Sunday, April 13, 2014

METRO considers making rush hour traffic even WORSE, real housing affordability, the gentrification problem, and more

  • It just makes no sense to me that METRO is considering charging for Park & Ride parking. So as Houston's sustained economic boom leads to rapidly increasing traffic congestion, we're going to *discourage* people switching to the Park and Rides?!?!  How much sense does that make?!  This is an incentives problem.  Metro is getting too much demand on the Park and Rides and can't move fast enough to meet it, so they're going to discourage demand with parking fees and keep cars on the freeways at rush hour that would otherwise use transit.  Does anybody else think this is a really bad idea?  The Mayor and County Judge need to represent the interests of the city as a whole and put pressure on the METRO board to make Park and Rides as affordable as possible and ramp up to meet that demand.
  • An engineer looks at options for Houston's transportation future (hat tip to Jessie).  Unfortunately, he just falls into the same old trap of advocating a NYC-like rail system as the answer, despite our very decentralized, multi-polar set of job centers instead of a single mega-CBD like Manhattan.  And no, you can't just lump downtown together with the med center, Greenway, and Uptown and just pretend they're one big CBD - they're too far apart for a centralized commuter rail focus.  The answer is high-speed HOT/managed lanes with nonstop express bus service from every neighborhood of the region to every major job center.
  • There are plenty of stats showing Houston's median housing costs are much cheaper than the big coastal cities, but what gets missed is also how many more square feet you get in Houston for that money.  This chart compensates for that, showing how many square feet of house a million dollars will buy across the country, ranging from a very expensive 1,502 sq.ft in San Francisco (or 650 in Manhattan!) to your own private apartment complex of 83,333 sq.ft in Detroit.  Houston came in at the very affordable bottom of the list at 10,753 sq.ft (have fun cleaning and air conditioning that puppy), surprisingly substantially more than Dallas (7,042) or Austin (5,128).  How's this for a tag line? "Houston: all the coolness and weirdness of Austin at half the cost"
  • On the other hand, yet another ranking that says Houston isn't so cheap if you factor in transportation (hat tip to Josh). I still don't buy it.  They’re not equalizing on a per sq.ft basis, not considering taxes for transit, and not considering higher-end cars as a luxury good (not a basic “cost of transportation”).  The ACCRA data standardizes for all that and finds Houston *much* cheaper to live in.
  • Is gentrification good or bad? I think gentrification is not as controversial in Houston because we are less regulated and there are plenty of other low-cost areas residents can move to.  Where land use regulation is strict, like San Francisco, you get riots and street protests, because there are no alternatives for existing residents as they're driven out by rising costs.  And here's a hand grenade of a quote from the article: "As California political writer Joseph Perkins (who is black) once said, “smart growth is the new Jim Crow.” "

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Monday, April 07, 2014

Architecture Digest and Yahoo love Houston, top rankings, Mayor SOTC, workforce certificates over college degrees, and the problem of transit and dispersed jobs

Lots of items this week...
"When did Houston—long associated with oil, NASA, crippling humidity, isolating car culture, and McMansion sprawl—become one of the most exciting places in America? Over the past decade the Texas city has welcomed an influx of young professionals, people displaced by Katrina, immigrants, and other transplants enticed by the low cost of living and strong job prospects. At the same time, a growing cadre of avant-garde chefs, artists, and designers have been reenergizing H-Town, as it is nicknamed, creating innovative restaurants and cutting-edge boutiques in hip micro-neighborhoods that barely registered ten years ago. The country's second-most charitable urban center, Houston is also benefiting from healthy philanthropic investments that are helping to expand its cultural offerings. As a result, proud Houstonians will tell you, the city has supplanted Austin as the state's coolest metropolis, thanks to its diverse population and artistically inclined, architecturally ambitious outlook."
"Nor should the rapid growth of educated residents in sixth-ranked Houston, up 16% since 2007, which also enjoys low costs, an increasingly attractive cultural scene and one of the fastest growing hubs of dense urban living in the country.
...
Since 2007, for example, the Houston and Dallas metro areas have added more BAs than San Francisco-Oakland, and nearly twice as many as Boston. As a result, these and other such cities are gaining a critical mass in brainpower not widely recognized in the Eastern-dominated media."
"Businesspeople almost everywhere decry such labor shortages, but rarely lament a lack of English post-modernist scholars. As I saw on a recent trip to Houston – in many ways the country's most economically dynamic city – developers enjoy high demand but are stymied by a lack of skilled labor. In some cases, companies are beginning to invest not only in community colleges but also looking to recruit high school students into these professions."
  • A good analysis of why, outside of NYC and possibly Chicago, downtowns don't have enough jobs to justify rail transit, rail transit can't save downtowns, and transit in general has been ineffective at serving non-downtown job centers.  I think Houston could be the first major city to do that, though, if we expand our HOV/HOT lane network plus Park and Ride service to serve all of the major job centers instead of just downtown.
  • From Yahoo: Houston is One of the Country's Coolest Cities -- So Why Haven't You Been Yet? My favorite is #8.  Hat tip to Gary.
#8. The food here is so good, Beyonc rapped about it.
"There's a lot to eat in Houston in fact, food may be the single best reason to come here right now."


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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

HPD forming task force against ride services

As the Uber and Lyft ride-sharing debate heats up in Houston, HPD has decided to step up enforcement (like this) with a new dedicated task force that has already snagged its first culprits.  On Monday a sting operation backed by a SWAT team swooped in on a car at IAH driven by John Manziel.  John had given an airport ride to his friend Matthew Schaub, when Matthew unexpectedly offered him $10 for gas money during the drop off.  That's when the team swooped in, arresting the unsuspecting criminal John for operating a taxi without a license.  At a press conference later, Houston Police Chief McClelland was quoted as saying,
"For too long we've looked the other way as this kind of underground black market has preyed on our citizens.  No more.  I have a warning to so called 'friends' everywhere: we're watching you.  We now have zero tolerance for this kind of criminal behavior, and we're going to get these thugs off our streets."  
The task force is being staffed from units that previously cracked down on drunk driving, which the Chief described as "a lower priority problem".  The task force will mainly be monitoring airport drop-off zones, but is looking into a partnership with the National Security Agency to monitor social media for "friendly rides" arranged anywhere across the city.

UPDATE: Ugh, this is closer to reality than I thought.
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Hope you enjoyed this year's April Fools post ;-D Here are previous years if you missed 'em and would like a chuckle:

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

17 facts that make Houston the best city in America, traffic is not as bad as you think, our new economic normal, and more

Another week working through the backlog of smaller misc items...

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Sunday, March 09, 2014

Houston the capital of the Sunbelt, ship channel booming, land of liberty, only in Houston developments, top tech exporter, and more

Before we get to this week's misc items, a hearty happy birthday to Houston Strategies, which is 9 years old this week.  When I started I had no idea I'd be able to keep it up this long, but now I'm looking forward to another great year and the 10th birthday next year.  As always, thank for your readership.
"The clear economic capital of the Sunbelt is now Houston, with some stiff competition from Dallas-Ft. Worth. Houston, the energy capital, now ranks second only to New York in new office construction and is the overall number one for corporate expansions. There are fifty new office buildings going up in the city, including Exxon Mobil’s campus, the country’s second largest office complex under construction (after New York’s Freedom Tower). Chevron, once Standard Oil of California, has announced plans to construct a second tower for its downtown Houston campus while Occidental Petroleum, founded more than fifty years ago in Los Angeles, is moving its headquarters to Houston."
Concluding:
"Combined with basics like lower housing costs and taxes, it’s a common optimism about the future that really underlies the resurgence now occurring from Phoenix to Tampa. The long-term shifts in American power and influence that have been underway since the 1950s have not been halted by the housing bust. Disdained by urban aesthetes, hated by much of the punditry, and largely ignored except for their failings in the media, the Sunbelt seems likely to enjoy the last laugh when it comes to shaping the American future."
"All this doesn't just bring in new arrivals - native Texans aren't leaving the state either. It is the "stickiest" state in the country, according to the latest figures from the Pew Research Center, which suggest that more than three-quarters of adults born in Texas still live there."
"The common refrain made against Texas by those who defend the status quo in Illinois is that the jobs being created in the Lone Star State are lower-paying and less-rewarding opportunities. 
But not anymore. Texas is now unquestionably besting Illinois in providing for the middle class. 
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 the inflation-adjusted median household income for Texas surpassed that of Illinois for the first time since 1984, when the statistic first started being recorded. 
That means the household making the median income in Texas is taking home a bigger paycheck than the household making the median income in Illinois."
Finally, to see a side of Houston most people don't, check out Beyonce's new "No Angel" music video, filmed mostly around the Third Ward.

Beyonce - No Angel (Official Video)

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The enemies of TX, private TX HSR, #1 for blue collar jobs, high-rise history, oil HQ, and more

Sorry again for the posting delays.  2014 has been a very intensely busy year so far.  The misc items have been backing up...
  • Really cool little interactive short video put together by the NYTimes on the history of the high-rise in cities.  I was impressed.  They clearly put a lot of work into it with some stunning images and clever animation along with a narrative in rhyming verse! Hat tip to Jim.
  • Dug Begley from the Houston Chronicle calls me the city's oracle. Thanks Dug!  Yours truly also got a couple of quotes in Dug Begley's recent column and blog post on the sustainability of the link between expanding freeways and our suburbs.
  • Bill Gilmer from UH on Houston as America's Oil HQ.
  • This is pretty amusing: State Hate - Which state is your state's enemy? Quite a few states don't seem to like us.  And it's especially amusing if you wait for the graphic to cycle around to Texas (they go in alphabetic order).
  • H-GAC hosted a Brown Bag Lunch on January 20, 2014, featuring former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels. Judge Eckels presented an overview of the current Texas high speed rail plans by the Texas Central High Speed Railway, LLC, a private enterprise seeking to build a high speed rail system linking the major metropolitan areas of Texas with true high speed rail service. Here are the presentation and the video.  How are they aspiring to do this without public money?  After talking with the Judge, the secret seems to be that the government of Japan is offering attractive debt financing since the entire system is Japanese and would be manufactured there.  It looks like a very proven, high quality and safe system based on the record in Japan.  The economics also seem sound from what I can tell (especially compared to California), so it's probably a good investment by Japan, and it's certainly better to have their taxpayers at risk than ours.
  • Eric on "Houston - America's Next Great City"
  • Houston ranked #1 by Forbes for adding good paying blue-collar jobs
  • Great graph from Patrick at the Partnership on how strongly Houston's job market has recovered since the recession vs. other metros, most of which still haven't recovered all the jobs they lost.
  • That was quick!  Demand must have been hot for them to upgrade from 4/week to daily before the service even started!  A very good sign for Houston.
  • The 2014 10th Edition Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey has been released.  As always, Houston has a strong showing, although not quite as strong as previous years with our increasing house prices.  Developers are just not keeping up with demand.  Hopefully that is just a short-term phenomenon.  
There's a lot more, but that's already too much for one week.  Let me end with a very cool short 2min video with aerial flyover shots of different parts of Houston.  You'll be reminded how impressive our multiple skylines really are.

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Saturday, February 08, 2014

The best posts of the first 1,000

Apologies for the long break between posts.  Not only has work and life been insanely busy, but I really wanted to do something special for my 1,000th blog post after almost 9 years(!).  What I finally decided to do was extend and update my five-year anniversary post to include what I consider the very best posts of the first 1,000.  If you're curious, you can find the inaugural post here, and my very first "strategy" post here: a proposed elite UH - Institute of Technology campus (which I still think is a good idea). And now here we are 1,000 posts later with so much content I can't even remember most of it, and count on Google to help me find it. Most of you know I do regular quarterly and annual highlights posts, and I decided to cull those down to the very most important posts of the last nine years - roughly the top 5% - the ones that I think really form the foundation of the blog's reputation. As you skim this list, I hope you find some of interest that you missed, forgot, or may have been posted before you discovered Houston Strategies.  Enjoy.  As always, thanks for your readership.
-Tory

2013
2012
2011
2010
2009
2008
2007
2006
2005

Monday, January 13, 2014

Best thing to happen in Houston in 2013, HOU-DFW high-speed rail, HISD A+, METRO HOV adjustments, and more

Some smaller misc items this week, but trying to put together something special for my 1,000 blog post next week...
Finally, there is a pretty cool promo video here for private Texas high speed rail (also embedded below). I'm skeptical of public HSR spending, but a private investment is a different matter entirely. If you'd like to learn more, there's a public event Monday I'm attending that you may want to attend:
You are invited to H-GAC’s January Brown Bag Series presentation on Texas High Speed Rail by Judge Robert Eckels, President of the Lone Star High Speed Rail, LLC. 
Judge Eckels' legal practice is built on a decades-long career in public service and leadership of the nation's third largest county. He is recognized as a national leader in issues of transportation, public finance/public private partnerships, homeland security, the environment and health care.
Eckels is the founding chairman of the Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation, a coalition of local governments, educational institutions and the private sector working to bring high speed rail to Texas. Eckels left that organization in 2010 to join Lone Star High Speed Rail, LLC; a private enterprise seeking to build a high speed rail system linking the major metropolitan areas of Texas with true high speed rail service. 
When:   Monday, January 20, 2014, Noon to 1:00 PM
Where:  H-GAC offices, 3555 Timmons Lane, 2nd Floor, Rm A, Houston, TX 77027
Bring your lunch and join us!
This event is open to the public, so feel free to extend this invitation to others. Contact Ms. Rosalind Hebert CAP-OM, at 713-993-2471 or Rosalind.Hebert@H-GAC.com, with inquires, comments, or to submit an abstract for a future presentation.

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

2013 Highlights

It's time for the Fall 4Q13 quarterly highlights post, which also summarizes all of the best posts from 2013.  I'll be making my 1,000th blog post later this month, and entering my 10th year writing this blog in March. I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it.

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). They're not quite as useful as they were when I was still doing multiple posts each week, but still have some value (at least for me).

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.

December
November
October
And from Summer 3Q13:

September
August - none
July - none

And from Spring 2Q13:

June
May
April
And from Winter 1Q13:

March
February
January
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 (which I'm now updating at the end of each year).

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Houston's next hot neighborhoods, identify your dialect, Ashby disaster, rail shopping, and more

Just a few smaller misc this holiday week.  Probably will skip posting next week and see you again in the new year, where I'll be hitting the big milestone of my 1,000th blog post in January! (this one is 997)
  • I agree with the Chronicle: the Ashby ruling is a disaster. If every neighborhood that is slightly nuisanced by a development has grounding to sue, then development predictability goes out the window and we end up with chaos, gridlock, and rising unaffordability as supply gets further constrained.  This has to be overturned on appeal.   Development is regulated by the City - once permits are in place, a developer has to know they have the right to proceed.  People need to clearly understand: if safe predictable conformity is important to you, then make sure you buy in a deed restricted community. If you choose not to, then you take your risk. You have no right to buy next to unrestricted land and then complain when the owner does what he has every right to do with that land.
  • Joel Kotkin shows how 20-somethings do prefer urban living (and Houston is doing ok there), but after 35 they prefer affordable, family suburban living, where Houston really shines and big youth magnet cities start to lose out: NYC, Boston, Chicago, LA, SV.  Where Working Age Americans Are Moving
  • The Wall Street Journal on how to identify the next hot neighborhood.  I'm very interested in reader opinions in the comments on where they think this is happening in Houston.  10-15 years ago you might have said Montrose, Midtown, and Rice Military/Washington Ave.  Now, obviously around the Heights and Garden Oaks, but maybe even further east near the new North rail line? EaDo and the East End?  Downtown itself?  Thoughts?
  • OK, this Chronicle article on the new METRO North rail line had an excerpt that made me do a double take:
"Procell points out that while there are many small strip shops along the Red Line, Northline Commons will be the only major retail center on any of the rail lines (current or coming). He said he foresees a day when a downtown worker will use the rail line to pick up supplies at Office Depot or do some lunchtime shopping at Walmart. The ride from the UH-Downtown stop to Northline Commons takes about 19 minutes."
Wait, he thinks downtown office workers will spend a half-hour each way (once you include walking, waiting, and using stops south of UHD) to go shopping during their lunch *hour*?  Sorry, the math doesn't quite work.  Sounds cool in theory, but I think few will find it practical in reality because the line is simply too slow.
"Urbanists put way too little thought into business climate, which can sound like such a shady way of saying cut services and taxes. But taxes are often the least part of it. It’s the regulatory apparatus that makes doing business in many places too painful to contemplate. This even affects city-suburb investment patterns. I’ve observed that in many places, the urban core is a flat out terrible place to do business, unless you’re very politically wired up. 
This doesn’t usually bother urbanists all that much until a trendy business they like gets affected. For example, an urban farming supply shop in Providence called Cluck got sued when they tried to open. The beautiful and the bearded were outraged and the shop was ultimately approved. But there’s no similar visibility or outrage when a Latino immigrant runs into the red-tape buzzsaw when he tries to open a muffler shop. 
If we want to promote investments in our cities and states, we need to be focused on basics like an objective, predictable regulatory framework that operates in the timely fashion and in which arbitrary denials, rule changes, and such are minimized. This is way more important to attracting capital investment than sexier items like streetcar lines."
Finally, one of the complaints about Houston is that we don't have distinctive seasons like up north.  Is it just me, or is anybody else noticing some impressive fall foliage this season in Houston with some really vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows?  I'm guessing it's the early sharp cold front, but there seem to be a lot of really beautiful trees right now around Houston - something I don't remember noticing as vividly in previous years.  My mom says it's the most beautiful fall she can remember.  They won't last long.  Hope you're enjoying them while you can and have a very happy holidays.  

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Mayor Parker's legacy term, economists vs rail, Chicago vs us, GHP 2014 forecast, and more

Some smaller misc items this week:
"What conclusions can we draw from economists’ view of rail transit? Economists demonstrate a range of views regardless of the particular justification examined. Still some justifications receive more support than others. Although the matter is filled with disagreement and caveats, economists appear to be the most optimistic about rail transit’s impact on economic development, especially its impact on residential housing values. Economists seem to be less optimistic about rail’s ability to achieve environmental improvement and serve the transit dependent poor. Economists seem quite pessimistic about rail’s ability to achieve key transportation-related goals, like reducing congestion, and they tend to see other modes, primarily bus, as more functional and worthwhile. Economists often attribute rail’s political success to their belief that decision-makers are motivated by rent-seeking and romantic factors. Of those economists who offer a big-picture view, there appears to be wide, though not unanimous, agreement that rail’s costs exceed its benefits. And it seems that almost all economists who write about rail agree that various demographic features, such as suburbanization, the declining influence of central business districts, and increasing wealth will make it increasingly difficult to design successful rail systems."
"Transportation engineers are loath to support new streetcar lines because they cannot understand why it makes sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a rail line when a far cheaper bus service would provide similar, or even more, mobility benefits. From the pure perspective of moving people from one place to another, streetcars are irrational investments. Some Portland residents have expressed concerns that the streetcar has been excessively subsidized even as bus routes have faced service cuts and increasing fares because of declining revenue."
On a final note, after speaking with Mayor Parker last week at her holiday party, I do have very high hopes for her final term to finally address some critical long-term issues for Houston, including pensions sustainability and the Ike Dike.  These would be signature legacy accomplishments if achieved.  If you're in a position to support her on these issues (as well as others) in some way, I sincerely hope you do so (and yes, I'm talking to you, county, state, and federal legislators).  It's time to stop kicking the can down the road making these issues the next mayor's problem.

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Sunday, December 08, 2013

Previewing the new METRO North line

Friday morning METRO gave the media a preview of the new North line set to open December 21st.  First some pics, then thoughts...   (click on any picture to see the full size version)

New maps are on the trains.  The left side red section is opening this month.
The Burnett St. Station and Transit Center has an impressive elevated platform view of downtown.  The bus transit center is under construction.
The Burnett Station just north of downtown has 3 tracks, enabling trains north and south of it to run at different frequencies (more frequent/faster headways to the south)
More of the skyline view from the Burnett platform
Skyline view pulling into Burnett station.
The Christmas Train!
The Christmas train announces the opening date.  Get it? It's a Christmas gift from METRO to the city.
Riding up front!
The strangeness of houses directly in front of the station.  And they have to listen to those repetitive station announcements all day long...

 Some observations/thoughts:
  • You will now be able to reach a Wal-Mart Supercenter by rail, which includes groceries.  Actually, Northline Commons has a lot of retail, and an HCC campus.  And Midtown has the Randall's grocery store just a couple blocks off the line.  It now actually might be possible to manage most everyday shopping trips off of the rail line if one were so inclined.
  • The stations are very well done with nice artwork.
  • Signs of new development are thin: I counted one new townhome development, another small apartment complex, and a nice strip center or two.  The train buzzed with speculation of how fast any new investment and redevelopment would occur.  It's a big open question at this point.  My guess is very slowly, especially looking at the rail-served parts of Midtown 10 years after the line opened.  Sure, there are signs of good stuff happening (like MidMain), but they've been very slow to develop.  And, frankly, the north side doesn't have the same location advantages as Midtown.
  • The current estimate is that the train will take about 20 mins from UHD to the Northline end covering 5.3 miles.  Add that to the current Main St. line, and you have ~50 mins end-to-end for about 12 miles.  That's about 14mph net speed - not exactly flying.  Somebody living up there could easily be looking at a 30-40 min commute to the medical center - surprisingly long given the short distance.  To put that in context, in non-rush-hour traffic it takes me about 45 mins to get from Midtown to Tomball!  But it honestly might be somewhat competitive with driving at rush hour, especially when you consider the cost and hassle of med center traffic and parking.
That last point reinforces something I've been saying for a while: people may still face some daunting travel times to their final destination even after they've been connected into the rail network. I occasionally hear people sort of hand wave that once somebody has transferred to the rails they're magically at their destination, whether that's downtown, TMC, UH, or, one day, Greenway or Uptown.  That is far from the case.  I think once you add up the travel times, very few people will want to take an HOV bus downtown and then transfer to UH, TMC, or elsewhere.  METRO still needs to work on more direct express lane service to alternate job centers like TMC and Uptown.  Rail network connections are not a magic silver bullet for that.

Overall, METRO seems to have done a solid job on the new line.  Only time will tell what ridership develops and how the neighborhood transforms.

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