Trollin’ 3-1-1

So apparently the Stop Ashby High Rise folks are so geared up to spam 311 with complaints that a special report category has been set up just to deal with them. Bad-faith 311 calls are of course a time-honored tradition amongst Houston’s douchier set, and are one of the reasons why those restaurants on Taft over behind the Fed seem to change names every six months.

But this got me to thinking… what other special categories might 311 have set up?

* Taco truck registration is expired
* Apartment complex gate has been stuck half-open for weeks
* Neighbors appear to be operating an after-hours club
* Other people are parking in front of my house, how dare they

Why Preorder?

The reviews are in, the new SimCity continues to be as unplayable one month out as it was on release. EA’s recently released “2.0” patch has created twice as many problems as it solved, from dysfunctional bus routes to fire trucks that circle the block while buildings burn.

I’ve given up on the prospect of Sim 5 ever being worth buying, and picked up Tropico 4 instead. So far, the game has proved reasonably challenging. I built out an island that was a mining and logging powerhouse, only to have disgruntled environmentalists and religious fundamentalists form an insurgency that dynamited the gold mines, then the presidential palace. When the palace goes, you’ve lost the game. Next time, I’ll cut checks to the priests.

But many have already plunked down hard cash for the new Sim City. Indeed, in comments threads on news sites and blogs, the refrain is heard: “EA already has your money, they don’t care.” Which raises the question: why?

Sure, if you anticipate something will see a limited release, it makes sense. I have standing pre-orders for trains from Kansai-area private railways that will be released later this year; it’s a niche market, there’s only a few retailers who’ll do business in English, and being on a different continent means I can’t stalk through Akihabara trying to find the one shop that’s got them in stock.

But among friends and acquaintances, I know people who have pre-ordered the new Daft Punk album. Why would you do that? Is there any question in anyone’s mind as to whether Best Buy will have 100 copies on compact disc the day it’s released? Is there any doubt it’ll be on iTunes and Amazon? Hell, Amazon still sells Mp3 downloads of classic electronic music that hasn’t been available on CD for a decade.

What is this urge to pay money now for something you’ll receive later? In the case of SimCity, users weren’t even allowed to pre-install the game. It had to be downloaded after the release. There was precisely zero time advantage for people who pre-ordered over people who sat down in front of the computer on the release date and said “well, I guess I’ll buy this now.”

Without all the pre-orders, the massive negative reviews that poured in shortly after SimCity’s launch would’ve prevented or at the very least delayed a lot of these sales. The prospect of those delayed sales, in turn, would’ve provided more incentive for EA to fix the problems that cropped up, rather than half-assing it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that large-scale pre-ordering contributed to SimCity’s unplayability.

So why do people do it?

The Spur needs to split at Shepherd.

One of the most reliable backups inside the Loop right now is the PM reverse-commute inbound on 59. In the early afternoon, when most of the Transtar map is green, the Shepherd-Spur segment is yellow. By the height of the rush, the queue extends at least to Buffalo Speedway. This happens for a number of reasons – but first, the fix. Because it’s ridiculously simple.

Move the diverge point to Shepherd.

To see why, here’s 59 in Greenway. Five lanes. Now here’s 59 entering Midtown, a couple miles further to the east. Again, five lanes – and about to lose two of them.

So add a couple miles of barrier and put the split (“gore point” in traffic engineer speak) at Shepherd. If you’ve driven this route once, you can see how it would immediately shave several minutes off the trip to Downtown/Midtown/Montrose. The Spur is never jammed in the reverse direction, so anything that effectively lengthens the Spur lengthens the distance of hassle-free 60mph cruising. But such a configuration would also help drivers continuing on 59. Here’s why.

Why does 59 back up?

In short, three tailbacks and a weave. 59 through Midtown consists of three lanes which split into three freeways, and backups on any of these are telegraphed through onto the mainlines. The splits:
(i) The two left lanes head to 45. While there is a predictable queue to get onto the Pierce Elevated, it rarely backs up onto 59.
(ii) The two right lanes head to the Eastex Freeway, continuing as 59. This is a more common location for congestion, as there are two lanes coming off 59 and two lanes coming off 288, which narrow to three past the GRB.
(iii) An auxiliary lane gets picked up from San Jacinto which peels off onto 288 after a few hundred feet. 288 South is often backed up, and any tailback from 288 will cause the weave from San Jac to break down, effectively taking out two lanes. This by itself is sufficient to back up 59 past Shepherd, even if both the Eastex and the ramps to 45 are relatively clear.

Even when all three destination freeways are running smoothly, the short weave from San Jac still causes a reduction in capacity – a “bottleneck” if you will – from the theoretical maximum capacity that is available through Midtown.

How does moving the Spur diverge point westward help this? Well, the thing to understand is that the Spur merge acts as a repeater for the Midtown bottleneck. In a normal traffic bottleneck you have three zones. You have the bottleneck itself, you have a queueing section where traffic stacks up waiting to get through the bottleneck, and then you have a free flow section upstream of there.

As traffic backs up on 59 past the Spur, drivers are faced with a dilemma. Do I sit and queue here in the right three lanes, which aren’t moving? Or do I get over and zoom past until right before the split? Many, understandably, choose the latter. But what this does is create a new bottleneck at the point where the Spur diverges, because traffic is merging into the left lane and then trying to cross over to get to 288 or stay on 59.

Now, you may ask, wouldn’t a Shepherd Spur Split just move the repeater point to Greenway? No, for two reasons. First, a lot of the time the backup from 288/59/45 will never make it to Shepherd. Cars will happily (or not) queue up in the right three barrier-separated lanes, and the end of the queue will be somewhere between Midtown and Shepherd. And when it does make it back there, it still won’t be as bad, because Greenway has auxiliary lanes.

Check out the ramp from Kirby. That’s a genuine bonafide lane add, and it merges back in a bit past Woodhead. Engineers put the lane-add there to handle traffic merging from Kirby and Shepherd, but a four-lane section is a four-lane section and that same temporary capacity increase is also ideally positioned to handle the sort of people who stay in the Spur lanes until the last minute. If it were up to me, I’d actually reconfigure the merge at Woodhead so that the left lane drops and the right auxiliary lane becomes a through lane. F-ing Miracles.

Objection!

I can think of two.

(1) “The lanes will be too narrow!” No they won’t. First, the HOV lane east of Shepherd is extra wide, with 8-10′ shoulders on both sides. Most of the rest of the Houston HOV network is much narrower, so you should be able to gank a few feet from here. Second, 59 in this area has the TxDOT standard 12′ left shoulder. But for a three-lane section, AASHTO only requires 4′, with 10′ “recommended.” And everyone agrees that only 4′ left is required for a two lane section. So where your old cross section was:

30′ HOV – 2′ barrier – 12′ shoulder – 60′ lanes (5×12) – 10′ shoulder

Your new cross-section is:

22′ HOV – 2′ barrier – 4′ shoulder – 24′ lanes (2×12) – 10′ shoulder’ – 2′ barrier – 4′ shoulder – 36′ lanes (3×12) – 10′ shoulder

This obviously requires a couple meetings at the TxDOT level, but the Feds would rubberstamp it.

(2) “You’re cutting off Shepherd’s access to the spur!” Okay, valid point. But how important is Shepherd-Spur traffic in the grand scheme of things? Anyone getting on and off there has there choice of a myriad different east-west arterials, including Westheimer, Alabama, Richmond, and even Memorial/Allen. Sure, in an ideal scenario you’d add a flyover to route Shepherd/Kirby traffic to the Spur. We’re still in a liquidity trap, and I have an aesthetic appreciation for concrete, so I’m not the type of person to disparage dropping a couple million on a flyover of questionable virtue. However, given the choice between (i) forcing local trips to take local streets for an extra mile and a half, and (ii) shortening the commute times for the other tens of thousands of people who reverse-commute on 59 each day, I don’t think it’s really a contest.

Start the Spur at Shepherd.

The Limits of Cute Transportation

This is a draft I saved back in November and then forgot about. I figure I must’ve accidentally published it for a few minutes, because more than one person has emailed me asking where it went. So, here it is.

So here’s the east approaches to the Marquam Bridge, in Portland.

Roll up to a long-range planning meeting and you’re liable to hear idle talk about tunneling or removal or somesuch. It doesn’t matter what the actual likelihood of this happening is. Dislike of the Marquam bridge is sort of a litmus test for serious Portland movers-and-shakers. Not only is it a freeway, it’s ugly. Or that’s the official line anyway. What’s not ugly? The Streetcar.

Cute. With a cutesy sign in the background to emphasize the cuteness. But, not particularly useful. The streetcar is actually slower than equivalent bus routes (though the existence of rail bias produces a decent amount of ridership) and is best thought of as a land development tool. What does a useful, modern rail line look like?

Super useful. Carries damn near 800,000 people a day. Trains reach 60mph between stops. The Metro is the very key to the District’s success; without it, you simply couldn’t have continued to locate major government and office buildings inside the Beltway, and the residential blocks would not have followed either. But note that we’re way outside of “cute” now, and into dour 70’s modernism. Exceedingly well-executed modernism, which has held up surprisingly well. But not cute.

What does an even higher level of service look like?

That’s the Sanyo Shinkansen, a couple miles outside of Shin-Osaka. That’s about a 1km radius curve, acceptable only in close proximity to station where all trains stop. Get a bit further out and the curves are substantially broader. But now we’re back to the Marquam bridge, we’re back to the “ugly.” The sort of thing that all right-thinking NIMBYs would oppose as a blight on the landscape.

When you read criticism of urban highway networks, you see a fair bit of criticism that highways and cars are “out of scale” and “don’t fit” in an urban context. This kind of talk is synonymous for “highways are not cute.” Well, quality rail infrastructure isn’t cute either. If you can’t handle the sight of a multi-deck freeway interchange without spazzing out, you’re not going to be prepared for high speed rail either. Cuteness shackles you to forever move at the speed of surface light rail.

So you need to have the ability to rise above cute. Houston does. Vancouver and Toronto do, but Montreal doesn’t appear to. New York used to, but at this point I’m not convinced.

To keep improving the transport network, you need a citizenry that’s cool with concrete. And it’s this reason why I’d wager we’ll see at least three true high-speed rail systems in operation (California, Texas, and a third – maybe Florida, maybe NC, maybe DesertXpress, maybe electrified Cascades) before we ever see major capacity expansions in the Northeast, such as an inland route from NYC to Boston via Hartford. Beyond the capital and political issues, you have a citizenry that isn’t equipped to appreciate the aesthetics. Just one more area where the future belongs to the Sunbelt.

Riding the Texas Central

A commenter asked for my opinion on the Texas Central Railway proposal for high-speed rail, and the various challenges facing it. Thought it merited its own post. So, my thoughts.

My first feeling is skepticism. High speed rail pairs extremely low operating costs with extremely high up-front capital costs. Debt service thus becomes a huge determinant in whether or not a line can “break even.” A few basis points can make or break the entire system.

Privately-financed HSR infrastructure ends up costing a lot more because private borrowing costs are so much higher. True, a private system may see lower construction costs, by being exempted from federal contracting and prevailing wage requirements. But in a right-to-work state like Texas, the prevailing wage isn’t all that steep to begin with. And even states with a history of iffy finances (e.g., California) can issue bonds cheaper than most companies.

Even a system with good ridership can thus operate “in the red” if the banks are extracting too large of a cut. This happened in Taiwan. Three years after their HSR system opened, they were bleeding money in interest payments, and had to be refinanced with a new set of loans backstopped by the Bank of Taiwan.

There is a workaround – namely, the RRIF. RRIF lets private railroad entities get loans for whatever the going rate is on T-bills, thus avoiding a Taiwan scenario. As you might imagine, the Republican and Libertarian establishments hate this program. For instance, here’s Reason coming out against the Los Angeles-Las Vegas line, and here’s Heritage echoing the sentiment.

So my thoughts are, given that the exact same people who would oppose a publicly-financed and owned rail system are going to be just as opposed to a privately-financed and owned rail system with government loans, why not just go for the full enchilada? Build it with public funds and then let JR or First or Veolia contract out to run the trains.

Having expressed skepticism of the financing model, my second reaction is excitement. I’m a partisan. I want to see 700-series Shinkansen in Texas. The reason is loading gauge. Off-the-shelf Euro trainsets are built to Berne Gauge, which is a bit over 10′. Existing North American trainsets are built to Plate C, which is a bit wider. But Shinkansen uses its own loading gauge, explicitly designed for HSR.

So while the ICE-3 is 9’8″, Amfleet is 10’6″, and the “international” Velaro D is 10’8″, the N700 clocks in at 11’1″. Do you shop at Casual Male? Do you drive an SUV? This is the train for you. Of course, the Japan/Taiwan spec has 5-across seating in economy class. But I have to imagine that no US operator would be stupid enough to bring that here. And indeed, Texas Central’s website shows four-across “green car” seating. An all-Green Car Shinkansen would really be quite something.

Moreover, when it comes to the route structure, my attitude is one of endorsement. Texas Central proposes to put one station in downtown Dallas and one station on the northern outskirts of Houston. This makes sense when you consider demographics and airport location.

On the demographic side, HSR ridership skews toward a higher-income, service-sector crowd. Dallas’s office sprawl heads northward, which tends to funnel the Plano-Frisco-Galleria folk through downtown. By contrast, Houston’s office sprawl goes west, and Dallas-bound traffic utilizes any of several ring roads before finally coalescing somewhere in The Woodlands. This supports a Downtown Dallas station and a North Houston station.

On the airport side, Houstonians have to drive a ways out to reach the aeropuerto, regardless of what flight they’re taking. But Dallas folks have Love Field, which is just a couple miles from Downtown. An outer Houston rail station is thus competitive with air travel in a way that an outer Dallas one wouldn’t be.

As for the issue of stations in Fort Worth and DFW, my tone is one of exasperation. Direct DFW service is a great idea, but there is simply no cheap way to do it. You’re either tunneling under the runways (mega expensive) or extending the APM to Centreport. And since Skylink operates within the secure area, you’d need to construct a satellite terminal for check-in and baggage handling.

Personally, I’d go for a tunnel. It works at Narita, it works at CDG. But that’s some major capital outlay and it seems crazy to me to hang the success or failure of a Houston-Dallas train line on service to the airport. It also doesn’t escape my attention that, assuming the system is ultimately expanded to include the rest of the triangle and beyond, a direct DFW connection tends to advantage airlines with a DFW hub (e.g., AA) at the expense of those using IAH or Love (United, Southwest).

In summary, then, my short take on it is this: I hope they pull it off.

On Getting the F Out

So a couple months ago, I was up north.

Then, I wasn’t.

Saw some trains…

Some some slabs…

Saw a hundred different towers reflected in my hood.

And it feels good to be home.

On another note…

Reading stories like this makes me very happy to live here.

Is this anything but a slightly darker variant of the Orange Show or the Silo? Someone needs to hook this guy up with a plane ticket and an acre of land in the Tre. After all, he wouldn’t exactly be the first Gaul to find solace in the City of Screw.