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Texas Transportation Institute

Three rideshare bills

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute Policy Center looks at the (first) three bills relating to ridesharing that have been filed in the Lege:

Three bills have been filed so far in the 85th Texas Legislature, regular session, addressing transportation network companies, frequently referred to as ride-hailing or (less accurately) as ridesharing. The bills are

  1. SB 113 Relating to the provision of and local regulation of certain for-hire passenger transportation.
  2. SB 176 Relating to the regulation of transportation network companies; requiring an occupational permit; authorizing a fee.
  3. SB 361 Relating to transportation network companies.

SB 113 and SB 176 have been referred to the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. SB 361 is expected to follow when it is referred to committee.

SB 133 prohibits municipalities from regulating any vehicles for hire (including taxis) and imposes minimal state-level regulation in its place. SB 176 and SB 361 also remove municipal authority over TNCs but introduce state level regulation. There are differences between the latter two (permit fees, for example), but the provisions of both bills are similar to those passed in other states. SB 361 further clarifies that TNCs are not motor carriers and, thus, not regulated under the motor carrier statutes.

There’s further analysis there, so go read the rest. SB361 is by Sen. Robert Nichols, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, SB176 is by Sen. Charles Schwertner; it has five co-authors, including Democratic Sen. Juan Hinojosa. SB113 is by Sen. Don Huffines, and it’s basically a part of his plan to turn cities into helpless wards of the state. That’s the order in which I’d rank them from least to most objectionable. I’d be fine if nothing passes, but something likely will, and if that is the case I can live with either of the first two. There’s room to make them less daunting for cities, and I hope that happens. We’ll see how it goes.

Ready for driverless cars, Houston?

Well, they’re coming, ready or not.

Researchers, business leaders and elected officials are about to turn Texas into the biggest laboratory for connected cars in the nation, with the likeliest place to spot a self-driving car in Houston along the high occupancy vehicle and toll lanes along some of the region’s busiest freeways.

Officials are moving quickly to create a welcoming environment for the vehicles and the scientists and engineers who will fine tune them, though safety standards and even testing methods remain a work in progress.

“We want companies to come to Texas and develop (autonomous and connected vehicle) technologies,” said Christopher Poe, assistant director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and head of the agency’s connected and automated vehicle program.

[…]

In the Houston area, some of the first tests could be along high occupancy vehicle and high occupancy toll lanes where the cars could drive themselves in typical situations and then cede control to a person for stop-and-go traffic, Poe and others said.

To prepare for the cars, the A&M transportation institute and the Texas Department of Transportation earlier this month forged an agreement that allows researchers to test wireless-connected and automated vehicle technologies on state highways. The agreement will pave the way for installing devices on state highway rights of way such as signs readable by automated vehicles and even detectors that can communicate with cars to provide traffic information and even control traffic signals.

The development will take automated cars from closed areas such as the Texas A&M’s RELLIS campus west of College Station to the streets of Texas cities.

Before that, however, researchers and local officials in various Texas cities will develop locations where certain driverless vehicle technologies can be tested. In Houston, officials have identified the Texas Medical Center, high occupancy vehicle lanes maintained by Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Port of Houston as potential live testing locations. Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso also are readying for live testing.

Plans are to test facets of connected cars, such as traffic signals that could relay information and communicate in the Texas Medical Center, or autonomous vehicles that could lug freight from the docks of the Port of Houston to a central sorting operation.

Freight, along with public transit, are two transportation sectors in which businesses and local governments see the most potential for connected and autonomous vehicles. Texas, meanwhile, is ripe with opportunities for both, with increasing demand predicted for both trucks, freight rail and options other than solo driving in the state’s largest metro regions.

Local officials, especially Metro transit leaders, are particularly eyeing a western stretch of Westheimer, said Terence Fontaine, the transit agency’s executive vice president and chief innovation officer. The 12 miles of road between Loop 610 and Texas 6 – technically part of the state highway system as FM 1093 – is a major thoroughfare and big headache for drivers, with stops and starts because of traffic flow and seemingly ill-timed traffic lights.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. Much of this isn’t about fully autonomous vehicles but about integrating traffic and transportation systems to be able to work with those vehicles when the are ready, and as noted above there’s a light-synchronization piece for Metro. In the meantime, there’s a pilot program coming.

A program piloting self-driving vehicles around Texas, starting at closed facilities but one day moving to busy streets, will join nine others as the first proving grounds in the U.S. for autonomous vehicles.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials made the announcement late last week, among a dash of decisions in the last days of the Obama Administration before federal offices handed power to Donald Trump and his cabinet.

The proving grounds are a significant step in helping develop cars and trucks that can safely travel on American roads, including setting the standards for what regulations will oversee vehicles moving autonomously.

“This group will openly share best practices for the safe conduct of testing and operations as they are developed, enabling the participants and the general public to learn at a faster rate and accelerating the pace of safe deployment,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Thursday.

[…]

Under terms of the proving ground program overseen by federal officials, the proving grounds will be operational by Jan. 1, 2018.

Can’t wait to see what that looks like. Beyond this, consumer testing is farther out because Texas law hasn’t been updated to accommodate it. One such attempt in the last session went down to defeat after Google and other manufacturers didn’t like what was in it. I’m sure something else will get introduced this year, so we’ll see if it is more successful this time. Are you ready to look over at the car next to you and not see someone in the driver’s seat?

As go gas prices, so goes interest in transit

It is what it is.

gas-prices-sign

Cheap gasoline has Texans driving more, indicating that efforts to promote mass transit or bicycle commuting are falling short, a new statewide poll suggests.

As folks hit the road, though, they are increasingly supportive of investment in transit and bike safety, even if perhaps they’d rather see others try it first.

“It’s one of those things where everybody thinks it is a good idea, but nobody seems to be using it,” said Tina Geiselbrecht, a co-author of the report and leader of the public engagement planning program at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

The poll, released Tuesday, is the first update to the Texas Transportation Poll since its creation in 2014. In those two years, car-centric Texas became even more devoted to driving, based on responses of more than 4,300 drivers, including more than 1,000 in the Houston region. Among the findings:

93 percent of drivers rely on an automobile as their primary way to travel, up from 91 percent in 2014. Vehicle ownership is also up statewide.

Roughly 1 in 7 Texans, 14 percent, had used public transit in the past month, compared to 25 percent of those polled two years ago. Fewer reported bicycling, walking and carpooling as well.

Gasoline prices, which have remained low in the state, were far less of a factor for drivers. Less than 30 percent of drivers were traveling less because of fuel prices, compared to 61 percent who said they were cutting back in 2014.

Geiselbrecht noted fuel prices in 2016 were about two-thirds what they were when pollsters asked people their opinions two years ago. Opinions on many things remained roughly the same, such as the interest people have in increased transportation spending, despite many thinking public officials squander some of the money.

“While people think there should be increased funding for transportation … nobody wants it to come out of their pocket,” Geiselbrecht said.

A copy of the study is here. I currently have a short commute into downtown, and I carpool with my wife. On the occasions when I have to be in early or when my wife has an after-work errand or appointment, I take the bus. In a few months, I’m going to be moving to another location out on the west side of town, and will be driving solo when that happens. Metro service is mostly nonexistent in this area; there is a bus route nearby, but I’d have to make two transfers to get to or from this location, so it’s just not an option. The main change for me is that this will be the longest commute I’ll have ever had in nearly 30 years of living in Houston. To put it mildly, I’m not thrilled about it. Life is too damn short to spend that much time in the car.

For better or worse, mine is a minority opinion, or at least one that carries little political and policy weight. I’ve said before, we need to come to terms with the fact that at some point we just cannot prioritize optimizing the travel times of single-occupancy vehicles over everything else. There’s only so much road capacity we can create, and the cost of doing so, which heavily subsidizes these solo trips, keeps increasing. That means that at some point, we need to prioritize density and transit, so that people can be closer to the places they most need to be and can get to and from them without having to drive. I have no idea when this might happen – at this point, I doubt I’ll live to see it – but it’s what we’re going to need.

How do other states regulate ridesharing?

The Texas Legislature would like to know.

Uber

As Texas lawmakers consider filing legislation next year related to ride-hailing companies, they learned Tuesday that more than 30 states have passed laws calling for some level of regulation of companies like Uber and Lyft.

A report presented by Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute analyzed state and municipal regulations since 2012. It found that 24 states passed legislation requiring ride-hailing apps, sometimes referred to as transportation network companies, must apply for a state permit before operating. The report also found that 30 states require background checks on the driver before or a specific amount of time after the driver begins working.

Lyft

“Transportation network companies have expanded rapidly to cities worldwide,” Ginger Goodin, a senior research engineer and director at the institute, told House Transportation Committee members at a hearing Tuesday. “However, they do not fit neatly within our current regulatory schemes.”

[…]

According to Goodin, there is no statewide policy in the country that requires fingerprint-based background checks. The group did not look into the number of municipalities that require those checks.

“There are many questions and unknowns,” Goodin said. The institute expects to continue to research the ride-hailing companies in the future.

You can see a copy of the report here. It seems very likely we are going to get some kind of statewide Uber/Lyft bill, it’s just a matter of whether the bill is a complete sop to them or if it tries to balance their interests with those of the cities and existing cab companies. The two Transportation chairs – Sen. Robert Nichols and Rep. Joe Pickett – are decent, and the guy who introduced the statewide bill last session (Rep. Chris Paddie) took the process seriously, so if those three are among the main movers, it’ll probably be all right. Just keep the chuckleheads like Sen. Don Huffines away from it, that’s all I ask.

Three views of traffic in Texas

It’s getting worse.

Houston-area leaders love to trumpet the region’s affordable cost of living and low taxes, but the costs of sitting in traffic are taking a record share of workers’ incomes, according to a comprehensive annual study.

The average peak-period commuter in Houston pays $1,490 annually in lost time and wasted fuel because freeways are not flowing, according to the Urban Mobility Scorecard. The scorecard, developed by the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute, assesses congestion in America’s 471 urban areas. It is considered a reliable barometer of whether traffic conditions are worsening or improving.

Congestion delays more than 2.4 million commuters daily along the Houston region’s 90,000 lane-miles of streets and highways, the study found. Though nearly the same number of workers traveled in the area daily in 2012 and 2014, last year motorists collectively sat in traffic for more than 200 million hours for the first time. This means every worker in the Houston area who travels at peak times wastes on average 61 hours annually because traffic doesn’t move as intended.

[…]

Despite having a lower cost of living than many other congested urban areas, Houston ranks fourth nationally when the cost of congestion is calculated. The area’s total wasted time and fuel value is $4.9 billion annually; an estimated 94.3 million gallons of fuel are lost to stop-and-go traffic.

Freight movement also suffers. Congestion adds $1.1 billion annually to the price of delivering and shipping goods via truck, according to the scorecard. Only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago shippers lose more money to congestion.

Even adjusting to the value of $1 in 2014, the money lost to commuting is at an all-time high in Houston. With a more diverse economy and growth seemingly inevitable, experts do not expect the cost of congestion to decline.

“If Houston grows by a million people, just keeping that at $1,500 is going to be hard,” [scorecard co-author Tim] Lomax said.

Here’s the scorecard and press release, with additional commentary from The Highwayman. I’m sure all of this will sound familiar.

What may not be so familiar is this critique of the study:

The trouble with TTI’s work is that, to put it bluntly, it’s simply wrong. For one, their core measure of congestion costs — the “travel time index” — only looks at how fast people can travel, and completely ignores how far they have to go. As a result, it makes sprawling cities with fast roads between far-flung destinations look good, while penalizing more compact cities where people actually spend less time — and money — traveling from place to place. These and other problems, discussed below, mean that the TTI report is not a useful guide to policy.

Moreover, its authors have been consistently indifferent in responding to expert criticism, and the report has not been subjected to peer review. The authors continue to report data for 1982 through 2007, even though TTI’s model for those years doesn’t actually measure congestion: it simply assumes that increased vehicle volumes automatically produce slower speeds, which is not necessarily accurate. The report’s data from 2007 and earlier isn’t comparable the data that comes afterwards, and can’t legitimately be used to make claims about whether traffic is better or worse than in earlier periods. And for decades, TTI used a fuel consumption model to estimate gas savings that was calibrated based on 1970s-era cars, and which assumed that fuel economy improved with higher speeds — forever.

At City Observatory, we’ve spent a lot of time digging through TTI’s work and similar congestion cost reports. A summary of our work is in the City Subjects card deck “Questioning Congestion Costs.”

Click over to see the summary of what City Observatory learned. More along these lines comes from Transportation for America:

The report focuses only on drivers — not commuters as a whole. The millions of people using growing modes like transit, walking or biking or skipping the trip entirely by telecommuting at peak aren’t included in the analysis. So when the report says “person” or “commuter,” what they’re really saying is “car commuter.” The nearly 1 million trips taken per day in Washington, DC —#1 on the “list of gridlock-plagued cities — on metro (bus and rail) and therefore not in a car? Not included in this analysis.

Trips not taken can be crucial, yet they’re ignored here. In February 2009, Inrix, the company partnering with Texas A&M on this release, reported that just a 3.7 percent drop in vehicle miles traveled in 2008 resulted in a 30 percent drop in congestion in the 100 most congested metro areas. We don’t need everyone to shift their trip, take transit, move closer to work, or telecommute — among many possible options. But smart investments and incentives that lead to very small reductions in trips taken can have huge benefits in reduced congestion. And they’re often far cheaper than massive projects proposed to shave a few seconds off of average commutes.

Live close to where you work? Oops. Your short commute can come out looking worse than someone else’s much longer commute. TTI completely ignores the actual time and distance of commutes. If you have a 20-minute commute home but move at a lower speed, your commute scores worse than the person driving 80 minutes at a higher speed. Yet who has the better experience each day?

[…]

Ranking congestion is fine, but what should we do about it? How can we manage congestion in the most cost-effective way possible given limited transportation dollars?

Doing more of the same certainly won’t solve the problem. Regions that have been aggressively investing in additional travel options, eliminating trips, reducing trip length, creating more places to live close to jobs or more effectively managing demand have seen their congestion numbers get better, according to this landmark CEOs for Cities report from a few years ago.

That’s why it’s so critically important that the rule for the congestion performance measure being developed by USDOT measure success (or failure) in ways beyond just this limited and flawed TTI measure. We do need a better measure of congestion if we want to avoid making the same decisions that got us into this mess.

How far do most people have to travel for work? How long does it take them? What is most effective at reducing the amount of time it takes to get places? How many people are exposed to the congestion? Congestion may be bad, but people telecommuting, in a vanpool or on a bike might not experience it. Credit should be given to areas that allow people to opt-out of the traffic. Those are the kinds of metrics we need to use in order to find real solutions.

I’d fall into that third group above – whether we take I-45 or Houston Avenue, we move pretty slowly going into downtown most days, but we don’t have far to go, and it almost never takes more than 10 minutes total. Tiffany used to take a vanpool to The Woodlands for her job. She moved a lot faster, but was on the road a lot longer. Which would you rather do?

Just a little food for thought while you’re sitting there in traffic. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, we are reaching the end point of accommodating single-passenger-vehicle drivers. We don’t have the room to build more highway lanes in our cities, and in the places where we have done so recently, they’ve just filled right back up again. Just as we can’t economically meet our state’s water and energy needs without conservation, we can’t economically meet the needs of single passenger vehicles at the current pace. The focus has to be on reducing the number of cars on the road – more carpools, more transit, more biking and walking, more telecommuting – which is to say, on conserving road capacity. We’re too cheap to pay for anything else anyway, so we may as well embrace the option that we’re forcing ourselves into. Street Smart has more.

Why that empty private toll road has been so empty

Someone did a study to try to answer that question.

Speed Limit 85

In the Austin area, more than 220,000 vehicles travel on I-35 on a daily basis. In contrast, SH 130, the tolled bypass around Austin only carries 40,000 vehicles daily. Why do more vehicles choose the I-35 route? What would make travelers, particularly big trucks, more likely to use SH 130?

Associate Research Scientist Tina Geiselbrecht at TTI’s Transportation Policy Research Center recently published a report titled Incentives for Truck Use of SH 130 aimed at understanding the trucking industry’s use of toll roads and the possibility of diverting large trucks to SH 130. Researchers conducted a traffic analysis and found only 14 percent of I-35 traffic volume is vehicles traveling through the region without stopping, and of that volume, only 1 percent are trucks. The other 86 percent of vehicles are local I-35 travelers.

The traffic data analysis shows, overall, SH 130 carries very few trucks. To better understand how to increase truck traffic on SH 130, Geiselbrecht and her team studied incentives for truck use of toll road SH 130.

Geiselbrecht and her team interviewed trucking industry leaders to get their thoughts on the following potential incentives:

  • higher speed limits on SH 130;
  • the presence of nearby amenities and associated facilities;
  • the provision of speed and travel times for alternate routes;
  • use of long combination vehicles (LCVs); and,
  • toll discounts.

The findings suggest many of these potential incentives would not cause a shift to SH 130. Because some operators say it’s not safe to operate large vehicles at high speeds and speed tends to increase the cost of a trip in terms of fuel consumption, higher speed limits are not an effective incentive. Providing travel time information near access points to SH 130 doesn’t motivate truck drivers to use toll roads either because interviews with industry professionals found they already use internal systems that show them travel times and alternate routes.

One potential incentive did arise from the interviews; the allowance of Long Combination Vehicles (LCVs). LCVs allow companies to transport more product on a trip, thereby offsetting some of the toll costs making it a feasible alternative.

“This study supports short- and long-term mobility policy and planning strategies on how to move freight more efficiently in and through Texas. Although diverting truck traffic to uncongested toll roads is positive, the literature, traffic data and interviews revealed the trucking industry is reluctant to use tolled facilities,” Geiselbrecht says. “So it may be a good idea to also think about how to get passenger vehicles to divert to SH 130 since they make up the majority vehicle volume on I-35.”

See here for all my prior blogging on this topic. Call me crazy, but I’m thinking this kind of study might have been useful before $1.3 billion got spent on this mess. Just a thought. By the way, not that it has anything to do with anything, but the Main Street light rail line has a higher daily ridership tally than all of SH 130. I don’t have a point to make with that, it just amuses me. Good luck getting some value out of this albatross. Link via Streetsblog.

News flash: Traffic is getting worse

I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

It’s a common dilemma for Houston motorists. Congestion in Houston increased sharply from 2013 to 2014, according to a report released Tuesday by TomTom, developer of the mapping and traffic data fed to phones and other GPS devices.

Analysts said trips in the region on average last year took 25 percent longer than they would have in free-flowing conditions, compared with 21 percent longer in 2013.

This means that a hypothetical 30-minute, congestion-free trip, on average, takes about 52 minutes at peak commuting times. For an entire year, it means drivers waste 85 hours – more than 3.5 days – plodding along the highways and streets of Houston.

It’s the first increase in TomTom’s traffic index for Houston in four years after three consecutive years of slight declines.

Growing cities with robust economies tend to experience the biggest increases in traffic. Oil price dips notwithstanding, Houston certainly fits the bill, said Tony Voigt, the program manager for the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s Houston office.

Voigt said local analysis supports the conclusion in the TomTom report: More local streets and highways are more congested for more hours of the day. Even weekend trips to some spots – notably retail corridors – can be increasingly time-consuming.

“This is a result of more people living here as compared to two or three years ago and our economy being very active and healthy,” Voigt said.

The rest of the story goes on in that vein, and you can read it for yourself if you’re interested. What I’m interested in is this: The I-10 expansion project was completed in October, 2007. Certainly at the time, traffic flowed much more smoothly than it had before the project began in 2003, but just as certainly, it’s slower now. That’s especially the case for I-10 between downtown and the West Loop, since all those new drivers on the widened freeway still have to go somewhere. What I’d like to know is this: How do the average speeds on I-10 now for various stretches compare to what they were in 2003? I would expect that overall it’s still better, but is it $2.8 billion worth of better? And at what point are we going to start hearing a call to Do Something about traffic on I-10 being too damn much again? Like I said, I’m just curious. I’m sure TxDOT and/or TransStar has that data, but I’m not curious enough yet to pursue getting it and doing something with it. Am I the only one who wonders about this? For more on the report in the story, see Hair Balls and Dallas Transportation.

On riding the North Line

Can we wait until we’ve had at least one non-holiday work week before we start talking about North Line ridership numbers? Thanks.

The changes brought by the rail line, an extension of the Main Street Line now known as the Red Line, might develop more gradually than some residents and businesses hope.

Early signs are that riders are flocking to the train. On opening day, when rides were free, Metro estimated 22,054 total boardings, a 59.8 percent increase over the Saturday average for December 2012. This occurred despite sprinkles of rain and an otherwise dreary start to the day.

Officials estimated about 4,500 of those boardings were along the North Line extension. Bus Route 15, which the light rail extension replaces, averaged 1,637 Saturday boardings in October, the latest month for which figures are available.

Ridership was brisk during Christmas week as curious residents hopped aboard and frequent transit riders checked out the extension.

In the documents filed with the FTA in 2009, Metro projected an average weekly ridership of 17,400 daily boardings for the new North Line. That was a projection for 2013, when it was presumed that the line would be operational by then. Let’s assume that’s our projection for 2014. For comparison, the average weekday ridership for the Main Street line was 38,000 daily boardings for the twelve month period running through October. My suspicion is that the 2009 estimate of opening year daily ridership on the North Line will be a bit optimistic due to the Harrisburg and Southeast lines not being operational, but that the totals will rise next year once those lines are up and running. The Southeast line, by the way, had a nearly identical projection of 17,200 average weekday boardings for 2013 back in 2009. The Universities Line, if it ever gets built, has a projection of 32,100 average weekday boardings for an opening year of 2020. The Harrisburg line is funded solely with local money, so there’s no FTA documents for its projected usage, and I couldn’t find anything with some cursory Google searching.

One thing Metro could do a better job of right now is communicating how the “extension” part of the North Line actually works.

Beyond the Northside itself, using the trains takes some adjustment.

Trains run every six minutes during most of the day between the Fannin South station, south of Loop 610, and the Burnett Transit Center north of downtown. North of Burnett, trains run every 12 minutes, meaning half of them turn around at Burnett while half continue northward.

Some riders, unaccustomed to this variation, are finding it difficult to catch the right train.

The schedule is designed to accommodate the line’s ridership without Metro putting too many trains in service, according to David Couch, the transit agency’s vice president for rail construction. As use of the trains increases, he said, wait times will shorten.

The trains rolling through the Northside will pick up more riders when the two lines headed east and southeast of downtown begin service next year. Already on the Northside, riders say they want to see more tracks.

As it happens, Tiffany rode the North Line home from work on Friday, having dropped her car off at the mechanic on the way in. She was on one of the trains that turned around at the Burnett station. Unfortunately, according to her, there was no announcement that passengers needed to disembark – the conductor turned off the lights and exited the train without saying anything – and Metro personnel at the station were uninformed about the situation. She eventually figured it out and caught another train for the remainder of her trip, but it would do Metro and its new riders a lot of good to be very clear about what to expect when you reach the Burnett station. Let’s please not have the next story about the North Line be one whose subject is confused riders who are upset about not having the route properly explained to them, OK?

On another note, the North Line is providing an opportunity to measure the effect of transit on health in Houston.

Now that Metro’s North Line has opened, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute are preparing to begin taking the pulse – figuratively, not literally – of the light rail line extension’s impact on physical activity.

“This is a great opportunity to study a mass transit project as it goes forward,” said Harold Kohl III, a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology in the UT center’s School of Public Health and the study’s principal investigator. “We know systems such as Metro light rail can improve traffic congestion and connect people to more places in a city, but not so much about the extent to which they encourage walking in nearby residents.”

Kohl said the answer is particularly hard to know in a car-crazy place like Houston, which doesn’t seem a ripe candidate for the sort of active culture one sees circulating around mass transport in, say, Boston, New York, Portland or San Francisco.

If the study finds a significant increase in physical activity, Kohl said, it could be used to help design future rail lines, principally in Houston, but also in other cities. He said the idea should be to incorporate practical destinations – places to work, shop, worship – that encourage people to make the lines part of their everyday lives.

I have no doubt that I was in the best shape of my life in high school, when I was commuting by bus, ferry, and train each day. I didn’t have to walk more than a few blocks at any point, but there were multiple points at which I did have to walk, and several of them involved going up or down stairs. Do that twice a day, five days a week, usually in a rush because you don’t want to miss the next connection, and you’d be in pretty good shape, too. I doubt anyone’s experience will be like that here in Houston, but making daily walks a part of one’s routine surely can’t be bad. I’ll be interested to see if any differences are detected. Of course, the whole idea of any form of transit is to incorporate practical destinations – no one would use it otherwise – but if there’s a measurable health benefit as part of the bargain, that would be nice.

Yes, but why is traffic so bad at these places?

Two things that aren’t mentioned in this story but need to be.

Two adjoining stretches of U.S. 59 in downtown and west Houston fared the worst regionally on an annual list of the 100-most congested freeways in the state, compiled by Texas Department of Transportation and Texas A&M Transportation Institute officials.

[David] Schrank, a co-author of the report, said changes to methodology led to some spikes in average congestion along certain routes. Areas with major freeway interchanges saw average congestion estimates increase, giving planners a fuller view of the gridlock afflicting most areas of the state.

The additional traffic is having a pronounced effect in certain areas, Schrank said: “These areas are teetering on really, really heavy congestion for long hours of the day.”

Houston’s two worst freeway segments are along U.S. 59. The stretch from Interstate 10 to Texas 288 ranks second-worst in the state, with an average of 743,006 hours of delay annually, per mile. The freeway from 288 to Loop 610 West ranks third-worst, with 730,655 hours of annual delay, per mile. Only a segment of Interstate 35 in downtown Austin fares worse.

Along both parts of U.S. 59, the new figures show a worsening pattern. Traffic on the eastern segment increased roughly 50 percent. Intense traffic at the interchanges with I-10 and Texas 288 was largely to blame, Schrank said.

“When you have a really, really bad quarter-mile or half-mile, it makes the whole area much worse,” he said.

Part of the problem is design and high demand for the freeway during many hours of the day, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“You clearly have as much traffic going north and eastbound on 59 in the afternoon as you do in the morning,” Emmett said, saying any remedy needs to consider the traffic flow.

That same problem causes backups on 288 northbound as well. Interchanges are a big part of the problem, no doubt. I-10 eastbound at I-45 South, where the one exit lane can be backed up to the Studemont exit or farther, is a classic example of this. But as I’ve noted before, the main issue with 59 northbound as you approach 288/45 is that it narrows down from five lanes to three at the downtown spur, then down to two lanes at the 288/45 turnoff. The volume of traffic that wants to continue north on 59 past these points is just too much for the available capacity. I hesitate to make absolute statements, but I don’t see how this can ever be resolved by adding more lane capacity, because there just isn’t the room for it. It’s a problem that isn’t going to go away.

The other point is that one big reason why there’s so much demand for that limited amount of lane space is because we’ve spent the past 20 years building much more lane capacity from Loop 610 and/or Beltway 8 outward on all the major freeways. A lot more people now live out where those expanded freeways take them, and they’re all trying to fit into those squeezed spaces on their way to and from their homes. That’s not the only reason for this – as noted, the traffic problem exists well outside the rush hours these days – but the same principle is in play. There’s much more demand for these freeways outside these urban core congestion zones, and that demand puts extra pressure on the places that are least able to handle it.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: We’ve pretty much maxed out our ability to deal with traffic by throwing more lanes at it. Unless we start double-decking or building tunnels, what we’ve got most places is what we’re going to have. One thing we can do but have not done is provide viable alternatives to taking the freeways for the people who are mostly moving about in town. Taking the people who are making short trips out of the equation and you can free up some space for the long haul drivers who have no other alternative. It’s the same argument I make about urban core restaurants providing bike parking to help keep spaces available for the customers who have to drive to get there. That’s going to require a much bigger commitment to and investment in public transportation, and so far there isn’t much evidence that’s going to happen. If they really thought about it, the people who have to navigate these traffic disasters every day ought to be the biggest supporter of expanded mass transit precisely because it will help get the people who would have options other than driving off the road. Someday I hope that argument sinks in.

Time for another report on how much traffic sucks

We love this sort of thing, don’t we?

Houston commuters continue to endure some of the worst traffic delays in the country, according to the 2012 Urban Mobility Report released Tuesday by the Texas A&M Transportation Commission. Area drivers wasted more than two days a year, on average, in traffic congestion, costing them each $1,090 in lost time and fuel.

And it’s unlikely to get any better, researchers and public officials say.

“I think as rapidly as this area is growing, (the challenge) is just trying to stay where we are,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said of the traffic congestion.

Planned toll projects on Texas 290 and eventually Interstate 45 will help ease traffic, just as the Katy Freeway managed lanes did in 2008, Emmett said.

With all due respect to Judge Emmett, these projects will help ease some traffic, for some people, just as the Katy Freeway managed lanes have done. It will make traffic worse for some others. Anyone who has driven inside the loop on I-10 in recent years knows what I’m talking about. Traffic coming in on 290 is still going to dump onto 610 and I-10, and they’re not getting any more capacity. Traffic coming in on I-45 is still going to enter downtown streets and get stuck on the Pierce Elevated, and I’m sorry but no crazy downtown roundabout scheme is going to solve that.

Based on the mobility report, in 1982 drivers spent about 22 hours each year stuck in congestion, a figure that has increased almost every year since. Traffic congestion peaked in 2008 at 55 hours, the same year two carpool/toll lanes along I-10 opened between downtown and Katy. The lanes took five years to complete and cost $2.8 billion.

But some of the best ways to reduce congestion are less costly. As Houston drivers have acclimated to rush-hour traffic jams, they’ve become more adept at saving themselves time.

“People are adjusting when they leave,” [report co-author Tim]Lomax said, noting resources that provide real-time traffic information. As smartphones and computers become more common, and workdays come with greater flexibility for some people to work from home, commuters can adjust to less-stressful drive times.

Emphasis on the “some” in that statement. Those of us who have to drop off kids at school in the morning, for instance, don’t have a whole lot of flexibility.

Public transit can provide some relief, but with jobs in Houston divided among a dozen or so job areas, it’s hard for public transit to carry everyone where they need to go efficiently, Lomax said.

Public transportation doesn’t need to carry everyone everywhere, it just needs to be a viable alternative for enough people at least some of the time. The current light rail expansion will help some, and if we ever build the University Line and the Uptown Line (or a reasonable facsimile of it), that will help more. Better bus service will help, as will more park and ride service. Longer term, the best thing that can happen is a shift away from living a long distance from your job to living closer to it, close enough to make other options like walking, biking, and car sharing viable options. If we’re really lucky, that Chapter 42 update could help with that.

Anyway. A copy of the report with a few tidbits highlighted is here, or visit the TTI webpage for more.

But was it worth it?

No doubt that traffic on the Katy Freeway moves a lot more smoothly now than it used to. But there’s a lot more to the question of whether the $2.8 billion that was spent to widen it was a good investment or not.

Four years after the project was completed, a comparative analysis of drive-time data for a three-year period before and after the expansion shows that at both peak and non-peak periods of the day, it takes less time to traverse the Katy Freeway than it used to.

It’s a matter of mere minutes – the morning commute from Barker-Cypress to Taylor, for instance, a distance of 19 miles, now takes, on average, 27 minutes. It used to take about 33 minutes.

But added together, the users of the Katy Freeway are spending a lot less time in their cars.

The evening commute on that stretch now takes an average of 28 minutes as opposed to 38 minutes and 30 seconds.

Data show there is still congestion at peak periods, particularly the evening commute out of the city, but what was once a daylong traffic jam is now for the most part smooth sailing.

“Before they did all that construction, inbound basically was congested all day long,” said Darrell Borchardt, a senior research engineer for the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. “You would get stop-and-go speeds out there at 11 o’clock in the morning. Now, since that construction has been completed, with the additional capacity, they don’t have those issues in the middle of the day.”

I’ll stipulate to that. I remember driving back in to Houston on Sundays from Austin or San Antonio before the expansion and hitting traffic from Highway 6 on in. That doesn’t happen any more unless there’s been a wreck. The average commute time differences seem rather minimal to me, but I suppose the main thing is that it’s much less likely to take an hour to get where you’re going than it used to. For sure, there’s real value to that.

But no one ever argued that a widened I-10 would shave a few minutes off commute times. The argument was that there were better design options for this project. The Katy Corridor Coalition’s website is long defunct, but this Chron story from 2003 covers the gist of their case.

The Katy Corridor Coalition – a group of west Houston residents fighting the state’s plans to widen the Katy Freeway – will offer a plan today that calls for sinking several miles of the interstate and planting thousands of trees to filter out air pollution.

The coalition, which has filed a lawsuit to stall the massive freeway expansion, said its plan is a more intelligent way to combat air pollution, traffic noise and congestion.

Practically and politically, the new plan might have little chance of becoming reality. But it does seem to echo successful efforts by affluent residents of the Museum District in the mid-1990s to convince state highway planners to sink part of the Southwest Freeway.

“We’ve already seen what the Texas Department of Transportation does doesn’t work,” said Polly Ledvina, a member of the Katy coalition. “Just using a bigger version of the same strategy on the Katy Freeway will just result in a bigger version of the problems we already face.”

Jim Blackburn, the coalition’s attorney, said Wednesday that the proposal is a reasonable alternative to current plans to expand the freeway from 11 lanes to 18, including toll lanes down the middle of the interstate.

Although coalition plans call for sinking the freeway about 20 feet below ground level from the West Loop to Beltway 8, Blackburn estimated it will only add about $100 million to the $1.1 billion project. The work, he added, could still be done within the six-year timetable officials are already using.

And though it would mean massive redesign, the coalition’s proposal leaves room for toll lanes the Harris County Toll Road Authority wants to build and provides dedicated space for a future commuter rail line, Blackburn said.

Boy, remember when this project was only supposed to cost $1.1 billion? Those were the days, I tell you. The KCC’s design plan – which, presumably, would have wound up adding more than $100 million to the final cost, given how much more expensive everything else turned out to be – was generally well-received by those whose interests were broader than simply adding more lanes as fast as possible, but in the end none of what they pushed for was used. We can’t know what things would look like now if the KCC had been taken more seriously by TxDOT, HCTRA, and John Culberson, but it is worth asking if the money we spent was spent as wisely as it could have been. Is a six to ten minute reduction in peak travel time about what we expected? How long do we expect this effect to last – I mean, you have to think that when that new Grand Parkway segment is built it’s going to increase volume on I-10 – and what if anything is there to be done about it when traffic starts backing up again? Sure might have been nice to have that commuter rail option that was rejected. Do we have any idea what the effect of the expansion have been on air quality and flood control, which were two of the things that the KCC plan tried to address? Travel time is just one dimension of this project. It’s good that it’s worked out well so far, but that should be where the conversation begins, not where it ends.

Driverless cars in Texas

You have perhaps heard the news that Google’s driverless car has been approved for street usage in California; specifically, California Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill that requires the California Department of Motor Vehicles to draft regulations for autonomous vehicles by Jan. 1, 2015. You may be wondering, with varying degrees of wonder or horror, when Texas might do the same. KUT takes a look.

While the prospect of seeing a car with no driver may be terrifying – especially if the car is converging with you at an intersection – robots have some advantages: they don’t get tired, drunk, or distracted by their phones, apply makeup, eat breakfast, or skim text messages. Robot drivers are always on-duty, fully-functioning, and paying attention. (Unless of course they have a software bug, or a system failure, or some wires shake loose.)

But when will the Google car come to Texas? The Texas Department of Transportation says they’re not aware of any plans to put robot drivers on Lone Star roads. The Texas Legislature would have to pass new laws allowing self-driving cars, and it meets next in January.

But the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the primary research center for Texas roadways, tells KUT News its researchers are visiting Google next week to learn more about the self-driving cars. And here in Austin, University of Texas research is focusing on creating not intelligent automobiles, but intelligent intersections that could leave the driving to your car.

Many other states are considering whether or not to put robots on the road.  Auto manufacturers, including BMW, Audi, Cadillac, and Volvo, are working on self-driving technologies. And Ford and Lexus have cars that can park themselves.

Say it with me now: “I for one welcome our robot automotive overlords”. I can’t wait to see the debate on this one in the Legislature. The lobbying effort alone will be worth watching. What do you think about this? Are you looking forward to the day when your car will drive you, or are you convinced this is just another step towards The Matrix? Leave a comment and let me know.

There’s congestion on I-10: Film at 11

I’m sure you will be completely unsurprised to hear that I-10 has bad traffic congestion. You may be surprised to hear where the worst of it is, however.

Just in time for Thanksgiving travel, a new study has found that a stretch of Interstate 10 through Houston is one of the nation’s most congested highways.

The study by The Weather Channel, the Texas Transportation Institute and INRIX, a provider of traffic information, found that eastbound I-10 between T.C. Jester and San Jacinto is the fourth-busiest road in the country.

According to study highlights released today by the Weather Channel, this 4.4-mile stretch costs $43 million dollars a year in wasted gas and drivers’ time.

In 2010, this section of I-10 cost drivers 475,000 wasted hours and 951,000 wasted gallons of fuel, according to a news release about the study.

Yes, I-10 inside the Loop is the stretch cited by the study as our worst and one of the worst nationally. I don’t know how much this study factored the current construction into its calculations, but it’s certainly a factor. Even without that, it’s been getting worse, thanks in my opinion to the bottleneck at I-45. I’m willing to bet that after the service road expansion is completed we’ll still see frequent major backups.

A summary of the study is here, and all of the reports are here. I have to say that I’m not exactly clear where that “fourth-busiest” ranking comes from. If you look at the Congested Corridors Report and scroll down to Table A-2, Congestion Leaders, this bit of I-10 is ranked #26 overall. The Houston roadway ranked highest on Table A-1, Reliably Unreliable, is Loop 610 from 290 to Yale. All the data for Houston corridors is here. If you can see how any one overall ranking was determined, you’re seeing more than I am. The Houston Business Journal, which discusses a couple of other Houston corridors and which appears to have a more accurate depiction of their rankings in this study, has more.

Those road congestion blues

I’m more interested in the methodology used to determine the list of Texas’ most congested roads than I am in the roads themselves, since most of us could have named the roads on that list without doing any work.

Like the Dallas freeway, many of the roads on the list aren’t a surprise. But TxDOT officials believe the rankings will help focus public understanding on the state’s transportation problems.

“This is a good tool for us to use, for the public to use, for our planning organizations and professionals to use — for the Legislature to use — to help us focus on our problems,” says John Barton, the agency’s assistant executive director for engineering services. “This helps us understand the magnitude of the issues and helps all of us as a society to determine if we’re able to and willing to continue to fund solutions for them.”

This is the second year the agency conducted the study, which was managed by Tim Lomax, a researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute. Last year, the study relied largely on traffic count totals — an incomplete measure, officials say. This year, though, the agency spent $27,500 to purchase state-of-the art traffic speed data from a private company.

The company, Washington-based Inrix, collects massive amounts of real-time traffic data by tracking travel direction and speeds of more than 2.5 million vehicles in its network, which consists of commercial partners — taxis, delivery trucks and tractor-trailer rigs, among others — that have agreed to share global positioning system details on their fleets.

Inrix also uses data collected by traditional freeway traffic sensors and consumers using traffic-related GPS devices and applications. It analyzes all the records while keeping in mind outside variables like weather, sporting events, holidays and other factors.

“We get a very detailed view into what traffic looks like that extends into city streets and arterials, not just major interstates and highways, so you get a more complete picture,” says company spokesman Jim Bak.

The full list is here, which includes non-highways as well. Clever stuff, and I look forward to seeing how they build on it. If it winds up driving sensible policy, so much the better.

Despite the opening paragraph of this piece, I really am interested in the roads themselves, though for the most part not because I have any interest in seeing them get widened. Take a look at the map of the Houston area. Note that the vast majority of congested roads as listed here are inside Beltway 8, with more than half of them inside Loop 610. Every single highway segment inside Loop 610 west of I-45 inclusive is on this list. I trust nobody at all is surprised by this, but it’s still a bit jarring to see it displayed so starkly.

There are two points to be made about this, and neither of them should be a surprise, either. One is that our ability to ameliorate any of this by increasing lane capacity is very limited. We are never going to widen the Pierce Elevated, which is the main bottleneck on I-45. We will never add lanes to 59 at I-45 and through downtown, which is the reason why nobody who has a choice ever takes the Southwest Freeway northbound past Greenbriar. The Katy Freeway west of the Beltway isn’t a Top 100 Most Congested Road any more, but I-10 still narrows to two lanes as it passes I-45, and there’s still only one lane that exits onto I-45, so from my perspective all of that extra far-western throughput has done nothing but make a huge mess in my neighborhood.

And two, the only hope to change any of this dynamic is to recognize that transit is the most viable way to add capacity in the dense inner core. In particular, rail transit, especially rail transit that has its own right of way, can help ease the burden on these overcrowded roads and interchanges. An awful lot of this traffic is from short local trips, people who live in the area doing their home/work/school/lunch/errands thing. More and better local transit options means the choice to do more of that without the car. It also means that the folks who live in the burbs and who commute in to work have non-driving options to get around once they arrive, which in turn may make the park and ride look more appealing. You can still have more capacity even if you can’t build more lanes, and in the end even the folks who stay in their cars can benefit from it.

The revised red light camera study

Last week, when I wrote about the anti-red light camera folks turning in their petition signatures, I noted that the Chron story referenced an update to the January 2009 study about the effect of cameras on the collision rate at the monitored intersections. That study reported an overall increase in collisions at all intersections, whether monitored by a red light camera or not, with the monitored intersections showing a smaller increase than the unmonitored ones. This result was both puzzling – How is it that there was an increase in collisions in Houston when the data for the state as a whole showed a drop in the collision rate? – and controversial – ZOMG! Red light cameras meant more crashes! – but at least there was to be a followup study, which hopefully might shed some light on that.

That study was completed in November of 2009. I was sent a copy of it, which you can see here. The results this time were very different.

In January of 2009, we released a report analyzing the effect of red light cameras at the 50 DARLEP [Digital Automated Red Light Enforcement Program] intersections. The report concluded that red light cameras were mitigating a general increase in collisions at the monitored intersections. We based this conclusion on the fact that collisions occurring on intersection approaches with red light cameras were rising at a significantly slower rate than collisions occurring on approaches without camera monitoring. This conclusion was based on data drawn from a collection of individual incident reports provided by the Houston Police Department (HPD).

In the spring of 2009, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) released an updated statewide database of collisions digitizing all paper incident reports available. The database is known as the Crash Record Information System (CRIS). In theory, the CRIS data for the 50 DARLEP intersections and the original HPD data should be identical as they are both based on the same incident reports. However, in a comparison of the two datasets, we found CRIS reported over 250% more collisions during the before-camera period and over 175% more collisions during the after-camera period. From the comparison of CRIS to the HPD data and after consultation with HPD, we determined the original data in first report was inaccurate as a result of a substantial undercounting of collisions in both the before- and after-camera periods. We then conducted an analysis similar to the original report, but with the new CRIS data. We compared the rate of collisions before the red light cameras were installed to the rate of collisions after the cameras were installed. Because the cameras were installed on only one approach at each intersection1, we separated the data into those approaches that were not monitored by red light cameras and those approaches that were monitored by red light cameras.

The comparison of collisions at monitored and unmonitored approaches leads us to conclude that the Houston red light camera program is reducing collisions at the 50 DARLEP intersections (see Exhibit 1). After the implementation of red light cameras, collisions per month at monitored approaches decreased by 11%. This decline was statistically significant – that is, not due to random variations in the data, with over 90% confidence. The number of collisions per month at unmonitored approaches increased by approximately 5%. This difference from the before-camera period was not, however, statistically significant; the probability that the observed change did not occur due to chance was less than 90%.

The main point to understand here is that the original study was done with incomplete data. I had the chance to speak to Drs. Bob Stein and Tim Lomax about this, and what they told me was that they used HPD’s accident reports for the initial study. These reports were all on paper, and came from various HPD locations. It turned out that a sizable number of the reports were not provided at that time because they were in offsite storage facilities, and nobody they were working with knew about that. Stein and Lomax stressed to me that they had no problems with HPD, they cooperated fully and provided all the data they thought they had, it was just that there was quite a bit more than that.

Anyway, once they had their hands on the CRIS data, which was fully digitized, from TxDOT, it became apparent that there had been no increase in accidents, there had just been a disparity in the number of paper reports they had from before and after the camera installations, which had made it look like there had been an increase. Doing the study on this complete data set yielded the results above, which are much more in line with the original expectation that there would be fewer collisions at monitored intersections.

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. TxDOT has since announced that there were some issue with the CRIS data, in particular with GPS information. This matters because without being confident in the exact location of a crash, you might classify a collision away from an intersection as being in the intersection, or vice versa. TxDOT will be issuing an updated data set in the next few weeks that will supersede the one on which this study is based. Because of all that, Drs. Stein and Lomax told me that they no longer have any confidence in the reliability of the November 2009 study, and that no conclusions should be drawn from it. Here is the memo expressing their concerns, which was sent to HPD Assistant Chief Tim Oettmeier last week:

We have identified several issues with our revised report dated November 2009. These issues and their potential effects on our analysis are outlined below:

Issues

1. TXDOT advised us that they would be reprocessing existing crash datato correct data errors, append current roadway data, and update crash location information.
2. As we have refined our data processing, we discovered potentially incorrect data that will require further analysis (e.g. JFK/Greens Rd.).
3. The November 2009 report uses a 500 ft. inclusion standard. Upon further review of the literature, we have decided that a 150-200 ft. inclusion standard is appropriate.

Effects

1. Collisions are relatively rare events. Even a small change in the number of collisions can have a significant effect on the results of our analysis. For this reason, we must be sure we are using the “cleanest” data possible. The reprocessing of the Crash Records Information Systems (CRIS) data has the potential to significantly alter the results of the November 2009 report and we believe it is best to withhold judgment until the new TXDOT data is available. We cannot be sure of the reliability of the underlying data in the report.
2. When we collected/processed the CRIS data, there was an error in our geolocation of crashes at the JFK/Greens intersection. This error needs to be corrected and we are planning to do so with the new August data (which will include data through 2009). The error adversely affects the reliability of the report itself.
3. Upon further discussion with transportation experts and additional review of the extant literature, we have discovered that the 500 ft. inclusion standard in the November 2009 report was potentially an overly broad standard for collisions included in the dataset. We erred and are correcting this error in a report to be released soon after the revised CRIS data is available.

When taken individually, a given issue may not be insurmountable. However, the compound nature of the effects prevents us from affirming the reliability of the November 2009 report. Erring on the side of caution, we believe it is best to issue a corrected report once we have an opportunity to utilize updated CRIS data (availability of which is anticipated later this month).

I will report back after I’ve received a copy of the revised study. The main point to take away here is that the original January 2009 study, which is regularly cited by camera opponents as evidence of their ineffectiveness, was based on incomplete and inaccurate data, neither of which was known at the time. We should finally have an idea of what the data really tells us after this third study is done.

Two other points of interest. One is that according to Stein and Lomax, theirs is the first study of red light cameras in Texas that utilizes the CRIS data. I hope someone will perform similar studies in other red light camera-enabled cities with this data – once we’re sure it’s as clean as it’s going to get, of course – so we can have a true apples to apples comparison across cities. There’s no indication who did the study cited in the Grits link above or what data they used, so I can’t offer a critique of it. Clearly, it’s a tough issue to wrap your arms around.

Second, I asked Stein and Lomax why it was that I hadn’t seen any references to that November 2009 study before now. They said that was a question for the city – it was their job to produce the study, not to publicize it. I’ll just leave it at that.

The vehicle miles tax

For all the talk about the need to raise the gas tax in Texas to meet our transportation needs, there is another possible way to do it, which is now under study: The vehicle miles tax.

The Texas Transportation Commission has directed a fresh study of the idea, and it is not alone. There are pilot projects in other states and nationally to gauge how such a tax would work.

Texas transportation officials say the study is meant to help give lawmakers information on options ahead of their next regular session in 2011, when they confront a funding squeeze that is expected to drain the highway fund of money for new construction contracts by 2012.

“We need to think differently about how we fund transportation,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi said at a Texas Taxpayers and Research Association forum in November.

Delisi said the vehicle-miles-traveled tax idea is controversial, but should be discussed because revenue from the state’s main source of transportation funding, the motor fuels tax, is declining. The gasoline tax has not been raised since 1991.

I first heard of this concept back in 2004, and am willing to see what the Texas Transportation Institute’s study will have to say. What’s not clear to me is why this might be any less contentious than a straightforward increase and indexing of the gas tax. I get the technical idea, but I don’t quite get the politics.

Just how a vehicle-miles-traveled tax would be assessed is part of the study. It could be as simple as drivers writing a check when they have their vehicles inspected or could involve in-car technology to more precisely track mileage, perhaps tacking on a charge when drivers fuel up by communicating with the gas pump.

The latter would allow for such things as different charges for rural versus urban driving, and for deductions when people travel out of state, noted Ginger Goodin, the Texas Transportation Institute research engineer leading the study. She said, however, that privacy concerns quickly arise when such technology is discussed.

Again, I’m willing to see what they come up with, but I think we can all see the argument that will be used against “in-car technology to more precisely track mileage”, and it won’t be pretty. Who will be willing to stand up to that, and will they be more willing to fight for that instead of a gas tax increase? That’s the question. EoW and Come and Take It have more.

Safe Clear reduces wrecks

So says a study commissioned by the city.

Houston’s mandatory towing program has continued to reduce crashes on the city’s freeways, according to a city-commissioned study released Monday.

The study examined the effect of the Safe Clear program from 2005 through 2008. It found there were 120 fewer accidents per month, on average, compared to the baseline year of 2004. The program began in January 2005.

[…]

The new study could not discern if crashes declined because wreckers were no longer racing each other to a scene or because rubbernecking was reduced.

But the study did take into account other influences on the crash rate, such as rainy days, gas prices and the amount of traffic.

“It makes the program look exceptionally effective,” said Bob Stein, a Rice University professor who co-authored the study with Tim Lomax of the A&M Texas Transportation Institute. (Stein’s wife works for the White administration as a City Council agenda director.)

The study showed a correlation between Safe Clear response times and the number of monthly accidents. The faster towing trucks responded to a call, the fewer accidents on the freeway. For every minute decrease in response time, monthly collisions dropped by 80 on all Houston highways, Stein said.

I don’t have any trouble believing that SafeClear has been effective. Hell, just not seeing thirty-seven wreckers at every fender bender on the Loop makes it a win in my book. I have to ask, though, was there no one else available to do this study? Stein’s a fine political scientist, but his last traffic-related effort wasn’t so hot. I hope this one at least is a bit less controversial.

UPDATE: Here’s the Rice press release on the study, with charts. Thanks to Joe White for finding this.

Our teen drivers are better than yours

Good news is always welcome.

A new report by the Texas Transportation Institute found that the state’s rate of fatal teen crashes is dropping faster here than anywhere. Researchers looked at 37 states that put restrictions on teen drivers’ licenses and found Texas is alone in seeing the number of teen drivers involved in fatal crashes drop for five consecutive years.

“Texas is doing a better job than any of the other states,” said Texas Transportation Institute researcher Bernie Fette, co-author of the 46-page report released Monday. Fette credited not just the license restrictions but also programs in high schools to get kids focused on safe road behavior.

Since 2002, when 625 teen drivers were involved in fatal crashes, Texas’ numbers have come down each year. In 2007, 419 fatal crashes involved teen drivers.

[…]

Teen driving risks have been on the minds of lawmakers in Texas at least since 2002, when new rules for young drivers known as graduated driver’s licenses took effect.

Since then, new Texas teen drivers have had to spend six months with a learner’s permit before getting a license. After that, they must spend another six months with other restrictions, including a prohibition against driving between midnight and 5 a.m.

This year, lawmakers extended those probationary periods to 12 months each, and outlawed the use of cellphones by young drivers.

But Fette said his research suggests that tougher laws are only part of the reason for Texas’ success in making fatal crashes involving teen drivers less frequent.

After all, Texas’ laws have not been as strong as those in many other states. And some states with graduated driver’s license laws actually saw their fatal crash rate go up, Fette said.

In Texas, he said, 300 school districts are implementing a first-in-the-country program called Teens in the Driver Seat, an initiative that gets teens talking to their peers about the risks of driving. Preliminary research says the program, begun in 2003, has worked.

“The [graduated-license] law is a necessary foundation,” Fette said. “But that law can be reinforced or made stronger through a peer influence program like Teens in the Driver Seat. If you have a combination of the two, as Texas does, what you have is a really good one-two punch.”

Here’s what the TTI says on its homepage, and here’s their white paper. Good to see Texas leading the way in something that isn’t a negative.

Cities lose out in transportation stimulus funding

This is not a surprise, but it is a missed opportunity.

Two-thirds of the country lives in large metropolitan areas, home to the nation’s worst traffic jams and some of its oldest roads and bridges. But cities and their surrounding regions are getting far less than two-thirds of federal transportation stimulus money.

According to an analysis by The New York Times of 5,274 transportation projects approved so far — the most complete look yet at how states plan to spend their stimulus money — the 100 largest metropolitan areas are getting less than half the money from the biggest pot of transportation stimulus money. In many cases, they have lost a tug of war with state lawmakers that urban advocates say could hurt the nation’s economic engines.

The stimulus law provided $26.6 billion for highways, bridges and other transportation projects, but left the decision on how to spend most of it to the states, which have a long history of giving short shrift to major metropolitan areas when it comes to dividing federal transportation money. Now that all 50 states have beat a June 30 deadline by winning approval for projects that will use more than half of that transportation money, worth $16.4 billion, it is clear that the stimulus program will continue that pattern of spending disproportionately on rural areas.

“If we’re trying to recover the nation’s economy, we should be focusing where the economy is, which is in these large areas,” said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, which advocates more targeted spending. “But states take this peanut-butter approach, taking the dollars and spreading them around very thinly, rather than taking the dollars and concentrating them where the most complex transportation problems are.”

There’s a sidebar graphic to the story that shows each large metro’s ratio of percentage of stimulus funding to percentage of GDP. The Dallas/Fort Worth region does better than Houston, getting 76% of its GDP share back in stimulus funds to Houston’s 42%.

The 100 largest metropolitan areas also contribute three-quarters of the nation’s economic activity, and one consequence of that is monumental traffic jams. A study of congestion in urban areas released Wednesday by the Texas Transportation Institute found that traffic jams in 2007 cost urban Americans 2.8 billion gallons of wasted gas and 4.2 billion hours of lost time.

I blogged about that the other day. Considering that a decent chunk of Houston’s share of this money is going towards the Grand Parkway Segment E, which won’t do a thing to alleviate congestion, Houston’s share of the pot is even less than it appears. Ryan Avent has more.

The down side to a good economy

Traffic congestion hasn’t gotten any better.

Rising gasoline prices in the last half of 2007 produced less traffic, according to an annual study by researchers at Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute. The typical urban commuter spent one less hour stuck in traffic that year, and wasted one less gallon of gasoline than the year before.

Although the study analyzed data only through 2007, the researchers said they were fairly confident that the trend continued in 2008, as the recession kept people and products off the roads.

“Not as many people are driving, they are sitting at home because they don’t have a job to go to,” said Tim Lomax, a research engineer who co-authored the study of 439 urban areas.

The national average time lost to traffic in 2007 was 36.1 hours, down from 36.6 a year earlier.

But the Houston region did not see a dip in congestion because the recession has not hit as hard here, Lomax said. Rush-hour delays in Houston stayed flat from the previous year. In 2007, drivers here wasted an average of 56 hours in stopped or slowed traffic, and burned 40 gallons of fuel while doing it.

That means Houston, the nation’s fourth-most populous city, also ranked fourth in time lost to traffic. Los Angeles, at 70 hours, ranked highest. Houston has been steadily climbing in the ranks for years.

“The places like Houston where the ranking got worse, those are the places that had pretty good economies,” Lomax said. Urban areas like Oklahoma City, Raleigh-Durham, and Charleston, S.C. also experienced the blessings of economic growth and the related burden of more traffic, Lomax said.

All in all, that’s a tradeoff most of us would take. But maybe one of these days we’d like to keep our traffic from getting worse as our economy grows. Then what?

The study concludes that congestion can only be eased through a mix of solutions, such as adding lane capacity, increasing public transit, offering workers flexible hours and telecommuting, using technology to better manage accidents and traffic flow, and promoting “denser” land use so people don’t have to drive as far to work and shop.

In other words, expect the trend to continue for the foreseeable future. Eye on Williamson has more.

Stimulus? What stimulus?

I’m basically agnostic about the plan to convert HOV lanes to HOV-plus-toll lanes that Metro is floating. Like Christof, who was quoted in the story, I don’t think it will make that much difference in terms of actual traffic flow, though I think that Texas Transportation Institute fellow is correct to note that it will help outside of the normal rush hour, when the roads are still pretty full. Mostly, I wanted to blog about this story because of this:

Metro President and CEO Frank J. Wilson estimated the cost at between $40 million and $50 million.

In its request for federal stimulus funds earlier this year, Metro estimated the project would cost $70 million.

Metro is slated to receive $92 million in stimulus funds.

Wilson said that he learned last week in discussions with Federal Transit Administration officials that the monies cannot be spent on the North and Southeast light rail lines, as Metro had planned, because those projects have not received the FTA’s final funding approval.

Boy, remember when Metro thought it might get as much as $180 million of stimulus money for light rail construction? Those were the days. Sure hope all the funding they thought they were getting pre-stimulus is in place, because if they were counting on any of this – or worse, if they’d already budgeted for it – that would suck.

For the money, I sure hope so

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing:

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

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