Sunday, July 27, 2014

More carpools, vanpools needed for West Houston sub-region

The news is officially in from the Greater West Houston Subregional Transportation Plan, conducted by H-GAC. Traffic congestion, as measured by throughput at 25 key intersections in the sub-region, is already bad, and it is going to get worse. Under any of the four growth scenarios considered, intersection performance is going to go to “F” (Fail) for almost all of the intersections by 2040. Congestion, pollution, and crashes are going to have a worsening effect on our quality of life and economic growth in this most important job and GDP creating sub-region which includes The Energy Corridor, the Westchase District, and the Memorial City District.

This traffic tsunami is coming at a time, of course, when government transportation agencies at all levels are strapped for cash. Only the most severe needs are being addressed at present, and since the gasoline tax revenues are being eroded away by inflation and fuel efficient vehicles, some of which burn no gasoline, even on-going maintenance of existing facilities is threatened. 

But even if we had a deep pot of transportation money, what would we do with it? The congestion is occurring all over the sub-region, throughout the local road and street grid. The classic Houstonian response would be to widen the streets and add more lanes, grade separate them, and make them faster. But this would have an effect reminiscent of the remarks an American major made in 1968 concerning the Vietnamese village of Bến Tre. “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”. If you widen streets, taking away sidewalks, parking lots, and structures, and put tall ugly bridges and dig underpasses everywhere, you will harm the very neighborhoods, towns, and cities you are trying to serve. Also, if you turn every road into a fast semi-freeway, the corridors become deserts, devoid of people and vitality. If no one can walk, if no one can bike, then a place will become undesirable over time, and increasing low-rent and slummy; “beautiful freeway” is an oxymoron, after all. So if massively widening streets and roads would be harmful, and it’s a moot point since we don’t have the money anyway, does that mean we should perhaps be using more buses and trains (transit) in the sub-region?

So is transit the answer for the Greater West Houston Sub-region’s congestion? Probably not, at least not in the short-to-medium term. The study clearly shows what everyone knows already, that many of the workers in The Energy Corridor, the Westchase District, and the Memorial City District commute in from suburban homes. There are no plans in existence at METRO at this time to allow people to commute on traditional transit vehicles (bus or train) from Cy-Fair or Sugar Land to work. Also, the western half of the sub-region has no local METRO service, and there are no plans to expand the local transit footprint west of State Highway 6. Also, many communities oppose the establishment of transit routes through their neighborhoods, whether their fears are based in reality or not, perception is reality, so even if METRO had the money and the desire to expand, local communities might very well block expansion. So really, there is no immediate relief to come from METRO to local neighborhoods in the western half of sub-region, nor for suburban commuters coming into the sub-region.

So what then? No money to widen existing roads and grade separate them, and local communities will often oppose this anyway. No help from METRO. Are we just going to stew in our own worsening traffic for the foreseeable future?

I think there is another way out of the mess, which could be implemented relatively quickly and at low cost. That is, for the past 60 years or so, we adult Americans have grown accustomed to riding solo in our cars whenever possible. Many of us drive SUVs, but more of us drive SOVs (single occupant vehicles). Somehow, we have to be convinced that the way to face this traffic emergency in West Houston is to voluntarily ride in with neighbors from our neighborhoods in Cy-Fair, Katy, Fort Bend to our work sites. The vast majority of cars on the road in West Houston today are SOVs. What if we would change that mix, so that 50% of cars would at least two people in them during peak commuting times? That would make a huge difference. Going from very few carpools to 50% carpools would result in a marked reduction in cars on the road, and reduce the need for more engineering.

So how can we get more people to voluntarily carpool, or participate in METRO’s Star vanpool service?

First and foremost, I think elected officials, the public, and corporations need to wake up and realize the severity of the traffic tsunami which is already breaking around us, especially in West Houston. Congestion will have an increasing effect on quality of life, economic growth, and public safety. Elected officials need to set aside the “competent manager” hat and put on the “inspirational leader” hat. Harris County Judge Emmett plays a visible, personal, and compelling role in motivating the public to respond to hurricane risk. A similar PR outreach is needed for congestion and carpooling. It won’t be free, but it will be much faster and less expensive to execute than building infrastructure.

Secondly, we need to upgrade the carpooling technology which government agencies make available to the public. NuRide and METRO’s RidePro carpool and vanpool ride matching services function, but they are now obsolete because they are not mobile applications. Another fundamental problem is that there are two places where people have to search, there should just be one master carpool / vanpool app for the entire H-GAC region.

Imagine an app that does the following things:
  1. It only contains background-checked riders and drivers
  2. It only contains insured drivers
  3. The app knows where drivers are, their end destination, and the route they are taking
  4. Riders can hail rides from drivers nearby who are going their way
  5. The rides offered would be free, but a small monthly fee would be changed by the technology provider to pay for the background checks, the app, the servers, etc.

I think it’s very important that rides be offered for free. Once you charge someone money to ride in your car, you’ve violated the terms of your personal auto insurance, and you are immediately not insured any longer; you then require commercial auto insurance. If you’re just giving a neighbor a ride for free, that’s allowable.

“Free” parking plays a role in the economics of carpooling. Building a parking structure next to an office tower involves a huge cost. Office workers, however, park for “free”... their employers shield them from the cost of parking. Note that this does not happen in Downtown Houston, however, and Downtown has a high number of transit and carpool commuters. This is not a coincidence; this is commuters responding to the economics of parking, where users have to pay cash. They literally vote with the seat of their pants.

I suggest a cafeteria benefits approach to parking, where an employee could elect one of several options which would have the same cost to the employer:
  1. Free parking, as usual, or,
  2. Increased pay
  3. Increased compensation, but in the form of a larger employer 401(k) contribution 
  4. Free lunch in the company cafeteria every day
  5. Contribute to the employee’s participation in a METRO Star vanpool

Carpools would also get the preferred parking spots. This would have a large effect on encouraging employees to carpool. Free lunch? Increased compensation? Are you kidding? That would make get everyone’s attention.

The traffic congestion is not coming to West Houston, it is here. It will have increasing effects on quality of life, economic growth, and public safety. There is no quick, low-cost-fix on the horizon either in the building of infrastructure, nor in the establishment of transit networks which reach into the bedroom communities where West Houston workers reside. Carpooling and vanpooling are underutilized modes which could quickly and at relatively low cost reduce or hold steady the numbers of vehicles on our roads and streets. 

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