s a map, for those of you not familiar with the area. Let’s be very clear about something: Dunlavy is not a thoroughfare. It’s a residential street, with stop signs, houses, cars pulling into and out of driveways, bikes, and pedestrians. Other than a brief stretch just north of West Gray by the post office where it is striped for two lanes on each side, it really is just a little one-lane-each-way road, meant for neighborhood traffic at neighborhood speeds. What distinguishes it from the other little north-south roads between Shepherd and Montrose that cross over US 59 is 1) it goes all the way to Allen Parkway, which gives it easy access to downtown and Upper Kirby, and 2) it has no speed humps. Those things help attract traffic to it, and people treat it like it’s meant for that kind of traffic. My friend Andrea, who used to live on Dunlavy near Gray, would complain bitterly about the drivers that zipped past her house at 40 MPH plus. That’s not what that street is for.

So I’ll be very interested to see what the city proposes to do. I predict there will be lots of whining, mostly from people who don’t live on or near Dunlavy. The city’s planning department will host an open house in late June to explain the amendments, and City Council is expected to consider the changes in September. One thing I’m not sure about is how they propose to make Dunlavy more bike-friendly while reducing the lane widths yet maintaining street parking. As I think about it, it should be doable – Dunlavy really is four full lanes wide, even if it’s almost never used as a four-lane road; there’s plenty of space between moving vehicles and parked cars – I’m just not sure how to visualize it. I look forward to seeing the proposal.

More on the Metro bus system reimagining

Christopher Andrews has a practical look at Metro’s reimagined bus network.

Nearly two weeks ago METRO released the System Reimagining proposal, arguably the biggest service adjustment in METRO’s existence. METRO is currently welcoming feedback on the system. I hope most feedback will be positive, as the reimagined system should provide an opportunity for ridership for more people, and to a larger area of the Houston region, without an increase in costs or major infrastructural improvements. The reimagined system helps to reduce redundancies in coverage and increases the number of “frequent” bus routes throughout the region, creating a grid-like network of bus routes in which riders rely on transfers to reach their destinations.

I looked at the map of new routes and how they would impact my commute, and I thought about improvements needed to accommodate more riders and transfers. Examine proposed routes yourself to learn their physical coverages, frequencies, and surrounding conditions. I could think of no better way to examine the proposed routes than by bike. You can do the same. Then send your comments to METRO or attend a public meeting. It’s time for Houstonians to own their transit routes.

I followed the northwest portion of the proposed 11-Heights-Dallas-Telephone route that goes through the Heights and Montrose into Downtown and then on to the East Side. I kept in mind any infrastructural improvements that are needed, like bus stops, curb cuts, benches, signalization, crosswalks, or bus shelters that would make transferring and ridership more accommodating and comfortable.

He has a lot more at his personal blog. I really like the approach he’s taking here. People get to bus stops by walking or biking to them. If we really want to maximize the potential gains in ridership from the new routes, we need to make sure people can get to the bus stops easily and safely. The city of Houston needs to work with Metro to ensure that sidewalk improvements are in place or in the works for the new routes, and B-Cycle should examine the new map to see where new kiosks might go. I hope to hear more about this as we go.

Reading those posts led me to two others that came out at the time of Metro’s reimagining announcement: one from Jarrett Walker, who was one of the consultants Metro used on the new map, and one from Citylab, which mostly summarized the work Metro and Walker had done. Remember how I said in my post about the reimagining announcement that I wondered if some of the usual light rail-hating suspects would have anything to say about this, since they all claimed to be big bus fans? Well, I haven’t gone trawling through their blogs – life is too short – but I do know that Bill King, the Chron’s one and only op-ed page columnist, has written four pieces since then, and none of them have been about Metro and buses. Nope, it’s been pension, pension, pension, and I hate light rail, always a classic. I’m sure he’ll get around to it sooner or later.

Walk carefully

Texas cities are not so safe for pedestrians. Yeah, I’m as shocked as you are.

dont_walk

Houston pedestrians better cross with care. The city is the seventh most dangerous in the nation for people on foot, according to a new report from the National Complete Streets Coalition at Smart Growth America, a nonprofit that advocates for neighborhood safety.

Texas ranked as the 10th most dangerous state for walking commuters, with nearly 4,200 pedestrian deaths between 2003 and 2012. That’s roughly 10 percent of such deaths nationally during that time period, according to data compiled from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.

Although the total number of traffic fatalities has decreased nationally, the number of pedestrian deaths has grown. In 2012, 15 percent of all traffic fatalities involved people on foot.

As Congress considers reauthorizing MAP-21, a 2012 law that funds national transportation infrastructure, nonprofits like Smart Growth America and their pro-public safety allies are urging lawmakers nationwide to pass additional federal policy that would ensure pedestrian safety.

“This is about making smarter choices, investing our transportation dollars in projects that help achieve multiple community goals, including public health and supporting local economies,” said Roger Millar, the director of the coalition.

Using numbers from the National Weather Service, the reports says the number of pedestrian deaths in the past decade — 47,000 — is 16 times higher than the number of people who died in natural disasters. But “pedestrian deaths don’t receive a corresponding level of urgency,” Millar added.

[…]

There are two key explanations for the danger of Houston streets, said Jay Blazek Crossley, a policy analyst at Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that examines urban issues in the region. One is the design of city streets, which he said prioritizes speed over safety. The other is that the region has chosen to spend on toll roads over safer urban design, he said.

“Our money is focused on building toll roads in the middle of nowhere,” Crossley said. “Instead of redesigning streets with safety in mind, we’re putting our attention there.”

Crossley added that Houston has made some recent strides. In October, Mayor Annise Parker announced an executive order establishing a citywide Complete Streets policy aimed at protecting pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists and public transit riders.

Dallas and San Antonio are also on the list, though not as high up as Houston. I don’t think there’s any question that the way our streets are built, to accommodate cars first and foremost, is the main reason behind this. As Wonkblog points out, cities that are safer for pedestrians tend to be older ones where the main street grid was built before cars existed, and thus were engineered for walking. The Complete Streets directive will help, but to say the least that’s a long-term fix. I don’t know what there is to do in the short run, but raising awareness can’t hurt. Ed Kilgore has more.

The downtown lifestyle

Demand for residences in downtown Houston is up.

For Krishnan Iyer, moving downtown meant a lot of things: Not having to use his car in auto-dependent Houston, being able to walk to work, to restaurants, to the movies.

The 34-year-old consultant left The Woodlands two years ago for a one-bedroom apartment in the Post Rice Lofts at Main and Texas and hasn’t looked back. Iyer expects many others to follow him in the coming years.

“I think for sure the rising oil prices will have an effect on people moving inward to a place near where they work, and there is a trend of renting among younger people rather than buying,” Iyer said. “There’s going to be demand to live here. It’s not going down.”

With people like Iyer in mind, developers are proposing six residential projects for downtown Houston that could add more than 2,200 new apartments to the urban core, fueled by a $15,000-per-unit city subsidy program that officials now want to expand.

Most of this story is about whether Council should expand an incentive program for developers that build downtown. I’ve no strong opinions about that, I’m more interested in the attitude expressed above. As we know, there are many job centers in the greater Houston area, but it seems to me that downtown is one of only a couple where you could reasonably live and walk to your job. You could probably do that if you lived and worked in the Rice/Medical Center area, and maybe in Greenway Plaza or the Galleria. I can’t imagine doing it in the Energy Corridor or Greenspoint, or in a suburban location like The Woodlands. That’s a niche market, but one that downtown is very well positioned to serve.

More broadly, if one really wants to avoid traffic, one has to be in a position to stay off the roads. That means walking, bicycling (on trails and side roads if possible), and taking the light rail, with buses as the next best thing and carpools or vanpools another step down. You can reduce your exposure to traffic by having a shorter commute or by taking HOV lanes, but you can’t avoid it. Something I keep coming back to in this space is that while we’ve done a lot to make it easier to travel by highway, with more of that to come once TxDOT reveals its master plan for I-45 inside the Beltway, we’ve not done nearly as much for those who aren’t on the highway, which includes all those extra highway drivers once they reach their destinations. This is why I remain skeptical of the grandiose plans to transform I-45 in and around downtown or to build dedicated connectors to the Medical Center from 288. You can increase the capacity all you want on the highways, but the streets and especially the parking lots where all these people will be going aren’t getting any bigger or faster.

The inescapable truth is that we can’t solve traffic problems by adding highway capacity. All that extra capacity winds up generating bigger problems elsewhere. Widening I-10 west of the Loop has caused traffic on I-10 inside the Loop to become a mess, and that mess extends to the surface roads that access I-10, as anyone who remembers what Studemont and Yale and Shepherd were like pre-widening can attest. Ultimately, we are going to have to put more effort and resources into options that get people out of their cars, at least some of the time. That means more transit, more walking and biking, and more affordable housing close to or right in employment centers. That brings us back to the more transit and walking and biking options, because density without those things is just more cars on streets whose capacity can’t be – and shouldn’t be – increased. Downtown has all of that already, which is why it’s so attractive for people who don’t care about having their own plot of land. Near downtown – Midtown, EaDo, Heights, Montrose, and eventually Fifth Ward – has these things in varying amounts, but is struggling to keep up with demand for housing and the strain on infrastructure. Neighborhoods farther out also have these things to varying degrees, at least until you start getting into master-planned-with-cul-de-sacs territory. I don’t think I’m stretching to suggest that the less walkable a place is, the less amenable it will be to transit as well. Places like that are going to have a lot more trouble with traffic going forward because they just don’t have as many alternatives.

And that brings us back where we started. Council did approve the tax break to encourage more downtown residential construction, and I expect that it won’t be long before we start seeing more projects on the drawing board. In the meantime, more and more people will just have to learn to cope with traffic.

How to make the warehouse transition something to look forward to

I have four things to say about this.

Houston developers plan to build a mixed-use project, including upscale apartments and retail, on a 15-acre tract close to downtown, replacing a large produce warehouse that’s occupied the space for decades.

Capcor Partners and Kaplan Management bought the land this week from Grocers Supply, which has been at the corner of Studemont and Interstate 10 for 42 years.

[…]

Josh Aruh of Capcor, which specializes in retail developments, said it’s rare to find such a large piece of land in the Inner Loop and added that the project will make a “big footprint.”

“There is tremendous, continuous demand in this sub-market,” Aruh said. “We believe the scarcity of such a large, contiguous tract so close to downtown Houston, the Heights and entertainment districts is primed for a strong multifamily component. And with frontage near I-10, this property is ideally suited for retail. The size of the tract invites many possible other uses and users that we are currently exploring.”

Aruh said he has already discussed possibilities for the property with grocers, cinemas, restaurants and several big box retailers.

The developers are also working with the city to expand a street to split the property and reduce traffic, he said.

Michael Kaplan of Kaplan Management, which specializes in multifamily developments, said he hopes to build up to 400 high-end apartments, to go with the retail and commercial uses, to meet the demand for housing in the area.

“It’s just in the heart of this terrific growth corridor,” Kaplan said. “It is such a strong area.”

1. I admire their desire to have as small an impact on traffic as possible, because traffic on the stretch of Studemont between Washington and I-10 sucks thanks to the Kroger, the long light cycle at I-10, and the huge number of cars turning left to get onto I-10 and to get into the Kroger. Let me suggest that the first order of business would be to rebuild that piece of road, because it’s axle-breaking awful right now. Yeah, that’ll make traffic even worse for the duration, but the gain will be worth the pain. As for expanding a street – not sure which one they have in mind – let me suggest that what they really ought to consider is adding a street. I presume the entrance to this new development would be opposite the entrance to the Kroger where the traffic light is and where there’s already a left turn lane on northbound Studemont, which currently turns into a wall. Having that entrance street connect to Wichman on the west so that vehicles can access Hicks Street, which passes over Studemont and which connects to Heights via Harvard, will help.

2. If you really want to lessen the impact on traffic in the area, then it’s vital to ensure non-vehicular mobility into and out of this development and to the surrounding areas, by which I specifically mean Washington and White Oak. First and foremost, put in a sidewalk on the west side of Studemont, along the front of the development. There’s already a decent sidewalk on the east side of Studemont, but it terminates immediately north of I-10, where a well-worn path in the dirt connects you up with the bridge over the bayou and the continuation of the sidewalk at Stude Street. That new sidewalk could split at the underpass to give pedestrians the option of continuing on Studemont to Washington or ascending to Hicks and the overpass for better access to Arne’s and Kroger, and on to Sawyer Street if one is adventurous. I took the #50 bus home from work on Friday when this story was run, and I got off at Studemont to walk home from there. It took me 15 minutes to get from Washington to White Oak – I timed it – so having good pedestrian paths between these two streets will make the new development a lot more accessible. Given the traffic and the parking situation on either end, you’d be better off walking from whatever residence they build to Fitzgerald’s or BB’s or wherever you want to go.

3. At least as important as facilitating pedestrians is connecting this development to the existing bike paths and bike lanes nearby. You could take Hicks to Heights and from there get on the Heights Bike Trail, but that’s a mighty big detour if you’re heading towards downtown. And Lord knows, no one in their right mind would want to bike on Studemont to get anywhere. Look at a map of the area. Isn’t the solution to all this obvious?

GrocerSupplyMap1

This just screams for a new trail along the bayou to get past I-10 and eventually hook up with the existing trails. This picture shows how that would be possible:

GrocerSupplyMap2

Pass under Studemont, and pave that truck path to get to the Heights trail. You’d need to build a bridge over the bayou to connect to the new trail adjacent to Stude Park, which you can’t see in this old Google satellite image, but that shouldn’t be a big deal. I have no idea how much this all might cost, but for something like this that enhances mobility there may be federal grant money available. Or, you know, maybe the developers can kick in on this, since it would greatly enhance the value of their property. This might in fact be an excellent candidate for 380 agreement, one that would offer a clear benefit to all involved. I’m sure there’s a way to make this work.

Ed Wulfe, chairman and CEO of retail development and brokerage firm Wulfe & Co., said as Houston becomes more dense and urban, more warehouses will be converted into residential and commercial properties.

“We are changing land-use patterns,” Wulfe said. “Now the need is greater and the market is stronger. Warehouses can only command so much economic benefit.”

4. Density with transit >>> density without transit. The good people of Super Neighborhood 22 have that comprehensive transportation plan for their area that includes various rail and streetcar options for the Washington Avenue corridor. Moving forward on that would be a huge boon to mobility in the area, and to projects like this one and the ones that will inevitably follow. Look, I know people get skeptical whenever non-car modes of transportation are discussed. Most people don’t want to give up their cars, even a little bit. I get that, but in a city this size that still leaves a whole lot of folks who do want alternatives, and these are the people who will be seeking out dense development. We can do it right and make the whole experience a hell of a lot better, which includes the drivers since they’ll have fewer competitors for road space, or we can do it wrong and make a huge mess of it all. You tell me what the right answer is. Swamplot has more.

Complete Streets coming

This is good to see.

Houston, long ruled by the automobile, will give more consideration to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists in designing its streets and neighborhoods.

Mayor Annise Parker on Thursday said she is drafting, with public works and planning officials, an executive order stating that the city will adhere to “complete streets” standards. The change could enable some neighborhoods to press for wider sidewalks, shadier streets and bicycle lanes, for example.

“Houston streets can and should accommodate the needs of all users, not just those behind the wheel,” Parker told a crowd gathered for the announcement and the dedication of Bagby in the Midtown area as Texas’ first “green” street.

Parker said she would sign the order after fully briefing the City Council, as early as next week. While the order doesn’t directly affect the rules planners and engineers use, supporters say it changes Houston policies from a narrow focus on moving cars to a broader effort to provide mobility for cars and other means of getting around.

Giving thought to pedestrians can lead to subtle but meaningful changes in the standards the city uses to consider applications for new developments and how streets are redesigned or improved.

“This is a process the people are a part of,” said Jay Blazek Crossley, a member of the Houston Coalition for Complete Streets, one of the groups that pushed for the change.

The new standards will apply to projects and streets within city control. State-maintained freeways, for example, are meant to move vehicle traffic and would be unaffected.

As Stace notes, this has also been a priority for CM Ed Gonzalez, so if you like this announcement, thank him as well. Houston Tomorrow has a quote from the Mayor’s verbal remarks at the event on Thursday that I think captures what is actually being changed here:

Frankly, it’s always been possible to do a Complete Street in Houston, but the default has been let’s get those cars moving. Now we want the default to be a Complete Street and anything different than that to be something that has to be the exception.

That’s the key. The Bagby location in Midtown where the event was exemplifies this, because the developers of that area had to get a variance from the city in order to proceed. Under this change, they would not need a variance but someone who wanted to build something the old way would. That won’t have any immediate effect on existing streets, but as Rebuild Houston moves forward you should expect to see at least some of the affected streets get redesigned to incorporate this new vision. See here and here for a basic primer on what “complete streets” means.

The Mayor’s press release has more, as does the press release from CM Gonzalez. As noted in the story, the Bagby Midtown location also received certification as the first Greenroads Project in the State of Texas. See beneath the fold for that press release, The Highwayman and Texas Leftist for more on what this will mean in practice, here for more on what it was about Bagby Midtown that got it this certification, and here for more on Greenroads.

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