Sunday, July 7, 2019

Harris County beliefs about pedestrians and bicyclists must change

Dear Judge Hidalgo:

In the early 2000s, I inquired into why there are basically no sidewalks out here in Unincorporated Harris County, where I have lived for more than 26 years. I talked to different people in the infrastructure department, as well as Pct. 3 and Pct. 4, and discovered that a core belief of Harris County has been that the County's role is to design suburban boulevards as inexpensively as possible, and that means skimping on "amenities" (yes, they used that word) like sidewalks and bike lanes, which in other jurisdictions are considered standard features. This belief is codified into the engineering cross-sections for suburban boulevards, and in the funding. There are no sidewalk funds, but the County apparently can provide a match to MUD districts and real estate developers, or so I have been told.

I was also told after pursuing this topic by a top bicycle / pedestrian expert in City of Houston public works who is no longer with the City, to "not bother trying to change anything while Art Storey was in charge, because Harris County doesn't do bikes".

After a while, I just gave up engaging with people in the County about this topic. I mean, you can only bang your head against a brick wall so many times.

But Art Storey has retired, and Harris County government turned over in November 2018. I have decided to write to you, not so much for me because I don't ride my bike much any longer, but on behalf of the cyclists and pedestrians for whom safety is a daily concern... for schoolkids and people who don't have any access to automobiles. We're talking about increased safety for working class often immigrant people who must bike or walk, not only for privileged upper-middle-class recreational bike riders, although their interests do intersect. Also I am writing for future potential transit users, because the lack of walkable / bikeable roads in the Unincorporated County means the development of METRO transit routes is suppressed... basically forever, if there is no right-of-way left over for paths. People will not use transit if they can't walk to it; no one drives to use local transit; once you start a journey in a car, you'll just stay in your car and complete the journey without making the transfer. Mostly I am writing for walkers and bikers who have lost their lives on Harris County roads, and there must be hundreds upon hundreds of victims. H-GAC tells us that each crash fatality has a $2 million impact on the Region... what number do you get when you multiple $2 million times hundred and hundreds of times? Ah, but we're used to it... so we don't perceive it as a danger. But if ISIS or Al Qaeda killed as many people in Harris County as who die as bicycle and pedestrian (vulnerable) road users, there would be a hue and cry to bomb and invade wherever they came from. Where is the outrage over vulnerable road user deaths? Where is the funding prioritization?

We've heard for years that Houston-Galveston MPO is the most dangerous region in the Nation for vulnerable road users. As the Chief Executive of the County, I am asking that you demand answers from your infrastructure staff, and put the question to the Commissioners as well. Ask them why we build boulevards the way we build them, and challenge them to get a better result for vulnerable road users. The County has been configured so wrongly for so long, and the beliefs have literally been "set in stone" (concrete), I don't think the outcome can be truly fixed within my lifetime. It's up to you young people to fix the messes we older people have made. Thank you and Good Luck.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Comments on Greater West Houston Sub-Region Mobility Plan, presented at TPC on 8/28/15

Comments on Greater West Houston Sub-Region Mobility Plan, presented at TPC on 8/28/15

The main challenge facing Greater West Houston is one of basic math and geometry; there is no more room for automobiles on the roadways, given the way we have used automobiles in the past, which has been in single occupant mode.

Adding more capacity to support VMT is not a measure of success in the war against congestion, any more than buying a bigger pair of pants is a measure a success in the war against obesity, as Stephen Klineberg points out. 

Harris County, METRO, the Management Districts, and nearby cities like Katy have to collaborate, design, fund, and execute a multi-decade strategy to bring higher-density transportation solutions to West Houston. Transit also demands pedestrian and bicycle friendly infrastructure. We have very little of that.

I have lived in unincorporated Harris County for almost 23 years, and have been paying METRO taxes all that time, and I see nothing in the way of local transit after paying all of that money, which I think is shameful. METRO is to blame for the way it has operated over the decades, and local governments and politicians are also for blocking and bleeding away funding that might have gone to expanding the transit network. There is plenty of blame to go around.

I refuse to believe that “suburban transit” is an oxymoron. I recently rode from Denver to Boulder and back again, on Denver's RTD suburban motorcoach, and the bus was full at 10 pm on a weekday.

Sitting at the Wiehle-Reston East METRO train and bus station near suburban Herndon, Virginia this summer, I watched buses bring in people from the suburbs who then make their way by train to their jobs at Tyson's Corner, or anywhere in and around Washington DC. The train will be built out all the way to Dulles Airport. Where is the train to Bush Airport, or to Hobby?

Denver and Washington DC had plans, conceived decades ago. We have no plan for suburban transit in West Houston. It's high time to get one.

Transit in Houston has degraded into a “divide and conquer” political symbol or device, wielded by both between Democrats and Republicans, who tend to live inside Loop 610, away from us “common folk”. We who live in the suburbs are not interested in politics, we just want solutions. Thank you.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Please oppose HB 1998

Dear Rep. Elkins,

Please oppose House Bill 1889 by State Rep. Will Metcalf, which would make it difficult or maybe impossible to build high-speed passenger rail from Houston to Dallas.

I-45 is chock full from Houston to Dallas, they have no money to expand it, it's dangerous to drive on it, it's a pain to go through the TSA ''groping'' line and very costly to fly, and who wants to take Greyhound bus from Houston to Dallas? Yes, we absolutely need high-speed passenger rail in Texas!

Last year on vacation I had the chance to take the HSR train from Beijing to Shanghai in China. That was that amazing. Fast, clean, smooth, on time, and less costly than flying.

Why China, and why not Texas?

Peter Wang

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Happenings in the I-35 Corridor

Open House - Lone Star Regional Rail

Where: Carver Cultural Center
226 N. Hackberry St.
San Antonio, TX 78202

When: Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015
5 pm - 8 pm

Purpose: The purpose of the Lone Star Regional Rail project is to improve mobility, accessibility, transportation reliability, modal choice, safety and facilitate economic development along the I-35 corridor in central and south Texas.

Description: The Lone Star Rail District (LSRD), in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and TxDOT, is proposing a regional passenger rail service connecting communities along the I-35 corridor between the metropolitan areas of Austin and San Antonio. As envisioned, the Lone Star Regional Rail Project would span approximately 120 miles across Williamson, Travis, Bastrop, Hays, Caldwell, Comal, Guadalupe and Bexar counties. FHWA and TxDOT welcome all comments from interested individuals, organizations, or businesses regarding alternative alignments and station locations, as well as any social, economic, or environmental impacts related to the Lone Star Regional Rail Project.

Contact: Rail Planning Section Manager
125 E. 11th St.
Austin, TX 78701
(512) 486-5137

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

[AARP] Dangerously Incomplete Streets

Look at these photos and read about what you see. Then think about the roadways near you. There's a good chance you're encountering similar sights and scenes. Thank you Harris County and TxDOT!

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. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dignified transportation for seniors   Helping Seniors Stay Mobile

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Support sustainable, community-based transportation services for seniors throughout the world by building a senior transportation network through research, policy analysis and education, and by promoting lifelong safety and mobility.

A transportation solution for America's aging population
dignified transportation for seniors

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