Monday, January 30, 2012

Texas raises rural speed limits to 75 mph

Following up on action taken by the State Legislature last year, the Texas Department of Transportation has approved raising the speed limit from 70 to 75 miles per hour on over 1,500 miles of rural Texas Interstates. This means that, with the exception of urban areas and stretches of Interstates 10 and 20 in West Texas where the speed limit is already 80, 75 mph now becomes the default speed limit for the state's Interstate network.

As I noted last April, raising the speed limits on rural Interstates by five miles per hour isn't going to make a significant difference in travel time savings. It's also going to reduce motorists' fuel economy and may very well result in more accident-related deaths. But it also brings Texas in line with the maximum rural Interstate speed limits of surrounding states, such as Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and for that matter most of the central and western United States. So I can't find myself in opposition to this change.

What I would like to see accompany these higher speed limits is more aggressive enforcement by state, county and municipal agencies of Section 545.051(b) of the state's Transportation Code, which reads:
An operator of a vehicle on a roadway moving more slowly than the normal speed of other vehicles at the time and place under the existing conditions shall drive in the right-hand lane available for vehicles, or as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway, unless the operator is:

(1) passing another vehicle; or

(2) preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.

In other words, SLOWER TRAFFIC KEEP RIGHT regardless of the posted speed limit. Driving slower than the actual flow of traffic in the left lane is dangerous, it causes congestion, and it makes people angry. If you're going 60, get out of the left lane. If you're going 75 and the car behind you wants to go 90, get out of the left lane and let that person risk getting a ticket. The only time slow drivers should be in the left lane of the Interstate is if they are passing a vehicle slower than them, such as an 18-wheeler. Slow drivers in the left lane are one of three major behind-the-wheel peeves of mine, the other two being motorists who litter and motorists who wait until the last second to merge.

Anyway, enough of that soapbox. This is the second adjustment to speed limits on Texas highways since last September, when the nighttime minimum speed of 65 miles per hour was abolished. Kuff has more, including the obligatory Sammy Hagar video.

A bicycle superhighway

Transportation planners in Sweden are proposing a four-lane "bicycle freeway" between the cities of Lund and Malmö:
The proposed bicycle superhighway would, in addition to four lanes (2 in each direction) have exits but no intersections, two types of wind protection (low bushes as well as solid fencing), periodic bicycle service stations, and would take eight years to complete.

Total cost of the superhighway is estimated to be about 50 million Swedish crowns (US$ 7.1 million).

We already know that building bicycle infrastructure is magnitudes cheaper than building new car roads, and better for our health and our air quality. So, what will the first U.S. cities be to build this type of interurban?

I doubt Houston is going to be the first American city to build a bicycle superhighway, but this city has been making progress towards becoming more bike-friendly, with a growing network of bike trails (another segment will be opening this summer) and a bike-sharing program about to get underway. METRO put bike racks on all local buses several years ago, and the city's overall bike network is currently over 300 miles in length (map here; admittedly, the network relies heavily on on-street routes). Not too bad for a city that's not known for being a bicycle utopia, although there's always room for more progress.

But generally speaking, high-quality bicycle infrastructure like the Swedish bicycle freeway described above remains a fantasy in the United States. In my experience as a transportation planner, cycling is too often regarded as a recreational novelty rather than a legitimate form of transportation. Efforts to increase cycling are regularly met with excuses (e.g. it's too hot or too cold for people to cycle, bicycles get stolen too often, motorists will never tolerate the sharing of pavement with bikes, etc.), and attempts at providing amenities such as bike paths, bike lanes and bike racks are oftentimes regarded as frivolous wastes of money rather than the creation of useful infrastructure.

Which is unfortunate, given the fact that bicycles are an efficient and inexpensive means of transportation. They're pollution-free and they combat obesity. But until attitudes towards bicycling change here in the States, high-quality infrastructure like bicycle superhighways will only be seen on the other side of the Atlantic.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Renaming the Astros?

It appears to be under consideration:

New Astros owner Jim Crane unveiled some fan-friendly initiatives earlier today, including lower ticket prices, partial rebates for season ticket holders, lower concession prices and relaxed policies on outside food and beverage. While those are all well and good, they were overshadowed by some interesting comments about the team’s future as they prepare for a move to the American League next season.

According to the Associated Press, Crane indicated that they are currently mulling over changes to the uniforms and most interestingly, whether to change the team’s name.

My first response to this is: are you out of your mind, Crane? But John Royal of the Houston Press comes to a logical, if not highly qualified, defense of the proposal:
I'm not too thrilled by the prospect of a name change, but I can understand the thinking. When a product is as bad as the Astros, nothing is sacred. And with the Astros moving to a new league in 2013, and with a new owner and a new management team, why not go with a new name. It's like making a brand-new start.

That said, it's very, very doubtful that Crane changes the name of the team, new league, new start aside. But it does make sense to consider it, to study it. To find out just how damn damaged the brand really is because of the neglect and incompetence of the previous owner and management team.

Kuff is slightly less enthused:

I assure you, this will not go over well. Many people are already upset at the forthcoming change to the American League. Save yourself the money on the study.

Yes, I know, the team changed its name once, from the Colt .45s to the Astros, back in 1965. That was a long time ago, and it was a three-year-old franchise updating its name to fit a brand new, first of its kind stadium. That team had no history to leave behind, and the move into the Astrodome made the name change make sense. There’s no parallel here. Besides, the other time a team changed leagues, the Milwaukee Brewers kept their name.

I can see Royal's logic. Maybe the name is outdated: the team no longer plays in the Astrodome, the end of the Shuttle program has diminished the Johnson Space Center's role in the nation's space exploration program, and with the team switching leagues in 2013, maybe it is indeed time for a new start. And yes, maybe the brand has been tarnished by the club's recent struggles. But Kuff is also correct: there's no precedent for teams (that aren't relocating cities) doing this in modern MLB history (he provides the research), fans are already annoyed by the team's moving to the American League as it is, and the Astros name itself is unique (the same cannot be said for the name of the city's NFL franchise) and carries with it a lot of history.

I'd like to thank Mr. Crane for lowering ticket and beer prices and allowing fans to bring in their own food and water. I have no problems with a possible uniform change: the Astros have made many such changes throughout their history. And, if Jim Crane must, he can go ahead and undertake market surveys on how the "Astros" brand is regarded by local sports fans. But I think he'll find that, the team's recent struggles aside, it's a name that people in this city cherish and want to keep.

(UPDATE 1/30/2012: Jim Crane has apparently heeded fans' protests and decided against considering changing the team's name. I guess the backlash has shown him that the "Astros" brand still has tremendous value to local sports fans.)

What will Joe Paterno's legacy be?

Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum ponders it:
Paterno's final chapter should, by the hardbound terms of traditional journalism, begin with the tawdry story of (former assistant coach and alleged child molester Jerry) Sandusky, which colored -- nay, dominated -- the final three months of his life. But even most of those who have been critical (including me) of Paterno's failure to act when alerted about inappropriate behavior between Sandusky and an underage boy would agree that this extraordinary man deserves an obituary without mention of Sandusky, who is facing multiple charges of sexual abuse against children.
Alas, a Sandusky-less obit cannot happen. But put aside for a moment those last few tragic months and remember what Paterno meant to so many.
There's no denying Paterno's profound legacy as a college football coach: he spent 46 years at the head of Penn State's football program and in the process became the winningest coach in major college football history. His teams finished the season ranked in the top 5 of the AP poll 12 times, five of his teams were undefeated, and he won national championships in 1982 and 1986. He and his wife were philanthropists, donating $4 million back to Penn State. Paterno was a beloved figure to the Penn State community and an icon to the college football world in general. To belittle or to overlook all that he accomplished during his career simply because of the way it ended would be grossly unfair.
That being said, as McCallum glumly notes, a full accounting of Paterno's legacy cannot exclude his role in the child molestation scandal that eventually ended his career. By referring reports of Sandusky's alleged abuse to his superior, Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley, Paterno may have done what was legally required of him (in fairness, it should be noted that Curley is under indictment for his role in failing to pursue the matter, whereas Paterno was never accused of any criminal wrongdoing). However, given Paterno's own position of leadership, it's not unreasonable to have expected that he do more: he could have gone directly to the police with these allegations, or he could have followed up with Curley to see if they had investigated the matter any further, or, at the very least, he could have seen to it that Sandusky was no longer allowed access to Penn State facilities. Paterno has stated to the press that he wasn't sure how to handle the situation, that he "was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was," and that, in retrospect, he regretted not doing more. I take him at his word. But that doesn't excuse his failure to be more proactive in a matter as serious and as heinous as the possible sexual molestation of children.
Another college football legend, Ohio State's Woody Hayes, is remembered as much for his punching of an opposing player in the 1978 Gator Bowl as he is for his tremendous success as a head coach. Only time will tell if Paterno will indeed be remembered for the scandal that ended his coaching career as much as for the success he had during that career itself. I think the Chronicle's Jerome Solomon sums it up best:
After the scandal become public, Paterno described what he didn't do as one of the great sorrows of his life.
"In hindsight, I wish I had done more," he said.
We all do, JoePa. We all do.
But like all men have and will, Paterno fell short of perfection.
Though tens of thousands who worship the ground he coached on might have you believe otherwise, Joe Paterno was not a god.
(UPDATE: following the release of the Freeh Report and the imposition of NCAA sanctions on the Penn State football program, I have re-evaluated Paterno's legacy.)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Texans fall to Ravens in playoffs

Given how well the Texans otherwise played in their 13-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in yesterday's AFC Divisional playoff game, you can't help but think that, if the Texans had a healthy Matt Schaub at quarterback (instead of rookie T. J. Yates, who threw three interceptions) and didn't have bumbling moron Jacoby Jones at punt returner (his fumble of a punt early in the game set up an easy Baltimore score that proved to be the difference in the score), they might have actually won this game.

The Texans' defense was stout: they allowed only 11 first downs and 227 total yards to the Ravens, sacked Ravens QB Joe Flacco five times, and came up with a heroic goal-line stand that kept the score from getting out of hand. Running back Arian Foster, meanwhile, lit up the Ravens' run defense for 132 yards on 27 carries. But the four turnovers provided by Jones and Yates proved to be Houston's undoing. The Ravens go on to battle the New England Patriots in next week's AFC Championship game, with the winner going to the Superbowl. The Texans go home, their season over.

That being said, the long-suffering Texans franchise has a lot to be proud of this season. The team won their division and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in spite of season-ending injuries to the likes of Schaub and lineman Mario Williams and extended spells without Foster or wide receiver Andre Johnson, and a week ago they defeated Cincinnati to win their very first playoff game. That sets the team up for what could be an even more promising season in 2012.

Provided they stay healthy. And find somebody else to handle punt returns.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

2011 UH Football Attendance

One final item worth noting from now-concluded 2011 University of Houston football season is the program's average attendance:

(click to enlarge)

I was worried that, coming of a disappointing 5-7 season in 2010, there would be a drop-off from last year's average of 31,728 fans per game. But excitement generated by the return of Case Keenum as well as a twelve-game winning streak caused the fans to return in 2011, and the Coogs essentially equaled last year's draw with an average attendance of 31,731 fans per game. The Conference USA Championship Game against Southern Miss attracted 32,413 people, which was the largest crowd ever for a Cougar football game at Robertson. (Too bad they didn't get treated to a better game. Yes, I'm still bitter.)

The reason attendance didn't get any higher than that is simple: the Cougars have essentially maxed out their current capacity at 32,000-seat Robertson Stadium. To show this, I've added a gray line to the graph to show the capacity of the venue that the Cougars have played the majority of their home games in since 1965. It shows that the Astrodome, where the Cougars played their home games from 1965 through 1997, had a capacity of 50,000 until the venue's lighted scoreboard was ripped out to make room for more seats prior to the 1990 season. In 1997, the Cougars began playing most of their games in Robertson Stadium and moved there full-time the following year. The stadium originally sat 22,000 fans, but was expanded to a capacity of 32,000 in 1999. As the graph shows, the last two seasons the team's average attendance per game has met that capacity. The program has finally reached the point where it cannot accommodate any more fans in its current venue.

Plans for a larger stadium to replace Robertson have been on the drawing board for years, and yesterday the University of Houston took a major step towards that goal by releasing an official Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to architecture firms interested in designing the facility. The new stadium would have an initial capacity of 40,000, with provisions for future expansion, and construction would begin following the 2012 season.

There's no question that Cougar football needs a new stadium, not just one with more seats but also with better sightlines, amenities and luxury suites. But the biggest obstacle to the new stadium being built remains fundraising. To date only about $60 million of the estimated $120 million needed to construct the facility has been raised. A deal regarding a lead naming rights gift has yet to come to fruition, despite persistent rumors that it will happen soon.

That being said, the fact that the Coogs have maxed out their capacity in their current home is a good problem for the program to have. For so many years the team has struggled with poor attendance; one of the reasons the University of Houston left the Astrodome was that it was simply too large of a venue for the program. Winning and increased local interest in UH football have brought the fans back, and hopefully that trend will continue in the coming years as the program builds on its recent success and begins play in the Big East.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Wrapping up the 2011 college football season

The 2011 college football season came to an end last night with Alabama's 21-0 victory over LSU in the BCS National Championship Game. Kudos to the Crimson Tide; not only did I predict last September that Alabama would not be in the national title mix, but I was also among those who thought that Oklahoma State, rather than Alabama, was more worthy of facing LSU in the national title game. I was proven wrong on both counts. Although Oklahoma State fans might beg to differ, in terms of crowning a champion I think the BCS got it right this year.

Rounding out the top five in both the AP and Coaches' polls are LSU, Oklahoma State, Oregon and Arkansas.

The season also ended on a happy note for the University of Houston Cougars and new head coach Tony Levine. They convincingly defeated the Penn State Nittany Lions, 30-14, in the Bowl in Dallas last week. Case Keenum ended his college career with another record-setting day, completing 45 of 69 attempts for 538 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Penn State fell behind early - the Coogs were up 17-0 by the end of the first quarter - and the Lions' anemic offense simply couldn't catch up.

The naysayer might argue that Houston's victory over Penn State means little; that the Nittany Lions were unfocused after suffering through a devastating sex abuse scandal that resulted in the unceremonious firing of legendary coach Joe Paterno. However, the fact remains Penn State was ranked, had finished the regular season with a 9-3 record, and was a Big Ten powerhouse: one of the most historically-storied programs in all of college football. As the Houston Press's John Royal argues, this truly is a big win for the Coogs:

There will probably still be doubters. Those critics who say the Cougars season was a fluke. That they would have been demolished if they made a BCS Bowl. And the detractors will probably say this game proves nothing, what with all of the distractions going on around Penn State this season.

But the Cougars were beset by distractions this past month, too. And they set aside those distractions and played their game of the season, demolishing a ranked opponent before a national audience. They beat a squad that should have been able to dominate them physically, and probably had the better players, more highly recruited players.

It may just be the TicketCity Bowl, but the Cougars are winners. And they won this game without a single doubt. So criticize all you want because right now, the Cougars don't care. Instead, the question should probably be: How in the hell did Penn State manage to win nine games this season?

The Cougars ended the season ranked 18th in the AP poll, which is a pathetic travesty but which probably speaks to the fact that the national sportswriters were unimpressed by Houston's weak schedule as well as their crushing defeat at the hands of Southern Miss on national television. The coaches were a bit more generous, placing the Cougars 14th in the final USA Today poll, and I think that's probably more accurate. Regardless of their placement, the Cougars end their season with a national ranking for the first time since the 1990 season. The Coogs also end the season with 13 wins for the first time in school history (LSU was the only other program in major college football to do so this season) and a victory in a bowl game for only the second time since 1980.

It's true that no team ended the season with a winning record. It's also true that the Southern Miss team that handed he Coogs their only loss of the season was pretty good (the Golden Eagles ended the season with a 12-2 record, a bowl win of their own, a #20 ranking in the AP poll and a #19 ranking in the USA Today poll). Nevertheless, the Cougars and their fans will forever look back at last December's C-USA title game and wonder what could have been.

The North Texas Mean Green, under new head coach Dan McCarney, ended the season with a 5-7 record, which is a two-win improvement over the 2010 campaign. It's a step in the right direction.

Anyway, on to the offseason. Sigh...