Transit, Development Issues Face Houston Mayoral Candidates

Oct. 1, 2015 GOVERNANCE

We present context around the candidates’ comments on their vision for the city.

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Image via flickr/Becky McCray

We present context around the candidates’ comments on their vision for the city.

Earlier this month, the Kinder Institute and Shape Up Houston co-sponsored a forum for Houston’s mayoral candidates where they outlined their vision for how the mayor’s office can help promote healthy living.

Many of them argued that by building a city where residents can easily walk, ride bicycles and use transit, Houston could directly improve conditions in a region where 64 percent of adults are overweight and obese.

We present some of their comments below in greater context.

Topic: Transit-oriented development

Candidate: Adrian Garcia

What he said: “There are various approaches, and obviously we have to do everything we can to encourage people to use their cars less. I appreciate the conversation young people are having today, and that is, ‘one day I’d love to live in Houston, and not have to own a car.’ And we have to facilitate, we have to support that idea. And so I’m glad that we have the light rail system that we have today, I helped to pass that while I was on Council, but … we talked about when we built it: development would come. It has yet to come.

So we have to support transit-oriented development, so that we can encourage greater ridership, so then it can build the argument for commuter rail. But we have to have that transit oriented development along every 39 stops of the light rail system, making sure that folks who use it can get off of it and walk to wherever they live, work, shop and play.”

What the research shows: Transit-oriented development has long been viewed as a more cost-effective approach for cities across the country. In 1996, for example, the Transportation Research Board, in a study on transit-oriented development in the Sunbelt, found that the three major factors that drove transit ridership were socioeconomics, the housing density of development surrounding the station and the level of service provided by the transit system.

The federal government this year acknowledged the importance of development patterns to transit usage with the creation of a new pot of grant money for local jurisdictions. The Federal Transit Administration gave cities, transit agencies and regional planning groups $19.5 million in the program’s first year, to make way for dense, transit-friendly development around stations.

Topic: Bus Rapid Transit

Candidate: Chris Bell

What he said: “I think it would be very disingenuous to talk about trying to build Houston into being one of the modern cites if you’re not going to talk about having a modern mass transit system and taking a modern approach to that. We have challenges. There are financial challenges. I’ve always been a huge advocate for light rail… but it’s very difficult. While we want to continue to expand light rail in many areas it’s simply too expensive.

But I’m optimistic because of what we’ve seen in other cities regarding bus rapid transit. It’s been hugely successful in cities like Cleveland. It costs a quarter of what light rail does. It’s not really a bus. It’s more like a rail car that runs on rubber wheels in a dedicated lane. It’s proven to get people from point A to point B much faster… we have to get more people out of their cars and taking advantage of mass transit.”

What the research shows: Cleveland is, in fact, the U.S. poster child for bus rapid transit, or BRT. Its 7-mile BRT system opened in 2008 at a cost of $200 million. Officials there said a comparable light-rail line would have cost nearly $1 billion. Cities across the country have started embracing the technique, which is viewed as a more cost-effective alternative to light rail.

BRTs differ from typical bus service in that they run more frequently during peak travel times and generally have spaced out stops to ensure faster travel. Ideally, they have dedicated lanes to ensure speedier trips, and with the help of high-tech devices, they can get traffic signal priority as they approach intersections. Additionally, the buses are designed to feel more like trains than buses so that they will attract the type of people who might not ordinarily consider bus travel.

Critics, however, worry that while BRT is more cost-effective than light-rail, it’s not as permanent and is more susceptible to being “watered down” by losing frequent service or not actually getting the separated lanes that make it most effective.

So the question is, does BRT work? Yes and no. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office reviewed ridership data for 15 BRT project sponsors. Thirteen of them reported ridership increases after a year of service, along with travel times that were 10 to 35 percent better than those with previous bus service. But while they work better than buses, U.S. BRT doesn’t seem to have the same draw as light rail. “However, even with increases in ridership, U.S. BRT projects usually carry fewer total riders than rail transit projects and international BRT systems,” the GAO reported.

Topic: Private Sector and Bike-ability

Candidate: Adrian Garcia

What he said: “When I was on Council we were looking at how to decongest the roadways in the downtown area. We synchronized the traffic lights right away. But the other conversation I had with (then) Mayor (Bill) White was, ‘how do we encourage CEOs downtown to support a lighter, or more casual dress so that folks that live within the inner city can bike into town?’

I’m proud of people like Michael Skelly, supporter and a friend, who is leading by example. He bikes to work every single day, and doesn’t pay for parking for his employees, but he provides showers for them if they want to bike to work. We have to support those kinds of concepts so that we make it an easier decision for folks to do.

What the research shows: Cyclist advocates have long noted that in warm climates, showers are critical for those who want to ride to work. In San Jose, Calif., for instance, cycling advocate groups offer voluntary “bike friendly workplace” certification programs, and one of their criteria is offering showers for those who want to bike to work.

In 2012, Virginia Tech professor of urban affairs Ralph Buehler analyzed commute data in Washington, D.C. to find the factors that determined the likelihood a worker would commute by bike. His research found that the availability of a shower made workers much more likely to commute by bike; conversely, he found the availability of free parking made workers significantly less likely to commute by bike.

Topic: Congestion, Light Rail and Air Quality

Candidate: Bill King

What he said: “Back to basics means we need to look at the math and science behind these issues and talk about what really makes a difference. … You heard light rail, and congestion, are two things we need to work for, for air quality. Here’s the number: the environmental impact statements that were done on light rail, every single one of them said there was no measurable effect on the reduction of emissions.

That’s what the environmental impact said for light rail for every single line we built. The truth is today, the modern combustion engine doesn’t put out much emissions, and in the next 20 years we’re going to electrify most of that fleet anyway. Congestion is not the issue. The issue is old diesel engines that are burning diesel in a very inefficient way and creating particulate matter.”

What the research shows: In a 2003 summary of research findings, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis examined different effects light rail is said to have on cities, and in many ways, the study supports King’s assertion. The St. Louis Fed found light rail tends to increase property values and encourage new development. And by driving that private development, it can also create jobs. But the Fed collected a few studies, including one from a 2002 Urban Mobility Report, which cast doubt on light rail’s ability to reduce traffic congestion.

In 75 cities with and without light rail, congestion steadily increased from 1982 to 2000, the study showed. Meanwhile, a 2008 study from the libertarian Cato Institute (frequently cited among those making a case against light rail investments) concluded, “rail transit provides no guarantee that a city will save energy or meet greenhouse gas targets.” It argues that though rail operations emit less carbon than busses, in a direct comparison, the advantage disappears if you include the low-ridership busses that are used to bring riders to the light rail lines as part of the light rail’s emissions-per-passenger-mile measurement.

But the American Public Transportation Association, in its 2014 fact book, makes a broad case for public transportation as a means for reducing congestion and decreasing emissions. It reported that American drivers would have used 450 million more gallons of gasoline in 2011 due to added traffic congestion, if not for the availability of public transit, and drivers would have been stuck in traffic for an additional 865 million hours. Likewise, the APTA cited major environmental benefits from public transit, pointing to a 2008 study from ICF International and a 2007 study from SAIC. Together, those results suggest public transportation – by reducing congestion, reducing the number of miles a single passenger drives, and reduced distance of travel in general – saves 4 billion gallons of gas and 37 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Those studies, however, don’t isolate the effect of light rail on emissions.

A 2012 study out of Canada, Rail Transit in America, found cities with large, well established rail systems have much higher per capita transit ridership, lower vehicle ownership and annual miles driven, less congestion, fewer traffic deaths, lower consumer spending on transportation and more cost-effective transit systems than comparable cities with either no rail service or lesser rail service.

This research all takes place within the context of what economists have long-called the fundamental rule of highway congestion: peak hour traffic will always rise to meet the road’s maximum capacity. Often called Down’s Law of Peak-Hour Traffic Congestion, for researcher Anthony Downs who first put it forward in 1962. This would imply that for every person coaxed out of a car to ride light rail, there is some latent demand waiting to take that drivers place on the highway.

Topic: METRO Ridership

Who said it: Steve Costello

What he said: “Before we start pursuing commuter rail – which is called heavy rail – we have to do a better job of increasing ridership for the buses, increasing the ridership on the light rail, and having a better delivery system. That being said, we need to start the planning process for commuter rail along the major corridors .... These issues take years to plan. And if we are doing nothing right now, we’re going to be strangled with people .… We need to do a better job of moving people with mass transit. “

What the research shows:

Houston does, indeed, lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to transit utilization. According to Census figures (2014, 1-year estimates), just 4.2 percent of Houston residents take public transportation to work. Nationally, about 5.2 percent of workers use transit.

It’s unclear in what direction the numbers will trend for Houston, given major changes to the system recently. Last year, the number of METRO light rail trips increased by nearly 18 percent to 13.3 million. That’s likely due to the extension of the Red Line that debuted in late 2013. But last year, bus ridership fell by about 0.6 percent, dropping form 68.5 million trips to 68.1 million.

In August, the agency implemented dramatic changes to its bus network that it says will help improve access for many riders. Officials say the plan is designed to increase ridership by 20 percent over the next two years. And in May, it got two new light rail lines. Ostensibly, both of those moves will bring new riders and prompt people to take more trips.

What other ways can METRO increase ridership? Research shows that riders will eventually give up on transit if they feel the routes are unreliable. “Frequent, consistent service -- and in particular, reliable transfers between stops -- are what's most important to riders,” according to a recent University of California – Berkeley study. Both of those elements are included in METRO’s bus overhaul.

Jarrett Walker, a public transit consultant, argues that increased frequency and an approach that focuses on serving the broadest groups of people possible ensure more ridership. Attractive vehicles and other aesthetic improvements? They don’t matter as much.

A 2005 Transportation Research Board study looked at transit agencies with ridership gains and documented which factors the agencies themselves believed caused the improvements. Some of the leadings answered were: service expansion, route restructuring, marketing and information programs, new services, partnerships with employers and new payment options.

But the study was inconclusive. “(T)here is no clear evidence from this review that any particular type of strategy is significantly more effective at boosting demand than the others,” the authors wrote. In other words: there’s no perfect formula for expanding transit ridership.

Ryan Holeywell


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