Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Rolex of transit, the logic of Houston's sprawl, millennials seek community, interactive flood risk map, and more

Apologies again for the growing delays between posts - it's been a busy summer with a lot of travel.  Getting on to our new items:
"With many major urban areas seeing ridership decline by 20 to 40 percent in the last few years, however, transit agencies are desperate for new ideas that can recapture some of those lost riders. The changes they will make, however, are most likely to be too little, too late.

On close scrutiny, Houston’s story isn’t as compelling as some claim. In 2012, Houston buses carried 66.1 million trips. After revamping the system, they carried 68.6 million in 2013. So far, so good. But by 2015, the number had fallen to 66.5 million, and in 2017 it was 66.4 million — barely 1 percent above the 2012 level. One reason for the 2015 decline was that Houston opened new light-rail lines that year, which no doubt captured some previous bus riders. But, if anything, the real story is that bus ridership hasn’t declined as much since 2012 as it has in other cities such as Los Angeles.

Houston’s real problem was that it built light rail in the first place. In 2002, as it was starting light-rail construction, buses carried 94 million riders. After the light rail opened in 2004, bus plus rail together beat the 2002 number for three years. Then ridership began to collapse, falling to 77 million in 2010, possibly due to a 12 percent decline in bus service. With the revamp of bus routes and opening of new rail lines, ridership grew to 85 million trips in 2017 — which is still 9 percent fewer than bus alone in 2002.

But that growth is mainly due to the new light-rail lines. Since 2012, light-rail service has nearly quadrupled from 0.9 million to 3.4 million vehicle-revenue miles. For all that, they got a 65 percent increase in light-rail ridership. From 2012 to 2017, bus vehicle-revenue miles grew by 5 percent, but ridership grew by only 1 percent — and bus ridership in 2017 was less than in any year from 1984 through 2011. Since Harris County’s population grew by 9 percent between 2012 and 2017, a 1 percent growth in bus ridership is hardly something to cheer about."


Well, worth cheering about relative to other transit agencies, but Metro and others are certainly facing some daunting headwinds. Here's to hoping they ride the new technology wave with their new plan instead of fighting - or ignoring - it.

Finally, I wanted to share this super-cool National Geographic award-winning pic from Hong Kong really conveying the density there! (click on it for full size)

Labels: , , , , , ,

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Why LA tourism is exploding and might help Houston too, flood overregulation, Houston and transit, and more

Some good items this week:
"Houston is one of the few regions where transit ridership is still growing. From 2012 to 2017, when San Antonio ridership declined by 23 percent, Houston ridership grew by 7 percent. In the first four months of 2018, when San Antonio ridership fell another 3.2 percent, it grew by 3.5 percent in Houston. (Houston’s market share still declined despite ridership growth because ridership didn’t grow as fast as driving.) 
Houston’s success appears to be due to a major reorganization of bus routes. Instead of operating buses on a hub-and-spoke system focused on downtown, Houston rerouted them into a grid system. Since most jobs are no longer located downtown, a grid bus network allows more people to get to work with fewer transfers and out-of-the-way trips. 
Houston’s success is not a complete victory. Houston-area transit ridership was much higher before the 2008 recession than it is today. Ridership peaked in 2007 at more than 102 million trips per year; in 2017, it was just 89 million trips per year."
"It ain’t the heat here, Bourdain realized, it’s the humanity."
Finally this week, an older item I'm finally getting around to from the LA Times: Los Angeles, Houston and the appeal of the hard-to-read city:
"Houston is casually written off even more often than Los Angeles, which is saying something. Now the fourth largest city in the country in population — and gaining on third-place Chicago — it's an unruly place in terms of its urbanism, a place that (as Los Angeles once did) has room, or makes room, for a wide spectrum of architectural production, from the innovative to the ugly.
Roughly one in four residents of Houston's Harris County is foreign-born, a rate nearly as high as those in New York and Los Angeles. Houston's relationship with Dallas, the third biggest city in Texas, is something like L.A.'s with San Francisco; the southern city in each pair is less decorous, less fixed in its civic identity and (at the moment, at least) entirely more vital."
Speaking of LA, an observation that came out of my recent vacation there.  It relates to this Cranky Flier post showing the dramatic increase in LAX traffic from 2009 to 2017, growing by more than 50% (!) in those 8 years. Why? My hypothesis: before the smartphone (circa 2007), vacationing in a city like LA was pretty nontrivial, involving a rent car in a large unfamiliar city and a lot of paper maps and planning - unlike New York, DC, San Francisco, London, Paris, Rome, and other older, more concentrated tourist cities with subway transit where you can just show up and figure it out without too much trouble.  But now with a smartphone, LA is a whole lot easier to "wing it" on vacation: driving and exploring, finding good restaurants on Yelp or tourist attractions in TripAdvisor and navigating there easily (avoiding traffic!) with Google Maps or Waze.  I think people have discovered this and LA has become a significantly more popular tourist destination.  Maybe Houston will do the same on a smaller scale??

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Sunday, June 03, 2018

The real reasons Amazon didn't shortlist Houston for HQ2, urbanism doesn't reduce transportation costs, your TX right to AirBnB, and more

I'd like to open my post this week on Houston's hand-wringing over not being shortlisted for the Amazon HQ2. Now while I'm all for improving the city, and am excited about the new developments in the "innovation corridor" that might have been at least partially sparked by the rejection, we need to get some clarity on the real reasons Amazon didn't shortlist us (IMHO), and it's not because we're not good enough:
  1. They don't want to compete with the energy industry for talent, especially when oil might spike to unknown highs at any time.  At the end of the day, Amazon runs a pretty thin-margin business built on tech talent, and if the energy companies poach their talent whenever they're swiming in cash from high oil prices - or make them pay that talent more to keep them - it will destroy those margins. Not an option.
  2. They didn't want to be seen as squeezing Houston for incentives while it's recovering from Harvey. That would definitely look very, very bad from a PR perspective.
As I've mentioned before, I ultimately think they're angling to end up in the DC area, mainly because there is a plentiful supply of underpaid and demotivated government tech talent there they can easily poach.

Moving on to this week's items:
"Perhaps the paper’s significance was best summed up by Smart’s mother, who was apparently unfazed by its somewhat surprising conclusion. “She was like, ‘Of course,’” Smart recalled. “’Everyone loves cars. It doesn’t matter where you live.’”
"The reason is simple — cars are vastly superior to alternatives for the vast majority of individuals and circumstances.  Automobiles have far greater and more flexible passenger- and cargo-carrying capacities than transit. They allow direct, point-to-point service, unlike transit. They allow self-scheduling rather than requiring advance planning. They save time, especially time spent waiting, which surveys find transit riders find far more onerous. They have far better multi-stop trip capability. They offer a safer, more comfortable, more controllable environment, from the seats to the temperature to the music to the company.
The superiority of automobiles doesn’t stop at the obvious, either. They expand workers’ access to jobs and educational opportunities, increase productivity and incomes, improve purchasing choices, lower consumer prices and widen social options. Trying to inconvenience people out of their cars also undermines those major benefits.

Cars’ allow decreased commuting times if not hamstrung, providing workers access to far more potential jobs and training possibilities. That improves worker-employer matches, with expanded productivity raising workers’ incomes as well as benefiting employers. One study found that 10 percent faster travel raised worker productivity by 3 percent, and increasing from 3 mph walking speed to 30 mph driving is a 900 percent increase. In a similar vein, a Harvard analysis found that for those lacking high-school diplomas, owning a car increased monthly earnings by $1,100.
As Randal O’Toole noted: “Anyone who prefers not to drive can find neighborhoods … where they can walk to stores that offer a limited selection of high-priced goods, enjoy limited recreation and social opportunities, and take slow public transit vehicles to some but not all regional employment centers, the same as many Americans did in 1920. But the automobile provides people with far more benefits and opportunities than they could ever have without it.”

Labels: , , , , , ,

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Houston Stronger Resiliency Conference Thursday May 31st

I've been working with this organization for a while and am a strong supporter.  This is an absolute no-brainer for Harris County taxpayers: every dollar we approve here has the potential to be matched 9-to-1 by the federal government for desperately needed flood-control infrastructure.

From their press release:
Houston Stronger, a new community advocacy group, will hold a symposium on May 31st at 2:00 p.m. at Houston Community College’s West Houston Institute, 2811 Hayes Road to promote resiliency efforts in the Houston region. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett will kick off the program.

“Many organizations in our region started talking about how our community should respond after Hurricane Harvey,” said John Moody, Chairman of the West Houston Association and one of Houston Stronger’s organizers.

“Houston Stronger formed to bring these different community voices together and ensure that our region is better prepared for the next storm” said Karen Becerra, another Houston Stronger organizer and President of the Houston Chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors.

“Sims Bayou was the only major channel that did not overtop its banks during Hurricane Harvey because of recent improvements. This $390 million investment enabled Sims to handle a 100-year storm event, and the Harris County Flood Control District concluded that the enhancements paid for themselves in Harvey alone,” said Becerra.

A team of engineers volunteering for Houston Stronger estimates the cost to provide 100-year storm protection in all of Harris County’s major watersheds is $35 billion. While the price tag is a large one, investing in infrastructure saves taxpayers’ money in the long run. Two recent studies, including one cited by the Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, have concluded that government saves over five dollars in services for every dollar it spends on resiliency infrastructure.

Regarding federal funding, Congress has allocated more than $141 billion to help Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and 20 other states address emergency response and resiliency expenses from storms in 2017. In order to be eligible to receive these dollars, local governments are required to provide matching funds.

Harris County has called for and the Governor has approved a special election for August 25 for voter approval on bond funding that would provide the required local match for much-needed flood control projects. The date coincides with the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey.

Houston Stronger estimates that Harris County is likely to need approval for a bond of at least $2.5 billion to receive federal funds to support buyouts, channel improvements, and other resiliency projects to bring 100-year storm protection to the other 21 major watersheds in Harris County. Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson estimates that to pay for $2.5 billion in bonds, homeowners could pay as an estimated 5 cents per $100 value in taxes.

For more information about Houston Stronger and to register for the May 31st event go to


Monday, May 14, 2018

The genius of Houston deed restrictions, micro-transit solution to rail fail, tech to end traffic, top rankings and more

My featured item this week is another in Nolan Gray's excellent series at Market Urbanism on Houston's unique and free market land-use regulationThe Case for Subsidizing Deed Restrictions, which Houston does with a City legal department enforcing them.  Highly recommend reading the whole thing, but he ends with this great conclusion:
"This is the genius of Houston’s unique system: Let those with strong preferences for tight restrictions have them and the city as a whole can go on operating under a largely liberal land-use regime. There is a valuable lesson here for other cities: when attempting to liberalize land-use regulations, consider strengthening the private (subdivision deed restrictions) and public (stricter local rules subject to local consensus) mechanisms whereby the most powerful opponents of liberalization can simply opt out. Houston figured this out in 1965 and again deployed this strategy to great effect in the 1998 subdivision regulation overhaul. In relationships as in city planning, sometimes you have to give a little to get a little."
Hear hear! Moving on to this week's items:
"In the meantime think about this.  What could we have done instead with the $2.2 billion that was spent on light rail?  The answer is lots.  Like solving most of our flooding problem or resurfacing virtually every street in the street in the City or repairing our dilapidated wastewater system or putting more police officers on the streets or demolishing some of the thousands of dangerous buildings in the City or any one of dozens of other critical priorities facing the City. 
The question is not whether light rail is a good thing or not.  The question is whether it was the best use of $2.2 billion of taxpayer money.  The answer to that question is pretty clearly, “No.”
"According to the American Public Transportation Association, the average speed of rapid rail (a.k.a. heavy rail) is just 20 mph, while the average speed of rapid bus is less than 11 mph. 
According to the 2016 National Transit Database, the nation’s fastest heavy-rail line is BART, which averages 35 mph. Atlanta’s is 31 and Washington’s is 27, while New York City subways average just 18 mph. Considering that most transit riders also have to take time getting to and from transit stations, none of these can compete effectively with door-to-door driving, which in San Antonio averages 33 mph."
"For decades, cities have overseen transit monopolies that use heavy infrastructure, fixed routes and set schedules, under the premise that these will spur surrounding growth. And in many cities, they have. But thanks to the rise of the gig economy, workers often find themselves making multiple trips in a given day, and public transit has proven inflexible — unable to get them from point A to point B in a timely manner, or at all. As a result, even densifying cities have seen declining ridership. 
Contrast that with private transit, which has grown in success by pursuing “microtransit.” This model stresses malleable routes, on-demand service, smaller vehicles and minimal brick-and-mortar infrastructure. Companies include the bus services Via and Chariot; the ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft; and the bike-share services Zagster and LimeBike. Their flexibility lets them locate where demand exists, rather than counting on populations to come to them.
Indeed, these new microtransit companies could increase the flexibility of  transit, creating systems that are complicated yet smart, not orderly but dumb."
Finally, building on last week's post, it turns out that not only does Houston employ more people inside its city limits than larger city Chicago, it even employs more than much larger Los Angeles!  Reasons: I'd guess good annexation and multiple major job centers. Again hat tip and graphics credit to George.  Click to enlarge.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Solving the Corps' reservoir dirt problem, HTX vs. NYC apts, HTX > Chicago, transit's expensive demise, Houston's hilarious "end of the universe", and more

Before jumping into this week's items, an idea:  The Army Corps of Engineers wants to dig out Addicks and Barker reservoirs deeper so they can hold more water, but they're not sure what to do with the dirt.  How about using it to elevate the new high-speed rail line to Dallas, which has to be grade-separated anyway?  Please pass along if you know anyone with the Corps or Texas Central.  Idea credit to Patrick.

Moving on to this week's items:
"Fares paid by riders cover only about a quarter of these costs.  That means taxpayers who do not ride transit are spending over $50 billion per year to subsidize those who do.  In 2017, trips on transit were less than 1% of the total daily trips taken by Americans.  That works out to the 99% of Americans that don't use transit paying about $160 per year for the 1% that do.  The value to the 1% who ride transit is about $14,000 per year."
But it is clear that we are in the midst of a technological revolution in transportation.  The most important thing is that we don't spend a lot of money on inflexible infrastructure.   I suspect that in the not too distant future, we are going to look back on our light rail experiment in Houston as the City's worst ever white elephant."
  • Houston has more people employed in city limits than Chicago! Hat tip and graphics credit to George.  Click to enlarge.

Finally, to end on a little humor: I've actually had this item ready to post for a long time, but read that Lewis Black was in town last weekend to do some stand-up (KUHF story link) which reminded me.  Here's his (locally) famous bit about the Starbucks across the street from a Starbucks in River Oaks being the "end of the universe".  It's hilarious, and he doesn't even mention the *third* Starbucks next door inside the Barnes and Noble! ;-D

(If the embeded video below fails to play, go here)

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Why Houston does NOT have "basically zoning" with deed restrictions+permitting, Austin's foolish transit plan vs. Houston's wisdom, and more

I want to kick off this week with an excellent piece by Nolan Gray at Market Urbanism explaining why Houston does not "basically have zoning" with our deed restrictions and permitting.  He really gets the details right on how things work here and how flexible Houston is with our adaptive land use.  It also has a stat I hadn't seen before estimating that less than 25% of the city has deed restrictions, allowing the other 75% to pretty freely adapt.  There is too much great stuff in it to adequately summarize here, so definitely read the whole thing. But I will share the concluding paragraphs:
"Siegan concludes his discussion of this topic by perceptively noting that zoning implicitly tries to answer two very difficult questions:
  1. What is the extent of protection to which property owners are entitled?
  2. What powers should existing residents have to exclude other people and things from the municipality?
Zoning addresses these questions using an opaque political process in which certain privileged special interests—namely homeowners—may impose their particular preferences across all time. Houston’s deed restrictions, on the other hand, are constantly rediscovering the answers to these questions. It all comes back to consumer preferences: if consumers desire things like large lots and ample off-street parking and are willing to pay more for the extra land, developers will respond by bidding up the land and implementing tight deed restrictions. If they either don’t want these restrictions, or aren’t willing to pay more for them, developers might still build the houses but with deed restrictions that allow for smaller lots, higher lot coverage, or certain complimentary commercial uses. 
In this way, the process of identifying the optimal mix of land-use regulation is a dynamic discovery process, subject to ongoing changes in local conditions. As the costs of zoning stasis in cities like San Francisco become clearer, the value of understanding Houston’s uniquely dynamic system of deed restrictions only rises."
Moving on to some smaller items this week:
"If Capital Metro were serious about relieving congestion, it wouldn’t propose light rail, which typically carries about a quarter as many people per day as an urban freeway lane yet costs five to ten times as much per mile to build."
While the jury is still out, some people believe that Houston has managed to avoid the huge ridership declines suffered in Austin, Charlotte, and other cities because it restructured its bus routes to a grid system rather than a hub-and-spoke system centered on downtown."

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Houston beats Portland for urban density, what CA and others can learn from HTX, top rankings for IAH, licensing reform, and more

A couple of personal items before getting to this week's stories: I spoke at a Chapman University conference in Orange County, CA last week on What California can learn from Houston in addressing its housing crisis, and here's the paper I presented.  Got a few hostile questions (Houston and Texas are not so popular in California, lol), but nothing I couldn't handle. Certainly created some buzz/discussion over the course of the day.  Related story: California's housing crisis reaches from the homeless to the middle class — but it's still almost impossible to fix. Hat tip to Jay.

And a funny story: came across these stories in my newsfeeds, thought they sounded familiar, then realized they're older posts of mine being republished at the Market Urbanism Report, lol! (with permission, of course)  Just glad to see the ideas spread.
Moving on to this week's items:
1st most-improved in US (7th in the world)
1st in North America for best airport dining (7th in the world)
3rd overall in US
5th overall in North America
48th overall in world 
Finally, Scott Beyer has an excellent piece at Market Urbanism debating whether Houston or Portland is doing urban density better:
"So which metro area–Houston or Portland–is doing urban density better? In the objective sense, Houston is, by fitting in more people. Subjectively, it depends on one’s tastes. Portland’s dedication to historic preservation, low-rise, so-called tasteful development, and pedestrian orientation is indeed charming. The core area feels like a slightly bigger version of an antiquated liberal arts college town, where the pace of life is slow and the people are intentionally offbeat. The fact that this sits amid the backdrop of cloudy skies and evergreen-covered hills gives the place an ethereal quality. 
Houston, meanwhile, is too busy urbanizing to even try and achieve this pretension. It is building upward, outward, and everything in-between–and is doing so rapidly and unapologetically, with the metro area population increasing since 2010 by 852,054, compared to 208,946 in Portland. This has made Houston, inside and outside of its core, a completely different place than Portland: more grandiose, vertical, diverse, global, monied and in your face. Indeed, there is an extent to which Houston, with its large gleaming skyscrapers and overt street-level multiculturalism, almost makes Portland feel like a cow town
This is not to say that one is obligated to like–much less live in–either Houston or Portland. But it does make a statement about markets versus planning, in respect to urbanization. If people want cities–as many Americans seem to–they should embrace growth, markets and deregulation; it they want “towns”, they should embrace planning, regulation and a collaborative process that allows community interests to navel-gaze about every last land-use decision. 
I certainly know what type of place I’d rather live in."
Hear, hear!

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,