COMMENT OF THE DAY: DON’T ACT SO SURPRISED WHEN YOUR OUTER LOOPS GROW UP AND TAKE YOUR JOBS “I can understand the desire to keep jobs Downtown, as our freeway infrastructure was always designed for funneling traffic to Downtown but not through it (which has definitely backfired on us in recent times). Same for those toy trains we’ve just spent a fortune on for the past decade — the more jobs located downtown, the better the chance of seeing population gains and redevelopment in the surrounding areas as well. However, none of this is reason enough to double down on generation-old infrastructure . . . [and] really, Shell’s offices are nowhere near the ‘burbs of Katy. It’s in one of the largest office markets in the entire city that has been around for a long time now.” [joel, commenting on ] Illustration: Lulu
COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOW HOUSTON’S PARK(ING) PROPONENTS SHOULD TAKE IT TO THE STREETS “While I understand, generally, the sentiment behind this initiative, I think in Houston it may be a little misguided. If we want a more walkable environment, with fewer buildings set back behind parking lots, we actually need more on-street parking spaces (to both accommodate business patrons arriving by car and help buffer pedestrians on the sidewalk), and fewer off-street ones.” [LocalPlanner, commenting on The SUV-Sized Parks Parked By City Hall Will Expire in About An Hour] Photo of Park(ing) Day: Allyn West
UBER’S SELF-DRIVING CARS HIT STREETS WITH ACTUAL PASSENGERS, DRIVERS JUST IN CASE Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh: As of Wednesday, Uber is letting some of its customers opt into possible pickup by its fleet of heavily tricked-out self-driving Ford Fusions. The rollout is the company’s first testing of the autonomous cars with real passengers in the urban wild; so far, they still come equipped with a prepared-for-takeover human in the driver’s seat (as well as a data-monitoring shotgun rider). Paying passengers interact with the car from the back seat via electronic tablet, which shows them the LiDAR data the car collects and allows them to take selfies. TechCrunch’s Signe Brewster got to check out one of the cars as part of a press preview and reports that the car’s driving was “so normal it got a little bit boring” by the end; Brewster does note that he “had a flurry of butterflies the first time the car encountered an obstacle — an SUV backing into the road. You don’t notice how many unexpected incidents occur during a routine drive until you ask a robot to take the wheel.” [WTAE, TechCrunch; previously on Swamplot]
COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE HIGH-SPEED RAIL BUBBA RESCUE SCENARIO “HSR going bankrupt isn’t the worst deal around. Consider: TCR takes a bunch of Japanese + hedge fund money, fails to pay off capital costs, goes into receivership, forfeits the right-of-way to the state for failure to pay back taxes, TxDOT leases right-of-way for 99 years to a consortium of investors led by Tilman Fertitta, after which all trains have cocktails and coconut shrimp served on board. I wouldn’t complain.” [Purple City, commenting on Land Purchases Beginning Along Proposed Houston-to-Dallas Bullet Train Route]
Like the looks of the conceptual drawing above, showing one of the possible ways to dress up HBDi’s Palm Center on Griggs Rd.? Or think you’ve got a better idea, and the real estate connections to pull it off? Adolfo Pesquera notes a current call for proposals from developers interested in redoing the site — you’ve got until early October to submit your own plan.
The changes wouldn’t happen all at once: HBDi’s documents show that it hopes to split up the work into a few different phases, dependent on how the economy looks. The first order of business would be to pretty up the old buildings on the site; the next phase would include adding a plaza and some office space, followed by the addition of whatever mix of office, retail, residential, and medical space is eventually selected. Though most of the images included with the proposal guidelines are speculative, HBDi’s conceptual drawings do show some of the more concrete plans for the site, which is the last stop on Metro’s Purple Line:
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Rearranging The First Shopping Center
WHO SETS THE AGENDA ON HOUSTON TRANSPORTATION? “Who decides Texans will depend on cars?” asks freshly-former Houston Tomorrow director Jay Crossley this week. Crossley notes that several of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s meetings in the last few months, which collectively mulled over how to use more than $48 billion for transportation projects in the country’s most racially diverse city, were — as is the norm — “overwhelmingly dominated” by white men. “Why does this matter?” Crossley asks, before answering himself: “In the Houston region, there are still some places where non-Hispanic white people are the majority (at 55 percent) — and that’s everywhere that is more than ten miles from a major job center. It should come as no surprise that those low-density, car-dependent areas claim far more than their share of the region’s transportation projects, and that those projects are disproportionately tilted toward people in cars.” Crossley also notes that while long-term plans for the region call for more mass transit, most of the projects actually getting funding in the short term are still going toward car infrastructure. To change things up, Crossley calls for state and local transportation decisionmaking groups to be more open to “women, people of color, and people whose livelihoods don’t involve real estate or cars.” [Houston Chronicle] Photo of office building at 3555 Timmons Ln., where HGAC monthly public meetings are held: Unilev
YOUR CHANCE TO TALK ABOUT LOWER WESTHEIMER BEFORE THE REDO PLANS GET DRAWN UP A meeting is set for 6pm Monday for anyone with opinions about what the Montrose section of Westheimer Rd. should or shouldn’t look like, as the ReBuild Houston folks turns an eye toward the corridor. Traffic consultant Geoff Carleton tells Dug Begley that bike infrastructure is low on the project wishlist, as bike lanes are already planned for W. Alabama. Carleton says that widening the road, which Metro’s larger buses can’t currently fit down, will be a hard enough sell already, adding that current priorities are for Westheimer to be both “walkable and transit-friendly.” A list of links to previous studies of the area’s transit situation is included on the city’s meeting info page. [Houston Chronicle] Image of Lower Westheimer study area: City of Houston
UBER AND LYFT PULL OUT OF AUSTIN, PREPARE FOR CAPITOL Meanwhile, in Austin: Uber and Lyft ceased operations today after a city proposition to overturn requirements for drivers including fingerprint-based background checks was shot down by voters over the weekend. The measure was blocked by 56 percent of the vote, despite $8.6 million in campaign spending by the 2 rideshare companies. State senator Charles Schwertner immediately promised to file state legislation to overturn the matter during next year’s session, implying that the Austin rules (which are less stringent than those required by Houston) are “for the sole purpose of stifling innovation and eliminating competition.” El Paso state representative Joe Pickett, however, suggested that “the most minimal thing that state government could do” would be to leave the issue up to individual cities. [Austin-American Statesman; previously on Swamplot]
CITY RESPONSES TO UBER THREATS CITE BACKGROUND CHECK CATCHES, DATA UBER SUED TO KEEP PRIVATE Mayor Turner held a press conference this week in response to Uber’s current PR push regarding Houston’s licensing requirements on Uber drivers. The rideshare company and ubiquitous favorite ‘[blank] of [industry]’ fill-in is threatening to pull out of Houston over the city’s rule that drivers must pass more stringent (specifically, more fingerprint-requiring) background checks than what Uber internally requires. Turner says the city’s checks have turned up criminal history in applicants already OK’d by Uber’s screening processes, including charges for DWI, assault, and murder. Meanwhile, city administrator Lara Cottingham tells Michael Barajas that Uber’s claims of drivers waiting 4 months for city licenses are exaggerated; the actual normal wait is a few weeks, Cottingham says, but the city can’t release data to support that because Uber sued in 2015 to block open records requests regarding its business practices. “The number of drivers is increasing, their revenue is increasing, everything seems to be working out for them very, very well,” said Cottingham, adding that because of the lawsuit she “can’t tell you how successful they are.” Uber lobbied last legislative season for less-stringent state-level licensing rules that would supercede local regulations. [KHOU, Houston Press; previously on Swamplot] Photo of Houston Uber HQ, 5714 Star Ln.: Uber Houston
COMMENT OF THE DAY: TOP WITH ASPHALT, ADD PARKING STRIPES TO TASTE “Amazing how that works – we demolish houses and businesses next to schools to make way for parking, meaning there will be fewer homes and errand stops within walking distance of the school. Meanwhile, the Red Line is only a few blocks away, which could’ve meant fewer employees and students needing to drive there. So now we have HISD paying more money it doesn’t have on acquiring land and building parking infrastructure while simultaneously devaluing a public transit asset and decreasing the school’s user base in the area. Great recipe for success, here!” [Derek, commenting on Former Bakery Razed as Jefferson Davis Claims New Territory in Northside] Illustration: Lulu
HOUSTON IS THE UBER OUTLIER Houston appears to be the only market in Texas in which Uber is willing to put up with regulations that complicate its business model, writes Madlin Mekelburg in the Texas Tribune — following the rideshare company’s abrupt cessations of service in Midland and Galveston on Monday. In Austin, Uber and competitor Lyft are currently funding a campaign against a recently passed city ordinance that would require more intensive background checks involving fingerprinting of drivers — a safeguard Uber accepted in Houston. “Sarfraz Maredia, Uber’s general manager over Houston, declined to say Tuesday why the company wouldn’t accept the same policy in Austin,” Mekelburg writes. “‘It has become clear that Houston is the outlier in how it has chosen to regulate,’ Maredia said. ‘The rest of our markets have focused on passing modern ride-sharing regulations. As a result, our expansion strategy in Texas has changed to focus on launching only in markets that are consistent with that policy.'” [Texas Tribune] Photo of Houston Uber HQ, 5714 Star Ln.: Uber Houston
COMMENT OF THE DAY: VERTICAL SPRAWL AND OTHER HIGH CONCEPTS “Since every time they ‘fix’ the West Loop it immediately fills up, I think we have the makings for the 11th Wonder of the World: the first freeway skyscraper! Perhaps we can make it a mixed-use freeway by adding some small shops and apartments along the side of the road (with a parallel parking lane), some microtel rooms like they have in Tokyo, and — just to prove we have a penchant for ‘green living’ — one level could be an extension of Memorial Park! Don’t forget: we also need ground-floor retail, a multiplex theater, and on the very top level, a replacement for AstroWorld, with the world’s longest linear roller coaster! It will have to have a new name — perhaps ‘Westlooptopia’?” [sjh, commenting on Look! Up in the Air! It’s Second Story West Loop Express Lanes!] Illustration: Lulu
Love that rush of vertigo from driving up the entrance ramp at Hidalgo St. onto the southbound West Loop? Freeway thrill-seekers may have some new options in a few years. The above rendering of new elevated express lanes along the West Loop between I-10 and 59 made an appearance at last night’s TxDOT Open House, where plans for the proposed project were presented for public comment. The drawing faces southwest across the intersection of San Felipe and 610 toward the Williams Tower (far left), and shows the lanes flying high over the existing freeway.
TxDOT also showed schematics and cross sections of the proposed additions — which include previously-considered dedicated bus lanes elevated along the path of the feeder road, from just south of I-10 to the junction with Post Oak Blvd.
Drive through the cross sections below, from north to south:
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Up High in Uptown