Monday, March 18, 2019

MaX Lanes win, #1 for millennials, traffic better than you think, our resilient culture, NYT eats here, and more

A lot of new items this week:
"By contrast, the biggest winner is Houston, a metro area that many planners and urban theorists regard with contempt. The Bayou City gained nearly 15,000 millennials net last year, while other big gainers included Dallas–Fort Worth and Austin, which gained 12,700 and 9,000, respectively. Last year, according to a Texas realtors report, a net 22,000 Californians moved to the Lone Star State."
"I want to call your attention to a new (not yet published) paper on the subject by researchers from Cornell University and McGill University. “A Comprehensive Welfare Impact Analysis for Road Expansion Projects” uses transportation data from the Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area to compare, quantitatively, the effects of four possible highway expansion options (in addition to doing nothing): adding a general purpose (GP) lane, adding a high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane, adding a priced ETL (electronic toll lane), or converting all lanes to conventional toll lanes. The priced ETL ranked highest in both regional economic impact and improving system-wide travel time, and was judged to produce the greatest increase in overall social welfare."
Finally, if you're looking for a high-impact charity to support, I was recently introduced to the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, which does an absolutely amazing job mentoring Texas prisoners back into successful lives after prison (check out the results here).  If you want to learn more, check out one of their events. Hat tip to Jay, one of their top volunteers.

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Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Houston energy salaries vs. tech and others

This week's guest post is from Oscar Slotboom:
Tuesday the Wall Street Journal published an interactive chart with the most recent median salary data as reported by publicly-traded U.S. companies.

It's a fascinating interactive tool, but most interesting is the amazingly high pay of the energy industry. Below is a screenshot where I added annotations of many energy firms with headquarters or large operations in Houston (click to enlarge)

The median salary of the energy industry is $115,700, vastly higher than the #2 industry technology, which comes in at $75,000. However, there is a strange cluster of very low paid jobs on the technology plot, maybe offshore jobs, which pushes the technology median lower. Nevertheless, the energy scatter is clearly well above the technology scatter and the finance scatter.

Of course, Houston is an energy industry hub and we have a high percentage of those high-paying energy jobs, with many large Houston employers clustering at the high end of the chart. Houston has achieved the holy grail of many employers with high pay, an affordable cost of living, and very large total employment at the high-paying firms with ExxonMobil, Anadarko, ConocoPhillips, Phillips 66, EOG Resources and Chevron.

Below is a tabular list of selected large firms in Houston and outside Houston

HoustonOutside Houston
Carrizo Oil & Gas $191,131 Facebook SV $240,430
Phillips 66 $170,988 Broadcom SV $202,915
Exxon Mobil $161,562 Alphabet (Google) SV $197,274
Anadarko $160,251 Netflix SV $183,304
ConocoPhillips $158,943 Microsoft Seattle $167,689
EOG Resources $146,016 Twitter SF $161,860
Chevron $137,849 Goldman Sachs NYC $135,165

Other energy firms with large blue-collar field workforces and large professional staff in Houston also come in above the tech average, with Halliburton at $79,636 and Schlumberger at $75,134.

Looking at the charts, we can see that only the most upper-tier tech firms equal or exceed Houston's large energy employers, and finance firms in the high-paying range appear to be smaller boutique firms which have lower numbers of employees compared to big firms.

While this is an excellent position for Houston, there is also cause for concern since Houston's high-paying cluster is entirely oil and gas, and therefore vulnerable to advancing green technology and government action. The Green New Deal promoted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seeks to make electricity generation 100% zero-emission and "[overhaul] transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible" (ref). This would destroy demand for fossil fuel energy in the U.S. and do very serious damage to the existing energy industry and Houston's high-paying job base. "New energy" jobs in wind, solar and energy storage really don't offer much hope. The wind power industry is already well-established and is mostly foreign with only one U.S. player, General Electric. Solar panel manufacturing is totally dominated by China, and China is positioning to totally dominate battery manufacturing.

So, this all leads to the conclusion that, from the economic and jobs perspective, it is in Houston's best interest for the oil and gas industry to have the longest possible remaining longevity. Maybe everyone with a stake in Houston's high-paying energy industry (companies, shareholders, State of Texas) should be more actively looking at ways for oil and gas to exist in a future with environmentalists holding more political power and battery prices dropping. For example, more participation in research for carbon capture technology.

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Monday, February 25, 2019

Fixing Houston's branding, hail-mary save for CA HSR, cautionary Chicago, learning from OKC, and more

A random thought before getting to this week's items: you know what might save the California high-speed rail white elephant recently dramatically downsized by the governor? Uber drone rides from the SF and LA metros to the new Merced and Bakersfield endpoints, respectively (ideally extended to be a bit closer, maybe Pleasanton and Palmdale).  I know it sounds a little crazy, but they might be closer to reality than you think, and the total price and travel time could be very competitive with airports if neither your origin nor destination are near airports.  Doesn't mean this thing hasn't been a gigantic waste of taxpayer money, but this solution might scrape together some value out of the boondoggle...

Moving on to this week's items:
  • Let's take a moment to be very, very thankful we're not the fiscal wreck of Chicago, and make a commitment that we never want to let Houston fall into the same hole. Some would argue we've already started down the same slippery slope :-( 
"Chicagoans are suffocating under unfunded debt liabilities from every level of government totaling $130 billion."
That's $48k of unfunded debt per person in the city, or almost $200k per household of four!! How many families would buy a house in Chicago knowing it came with an extra $200k debt attached to it?!
"It’s curious that while every company tries its hardest to convince you of how much different and better it is than every other company in its industry, every city tries its hardest to convince you it’s exactly the same as every other city that’s conventionally considered cool. 
Look at any piece of city marketing material, from promo videos to airline magazine ad inserts. It’s amazing how so many of them rely on the same basic ingredients: hipster coffee shops, microbreweries, bike lanes, creative-class members, startups, intimations of a fashion scene, farm-to-table restaurants, new downtown streetcars, etc. 
These are all good things, mind you: things cities should be happy to have. Some of them may even be modern necessities. But you can’t help but notice how few unique things about these cities manage to come through. A video from the Greater Houston Partnership, for example, shows outdoor art, bicyclists, a live music performance, and a light-rail train going by—but nothing about oil or energy. Except for some references to the space program, little else about the incredible uniqueness of Houston comes through.
Atlanta and Houston are major cities with strong identities. They are much more than a collection of generic urban elements. Why cities with great identities and heritages of their own so seldom lead with them is something of a mystery." 
The solution? Here's my suggestion.
Finally, Oklahoma City has a really innovative model for public funding of civic amenities that Houston should strongly consider.
"There is reason to take pause at such public works programs, and the general idea of attracting outside capital through industrial policy. It can lead to misappropriated resources, which in other cities have, in fact, included convention centers and streetcars. But there’s something reassuring about the way Oklahoma City does MAPS. The projects, for whatever one may think of them, are at least chosen and funded by residents themselves. And they are delivered low-cost and debt-free, providing more bang for the buck."

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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Why Houston is the best city in Texas and #1 attracting young adults, HTX vs. NYC opportunity zones, and more

Lots of good items this week:
"However, what I propose is that the high cost of airport connectors is not because the elite spends money on itself. Rather, it’s because many ordinary middle-class people fly a few times a year and wish for better airport transit, without thinking very hard about the costs and benefits. An airport connector appeals to a very wide section of the population, and may be very cheap if we divide the cost not by the number of daily users but by the number of unique annual users. Hence, it’s easier for politicians to support it, in a way they wouldn’t support an excessively costly subway line connecting a few residential neighborhoods to the city."
Finally I wanted to end with this great excerpt from Scott at the Market Urbanism Report on why Houston is the best city in Texas. I'm even quoted in this one!  Here's the summary quote I tweeted:
"Houston is easily my favorite Texas city, because it combines the best aspects of the other three... I prefer density over sprawl, big over small, new over old, and diversity over monoculture." 
And here's the more extensive excerpt:


"Houston is easily my favorite Texas city, because it combines the best aspects of the other three. The metro area is similar in size to Dallas, and has the same rapid growth, ethnic diversity, and global feel. In fact, Dallas and Houston sit alone together as America’s foremost boomtowns, each growing by more than 144,000 last year throughout the metro area (the third place MSA, Atlanta, grew by a mere 95,000). But, like San Antonio and Austin, Houston has remained more tasteful than Dallas, with numerous interior neighborhoods that are urban, walkable, and separated from the innards of the city.

Not only is Houston Texas’ best city; it is among a handful of emerging ones in the U.S.—including Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, Denver, Atlanta and Seattle—that will become the dense infill cities of tomorrow, joining the coastal legacy cities. The thing that differentiates Houston from the others, though, is that it doesn’t have the regulatory hurdles to stop this fundamentally market-oriented process. The city has no zoning code, which means a range of densities, uses and architectural styles can go anywhere in the city.

The folk wisdom is that this turned Houston into a sprawling mess like Dallas. But densification is already happening in Clutch City. This year it will lead the nation in multi-family housing construction, with 25,935 units entering the market (Dallas is #2 at 23,159). Much of this is going up rapidly via mid-rises in interior neighborhoods like Midtown, Montrose and Rice Military. Houston has the highest Walk Score of Texas’ big cities. Dallas, meanwhile, may feel more fragmented because of the low-density zoning in its central areas.

Of course, my choice, like anyone’s, is clouded by bias; I prefer density over sprawl, big over small, new over old, and diversity over monoculture."

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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

2018 Highlights

I recently realized I forgot to wrap up 2018 with a highlights post! Well, better late than never, and as a bonus I can even sneak in a couple of key posts from the beginning of 2019 ;-)

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 at the bottom of the right sidebar. An RSS feed link for newsfeed readers is also available in the right sidebar (I'm a fan of Feedly).

As always, thanks for your readership.

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 best posts from the first dozen years and million pageviews.


Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Dallas Light Rail Ridership - A Cautionary Tale for Houston and MetroNext

This week's excellent guest post is from Oscar Slotboom:

The Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) 93-mile light rail system has the most track length of any light rail system in the United States, although several cities have more rail track length when heavy rail is included. 

But despite its broad reach, DART light rail suffers from low ridership. Let’s take a closer look at DART, and see how the same pattern of DART's low ridership is occurring in Houston with recent and proposed additions to Metro’s light rail. 

Data is from Metro's ridership page and MetroNext plan summary, and DART's annual reference books (2018, 2017, 2016). As a reminder, ridership is so-called unlinked trips, so ridership of 1000 roughly represents 500 people making a round-trip.

Light Rail System and Route Ridership
DART has 4.2 times the track of Metro, but its systemwide ridership is only 59% more than MetroRail.

However, Houston's good showing in this comparison is due to the high ridership on the original Red Line from UH-Downtown to Fannin South. Recent additions in 2013 and 2014 costing $2.13 billion have ridership comparable to DART.

DART published an extensive report on its ridership in January 2018. This view taken from the report shows that light rail ridership has been flat around 97,000 since 2013, in spite of strong economic and population growth in North Texas.

The report discusses many factors influencing transit ridership, without citing a leading factor or factors. But one interesting page in the report shows downtown Dallas employment down 9% since 2002. The 93-mile DART light rail system is fully focused on downtown, yet its presence was not enough to stem employment decline.

In my opinion, these are key reasons for DART's low ridership
  • It is almost entirely downtown-focused, and downtown Dallas has been in decline. Employment in North Texas is highly decentralized, and becoming more decentralized.
  • It attempts to cover long distances, but light rail is inherently slow, making trip times too long. (Houston-style express bus service is much faster.)
  • Many lines were built for political reasons. Tax-paying suburban communities feel entitled to get their train links, even if the links make no sense based on cost and ridership.
  • Some lines, especially the north Green Line and Blue Line to Rowlett, are far from activity centers 
Houston Light Rail Expansions: Ridership is Trending Toward Dallas Levels
Let's take a look at the riders per mile of track. The DART system average 1045 riders per mile of track. The most recent additions to MetroRail average only slightly better, 1226 riders per mile of track, even though the MetroRail expansion was in dense urban area (while much of DART track is in low density areas). The proposed MetroNext light rail expansion averages well below DART with 822 riders per mile of track, and the proposed Purple Line extension has a dismal 378 riders per mile of track.

Airport Connections
DART opened its Orange Line connection to DFW Airport in August 2014. DFW is the fourth busiest airport in the U.S. Hobby served 20% as many passengers as DFW in 2017.

Passengers% of DFW

Ridership has been flat in the range of 900-1000 per day since it opened. With the current schedule showing 72 train departures per day, this averages 14 riders per train. Obviously, bus service can easily handle that level of ridership, even accounting for peak periods (which should be minimal for airport service). If ridership on the proposed Hobby light rail is comparable to DFW and directly proportional to airport size, that translates to around 200 riders per day. But other factors (e.g. shorter trip time) would likely raise it above 200, but still be in a range well-suited for bus service.

Light rail airport connections are generally ridership losers, as Tory mentioned in his recent Houston Chronicle op-ed. After all, who wants to take luggage on public transit and travel at a speed of 13 mph when most people have much better options (i.e. family, friends, Uber/Lift, company expense account for taxi, company-paid rental car). Airport workers in low-paying jobs, mainly restaurants, are the best candidates for using airport transit, and would be just as well if not better served by bus or BRT service.

Keeping Perspective
Trips on a single point of major freeways easily exceeds the systemwide overall trips (bus and rail) of Metro and DART, and busy freeways dwarf light rail ridership.

  • The original Red Line is the only corridor in Houston which can justify light rail.
  • Metro's 2013-14 expansion brought small increments of ridership for the high $2.13 billion cost, with ridership levels very similar to the Dallas system.
  • The proposed $2.45 billion MetroNext light rail extensions have estimated average ridership worse than Dallas, with the Green and Purple line expansions to Hobby Airport particularly poor.
  • There is no way Metro can justify the inclusion of the $881 million Purple Line extension to Hobby airport, especially considering that it duplicates the already-weak Green Line extension to Hobby and has estimated ridership of only 378 riders per mile of track.
  • Transit investments should be right-sized for the service demand. This means that $150+ million/mile light rail should not be built when the demand is far lower than the capacity provided by light rail, and bus rapid transit around $50 million/mile is the correct solution. 
  • In MetroNext, light rail should be trimmed back so we don't follow too far in the footsteps of Dallas, with its large-mileage, low-ridership system.

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Monday, January 28, 2019

No-AC Astrodome ok, Houston winning tech jobs, NZ learns from Houston, funding tech startups, and more

My MetroNext op-ed made a big splash last week and got a ton of positive feedback (very much appreciated everyone).  Numerous smaller items this week:
"The Market Urbanism stance on affordable housing:
Deregulate land. In hot markets, this will lead to rapid construction & price stability. Take Houston: since 2010 it's #2 in population growth, but #1 in permits - maintaining price medians below the US average."
"But it goes much further. Even the metropolitan areas of Texas have comparatively high residential densities, despite their reputation for urban sprawl. A seminal analysis by the Brookings Institution characterized Texas metropolitan areas as having “an unparalleled openness to growth and development.” Indeed, Brookings named the Texas land use category, “Wild Wild Texas,” noting that “Wild Wild Texas presents the closest thing the United States has to land use deregulation.” This reflects the most market oriented land use regulations in the United States, and as every planner seemingly from Adelaide to Berlin seems to have been taught, “Houston has no zoning.” 
In fact, the four largest Texas metropolitan areas, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin each have median lot sizes of from 0.18 acres to 0.25 acres, small or smaller than Philadelphia, Boston or Washington. The market orientation of Texas land and residential development have not resulted in less efficient use of land."
  • Vision Zero, a ‘Road Diet’ Fad, Is Proving to Be Deadly: Emergency vehicles get stuck on streets that have been narrowed to promote walking and bicycling.  To be clear, I support Vision Zero efforts when it's about pragmatic accident reduction at problematic intersections, but not when it's a smokescreen for anti-car efforts shrinking roads, reducing speed limits, and adding speed humps.  Excerpt:
"It’s noble to want to make America’s streets as safe as they can be. But government officials shouldn’t impose projects on communities that don’t work, inconvenience residents, hurt businesses and impede emergency responders in the process."
Finally, new County Judge Lina Hidalgo has put out a survey to the public to help set the priorities for her administration. I encourage all my readers to fill it out here.

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Monday, January 21, 2019

Getting METRONext 2040 from B- to a real A+ (Chronicle op-ed)

Sunday the Houston Chronicle published my op-ed on the METRONext 2040 plan as the lead feature in the Outlook section (alternate link, UPDATE: also now at New Geography and discussed by the Chronicle editorial board here).  They were forced to trim it down to fit, so I'm publishing the full-length original version here:

Getting METRONext 2040 from B- to a real A+
By Tory Gattis

METRO's proposal - Click for full size
(more details of Metro's plan here)

METRO recently released a draft $7.5 billion 2040 transit plan they’ve labeled “A Plus” (the previous “A” plan plus some additions), but unfortunately it’s more like a B- when it comes to addressing Houston’s real transportation needs over the next two decades.  It has some wonderful, cost-effective local and express bus improvements – including bus-rapid transit (BRT) at less than one-third the cost per mile of light rail – but continues to throw mountains of good money after bad on wasteful new light rail extensions.

The A+ plan proposes to add 20 miles of new light rail for $2.45 billion, or a third of the overall plan cost, to serve only a tiny 18,900 trips per day at a pricey $130,000 per daily rider – about the same as buying each rider a Porsche Cayenne Turbo SUV. The two redundant light rail routes to Hobby airport will serve a trivial 7,200 boardings per day at a projected cost per rider of a quarter-million dollars (like a Ferrari for each rider!), totaling $1.8 billion or around $129 million per mile, which is probably low since the Green and Purple lines cost $154 million per mile when completed in 2015.  Why is the ridership estimate so low? It might have something to do with the fact that the 13mph light rail is so slow it will take almost an hour to get from Hobby to Downtown!  Why couldn’t that be replaced with far cheaper and faster express lane BRT service like Bush Intercontinental airport is getting?

Unfortunately we're already all too familiar with low ridership on light rail. The $1.4 billion Green and Purple lines have dismally low patronage, with only 5,077 weekday boardings on the Green Line and 7,416 weekday boardings on the Purple Line. For comparison, the Main St. Red Line has 53,412 weekday boardings, and the Katy Freeway near Beltway 8 served 366,000 vehicles carrying a half-million people per day in 2017.

Beyond the wasteful cost-inefficiency, rail is also at significant risk of technological obsolescence as autonomous vehicles and shared-ride services like Uber, Lyft, and Google’s Waymo continue to evolve.  The impact of new technology on public transit is unknown but could be hugely disruptive, potentially substantially reducing demand for traditional public transit. That’s why we need a plan which is adaptable to whatever the future may bring. For future planning purposes and METRONext, it really does not matter if autonomous vehicles become available in 5 years or decades in the future. Anything built in the MetroNext plan can be expected to be in service to the year 2100 and beyond. METRONext needs to be ready for autonomous transit, if and when it comes, but also maximize mobility benefits of transit investments if autonomous transit is slow to develop or has a minimal impact.  Practically, that means concrete guideways with rubber-tired vehicles that can evolve as the technology does.

Bus rapid transit guideways substantially reduces the risk of obsolescence, since concrete can accommodate the potential autonomous transit vehicles of the future. But we also need to be cautious with BRT: yes, it is much less expensive than light rail, but $42 million/mile is still not cheap, and it’s no bargain if it causes traffic chaos at intersections.  METRO needs to complete the Uptown BRT, optimize it, and study its impact and effectiveness before building more of it, especially the Universities line along Richmond that will cross many congested intersections like Kirby, Shepherd, Montrose, and multiple key thoroughfares in Midtown.  In some cases, Signature Bus service may be good enough, less disruptive, and far less expensive. Existing bus service on Gessner receives 6,879 boardings per day, about half of the daily volume on Westheimer (slated for Signature service) and less than the daily volume on Bellaire, Beechnut, and Richmond (all slated for enhanced BOOST service). Why spend $793 million on Gessner BRT when much less expensive Signature Bus or BOOST service is likely to be sufficient?

How should METRO redeploy that $2.45 billion light rail budget instead? They should focus on three priorities:
  1. Faster commutes: METRONext makes substantial regional express improvements to the HOV lane network, including two-way service and service between job centers, but it is still too downtown-centric and fails to provide regional service from all areas to all major job centers. The Texas Medical Center, Greenway, Uptown, Westchase, and the Energy Corridor all get express service from only limited parts of town, some requiring time-consuming transfers.  H-GAC predicts jobs will continue to disperse with less than 17% of the region’s jobs inside the 610 Loop by 2045. METRO, in partnership with TXDoT and HCTRA, needs to serve more of the other 83% with interconnected express lanes stitching together the entire region (including connecting around downtown).  We don’t need more high capacity transit, but instead need more routes that can be operated affordably to more destinations with low rider counts at high service levels.  The major economic risk is that more employers will give up on being in Houston’s congested core and move to the outer suburbs like Exxon did, draining our tax base and vitality.
  2. Equity: LINK Houston recently released a report estimating almost a million Houstonians need better basic bus service.  The METRONext plan calls for 241 miles of BOOST network bus service with higher frequencies, better reliability, and sheltered stops for the bargain cost of only $53 million ($220k/mile).  Why not dramatically expand that to more of the city?
  3. Increased ridership and reduced congestion: To buck the national trend of shrinking transit ridership, METRO needs to go big and eliminate fares entirely.  Metro’s revenue is mostly sales tax, with less than 9% coming from the farebox. $1.3 billion of that $2.45 billion saved from light rail could provide free fares for the next 20 years, and it would actually cost less than that because of the internal cost savings from no longer having to collect, process, and enforce fares.  That also makes boarding and trips faster.  Free fares and faster trips means more riders and less traffic congestion – a win whether you ride transit or not.  As a bonus, the boost to Houston’s national reputation would be substantial as well.  Additionally, METRO could use the savings to improve the rider experience with more shelters and better sidewalks, making Houston more pedestrian-friendly in the process.
METRO is planning a multi-billion-dollar bond referendum in 2019.  If we learned one thing after the 2003 referendum, it’s that METRO will doggedly stick with voter-approved plans even in the light of changing circumstances and shifting cost-benefit ratios.  Whatever gets passed in 2019 is likely to shape Houston transportation for better or worse for decades to come amid rapid technological change, with a high risk of obsolescence and white elephants.  It’s a plan we really need to get right. I encourage every Houstonian to get involved through the METRONext website and public meetings to help make it a truly A+ plan.

Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and writes the Houston Strategies blog.

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