This blog is closed, and will not be updated going forward.

A few post outlines, which were never published.

Rethinking Richmond Rail, Pt. II would have been a follow-up to the original post, offering two alternatives: a high-speed LRT trunk with forks to Westpark and HBU, and a dedicated bi-directional busway consisting of (i) traditional HOV lanes along 59, (ii) LA Orange Line style running along Westpark west of Hillcroft, and (iii) an elevated, bus-only diversionary route to serve local stops in Greenway.

This post would have included schematic level designs for both the rail and bus facilities, and a detailed tabulation of running times and capacities. However, back-of-the-envelope calculations made it clear from the outset that the busway option would overwhelmingly more effective, and the schematic rail design would simply be a fun drafting exercise.

This post became the transit component of A Better Plan for the Downtown Ring, and was integrated into that design.

Houston’s New Grand Central would have made the case for constructing a large hub for commuter rail, high speed rail, and intercity bus on the site of the Barbara Jordan post office. It was abandoned when that land was sold off to private developers.

The terminal schematic was incorporated into A Better Plan for the Downtown Ring, and can be seen where the Pierce Elevated/Downtown Connector peels off of the combined 10/45. The commuter rail side of the terminal was designed using joint BNSF/UP standards for turnout geometry, and is a mixture of No. 9, 11, and 15. The main hall of the station measures 1836″ wide, in honor of Houston’s founding.

Fleshing Out that BRT Plan would have been a follow-up to the Downtown Ring post exploring how iterative expansion of the Post Oak Line could eventually yield a citywide system. The first step is to extend the line north from NWTC (at IH-10) to Hempstead. The next step is to add bus queue-jump lanes at the intersection of Memorial Drive and Westcott, which repurposes the entirety of Memorial as a Downtown-Uptown BRT shuttle.

Legalize Purple would have made the simple case that FHWA should allow all-purple signboards, which were specifically forbidden in the MUTCD after HCTRA used them for the Westpark Tollway.

Toronto’s 401 uses a mixture of blue and green overhead signs to differentiate between local and express lanes, and a similar purple/green dichotomy would greatly simplify Texan managed lane networks. Instead, we get needless supplemental boards that say “Katy Tollway” or “Express Lanes.”

Happy New Year would have looked at the decline in American car culture and how that relates to our perception of urban life. Widespread auto adoption occurred during a time when good transit was widely available, suggesting that the car culture was initially more about escaping cities than moving around within them.

Tweaking Houston – Parking would have examined strategies for encouraging parking lots to be less overbuilt. Straight deregulation is attractive, but in the complete absence of city regs, many lenders require commercial developers to comply with the ITE Trip Generation handbook, which presumes suburban greenfield development. The principal recommendation was to allow credits for parallel parking at a multiple of off-street spaces, e.g., one newly-constructed public parallel spot counts for two or three off-street spots.

Our Values argued that the supposed benefits of mixed-traffic streetcars (and other transport improvements that don’t significantly improve travel times or rider comfort) were chimerical, since any neighborhood which has sufficient political capital to obtain a streetcar is already affluent enough to attract development without said streetcar.

Hartford Handwashing was a summary post detailing a previous abandoned effort to create a schematic design for the tangle of freeways around inner-ring Hartford, Connecticut. There’s something meta about abandoning a summary post of a larger abandoned post, which I think speaks to something uniquely depressing about second tier northeastern cities.

Most recently, [  a  e  s  t  h  e  t  i  c  s  ] proposed that one major hurdle for BRT construction in America was a psychological association between modern rail systems and historic trains that didn’t exist for bus. This is exacerbated by the fact that every busway in existence has been designed with modern architecture, which quickly becomes dated. Early LRT stations intentionally adopted an old-school look, which helped public acceptance. BRT has no real past to fall back on, but can utilize classical architecture to achieve an aesthetic of permanence.

Self-Driving Transit

Any technology which allows for self-driving cars will allow for self-driving shuttles, buses, and trains. Rumors of transit’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

The main impact of labor costs on route and vehicle choice is to bias operators towards larger vehicles. Infrequent “circulator” buses are less convenient than taxi shuttles, but it’s cheaper to pay a single operator to drive a mostly-empty bus around in a big loop than it is to pay multiple cab drivers to be on call, even if the latter system might pick up a few extra riders.

Likewise, spending a lot of money for a rail system makes sense if each train can replace several buses. Whatever the merits of Houston’s LRT extensions, the original 2004 Main Street Line made sense as a replacement for the numerous buses operating between TMC and Downtown.

But self-driving transit changes this calculus. Remove the operator from the equation a 2x or 3x multiple for LRT vs bus costs becomes a 4x or 5x multiple. There is no way to justify the cost of a guideway.

(Do not respond with “but Ottawa”, or similarly played-out arguments. Jarrett Walker will spend the rest of his career batting down bad anti-bus arguments, and I see no reason to duplicate those efforts).

Across the board, self-driving technology will shift the cost curve in favor of smaller, less-expensive transit vehicles. What it won’t do is promote personal auto usage. The labor cost of the personal automobile is already zero; the driver volunteers to drive himself. And adding self-driving technology won’t make cars any cheaper*.

Rail won’t completely die, either. Very high speeds – 100, 125, or 220mph – require steel wheel on steel rail, or an alternate technology that offers even less rolling resistance (e.g. maglev). Express rail offers a ride that is orders of magnitude nicer than buses, even on dedicated guideways. And the visual presence of trains acts as a sort of civic virtue signal.

Instead of talking about transit’s impending death, we should instead be talking about more busways, and possibly building currently-planned rail lines as busways. These can be bus-only affairs like Pittsburgh, or they can be interconnected networks of managed lanes like what Houston *ought* to be building.

Infrastructural Implications of #Calexit

Yes California is angling for a Spring 2019 vote on whether California should remain a part of the United States. What would independence mean for California? For America?

Californian Infrastructure

California generally possesses excellent military and defense infrastructure. In addition to active bases, there are several mothballed or underutilized sites which could be reactivated. George, Norton, and Castle AFBs are all maintained as general aviation airports, and while portions of Hunters Point have been converted to condos, all of the existing moorage remains.

While largely geometrically obsolete, California’s roadway network has been maintained in serviceable condition and could easily last another 50 years with only asphalt overlays. Freight rail infrastructure is likewise in a state of generally good repair. As the existing rail networks belong to privately-held corporations headquartered in Omaha and Fort Worth, it is likely that the fledgling Nation of California would seek to nationalize its rail network.

Californian’s infrastructural weak point is water. Roughly 10% of the state’s water use comes from the Colorado River, and while the United States would likely sign some sort of short-term agreement to continue the supply, in the long run America can be expected to keep the Colorado for itself, leaving only a dry wash at the California border, similar to what currently exists at San Luis.

Los Angeles is fed by several other aqueducts, and could accommodate future growth using some combination of desalinization and rationing. However, agriculture in the Coachella Valley would take a hit. Hence, the highest-priority new project post-#Calexit (ignoring projects which are already on the drawing boards, like the Sacramento River tunnels) would likely be an intertie between the California Aqueduct’s East Branch and the Coachella Canal, as well as modifications to reverse the flow of the the Coachella Canal.

American Infrastructure

America likewise possesses excellent military and defense infrastructure. However, extending the forthcoming border wall to cover California would represent a substantial expense. The gold standard in post-Ming Dynasty international borders is Israel’s West Bank Barrier, constructed at a cost of approximately $3.5mm/mile; doubling this figure results in approximately $8bb for the Californian wall extension.

American highway, water, and rail infrastructure is more than sufficient for domestic needs. However, the the loss of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, as well as associated transcontinental rail links, would leave the US woefully under-served given current levels of trade. As relations with newly-independent California would likely be strained, owing to the loss of Colorado water, additional capacity would need to be constructed.

Rail Links

Roughly two-thirds of current American rail to the Pacific flows through California. Outside of California, there are four available tracks through the Cascade Range; the BNSF (GN) over Stevens Pass, the BNSF (NP) over Stampede Pass, the BNSF (SP&S) along the north side of the Columbia River, and the UP along the south side of the Columbia River.

East of Spokane, all of BNSF’s transcontinental traffic is condensed onto the former GN line through Whitefish; the only other transcontinental line is Union Pacific via Ogden. Montana Rail Link operates the former NP lines as distributor routes, and could conceivably be reorganized to provide a third transcontinental route with minor track upgrades and administrative changes.

A fourth transcontinental track could be made available through reactivation of the Milwaukee Road, which currently exists as a series of rail-trails joined by long segments of abandoned roadbed. The Milwaukee was the last of the three Chicago-Seattle links to be built, and was constructed to the highest design standards; hotshot freights like the Apple Train could average 60mph or better over this route.

Beyond that, additional capacity could come from double-tracking one or more of these routes. As an alternative to double-tracking the UP through the Columbia River Gorge, existing trackage between Ontario and Burns, Oregon could be reactivated and extended west to Bend, where trains would utilize the existing Cascade crossing between Gilchrist and Eugene.

Port Sites

Incremental expansion of existing port facilities in Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland can’t come close to replacing lost California capacity, even if trade with Asia is somewhat reduced by more protectionist trade policy. The optimal location for a new Pacific port is a low-lying area with tideflats and marshlands which can be dredged and reshaped as needed. Several such sites exist. Roughly from north to south, they are:

Everett, Washington is relatively underdeveloped and contains several islands in the mouth of Snohomish River which could host intensive maritime activity. Expansion to the east is hampered by existing rail and roadway bridges, which would need to be rebuilt with increased clearances. Available rail capacity is good, with direct access to the Stevens Pass route and a largely double-track main line along Puget Sound. An independent connection to a reactivated Milwaukee Road could be made using existing trackage south of Snohomish via Renton, or by reconstructing abandoned trackage south of Monroe.

The Nisqually Delta is entirely undeveloped and is currently used as a wildlife refuge. Road and rail access is good, but this site would likely be politically controversial.

Aberdeen, Washington has many square miles of shallow bay which could host a major Pacific port. Rail access is poor, but the available line has good geometrics and could be double-tracked without significant disruption. A parallel rail line has been abandoned for 50 years, but has seen little development and could be reconstructed if demand warranted. Road access is via a four-lane expressway which could be upgraded to a six-lane freeway with minimal right-of-way acquisition.

Oregon’s Sauvie Island sits across from the Port of Portland, and is currently largely agricultural with some wildlife preserve. Rail and road access is poor and would require several new bridges across the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, as well as increased track capacity within the City of Portland. Columbia shipping is also hampered by the need to cross the Columbia Bar.

Other coastal sites like South Bend, Astoria, Tillamook, and Coos Bay have good land availability, but poor infrastructure. Rail links were constructed to low design standards, and most are abandoned; east-west highway connections are little more than farm to market roads.

Jeffersonian Democracy

One wrinkle in Californian independence concerns the fate of the State of Jefferson – a proposed secession of the northern California counties from California proper, to be joined (potentially) by southern Oregon counties.

Available port facilities within Jeffersonian territory have the same limitations as other minor coastal cities in Washington and Oregon. Assuming Jefferson remained a part of the United States, an additional transcontinental rail link would be gained by the inclusion of the UP (WP)’s route from Winnemucca to Klamath Falls via Keddie.

Depending on where the southern border is drawn, California could lose substantial water resources to Jefferson, especially if Shasta Lake was included. However, without substantial additional development, it is unlikely that Jefferson would exhaust Shasta’s water capacity, so international water sales could provide an additional revenue stream for the new state.

A Note on Impervious Surfaces

Between 1925 and 1955, Houston made two changes that massively increased the amount of stormwater runoff generated by development.

(1) We switched our standard residential street from a 16 foot shell-surfaced lane with ditch drainage to a 27 foot concrete slab with curb and gutter.

(2) We switched from raised floor house construction to concrete slab construction.

In the wake of last year’s floods, the tendency among media types has been to castigate developers. Developers are bad because they build new developments on the periphery that increase runoff downstream, they’re bad because they don’t construct additional detention when redeveloping infill sites that are already 100% imperv, and they’re bad for having built apartment complexes in the floodway 40 years ago.

However, on this issue, perhaps we shouldn’t be looking to developers for change. Perhaps we should be looking to the city.

Consider roadways. Using TxDOT estimates, a section of standard slab street should run about $45,000 per 100′ of pavement, of which $28,000 is street and sidewalk and $17,000 is storm drainage. By contrast, a Heights-style swale street built to the same pavement section would run only $17,000 – $12k for the street and $5k for culverts.

Narrower streets would not only reduce runoff, they’d also make housing cheaper. With 50′ lots, this would cut at least $7,000 off the price of each home – probably closer to $10,000 once intersections and collector streets are factored in.

Raised floor construction, by contrast, costs a bit more than slab, but it has the huge advantage of opening up land under the house for stormwater infiltration. And while slab currently predominates, there are industry groups who would love to explain the benefits of raised floors to potential homebuyers.

Houston’s detention requirements are based on a specific method of stormwater analysis (the Rational Method), for which specific runoff coefficients are proscribed for different land uses. Houston also allows engineers to calculate their own runoff coefficient, if the total perv/imperv areas are known.

If we want to encourage raised-floor construction, the fastest way to do so would be to add language exempting raised floor structures from impervious cover calculations. Alternately, some sort of reduction factor could be used – perhaps 1,000 SF of raised floor only counts for 250 SF of slab.

This would immediately push local builders towards raised floor, because the additional cost per house would be offset by the additional lots that could be developed on land that would otherwise go to stormwater detention. National developers would keep building slab for awhile, since their home designs are standardized across regions. But eventually they’d pick it up too.

Repeal the 79mph Rule

Current FRA regs limit passenger trains to 79mph, unless certain signaling improvements are implemented, such as in-cab signaling and positive train control. This is the lowest default speed limit in the Anglosphere. Canada’s VIA operates at 100mph in the Quebec City-Windsor coridor with standard lineside signaling. Melbourne’s V-Line operates at 160kmh using the same. And the UK operates at up to 125mph on lineside signals, with AWS (an older form of in-cab signaling) only deployed at select locations.

The 79mph rule doesn’t have much impact in the Northeast, where major corridors are already equipped with in-cab signaling. However, in the rest of the country it is the single biggest impediment to operating intercity and commuter rail at speeds which are competitive with off-peak automobile travel.

Most of the radial routes entering Chicago used to host passenger trains at 100-130mph. The Milwaukee and Pennsylvania both ran 100mph under steam. But today, those all run at 79. Illinois has spent close to $2bb upgrading it’s Chicago-to-Saint-Louis line for 110mph; this same speed could have been achieved with the stroke of a pen.

110mph on un-upgraded tracks with un-upgraded signals allows cities and states to bootstrap rail service in corridors where there may not be enough ridership to undertake a major capital investment up-front. It also obsolesces a lot of questionable rail projects. For example:

—There’s no need to build a new set of train tracks in the median of I-15 to serve Las Vegas; just run 110mph on the UP.

—There’s no need to spend billions to shave another half-hour off Seattle-Portland; just run the existing Talgos at 90-110 wherever the track is straight enough.

—FEC’s All Aboard Florida train, which is currently planned to operate at 110mph between Orlando and Cocoa and 79mph between Cocoa and Miami, can run 110 the entire way.

—Existing and future commuter rail in the Sunbelt and the Mountain West is a lot more attractive. SLC FrontRunner and NM Rail Runner can operate at 110. Houston can construct rail along 290 without having it carry fewer people than the current HOV express bus.

—Longer and more direct Midwestern services become economical. Chicago-Kansas City via Quincy or Fort Madison is one such run. Chicago-Minneapolis via Madison is another.

Pacific Electric KMZ

As a sequel to the Houston Streetcars KMZ, here’s one for the Red Cars. I’ve tried to locate lines with as much detail as possible, so you can see what became of all the myriad private rights-of-way that PE abandoned between 1928 and 1961.

Pacific Electric Lines

I started with the verbal descriptions of lines compiled by the ERHA, Tom Wetzel, and others. I used USGS’s TopoView to grab old quad maps and overlay them on Google Earth. Then I used a combination of the above and historic aerials to try and figure out where everything ran. If you spot any errors and omissions, leave a note in the comments.

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)


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 mostly a relic of the pencils-and-slide-rules era. 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.