Sunday, January 19, 2020

Deadbeat student discovers that actions have consequences

I didn't even know "parking barnacles" were a thing until I saw this story:
A University of Houston student’s tweet expressing frustration about the hefty price to remove a clamp the school placed on her car’s windshield has gone viral. 
The tweet, posted Wednesday by a student identifying herself as babayaga, Friday had received more than 2,800 retweets, 12,000 likes and 1,300 comments, both supportive and critical. 
“$920 to get this removed,” the student tweeted with a sad face emoji. “All bc the university doesn’t have enough permits available nor parking options that are affordable for students that already pay to attend the University. Everyone send a dollar my way.”
Look, I get it: parking has been an issue at the University of Houston ever since I was a student there almost three decades ago. The university has tried to increase parking capacity by building garages. They've also increased student housing options in order to encourage more kids to live on campus and avoid the parking problem altogether. But at a school that by its nature has a large commuter student population, finding a place to put your car while you go to class remains an issue.

That being said, my sympathy for this student evaporated when I read further:
UH spokesman Chris Stipes and Neil Hart, head of the university’s parking and transportation services, emphasized that barnacles — the bright yellow, plastic immobilization devices that suction to vehicle windshields with up to 1,000 pounds of force and block the view of the driver — are only used on the cars of habitual offenders of parking protocols.
"Habitual offenders" being the key phrase there.
UH’s barnacle devices, implemented in early December 2019 as a way to deter parking violators and simplify fining processes, are only used for cars consistently parked on campus without a permit and with five or more existing citations, according to the spokesmen. To date, 37 cars have been barnacled, with the violators receiving an average of nine citations for parking without a permit. 
“When somebody is parking illegally and doesn’t have a permit, they’re taking a space from someone else who has paid,” Stipes said. “This is a deterrent against that. We don’t have free parking on campus.” 
In the past, the university would tow the vehicle, a process that costs more time and money.
So in other words, this person did not possess a valid parking permit, parked on campus illegally multiple times, finally had this "barnacle" contraption attached to her windshield, and is now upset with the school and is asking strangers for money to remove the device. Entitled much?

When you park your car on campus without a permit, you are essentially committing theft because you are taking a space away from somebody who has purchased a valid permit. And while parking permits might not be cheap, there are other options for getting to class if you have trouble affording one. You can park remotely, you can carpool with a student, and you can even (gasp!) use public transportation, which is available to UH students at a discount.

You're in college now. You can solve this problem without being a deadbeat, and without resorting to whining and begging for social media to help you fix the problem you caused.

Fare-free public transportation is still a bad idea

If public transportation is, as its name implies, a public good, and if farebox revenues typically cover only a small amount of a typical transit agency's operating costs, then why not just make public transportation free for everyone to use? More people might be encouraged to get out of their cars and use transit if it were free, and the economic barrier to low-income people who need it the most would be eliminated.

It's a well-intentioned idea that has been around for as long as public transportation has existed, and transit agencies around the country give it a try from time to time. Kansas City, Missouri is the latest city to experiment with fare-free public transit, and there was a suggestion to make public transportation free here in Houston as well. However, that does not appear likely to happen:
After a comprehensive analysis by Metropolitan Transit Authority staff, transit board members said removing fares from the system actually would increase agency costs by creating a need for more buses and operators, potentially to the tune of $170.6 million annually.

"It is just not feasible to do free fares," Metro board member Jim Robinson said, echoing others on the board and in the transit agency.

Proponents argue transit use would skyrocket and reduce overall traffic volumes if transit was free. Riding also would be easier, they say, because buses and trains could open front and rear doors for boarding without the need for users to stop and pay fares. 
Metro's analysis concluded that ridership would jump from 86 million trips a year to an estimated 117 million if fares were eliminated altogether. Even offering free rides only during peak hours could boost ridership to around 100 million, the study found. 
Those new riders, however, would come at a big cost, said Julie Fernandez, the transit agency's lead management analyst. To handle the demand, Metro would need nearly 500 more vehicles, mostly buses, and 415 new operators. Such a sizable jump in vehicles and employees would require the agency to build a new bus operating facility to complement the existing six bus depots. 
Even preparing the transit system for free rides would take four years, Fernandez said, adding, "it takes time to order new buses." 
The cost of going free prompted many Metro board officials to conclude it was not likely.
It's possible that, as they considered the effects of fareless transit service, METRO staff took a look at lessons learned from another Texas transit agency that experimented with free fares: Capital Metro in Austin in 1989 and 1990. That experiment did not go well, a former Cap Metro dispatcher explains, because it created a host of problems that were costly to solve. "[B]y the time it was over our customers, operators, union, public, police and transit staff were begging for it to end," he says:
Guess what? With free fare, you will need more bus operators. Yes, even with existing capacity on your buses you will need more staff. This is because your newly gained riders won’t conveniently fill the buses during off-peak times when seats are available. They’ll crowd out your regular commuters and local passengers during the afternoon peak. Your system will be overwhelmed during the weekday afternoon peak because this is when everyone likes to ride.
Cap Metro didn't just have to find new bus operators, either; they also needed more security:
Security services will have to be expanded because incidents will increase. Operator staffing requirements will increase exactly at the time attrition increases. Field Supervisory requirements will increase as problems multiply. Why? More people, more problems. More medical emergencies (seizures and falls), more theft, more sex crimes, more lost children and elderly, more drunks, more fights, more operator assaults, more service interruptions. You’ll have to increase street presence of supervisory personnel, which come from the bus operator ranks, increasing attrition even more. You may want to reorg to put superintendent-level personnel in the field to supervise the supervisors. Oh, and you may have to hire more staff in the customer service (complaints) department as your system reliability rapidly declines and complaints skyrocket.
Reliability is a critical aspect of transit service:
Reliability will take a huge hit. Just because your system is free does not mean customers will forgive poor service. Making a bus system wonderful does not mean making it free. Customers want reliability and safety and are willing to pay for it. 
As ridership grows the number of passengers at the bus stop increases. This increases dwell time at the bus stop. Already it is taking longer to get to your destination. This compounds over the length of the route. The longer and busier the route, the greater the impact. This is extremely difficult to schedule properly as morning and afternoon travel times will vary greatly. Anticipating free fare ridership growth and service impact six months in advance is challenging. In the meantime, on-time performance will decline precipitously. As the bus drags down it affects the next assignment for the operator. All these negative effects focus pressure on the afternoon peak. Everything gets later until we reach the highest peak travel time of the day. Trips will be lost as operators try to get to the terminal with full buses. Stops are bypassed in the final quarter of the route as capacity is reached. Some passengers are bypassed by two buses. Adjusting schedules lengthens service hours, conflicting with union work rules and maximum drive times, ultimately requiring more operators.
The end result for Austin was that fare-free public transportation ended up hurting the very riders it was supposed to help: it made buses overcrowded, less safe, and less reliable. While this isn't to say the same thing would happen in Houston, given enough time to plan and prepare, or that it will happen in Kansas City (which carries only a fraction of riders as Houston's network), it is a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of good intentions.

All that aside, my misgivings about fareless public transit remain the same today as they were when I wrote about it a decade ago: it reduces revenues which in turn could lead to service cuts, it allows buses and trains to become rolling hangouts for people who aren't actually "going anywhere," and it deprives the system's actual users of any sense of stakeholdership:
Even if it is mostly subsidized through tax revenues, the fact that a fare is being collected gives transit's actual users a special sense of ownership of the system because they pay for the service twice: once through taxes and again through fares. That, in turn, empowers them to hold the agency accountable for things like shelters that are clean or buses that run on time. Eliminate fares and the user becomes no more of an "owner" of the system than the public at large. This reduces or eliminates entirely the rider's sense of empowerment and leads to a lack of respect for riders' needs. Service quality degrades, and people are discouraged from using the system.
There are good discussions to be had about targeted fare reductions (e.g. for students, or during ozone action days), or about how much of an agency's operating revenues should be covered through the farebox (METRO's $1.25 one-way base fare hasn't been increased in years, despite inflation). But eliminating all fares on a large public transportation network such as METRO's would likely create more problems than it solved and hurt the people who depend on it the most to get around. 

It will be interesting to see how things work out for Kansas City.

Kuff, who has been similarly skeptical, has covered this discussion here, here and here.

Friday, January 17, 2020

It's tough being a Houston sports fan

Well, I said I was unlikely to post again until after the wedding, but then last Sunday and Monday Houston had to go and have the worst 48 hours in its (already generally miserable) sports history.

First, the Texans.
The Texans authored their own galling chapter in Houston’s tortured NFL history Sunday, blowing a 24-point lead en route to a 51-31 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in an AFC divisional-round playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
With roughly 40 minutes to go and a 24-0 lead, the Texans seemed primed to host the AFC Championship Game next week in Houston’s first visit to the NFL’s final four since the Oilers did it 40 years ago.
Instead, the city’s long-suffering football fans were given another crushing defeat to bookend the 1992 AFC wild-card game in which the Oilers blew a 35-3 second-half lead and lost 41-38 in overtime at Buffalo. Sunday's Chiefs comeback tied for the fourth-biggest in NFL postseason history. The Chiefs also became the first team to win a playoff game by 20 or more points after trailing by 20-plus points.
There was a time when such a miserable, choking performance would have sent me into an obscenity-shouting, fist-pounding, chair-throwing, door-slamming rage. But I could only laugh as I watched Sunday afternoon's meltdown. In fact, I could see it coming as soon as the Texans, just one minute after having gone up 24-0, allowed the Chiefs to score the first of what would turn out to be six consecutive touchdowns.

Much, if not all, of the blame for this loss is rightfully being placed at the feet of head coach Bill O'Brien. He's the one who made stupid in-game decisions (e.g. not going for it from fourth-and-a-foot at Kansas City's 13, but later attempting a ridiculous fake punt on fourth-and-four from Houston's own 31), he's the one who failed to refocus the team or otherwise make adjustments at halftime when the Texans were reeling from 28 unanswered Chiefs points, and he's the one who continues to employ the ineffective fossil Romeo Crennel as his defensive coordinator. (He's also, in addition to being the head coach, the team's de-facto general manager.) The buck stops with Bill O'Brien.

Alas, last Sunday's epic chokejob - once again, I need to update my list - is just another example of O'Brien's ceiling: "the most easily identifiable ceiling of any head coach in the NFL." He will never lead this team to an AFC Championship Game, let alone the Super Bowl. He's simply not good enough. As long as he's at the helm, massive letdowns like last Sunday's are going to be the rule.

While the obvious solution would be for O'Brien to be let go, that's not going to happen. As long as he keeps winning the AFC South, as long as he gets the Texans to the postseason, as long as Texans fans continue to pack NRG Stadium and buy their merchandise and make the McNair family money, he isn't going anywhere. Even if he did, it probably wouldn't make much of a difference as long as its fanbase continues to accept the franchise's culture of paralyzing mediocrity:
As a big time fan of this woebegone organization you have a right, even a responsibility, to demand better; not just with your voices but with your wallets. Next time you fill up the call-in lines of local sports to talk about the depth at offensive line, consider the alternatives. Maybe if the only fans who showed up to Texans games were wearing bags like they used to do at the Astrodome for the Oilers, the message will finally get through to the people who make the decisions. Maybe it will convince them enough is enough.
I really feel bad for guys like J. J. Watt, who really deserve better than to see their entire careers be wasted because they were stuck with the Houston Texans.

Then, the Astros.
Astros owner Jim Crane fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow on Monday shortly after Major League Baseball announced the pair would be suspended for a year as part of the penalties for the investigation into alleged electronic-sign stealing. 
"Today is a very difficult day for the Houston Astros," Astros owner Jim Crane said in a press conference Monday. "MLB did a very thorough investigation and the Astros fully cooperated and we accept their decisions and findings and penalties." 
The franchise also was stripped of its first- and second-round picks in both the 2020 and 2021 drafts and fined $5 million. 
MLB's report detailed the Astros' efforts to steal signs in 2017 and laid out the punishment handed down to the Astros. Crane opted to go a step further. 
"I have higher standards for the city and the franchise," Crane said.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred determined that the Astros were using cameras to spy upon and decipher opponents' pitching signs during the 2017 season - the season they won the World Series - and then relaying pitch information to batters by banging on a trash can in the dugout. The full statement on his investigation into the sign-stealing scheme is here. Key quote:
Some Astros players told my investigators that they did not believe the sign-stealing scheme was effective, and it was more distracting than useful to hitters. I am neither in a position to evaluate whether the scheme helped Astros hitters (who were unquestionably a very talented group), nor whether it helped the Astros win any games. There are so many factors that impact the outcome of games that addressing that issue would require rank speculation. But for purposes of my decision, regardless of whether the scheme was effective or not, it violated the rules and, at a minimum, created the appearance of unfairness, and for that, it necessitates severe discipline.
Even though we don't know if the Astros truly benefitted from the scheme, the simple fact that they cheated nevertheless casts a pall over their 2017 World Series title that will never be erased. Astros fans such as Chris Kyle rightfully feel betrayed:
This whole scandal has been akin to a crisis of faith for me. It has literally changed my behavior. I have made the conscious decision not to wear my 2017 World Series champs sweatshirt into public because I don’t want to get razzed for it, especially not when in the company of 6-year-old daughter. I can only imagine how much worse this situation would be if she were actually interested in baseball and I had to explain the cheating scandal to her directly. As it is, I no longer encourage her to wear her Astros shirts or cap to school like I used to.
This betrayal, furthermore, extends beyond Astros fans themselves and affects an entire city - one which was recovering from Hurricane Harvey when the Astros won that now-asterisked title - as Jeff Balke explains:
Now, in a scandal some are mentioning in the same breath with the Black Sox, the Astros have forever tainted their 2017 World Series win. That's reality. You may as well accept that is going to be the opinion of virtually everyone, including some Astros fans. The same fate likely awaits the Boston Red Sox and their 2018 title, but they have other championships to fall back on. We don't. While the Astros didn't have their championship vacated, the luster on that trophy is forever smudged. 
And Houston suffers.
I myself had a magical experience from that 2017 World Series, one that feels much less magical today than it did just a few days ago. I'm very disappointed in this team, and while I'm not prepared to say I'm no longer an Astros fan - that's not something that you can just discard after fortysomething years - I can't say I'm particularly enthused about them right now, either. I'm pretty sure I'm the only fan who feels this way, and I think there are going to be a lot of empty seats at Minute Maid this summer, regardless of how many games the Astros win.

The sign-stealing scandal also cost the jobs of Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora and New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran - a pitching coach and a player on the 2017 Astros team, respectively, who were specifically implicated by Manfred for their role in the scheme. There are also conspiracy theories regarding the Astros using electronic devices to cheat in 2019, even though the MLB investigation found no evidence that the Astros were engaged in illegal activity after the 2018 season. But this is to be expected: if you cheat once, you're considered a cheater forever.

And finally, the Cougars.
University of Houston quarterback D’Eriq King announced Monday night that he plans to enter the transfer portal. 
“I think it’s best for me and my family,” King wrote on Twitter. 
King announced Sept. 23 that he would take advantage of the NCAA’s four-game redshirt rule with the intention to return to UH for the 2020 season. 
A source said King has been on campus several times in the past week and participated in team activities upon returning for the spring semester. Classes resumed Monday. 
King did not list potential destinations, although there has been speculation he could transfer to Miami or rejoin former UH offensive coordinator Kendal Briles at Arkansas.
To be sure, I anticipated that this would happen from the moment he announced that he would sit out the rest of the 2019 season. I nevertheless held out hope that he would stick around, and am annoyed with his dishonesty in the matter: by insinuating that he was going to stick around for 2020 and that reports of him transferring were "fake news," he misled his fellow players as well as his coaches.

Ryan Monceaux reports that the redshirt ruse may have been orchestrated by D'Eriq's father, Eric:
Now that King has decided to leave, GoCoogs can reveal information we’ve known since that time: the “plan” to redshirt King did not originate with Dana Holgorsen nor was it first discussed on the day after the Tulane game. The plan originated with Eric King himself. 
According to two sources, Eric King contacted UH AD Chris Pezman in the days before the Tulane game to inform him that if UH lost to Tulane, D’Eriq would “shut it down” and redshirt the rest of the season. One of our sources insisted we not release the info unless King decided to enter the portal.
D'Eriq King might not have been the best quarterback to put on a UH jersey, and he might not have been the best fit for Dana Holgorsen's offense. But he was definitely the most athletic quarterback on the UH roster and the 2020 UH offense would certainly have been better with him on it. Dana Holgorsen and his Cougars now face what will be a very tough 2020 season with a huge question mark behind center.

Fred Faour says that these three developments have revealed Houston's sports identity to the nation as one featuring "liars, cheats and hypocrites:"
The city's teams are finally getting national run. Whether or not it is for good reasons in immaterial. Houston is in the national spotlight. If you are a fan, all you can do is embrace the liars, cheats and hypocrites, and roll with it. And wait for the Rockets to find a way to make news.
You mean the same Rockets who dropped back-to-back games this week? Like I said: it's tough being a Houston sports fan.

But there's always hope for the future: maybe the Roughnecks will make us all feel better!