Monday, February 23, 2015

TX doomed to repeat CA mistakes? plus tops for affluence and food, first class buses, densification, and more

First this week, an event announcement: on Thursday March 12th, our new Center for Opportunity Urbanism will have it's inaugural event - "TEXAS…DOOMED TO REPEAT CALIFORNIA’S MISTAKES?", a luncheon event featuring speaker David Friedman, a California land use attorney, with yours truly serving on a panel after the keynote. Here's the description:
California’s tough environmental rules and planning represent the wave of the future to many planners and pundits, as well as to large parts of the federal government. The goal is to rein in “sprawl,” based largely on questionable environmental and urban design considerations California consciously seeks to impose a high-density, transit-focused future on the residents of the state. 
But California’s policies do not just affect Californians. Many federal agencies, including the EPA and US Fish and Wildlife Service, have embraced the Golden State’s regulations on climate change, wetland and endangered species protection, as role models to be adopted nationally. As California-style regulations diffuse through the federal government, Texas business could soon be subject to many of the same programs and policies. 
In this unique program, the Center for Opportunity Urbanism has invited David Friedman, a leading California land use attorney, to discuss the evolution of California land use and environmental regulation. California’s current regulatory programs were largely invented in the 1970s, when the state’s impressive job creation and economic opportunities made it the Texas of that era. By 1990, however, the California economy increasingly came to resemble the slower growing northeastern and upper Midwestern states, albeit with still-significant population growth. 
Dr. Friedman, who holds a PhD in political economy from MIT, will explain the social and economic impacts these regulations have had on the people of the state. He will also discuss how EPA and other federal agencies, as well as changing demographics and political pressure, could bring similar policies to Texas and the greater Houston area.
Dr. Friedman’s talk will be followed by an insightful panel discussion, moderated by the Center’s executive director Joel Kotkin, that includes Architect Tim Cisneros, Houston Developer Walter Mischer, Senior Fellow and urban demographer Wendell Cox and Senior Fellow and Houston Strategies blogger Tory Gattis.
Details here - hope to see you there!

Moving on to this week's smaller miscellaneous items:
"HOUSTON — If you set out to visit the nation's most diverse city — one with world-class dining, a flourishing arts scene, top-tier academic institutions and an influx of job-hungry college graduates — you'd be forgiven for setting your sights on New York City. 
You'd also be mistaken. 
But Houston, the city in question, would forgive you. That's just the kind of place she is. 
Over the past decade, the USA's fourth-largest city has quietly become not just a powerhouse of intellect and culture in Texas, but a major player on the world stage. The Bayou City's economic boom and urban renaissance have made Houston not just a magnet for travelers, but a permanent residence for many casual visitors."
  • Little news item I caught in a recent issue of Surface Transportation Innovations:
"In addition to services to more cities by Megabus, Red Coach, and other express carriers in 2014, at least two new luxury operators began service. Vonlane began first-class nonstop service between Austin and Dallas and Houston. Their buses have only 16 seats, an onboard attendant serving drinks and snacks, and a private six-seat boardroom. Vonlane partners with hotels in each of its cities. " 
I've never seen them or tried them - if you have, I'd love to hear about it in the comments. Their web site has nice pics, but only seems to be showing Dallas-Austin right now.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Texas is America's America, what stupid rail looks like, Millenials love the city and the suburbs, and more

This weeks misc items:
"Transit agencies are spending millions of dollars on new rail infrastructure that is no faster than existing bus service, simply because riders perceive a train as better than a bus. 
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed AirTrain link from La Guardia Airport in New York could be the latest example. It might cost $450 million or it might be more like $1 billion — the M.T.A. head Tom Prendergast wavered between the figures in a public hearing last month — but either way, from most places in New York City, it won’t be faster than taking existing bus service to the airport, because it will run southeast from the airport, away from Manhattan. 
In California, Bay Area Rapid Transit spent nearly half a billion dollars to build a three-mile rail connector to the airport in Oakland, which opened last year; it saves about 3,000 daily riders four minutes over the shuttle bus service it replaced. Atlanta’s downtown streetcar loop was a relative bargain at $100 million; unfortunately, Rebecca Burns, a writer at Atlanta magazine, took it to work for a week and found it was slower than walking. Washington’s shiny new streetcars, expected to serve 1,500 riders a day along H Street Northeast, are slowing the bus service that already serves 12,000 daily riders on that road."
"But in my mind, the biggest asset of Texas is Texans. Having spent a great deal a time there, the contrasts with my adopted home state of California are remarkable. No businessperson I spoke to in Houston or Dallas is even remotely contemplating a move elsewhere; Houstonians often brag about how they survived the ‘80s bust, wearing those hard times as a badge of honor. 
To be sure, Texans can be obnoxiously arrogant about their state, and have a peculiar talent for a kind of braggadocio that drives other Americans a bit crazy. But they are also our greatest regional asset, the one big state where America remains America, if only more so."
"Most Americans are happy with their commutes and would be willing to trade off even longer commutes in order to live in more desirable housing, according to a survey by YouGov. Moreover, the detailed results indicate that these preferences are almost as strong among 18-29 year olds as among older age classes. "
  • Citing county growth, Emmett seeks 'new model of urban governance'.  He raises a lot of good issues in his annual State of the County speech.  He also reiterated support for the ULI Astrodome plan, details of which are supposed to come out in a report soon.  They're hopeful it can be at least partially ready for the 2017 Super Bowl at Reliant, which is aggressive but would be awesome. 
Finally in the funny-but-kinda-pathetic media department, this short piece by Outside magazine on the Astrodome plan.  First, it claims the plan is by "Texas environmentalists" when it was a national Urban Land Institute panel.  Later, it mentions city councilors being split on the plan, when it has nothing to do with the City of Houston - it will be decided by Harris County Commissioners Court.  But then there's the real gem: "Voters narrowly rejected a 2013 referendum to convert the stadium into a convention center, largely due to a $217 billion bond price tag." Lol! Yep, our plan was to spend the equivalent of half of the national defense budget on revamping the dome!  That would be over $48,000 per citizen of the county! (think it would involve a tax increase?) As much as I'd like to see that plan (which I'm assuming involved a new solid gold coating), even I'd vote against that one!  Do they even have editors over there?  Or writers that do any fact checking at all?

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Monday, February 09, 2015

The great 21st-century disruption of autonomous vehicles, home searching by commute time, rail costs, world urbanization, and more

I wanted to post this week on the new general plan Houston is developing, but I'm going to hold off another week or two until the new general plan web site is up.  Instead, we'll clear out some more of the smaller miscellaneous items...
And there's a slew of items about the radical transportation revolution barreling towards us.  First, Uber has launched UberPool, which enables super-cheap dynamic ride sharing (hat tip to Phil).  They're also hiring from Carnegie Mellon and creating their own R-and-D facility to create self-driving cars.  The autonomous taxi is coming very soon, and it will revolutionize cities and transit.  This description of the next decade with autonomous vehicles will absolutely blow your mind.  It will be one of the most disruptive technologies of the century, including the potential loss of up to *10 million* jobs.  I do think he might be a bit excessive in his prediction of everyone switching from car ownership to on-demand autonomous taxis.  I recently visited my brother in California, and his family lives out of their mini-van - there's no way they'd switch.  There's just too much stuff that they always keep handy in their mini-van.  Families in general may not want to get too far from car ownership.  And then there's people who just want a personal status symbol - an autonomous taxi just won't do.  So I don't agree with his prediction of the collapse of the automotive industry.  But extremely disruptive? Absolutely.  Read the whole thing.  Here's a couple of my favorite excerpts:
"A Columbia University study suggested that with a fleet of just 9,000 autonomous cars, Uber could replace every taxi cab in New York City – passengers would wait an average of 36 seconds for a ride that costs about $0.50 per mile. Such convenience and low cost will make car ownership inconceivable, and autonomous, on-demand taxis – the ‘transportation cloud’ – will quickly become dominant form of transportation – displacing far more than just car ownership, it will take the majority of users away from public transportation as well.  ... 
Morgan Stanley estimates that a 90% reduction in crashes would save nearly 30,000 lives and prevent 2.12 million injuries annually. Driverless cars do not need to park – vehicles cruising the street looking for parking spots account for an astounding 30% of city traffic, not to mention that eliminating curbside parking adds two extra lanes of capacity to many city streets. Traffic will become nonexistent, saving each US commuter 38 hours every year – nearly a full work week. As parking lots and garages, car dealerships, and bus stations become obsolete, tens of millions of square feet of available prime real estate will spur explosive metropolitan development."

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Sunday, February 01, 2015

Announcing the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, new rankings, downtown tunnels, The Texas Miracle, and more

I apologize for the lack of posts the last couple of weeks - I was traveling in California.  But I'm back with a very big announcement.  As of January, the Center for Opportunity Urbanism - a national think tank - has been established in Houston with Joel Kotkin as its Managing Director and myself and Wendell Cox as Founding Senior Fellows!  This is really exciting, as it gives our Opportunity Urbanism work (scroll down to Independent Research here) a permanent home and allows us to continue the work and promote it around the country and the world.  As most of you know, we consider Houston to be the exemplar city of Opportunity Urbanism, and are really looking forward to promoting the Houston model to other cities.  Stay tuned for announcements about future events and publications - in the meantime, you can read more about the Center here.

Moving on to some smaller miscellaneous items from the backlog...
Finally, I'd like to end with some Houston excerpts from Joel Kotkin's newest piece in The Daily Beast "Why We Need More Lunchpail Liberals And Fewer Limousine Liberals: Blue state tech and clean energy economies sound nice, but they don’t do much for manufacturing, construction, or farming, and the real losers are middle-class Americans"
"Even in Houston, some academics hail the impending “collapse of the oil industrial economy,” even as they urge city leaders to compete with places like San Francisco for the much ballyhooed “creative class.” Yet University of Houston economist Bill Gilmer notes that low energy prices are driving tens of billions of new investment at the port and on the industrial east side of the city. This growth, he suggests, may help offset some of the inevitable losses in the more white collar side of the energy complex."
In contrast, the recoveries in the middle part of the country have been, to date, more egalitarian, with incomes rising quickly among a broader number of workers. At the same time, minority incomes in cities such as Houston, Dallas, Miami, and Phoenix tend be far higher, when compared to the incomes of Anglos, than they do in places like San Francisco, New York, or Boston. In these opportunity cities, minority homeownership—a clear demarcation of middle income aspiration—is often twice as high as it is in the epicenters of the ephemeral economy.
Under current circumstances, the centers of the ephemeral economy such as New York or San Francisco cannot accommodate large numbers of upwardly mobile people, particularly families. These, for better or worse, have been vast gated communities that are too expensive, and too economically narrow, to accommodate most people, except those with either inherited money or elite educations. This is why Texas—which has created roughly eight times as many jobs as California since 2007 and has accounted for nearly one-third of all GDP growth since the crash—remains a beacon of opportunity, and the preferred place for migrants, a slot that used to belong to the Golden State."

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Our #1 rankings, Houston getting travel plaudits, accessing edge city jobs, and more

Big backlog of small items to clear out...
"In fact, while much is made of rail bias, 45-foot commuter motorcoaches which directly link low-income suburbs with suburban employment may be perceived as higher-status than a rail-station “shuttle bus,” which is almost invariably the sort of cutaway-chassis affair that is usually associated with paratransit. If it’s good enough for Google, it oughtta be good enough for you."
"While fashioning a modern “adventure park” in an old facility presents technical challenges, it’s not unprecedented. In Detroit, the Globe Building, built in 1892 as a riverfront manufacturing hub, re-opened as the Outdoor Adventure Center, operated by the state’s Department of National Resources. In Pittsburgh, an 80,000-square-foot building that once housed a metal fabrication company, was transformed into The Wheel Mill, an indoor bike park."
"Yep, these days the Bayou City is cropping up more and more on travelers’ “let’s check it out” list. In 2014, for the first time ever, Houston ranked among the top five places in the United States on Travel + Leisure magazine’s list of America’s Favorite Cities. The city also grabbed the number 12 spot in TripAdvisor’s Top Travelers’ Choice Awards in 2014, jumping 13 places in one year. 
What’s the draw? Shopping, arts, entertainment, and food. The fourth-largest city in the nation is the South’s most stylish destination, with glitzy mega malls, premium outlet centers, and hundreds of up-to-the-moment fashion boutiques. The Downtown Theater District spans some 17 blocks, and the city boasts resident companies in ballet, opera, symphony and theater. The Museum District has 19 institutions within a 1.5-mile radius, including the renowned Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (with a proposed new wing in the works), the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and the Houston Zoo, which will open the $29 million Gorillas of the African Forest exhibit in spring 2015. The $1.5 billion downtown redevelopment, in anticipation of hosting Super Bowl 2017, has already brought in a slew of new restaurants and bars. The influx adds to an already dynamic, nationally recognized culinary scene showcasing the city’s rich, cultural diversity. And, the ongoing renovation and extension of rail lines is making it a lot easier to get around the fast-growing, sprawling metropolis. Then, there are the festivals, rodeos, and BBQ cook-offs. This energetic, cash-infused city knows how to spend money and throw a party."
"Don't get us wrong: Traveler enjoys a long weekend in Austin as much as the next guy. But if Austin is the hipster-cool college party of Texas, Houston is the adult dinner party where we prefer to be wined and dined. Is Houston the new "it" city?, we asked in September—it seems that way, with plenty of hip places to eat, stay, and play in the bustling Texas city."

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Sunday, January 04, 2015

Life is better in red states, plus smart greenways, stupid rail, rising suburbia, reducing crime, and more

Happy new year everyone.  Unfortunately I'm going to have to open up the new year on a negative note with a take-down of a pretty absurd op-ed in the Chronicle today essentially calling for a multi-billion dollar commuter rail and monorail plan as well as aggressive land use regulation to go with it. In a world where the consensus is that the 2020s will have self-driving cars and incredibly affordable autonomous taxis that all together improve road capacity as much as 4x, why would any city in its right mind invest billions of dollars over decades to install old rail technology?  Especially a city with jobs spread over multiple decentralized job centers instead of concentrated in a single downtown?  In the meantime, he never explains what's wrong with our vast and cost-effective HOV lane network and express park-and-ride buses, or why we should just chuck that system for far more expensive and less flexible rail.  An express bus can get in the express lanes and go to any job center, as well as circulate there to get people to their buildings and keep them out of the weather - rail can only go to one destination, and it can't circulate when it gets there.  And when it comes to the land-use regulation to force dense development near transit stops: the LA Times looked at the data and found people in transit-oriented developments don't really shift their trips from cars to transit all that much.

And one more thing: I'm going to have to quibble with his estimate that we'll add 3.5 million people over the next 15 years to our existing 6.6m.  Sorry, we're growing fast, but not nearly that fast.  The GHP estimates our growth at between 1.5m and 2.7m over that time.  It will be all Metro's budget can do to just buy enough express buses to keep up with that growth, much less scrap the whole system and go to a multi-billion dollar commuter rail system of any kind.

Moving on to some smaller miscellaneous items this week:
Finally, I really like Jay Crossley's Neighborhood Greenways concept with the caveat that it focus on a grid of low volume residential streets - not our already strained arterials.  I think it's been a mistake in the past when we've lost critical arterial lanes to bike lanes nobody wants to use because they've got too much fast traffic all around them.  Be sure to check out the cool pics, graphics and maps.

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 Highlights

Time for the annual hike down memory lane for 2014, wrapping up the 10th year of this blog (official anniversary coming up in March). These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument; and, last but not least, they've also been invaluable for me to track down some of my best thinking for meetings or when requested by others (as is the ever-helpful Google search).

Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly once/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box in the right sidebar. An RSS feed link is also available in the right sidebar.

As always, thanks for your readership.

And from 1H2014:
And don't forget the highlights from the first few years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging) and most definitely in the 5th birthday retrospective and the best of the first 1,000.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Thoughts on ULI's bold Astrodome proposal

My own snapshot of the old grey lady on a rainy day as I left the ULI event.
Longtime readers know I've talked a lot about the Astrodome over the years, with my own thoughts on the indoor park idea here.  Yesterday I was able to attend a 10-member ULI panel presentation at NRG/Reliant Park on their proposal for what to do with the Astrodome.  This panel consisted entirely of experts from outside of Houston (so no conflicts of interest), and they were surprisingly enthusiastic in their recommendation to save and re-purpose the dome.  This was not a presentation of, "well, if the all the stars line up you might be able to make this work."  The theme was more, "this is an absolutely incredible opportunity and you would be fools to not seize it."  In fact, Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh, was the anchor speaker and threw down the gauntlet, challenging us to step up to the plate, think big, and make this happen (you can see some of his speech in this KHOU Ch11 video).  He said they see way too many cities with "it'll-do disease" where they're not willing to think big, but just do enough to get by at the lowest possible cost, and it would be a tragedy if Houston went down that path here (it certainly would be a break from our big thinking past, from the ship channel to the Astrodome to NASA).  His recommendation: lock all of the relevant players (including the Texans and Rodeo) in a room with a strong local leader and don't let them out until they come to a consensus on the plan!

I'm not going to go a lot here into the details of the proposal they labeled a "Grand Civic Space" - the Chronicle and CultureMap have that well covered, including a supportive quote from me in the front page Chronicle story.  The complete presentation slide deck has also been posted online here.  Here are my thoughts on aspects of it:
  • Brilliant putting 1,500 to 2,000 parking spaces in two levels at the bottom of the dome's bowl, which makes it a lot easier to sell to the Texans and Rodeo.  In general, they said they bent over backwards trying to accommodate their needs, as well as the OTC.
  • They smartly called for refreshing the different tenet agreements at NRG Park, rather than just trying to stay within their limits that never envisioned re-purposing the dome.
  • Clever idea of making a good part of the interior green space removable like the turf trays at NRG Stadium. That allows it to be converted to hard floor space for events like the OTC, or a dirt floor for the Rodeo.
  • They did look at using it for fixed-seating concerts/events, but determined there were already plenty of venues in Houston for that, so that functionality was not included.  There certainly may still be concerts in there, but they will be more of the festival lawn variety.
  • They very explicitly did not recommend a replacement for the NRG/Reliant Arena, whose functionality they believe can be included inside the revamped Astrodome.  Boom - $150 million saved right there!  That may give the Rodeo a little heartburn, but - as I've said before - it's the right call.
  • In any discussions of finances for this, that $150 million savings of an Arena replacement should absolutely be factored in, including communications with the public.  They mentioned a ballpark potential cost number of $200 to $300 million (a bargain compared to similar scale projects elsewhere, they said), which means the Arena savings gets us more than halfway there!
  • They believe it might be possible for operating costs to be covered by revenues, so it won't be an ongoing burden.  The capital costs are the trickier part, although they laid out a lot of options there.
Overall it was far better than I had hoped or expected.  I'm looking forward to their complete report in 2-3 months, but hope the Judge Emmett and the County don't wait that long to get the ball rolling - we've only got two years until the Super Bowl and the eyes of the world are upon us.  If Brown and Root could build Rice Stadium in one year in 1950, then we should be able to do amazing things with the Astrodome in two - we just have to think big and get cracking!

Update: A video of the complete ULI panel presentation has now been posted online here.