Monday, January 31, 2022

The wildlife in Houston's bayous

What lurks in the waters of Houston's bayous? Watch this excellent video and find out:

Although the title says "downtown," most of this this video was shot along Brays Bayou near MacGregor Park and the University of Houston; you can clearly see the Bayou Oaks student housing complex, Moody Towers, and the Health and Biomedical Sciences buildings in the background. Some of this video was taken from along Brays Bayou underneath SH 288 as well.

The giant alligator gar was pulled out from a spot on south side of bayou, opposite the intersection of North MacGregor and Rockwood. I used to catch catfish from that general spot when I was a kid growing up in University Oaks. 

I always knew there were gar in that water as well, but (thankfully) I never managed to catch one!

Very cool.

Why transit agencies still need system maps

Transit consultant Jarrett Walker speaks to the importance of transit system maps:

As transit information tools have gotten better, some transit agencies have stopped offering a system map to the public.  Often, a website offers me trip planning software and route by route timetables, but not a map.  If it’s there, it’s often difficult to find.

I'm noticing this trend within the transit industry as well, and I am not a fan. There's just no substitute for a good system map that people can use to quickly understand and navigate a given agency's public transportation network.

Case in point: last month, as I planned our trip to Birmingham for the bowl game, I was looking for a good way to get from our hotel (near Five Points South) to Protective Stadium. A taxi or an Uber were always options, but I wanted to see if a bus was a viable choice because 1) it's cheaper and 2) I'm a public transportation geek. So I went to the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority's website to do some research. They did have an online trip planner, but in order to use it I had to type in both my hotel's and the stadium's addresses, which I didn't feel like looking up. So I moved on to their bus routes page to look for a map instead. There they had bus routes and schedules individually listed, but no overall system map. Which meant that I would have had to click through all of the routes until I found one that provided the service I needed, if it existed at all.

Walker continues: 

We think system maps are essential.  They’re not just for everyday navigation.  They’re for exploration and understanding.  Some people prefer narrative directions, but many people are spatial navigators, and they need maps.  They’ll understand details only if they can see the big picture.

Another way to think about system maps is that they show you where they could go, and how.  They give you a sense of possibility.  (It’s the informational dimension of access to opportunity.)  Maps also show visually how different services work together.  Finally, good system maps help people make better decisions about where to locate, or even where to build things.

To their credit, the BJCTA has published GTFS data for their bus network that applications like their own trip planner or Google Maps use to suggest directions. I ended up finding our hotel on Google Maps, and used that to determine that there was indeed a route that ran between our hotel and the stadium. I then went back to the BJCTA website to get its route and schedule information. It was convoluted, but it worked; we used the Magic City Connector bus to get to and from the bowl game without a problem. 

That said: while trip planning apps and GTFS feeds are definitely helpful in navigating a bus system, those should not serve as replacements for a well-designed transit map showing routes, stops, and major landmarks. Such a map would have allowed me to identify the bus route I wanted to use almost instantly, without having to click through individual route schedules or use a clunky trip planning app, or cross-reference using Google Maps. 

Given that Birmingham's bus network isn't particularly large, it shouldn't be difficult to design a good system map and place a link to it on the BJCTA web page. I'm sure I'm not the only one who would find it beneficial. Walker concludes:

But if a system map doesn’t exist, people can’t understand all that your transit system can do.


Examples of good (and bad) transit system maps can be found on

Friday, January 21, 2022

Frontier resumes services from Hobby Airport

Frontier Airlines just can't seem to make up its mind when it comes to serving Houston. They began operations to Bush Intercontinental sometime in the aughts, but in 2010 shifted operations to Hobby. Then, less than two years later, they moved their operations back to IAH. Fast forward a decade, and now the Denver-based "ultra low cost carrier" has apparently decided that two airports are better than one:

Houstonians in search of a low-cost option to jet away for vacation or a long weekend now have a new option. Low-fare carrier Frontier Airlines has just announced three nonstop routes from William P. Hobby Airport to Cancun, Las Vegas, and Orlando, Florida with fares starting at $39.

This is new service from Hobby — Frontier currently offers flights from George Bush Intercontinental Airport — and thus gives Houstonians more warm-weather destination choices.

Dubbed “Low Fares Done Right,” the promotion offers:

  • Cancun (CUN); three times weekly; service starts May 26: fares start at $79
  • Las Vegas (LAS); four times weekly; service starts May 27: fares start at $59
  • Orlando (MCO); four times weekly; service starts at May 27; fares start at $39 

This particular fare promotion ends January 24th, but given that they are directly competing with Southwest on all three of these leisure destination routes, one can probably expect Frontier's standard fares to be competitive as well. It's interesting to note that, as of right now, Frontier is not going head-to-head with Southwest on the Hobby-Denver route, as they did between 2010 and 2012. They will continue their service to Denver and a handful of other airports out of IAH:

Currently, Frontier offers regular flights to Atlanta, Denver, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Philadelphia from Bush.

“We’re excited to expand in Houston and add William P. Hobby Airport to our route map with three nonstop routes beginning this May,” said Josh Flyr, vice president of network and operational design, in a statement. “We look forward to launching service at HOU and bringing increased air service competition to the market.”

Game on. The Points Guy and Simple Flying have more.

UH wins and attendance, 2021

Time to update the graph:

The Cougars averaged 25,073 fans per game over their five home games during the 2021 season, which is just under 500 fans/game fewer than their 2019 average.* 

While this is still an attendance decline, it is not nearly as precipitous as the declines in attendance that the program experienced from the 2016 season through 2019 season. Furthermore, coming off a ranked, bowl-winning season, I would expect attendance to increase in 2022.

(Had the Texas Tech game at NRG Stadium counted as a home game, the Coogs' average attendance would have been 28, 141. This is why I am not a huge fan of UH Athletics agreeing to move their marquee home games to NRG Stadium, even though I'm sure it comes with a nice check.)

* Right now, I'm showing attendance for the COVID-affected 2020 season, along with the attendant decrease in stadium capacity that was in effect that season. I may revisit how to show the 2020 season - or even omit it entirely - in future graphs.

RIP Ron Franklin

Another local broadcasting legend has passed away:

Ron Franklin, who spent nearly 20 years as a prominent voice on the Houston sports scene before rising to national prominence with ESPN, died Tuesday at the age of 79.

Franklin worked 24 years at ESPN, primarily as a play-by-play announcer for college football and college basketball. He was the voice of ESPN’s prime-time college football game from 1987 to 2005 before moving over to ESPN on ABC to call primarily Big 12 games.

Before ESPN, Franklin was the sports director at KHOU Channel 11 from 1971 to 1980 before moving over to KPRC Channel 2 where he stayed until joining ESPN in 1987.

Franklin was, along with anchor Ron Stone and meteorologist Doug Johnson, part of the KPRC news team I grew up watching on a nightly basis in the 1980s. His decision to join ESPN in 1987 may have come as a surprise, as that network was still relatively young and did not dominate the sports landscape the way it does today, but it clearly worked out well for him. That is, until his career at ESPN ended in controversy:
Franklin's run at ESPN came to an end during the 2010 college football bowl season when Franklin allegedly called sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards “sweet baby” during a production meeting, then called her an expletive after she objected. Franklin was fired by ESPN after the incident.
In addition to his local news duties, Franklin also spent much time as the play-by-play commentator for the Houston Oilers and for University of Texas athletics. Tributes from his former KPRC co-workers can be read here

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Cougars defeat Auburn in TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl, end season ranked #17

The Houston Cougars ended the 2021 football season on a high note two weeks ago by defeating the Auburn Tigers in Birmingham, 17-13. The bowl victory results in a 12-2 season for the Coogs, as well as a #17 ranking in both the AP and Coaches polls. 

The Good: QB Clayton Tune passed for 283 yards and two touchdowns: one to Alton McCaskill on the first series of the game, and another to Jake Herslow in the fourth quarter to take the lead for good. Although he didn't score any touchdowns, Nathaniel Dell was clutch his 150-yard receiving performance that included four third down conversions and one fourth down conversion. Kicker Dalton Witherspoon contributed by nailing a 52-yard field goal. 

But this game was a defensive struggle, so praise must be given to a Cougar defense that flustered Auburn's offense all afternoon. They allowed only one touchdown, recorded seven tackles for loss, and limited the Tigers to 4 of 15 third-down conversion attempts and only one of three fourth down conversion attempts. 

The Bad: The Cougars threw two interceptions and otherwise sputtered at times, scoring only three points in the second and third quarters and converting only 6 of 14 third-down conversion attempts. The UH defense forced no turnovers of their own and had trouble containing Auburn RB Tank Bigsby, who amassed a combined 164 rushing and receiving yards. In fact, Auburn might actually had won the game if they had kept giving the ball to Bigsby instead of trying to pass the ball on short-yardage situations.

The Stupid: One of Houston's two interceptions was the result of a gimmick play whereby Tune lateraled to TE Seth Green, who then attempted to throw back to Tune in double coverage. That kind of trickery was completely unnecessary in a grind-it-out game such as this. Fortunately, Auburn could not convert either of its interceptions into points.

The Pleasantly Surprising: Auburn fans. Given that we were in "enemy territory" - the crowd was easily 90% Auburn - we were ready to receive some heckling, if not outright hostility, from the opposing fans. However,  every Auburn fan we encountered was very nice. They asked us sincere questions about our quarterback and our schedule, and they all congratulated us afterwards. Very classy!

What it means: Yes, Auburn had a bunch of players missing due to injury, opt-out, or (in two cases during the game) ejections for targeting. Yes, the Coogs may have gotten a little bit of help from the refs (an obvious intentional grounding call on Tune was ignored). Yes, Auburn might have made things easier on Houston by insisting on passing the ball when it would have made more sense to give it to Bigsby. But none of that should detract from the fact that the Cougars defeated an SEC blueblood, despite giving up two turnovers, in front of what was basically a home Auburn crowd. This win was a huge accomplishment for the program and an excellent end to a surprisingly good season.

With the win, the Cougars snap a four-game bowl losing streak; they are now 12-16-1 all-time in bowl games. They end the season ranked for only the 15th time in program history and as one of only two Texas teams to be ranked. And they rather convincingly blew my preseason prediction of a 7-5 season out of the water.

Underdog Dynasty's Steve Helwick recaps the bowl game and assigns end-of-season grades to the Cougars.  Dave Campbell's Texas Football provides its own review of the Coogs' 2021 season and suggests that "Houston should be considered the favorite to win the AAC in 2022." ESPN's Mark Schlabach ranks UH #13 on his "way too early" top 25 for 2022, and Paper City's Chris Baldwin sums things up thus

For now, UH beating an SEC team in its own homeland is another important step forward. Soon, it just might be expected.

Houston will begin the 2022 season in San Antonio, when they face the UTSA Roadrunners in the Alamodome on Labor Day weekend. The full 2022 schedule should be out within the next couple of months. 

Finally, congratulations to Georgia for winning their first national championship since 1980.