Self-Driving Transit

There seems to be an idea within certain circles that self-driving cars will mean an end to (or at least a substantial reduction in) mass transit. I’m not convinced. If anything, self-driving technology will probably nudge folks the other way.

Self-driving vehicles take the labor cost of mass transit to zero, so a service lives or dies on capital, operating, and maintenance costs. This kills the “coverage” route, as driving a 30′ diesel bus around in circles to pick up three people per cycle is less efficient than running an on-demand service, or contracting with a private ridesharing company. Lots of routes become subsidized Uber.

But major line-haul services stay where they are. There isn’t any universe in which a single 40′ bus on an eight-lane commercial strip, packed to the gills with standees, gets replaced with 100 Johnny Cabs. Nor is there a universe in which all of those riders purchase their own self-driving cars.

What happens instead is (i) driverless Uber shaves off some percentage of existing transit patrons, (ii) the transit agency switches to self-driving buses and (iii) uses that cost-savings to increase peak-hour service, in an attempt to lure those riders back, so that (iv) what used to be a 10-minute bus where you’re pushed into some other guy’s armpit is now a 5-minute bus where you’ve got a seat. Urban transit is actually more attractive.

And if the urban system improves a little, the “last mile” in low density areas substantially improves. That archetypal 30′ bus driving around in a circle once an hour, picking up 3 riders per cycle, appeals to no one. But subsidized Uber offers the same convenience as unsubsidized Uber, and that makes it a lot easier to get to major transit hubs.

Back in the 60’s, British Tories came up with a smart idea to restore railways to profitability. They would simply close all the money-losing local lines and watch the cash roll in. Alas, without the local connectivity, the major trunk lines languished. Now, instead of subsidizing cheap local trains and running a profit on major intercity routes, they were losing money everywhere. Countless small towns and outer suburbs lost service.

These dynamics ought to work in the other direction. That is, if you put in a bunch of convenient local service where none existed before, that will increase demand for longer-distance routes. Driverless Uber takes more folks to the park and ride, more folks at the park and ride leads to increased services (maybe expresses to suburban employment centers in addition to Downtown), increased services draw more folks to the park and ride. People also own fewer cars overall, because omnipresent Johnny Cab obviates the need to keep a car around for occasional trips.

The flipside of this is that the same zeroed-out labor costs which make it cheaper to run several Priuses in place of a 30′ bus make it cheaper to run several 45′ coaches in place of a 200′ train and its associated infrastructure.

Trains will still have their niche. Fake news aside, buses aren’t going to operate above 70-75mph. For 100, 125, or 220mph running you’ll need a train. You’ll also want a train for corridors with ridership that exceeds the capacity of a fully-utilized bus lane – probably something in the 3000-6000 pphpd range. But for most planned LRT corridors, busways would probably be a better option.


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.

How The Right Embraces Rail

When I started this blog at the close of 2014, political divisions in transportation and development were clear. Team Red was auto-oriented, suburban and rural; Team Blue was urban and pedestrian. But the Trump presidency is busy annexing territory that was Team Blue’s for decades, while simultaneously abandoning regions that were long the province of the GOP. He won Pennsylvania; he lost Fort Bend County. The political affiliation of transportation and urban development issues may get a bit murkier.

The Left is unlikely to absorb a large number of staunch suburbanists. Trump’s energy policy is Palin-esque – drill, baby, drill – and the industrial sectors which benefit the most from sprawl and open roads will be firmly in the Trump party.

But the Right will likely end up with quite a bit more urbanists. A few threads feed into this.

First, Trumpism owes a large debt to Paleoconservatism. In many sense the Trump platform is a reboot of the Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot campaigns, delivered with WWE bombast. And the Paleos always loved trains. Until recently, the Wikipedia article for Bill Lind described him as “an American monarchist, paleoconservative, columnist, Christian, and light rail enthusiast.” An iconoclastic combination if ever there was one. Lind and Paul Weyrich founded a magazine to promote transit to conservatives, and were major boosters of heritage streetcar systems.

Second, assuming Trump succeeds in remaking the GOP in his image, he will have absorbed a group of predominantly Catholic white ethnics who’ve never held the anti-urban prejudices common to America’s Protestant founders. The suburban/urban divide was a Protestant/Catholic, Nuclear/Extended, West-of-Hajnal/East-of-Hajnal divide long before it was a white/black one, which is why exclusionary zoning existed in 1925 even though racially restrictive covenants were legal until 1948 (and quietly enforced for some time after that).

Third, the official position of the urbanist left – RESIST, NOT MY PRESIDENT, etc – doesn’t offer much for the architect, planner, or engineer. The view of the greater transit blogosphere on Trump can be summarized by Yonah Freemark quoting Ben Fried: “enabling any aspect of the Trump policy platform will grease the skids for enacting the entire Trump worldview.” Apparently we are to quit our jobs and do something else – be a barista, perhaps – lest we be complicit in the next Holocaust which is surely coming down the pike.

I doubt this will appeal to many. Moreover, I think if Trump makes good on his infrastructure promises, he will win some converts. Back in November, I was in the comments of that Yonah Freemark post arguing that Trump would likely promote high speed rail. Since then, McClatchy has leaked a “top 50” infrastructure document which includes not just Texas Central and the ARC/Gateway project (as I would have assumed), but also various light rail projects, commuter rail to Fort Worth (!), and the Second Avenue Subway (!!).

All of which still has to get through a GOP-controlled congress, who could conceivably strip the entire package of its rail elements and leave the same sort of toll-roads-and-more-toll-roads framework which the lefty blogosphere fears/hopes for. But that seems increasingly unlikely.

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)


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.