This past week brought some wonderful news for a beleaguered Houston in the form of the Houston Astros winning their first Major League Baseball World Series in the 56-year history of the club franchise! Congratulations Astros!
I have confessed on Facebook that I’ve been that worst of Houston stereotypes – the last minute bandwagon jumper – when it comes to being a fan of the Astros. Baseball was a game that didn’t really excite me when I was younger – football, basketball, and cross country/track and field were the sports I enjoyed (and still enjoy) watching today. I’ve long thought of baseball as being a cow pasture sport, albeit I’ve had friends share other perspectives on why they enjoy the game. One older lady told me that what she enjoyed about baseball was that it was both a team sport, but at the same time there was a quirk about the sport where the focus of any play at any point in time changed. Of course, most of the time the focus of the game is on the pitcher, but the pitcher is continually facing different batters. Anything could happen in any pitch, while if a batter hits the ball, then the focus changes to the fielders who are trying to catch or throw the ball to get runners out. I had never thought of the game in that light before, and she did have a point.
But I digress. I am not much of a baseball fan, but I had followed the 2017 Astros team fortunes just closely enough to know that the team had gone on a tear this year. By June of this year, I knew the team was well established as a force that would have to be reckoned with for the rest of the 2017 season. I didn’t know much about their prospects for the post-season, but as it turned out this Astros team had to earn their title the hard way. They had to beat three of baseball’s most famous franchises – the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, and the Los Angeles Dodgers – in order to reach the summit. Moreover, it has been noted that the payrolls of the teams the Astros beat were markedly higher than that of the Astros. Something tells me the Astros team payroll is going to be going up quite a bit in the not-too-distant future. It would be very interesting to do a statistical analysis of pro sports team payrolls and correlate them to overall team win-loss records.
And speaking of data and predictions, one of the stories that has come out of the Astros and their storied run is that Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter predicted back in June 2014 that the Houston Astros, then in the basement of the league with a 70-92 season record, would win the 2017 World Series. As for the future, the Houston Chronicle published a story today that data analytics pros Five Thirty Eight is predicting a bright future for the Astros, as well as for the Los Angeles Dodgers. We might well end up with a rematch come October 2018 between the Dodgers and the Astros.
On the Astros’ celebratory victory parade and METRO
In the aftermath of the Astros winning the World Series, City of Houston mayor Sylvester Turner held a press conference to announce that a victory parade honoring the Astros would be held on Friday, November 3rd, in downtown Houston. I had no objections on the City splurging a little on a parade. Even a fiercely hard-nosed, evil, uncaring, tight-fisted guy like myself recognizes that there are times for celebrating when rare, great things happen. I do have to admit, however, that I was left wondering why the victory parade could not have been held on either Saturday or Sunday
I then, however, started to hear and read stories that officials were expecting 500,000 – 1 million people to crowd into downtown Houston to attend the parade. The Powers That Be were encouraging attendees to leave their cars behind and take transit to get into downtown Houston, indeed I saw photographs on social media of $50 being asked for parking spots in downtown. I had to work yesterday, but I knew right then and there that there were going to be untold thousands of disappointed people (and their children) who would either not make it to the parade, or were going to have to endure a long day in order to make a go of it. It hasn’t been for nothing that I spent years writing and arguing about METRO and transit, and now is the time to discuss what happened.
Admittedly, trying to accommodate a crowd of 500,000 – 1 million attending any event is going to be a huge logistical challenge, particularly if it is a rare or one-time event as this victory parade was. And that, gentle readers, was exactly the rub. Downtown Houston, despite herculean efforts by the City of Houston’s political classes to change its character, is an employment center. Roughly 140,000 jobs are located in downtown Houston (about 7 percent of the total in Harris County), and that figure is not likely to change that much. Indeed Exxon and Shell have both moved substantial numbers of employees out of downtown Houston in recent years, following a long-time pattern of employers leaving Houston’s central business district. Yet because downtown Houston is home to roughly 140,000 jobs, the transportation infrastructure is geared to handle that level of traffic everyday. The transportation network is not set up to handle a crush of 4-7 times that many people heading into the central business district for a one time event. Indeed it would be a scandalous waste of money to even try to build out infrastructure that would be able to handle traffic loads that great when facilities would go unused 99.9 percent of the rest of the time.
Houston City Hall – and METRO – should have well known all this in advance (indeed they had 9 – 10 days after the Astros won the American League championships to plan for a parade), but it seems Houston’s political classes didn’t really care. People were told to take METRO’s trains to get into downtown, and that was that. The result was entirely predictable for someone like myself. There were numerous stories in the media (read here, and here, and here) of frustrated Houstonians who had to wait for hours to get to the parade via METRO, or for that matter never made it at all. One of my close friends told me she was planning on attending the parade, but was going to park at NRG park and take the train in. She told me she decided not to go, but two of her friends tried to do just that and ended up never making it into downtown. I also saw numerous complaints made on social media where people unloaded on METRO for what happened. Many resorted to Uber or Lyft to make their way into downtown instead.
As the Houston Chronicle writers pointed out in their story, METRO had 67 trains on hand, each of which was capable to carrying up to 250 passengers. That’s a total of 17,250 passengers at peak capability, but woefully inadequate for handling a crowd of 500,000 to 1 million. In contrast, I’ve ridden on trains on several continents. I’ll use the London Tube system as a counter-example, as I worked in London for 10 weeks back in 2007 and am most familiar with the Tube system. The London Tube trains consist of 6-8 cars that can handle a maximum of 752 – 1176 passengers apiece. Furthermore, during rush hours, many Tube lines run trains every several minutes. Now that, gentle readers, is what high-capacity transit looks like.
Furthermore, METRO Rail has been constrained in the past, and will be constrained in the future forever, with regards to capacity. Why? Back around 2007, I had an email exchange with Tom Rubin, a nationally known transit consultant. Rubin pointed out to me that METRO’s rolling stock of trains consists of rail cars that are some 96 feet long. However, as any long time Houstonian knows, the downtown Houston street grid, which is where the parade was held and is the focus of METRO’s street level, at-grade rail schemes, is composed of square shaped blocks. It just so happens the blocks in downtown Houston are 100 yards long, meaning that METRO would only be able to run trains that are two rail cars in length. To try to string together three rail cars to increase capacity would result in trains that were 288 feet in length, and combining trains with that length along with stations to handle them would result in train stations that were potentially longer than the blocks themselves. That in turn would cause blockage of intersections to cross traffic, resulting in traffic congestion and potentially more safety issues from accidents with vehicle traffic.
Additionally, the City and METRO shot themselves in the foot with regards to transportation capacity by shutting down two of the three lanes in each direction on Main Street when the rail line was built. Street lanes have been taken away along the North Corridor rail extensions, and along Harrisburg in the East End. It is practically impossible to make a left hand turn along any of the rail lines. Furthermore, anyone who tries to get around downtown Houston eventually learns is that practically everywhere you turn, there are lanes blocked off for whatever reason, which is a further discouragement to wanting to do anything in downtown Houston.
In short, yes the parade was great, and I’m happy for everyone who did manage to have a good time celebrating the Astros victory. But it was a (predictable) disaster for METRO.
What to do about future huge-scale events?
Inevitably, Houstonians were (and are) left asking questions over how to handle transportation problems of this magnitude. Of course, for many, this means that tons of tax monies need to be thrown at building rail lines all over downtown. It doesn’t matter if METRO has lost 20 percent of its ridership since rail construction commenced. But that is not a constructive way to look at the matter.
The first insight is that massive events like the Astros victory parade are rare things, unlikely to happen more than once every 5, 10, or 20 years or longer. Hence, you need to calibrate thinking to handle once-in-a-rare-blue-moon events. Private solutions like Uber and Lyft no doubt help. We will never know how many people were driven to the Astros parade in private vehicles, but I do know that one friend of mine who is an Uber driver posted a message showing that pretty much all of Houston within a distance of 7-9 miles of downtown Houston was in a red colored surge pricing zone before the Astros parade. Mournfully, many of his potential rides cancelled on him because he couldn’t get to them in a timely manner.
One idea for handling a situation like this would be for the City, or METRO, or perhaps Harris County, to establish a special event transportation fund, where perhaps $5-10 million could be set aside to rent out a fleet of vans and small buses, which could transport 8-15 passengers apiece. The vehicles would be leased for 1-2 days by the City (or the County, or METRO), then be returned to owners or leasing companies. Vehicles and drivers would need to be found, and no doubt there would be other issues with such a scheme (like fuel and insurance), but a scheme like that would be far easier on taxpayer wallets than using the Astros parade transit debacle to justify new grand schemes to build more toy train rail lines. If METRO couldn’t handle an event like this, then why do they deserve any more of your money for anything else they dream up?
Enough complaining for now. The Astros just might have convinced me to become a baseball fan again. 2018 awaits. Go Astros!