About that 11th/Yale Retail Site

There was some discussion last week regarding a proposed new retail development on 11th and Yale in The Heights.

After several years’ worth of hype about a “mixed use development,” the actual site plan turns out to be a strip mall with slightly better architecture. This isn’t so bad, as things go – strip malls are functional, and aesthetics matter. But there seems to be some misconception that walkable, street-fronting retail isn’t doable on a small infill site like this.

To clear things up, here’s an alternate site plan. (Click for a PDF.)

Many developers would spring for a design like this, were it allowed as-of-right. Instead, such a design requires two variances; for parking, and for the City’s 25-foot setback rule. Previous attempts at obtaining these variances have failed, so one can’t really criticize “Heights Central Station” for hewing to what Houston Code tells us is optimal site design.

A Better Plan for the Downtown Ring

Should a major freeway plan consider the needs of cyclists? Of transit riders?

And if we’re going to tear down and reconstruct the entire downtown freeway network of the fourth-largest city in America, shouldn’t the final result have better geometry than the mid-century structures it replaces?

The PDFs below contain an analysis of Houston traffic patterns, a critique of the current plans for Downtown Houston’s freeway ring, and an alternate proposal. My schematic requires less right-of-way, creates a continuous managed lane network for commuter buses and BRT, and eliminates all left-hand exits, among other improvements.

Comment, as always, is welcomed.

A Better Plan for the Downtown Ring – Report (5.5MB)

A Better Plan for the Downtown Ring –  Schematic (67.2MB)

 

Katy Peaks and Valleys

The Swampies are discussing this article, which cites one metric showing that traffic on IH-10 Katy is worse now than it was before the corridor was widened.

Having driven both versions of the road, my gut feeling is that the old Katy wasn’t always jammed, but when it was it was bad. Whereas the new Katy is just sort of uniformly slow during peak hours.

Rail transit journeys are often somewhat longer than the equivalent auto-trip at free flow. Rail proponents tend to argue that “you don’t have to worry about traffic jams” – that the predictability offsets the increased time – and I suspect something similar may be happening along IH-10.

From a highway engineer’s perspective, a road that runs at 70mph at night and crawls along at a consistent 30-40mph during the rush is absolutely ideal. It means the rush-hour folks are getting maximum usage out of the capacity. What we don’t want to see is random breakdowns that cascade into start-stop jams that take hours to clear. We also don’t really want to see roads running at 75mph during the rush, because that means we probably should’ve used that concrete somewhere else.

I also get the impression that the Katy traffic is actually worse west of SH 6 (and approaching SH 6 from the east in the PM), which suggests that the managed lanes should have been continued further west.

They call him… D.K.

For the third time this year, someone has taken out a chunk of the guardrail on the ramp from SH 288 North to US 59 South.

What’s amusing about this is that they keep hitting the guardrail on the *inside* of the curve, at the corner exit.

They just can’t help themselves.

SH288N-59S is one of those mid-70’s Houston ramps where there’s a couple arcs of lesser curvature to smooth ramp entry and exit. I suspect people are drifting this ramp, and aren’t correcting early enough because the exit geometry doesn’t offer a clear visual reference point for when to adjust their steering.

This sort of horizontal alignment is a relic of the pencils-and-slide-rules era. Nowadays, you just punch the fillet button. My advice to the kids is to head to the ‘burbs, where highways are newer.

Shinagawa Confirmed

With the recent release of the FRA’s Alternatives Analysis, Texas Central has taken a giant step toward a system design which might just be constructed.

Notably, both Downtown Houston alignment options have been deleted, in favor of a station at the Northwest Mall. Wealthy inner-ring homeowners are the biggest thorn in the side of any high speed rail project, and TCR’s decision to avoid their ‘hoods entirely removes standing from perhaps half of the folks who’d be likely to sue.

Spatially, a station at Northwest Mall (or one of the adjacent properties, such as Tex-Tube) is similar to Tokyo’s Shinagawa, as well as any number of European terminii. It’s also closer to the centroid of white collar employment in Houston, for which Downtown is the easternmost outpost.

A Simple Fix for Krystal Hersey

Houston Press leads with an article critical of Houston’s new bus network. The article spends most of its time on the plight of Krystal Hersey and other residents of the Wesley Square apartment complex, on the south side near 610 and Cullen.

Per Houston Press, Krystal’s apartment is “0.3 miles” from the old #87 bus stop, which is “right outside the gate.” Now that the #87 has been eliminated, she must walk “about a half mile.” Thankfully, there is an easy fix to this problem which doesn’t require modifying Metro’s bus grid.

Here’s the situation as it existed a month ago. Wesley Square’s sole pedestrian access is via a gate off the main entrance drive, resulting in the following walk routes for transit users:

We can reasonably assume that Krystal Hersey lives near the back of the complex. With the former Route 87 stop on Calhoun deleted, her walk route to the Route 29 stop on Cullen is this:

That’s certainly a long walk. However, the issue is less that the bus stop is too far away and more than there is no break in the fence, so residents are cut off from the most direct walk route.

Adding a pedestrian access gate to the northwest corner of the complex would yield the following walk routes:

Because Krystal Hersey lives near the back of the complex, this new gate will give her a shorter walk to the bus than she had under the old network. Other residents will have a slightly longer walk; for the complex as a whole, things will be about the same.

A pedestrian gate, video camera monitoring and a short sidewalk connection ought to cost around $2000, installed. That’s less than it costs to run a single bus for two days (assuming a 14 hour service span). Multifamily owner/brokers* are generally pretty reasonable guys. Before it starts rejiggering the bus network, METRO ought to give them a call and see if they can’t work something out.

*Wesley Square is managed by Marquis Management of Plano, and is owned by DM Real Estate, located at the same address.

Making Things Worse

Houston’s freeways were built for Downtown-bound traffic. The freeway and tollway network is almost perfectly radial, reflecting the fact that City-led freeway planning predated the state highway department’s involvement. The initial construction occurred between 1948 and 1972, when Downtown was the only game in town. Hines’s Galleria opened in 1970; Schnitzer’s Greenway Plaza in 1973.

Every freeway approaching Downtown loses about half its capacity to a series of braided ramps connecting to one-way streets. The remaining through capacity then mixes it up in a series of three interchanges. It is a robust, resilient design, which avoids having a single point of failure. Among US cities, only Los Angeles and Kansas City possess similar layouts; the same topology was extensively used in Eastern Bloc metro systems such as Prague, Kiev, and lines 1, 2, & 3 of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

A more common arrangement is to concentrate downtown traffic on a single central spine, as is done in Seattle, Denver, Atlanta, and Miami. The proposed reconstruction of IH-45 and the Downtown Houston freeway ring deletes the Pierce Elevated in favor of a much-expanded 59 and 10, essentially replicating Atlanta.

Downtown, and the Pierce Elevated in particular, are fairly congested even outside of rush hours. This happens for three reasons.

First, the assumption that half of all traffic is bound for Downtown no longer holds. As Houston has sprawled into an ever more multi-polar urban agglomeration, the Downtown freeway ring has shifted to a more regional role. Downtown has also been the primary benefactor of most transit improvements, including three light rail lines and a billion dollars’ worth of barrier-separated HOV and bus facilities. Over 30% of Downtown workers commute on transit, while the regional average is less than 4%. As a result, the reverse commute on IH 10 and US 59 is now worse than the traditional commute.

Second, the Downtown Ring was designed before modern standards for merges were developed. The original design relied extensively on abrupt center merges, and most of these have been removed. This has made the ring safer, but less able to process crosstown traffic.

Third, most of Houston’s growth in the last 50 years has occurred west of IH 45 and SH 288. The East and Eastex Freeways, which form the northern and eastern segments of the loop, are relatively uncongested relative to the region as a whole. This tends to concentrate a plurality of crosstown traffic onto the Pierce Elevated.

To visualize this, here’s Google’s “typical” traffic for 5:30pm on Friday, culled from the averages of smartphone users running Google maps.

Typical Houston Traffic, 5:30pm, Friday

All of the macro trends are visible here. The inbound Katy and Southwest Freeways are stop-and-go as traffic queues up to process through the Downtown Ring. The inbound Gulf and South Freeways are largely at free-flow, but these two have a smaller queue where traffic waits to get onto the Downtown Ring.

Once this traffic has merged, things flow smoothly. The northbound Pierce Elevated flows well past the merge from 45/59/288, while the southbound Pierce flows well once the traffic from Houston Avenue and Allen Parkway has gotten on board. How bad is this bottleneck today? One way to answer this question is to compare the lane count approaching downtown with the lane count passing through. By neglecting the myriad ramps to “Downtown Destinations”, we can have a rough measure of the downtown ring’s ability to process crosstown traffic. At the south end, this looks like so:

Three lanes of 59 enter after the Spur leaves the mainline, while four lanes of 288 merge in. The inbound Gulf Freeway loses two lanes to the 59/288 system, but future construction will relocate the 59 connection to the existing high-level collector-distributor, freeing up the ability for three lanes to continue. We can subtract an additional lane for traffic from 59 and 288 bound for the outbound Gulf Freeway, leaving 9 total entering lanes and 7 receiving lanes.

At the north end of Downtown, the situation is similar:

Four lanes of the North Freeway mix with four lanes of the Katy Freeway. Where 10 and 45 traffic merge into 10, three lanes continue. 45 picks up more, but loses several lanes to downtown, leaving three heading into the dual-sided merge with Houston and Allen.

The current proposed schematic for the reconstruction of IH 45 envisions a redo of the Downtown Ring (large PDF). This design promises to relieve congestion by adding lanes around Downtown. The problem is, it adds more lanes coming into Downtown than it does going around it. The upcoming 288 Managed Lanes project will add still more radial capacity. As a result, the percentage of lanes available for use by crosstown traffic is actually reduced.

Here’s the north end again:

By connecting the existing HOV skyway into a new crosstown managed lane, and by converting the existing exit-only to 45 north into an optional lane for 45 north or south, the current schematic brings the number of approaching lanes on IH 10 to six. Adding managed lanes on 45 likewise brings that number to six. However, both 45 managed lanes are connected to the existing Milam Street ramp, with a one-lane connection to the mainline provided in the southbound direction only. Still more lanes are diverted into the Downtown Connector, a mirror of the 59 Spur which preserves the direct ramp to City Hall.

By the time all of these ramps have left the building, only six free lanes plus the managed lanes remain. This reduces crosstown capacity to less than 60%. The south side isn’t much better:

The current schematic eliminates the inbound 59 bottleneck at the Spur, by continuing five lanes through Midtown. However, the same bottlenecks are kept downstream; there’s a short weave with 288 traffic before two lanes go onto 45 north, merging with two lanes from the Gulf Freeway and then tapering down to three – virtually the same configuration as today.

Any transport improvement will bring with it some “induced demand.” The improvements represented by the 45 managed lanes, the 288 managed lanes, and the removal of the 59/Spur bottleneck will lead to more cars entering the Downtown Ring. If the past 20 years are a guide, an increasing number of those trips will be crosstown and reverse commuters. By substantially increasing capacity into Downtown without a commensurate increase in capacity through and around Downtown, we are creating tomorrow’s bottleneck.

It’s hard to stop a train

As has been mentioned here before, an interesting transmogrification seems to have taken place whereby the Texas Central Railway, a private group backed by major industrial concerns seeking to provide a premium service to principally business travelers – in other words, the essence of Dagny Taggart Capitalism – has nonetheless been parsed by some rural folk as an urban, liberal, Democrat sort of thing.

The initial opposition to the line was spearheaded by a young couple with a small patch of farmland in the path of a high-speed bypass of some curvy BNSF track. This is the most understandable form of NIMBYism, and in response TCR got out in front of the release of the Federal EIS to announce that they preferred the Utility Alignment, a straight shot that would parallel existing pipeline and power transmission easements.

However, by this point the opposition had coalesced in the form of HB 1889. Sponsor Will Metcalf says he thinks rail is a waste of money when we need more funding for highways, although he hasn’t stated how canceling a privately-financed railway will accomplish that goal.

HB 1889 takes an extant and arcane section of Texas law meant to give cities some amount of control over the routes of old-style interurbans, and repurposes it by expanding the scope to county governments and classifying HSR as an interurban.

I’m not a lawyer, and this isn’t legal advice, but it seems to me that Metcalf’s proposed rewrite misses the forest for the trees. Interpreted in context, the language in 131.014(d) is not a broad prohibition on interurban construction, but a minor limitation on an otherwise broadly-worded section and chapter intended to grant interurbans great leeway in route and alignment choice.

Chapter 131 was originally written to clarify that interurbans possessed all of the same powers that had been granted to steam railroads by previous case law, as well as a few novel ones – such as the ability to condemn existing street railway tracks to reach a downtown core.

Adding “county” to part (d) without striking the other portions of the section thus forces one to interpret the statute in its entirety. Which means that, to my untrained non-legal-opinion-offering eye:

—TCR can build across private property without the consent of the county; the Porters’ farm isn’t “property of [Montgomery] county,” it’s the Porters’.

—TCR can build “on or across” a TxDOT facility without the consent of the county, since the state isn’t named in the expansion of 131.014(d)

—TCR can overpass a county road without consent of the county, because 131.014(a) enumerates “across” and “over” separately, while 131.014(d) only restricts crossings “on or across” municipal property.

In order words, the bill is toothless, because Shinkansen trains don’t have grade crossings. It could conceivably be applied to railways with 100mph level crossings, such as are sometimes found in Germany and Eastern Europe, but no one is proposing to build that sort of line in Texas.

Is Studemont Next?

One of the quieter actions of the late Parker administration has been to slowly alter speed limits from 35 or 40mph to 30mph. These reductions aren’t based on an engineering study or field measurements, but on a creative interpretation of state law. Texas sets the default urban speed limit at 30mph in lieu of a study justifying higher speeds. The City is interpreting that to post 30 on roadways which were formerly determined to be safe at 35 or 40.

An endangered species?

I first began to notice this about a year ago, and had it confirmed by sources within PWE last summer. Thus far, it seems to be restricted to thoroughfares inside the Loop. The existing signage is allowed to disappear (through collisions, failure, theft, etc). When most of the old 35/40 is gone, the road is re-signed at 30. This provides a more gradual transition period than simply changing the signs out overnight.

Recently, I noticed that all of the 35mph signage is missing between Allen Parkway and IH-10.

Status of Montrose & Studemont limits as of 3/19/15

Will Studemont be the next street to be reduced to 30?