Sunday, November 22, 2015

Houston still has the highest standard of living, how smart growth regs hurt the poor, rail fail, and more

This week's items:
"One thing building rail doesn’t do is get many people out of their cars. In 1980, before building any rail, Los Angeles transit carried 5.9 percent of commuters to work. Today, after building six light-rail, one heavy-rail, and seven commuter-rail lines, transit’s share of commuting is all the way up to 6.0 percent–and only 13.5 percent of those transit commuters take the train."
"All of these regulations, write the authors, have been found to increase prices by limiting housing supply. And that disproportionately hurts the poor.
"Most of these studies find that both traditional land use policies and newer policies, such as smart growth and inclusionary zoning, increase the cost of housing. And because housing takes up a larger share of the budgets of lower-income households relative to higher-income households, these policies are regressive."
But all these measures kowtow to a group–NIMBYs–who don’t really have a legitimate grievance anyway. Someone who buys a home and pays taxes in a city has a right to good public services. But they shouldn’t be able to micromanage surrounding property that isn’t theirs. The fact that this has become an entitlement shows the distorted nature of modern urban politics. Existing owners have become an interest group demanding undue protectionism, and officials, wishing to stay popular, satisfy them by crafting stronger regulations. Those who suffer are newcomers–especially poor ones–wishing to rent or own in America’s destination cities."
"The growth of Houston has far surpassed the perception about it from outsiders. Thanks to a warm climate, pro-business policies, and a lack of zoning, it is now America’s 4th-largest city, and is creeping up on perpetually-mismanaged Chicago. In the process, it has nurtured a host of amenities that signify its newly-global status, from the world’s largest medical center to one of America’s best restaurant scenes. Add to these several new parks, with more to come, that could tweak the city’s sprawling and auto-centric reputation.
"But the most remarkable thing about the park, in an age when government projects constantly exceed cost estimates and drag on for decades, is how much bang this public-private partnership got for its buck. For $58 million, Buffalo Bayou Park now has two new major visitor centers, several pedestrian bridges, added flood control, and acres of amenity-filled parkland. Anne Olson, president of the partnership, credited the project’s privately-funded model for the strong turnaround."
When it comes to the factors for attracting this talent, Houston’s parks likely will not surpass its strong business climate. But they should slowly make Houston’s image greener, and assuming everything is completed on time, will become a testament to the city’s pragmatic spirit. In 13 years, the city will have added numerous world class parks, at a cost likely far less than the economic benefits reaped. While other cities have become monuments to bureaucratic inertia, Houston will show what happens when a business-oriented city gets into the business of parks."
Scott is on a 28-month tour of living in 28 American cities leading towards a book on city revitalization, and we're his #2 stop after starting in Miami.  I've shown him around town a bit, and I think he's been impressed with what he's seen so far.

Have a great Thanksgiving everyone!

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Houston vs. architects & Dallas traffic, DC loves our food, WSJ hates our pensions, and more

This week's items:
"Ranking first in every category, Houston is hands-down the best metro area for registered nurses. At 14.6 percent, the Houston metro made up the largest share of nursing jobs among the top ten. Combined with the highest average salary and the most affordable housing options, RNs can enjoy a high standard of living in Bayou City."
  • The Washington Post is reviewing the top ten food cities in America, with this month's focus on Houston - and they were very impressed!  Love these quotes!
“Everything you know about Texas is wrong”
"Houston, you have a problem. Your food scene deserves more love."
Finally, earlier this month I presented at the American Dream conference in Austin.  You can skim the presentations here and, if you're interested, my own Opportunity Urbanism slides are here.

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Monday, November 09, 2015

Stop 59S changes that favor commuters over inner loopers, how land regs hurt the poor, TX education better than you think, and more

Before getting to this week's items, I want to announce that I will be in the interview hot-seat at Startup Grind this Wednesday evening discussing education innovation.  You can get tickets here -hope to see some of you there!
"The differences in the systems are stark. DART’s rail system spans 90 miles, with 62 stations in 13 cities. METRO’s light rail is just 23 miles long with 44 stations, all of which are located in central Houston. 
But their ridership numbers are similar. DART Rail moves an average of 96,000 people on weekdays and 57,000 on Saturday. METRO light rail, meanwhile, gets 63,000 riders around town on weekdays, and 31,000 on Saturdays. 
That makes for a more efficient system in Houston, with 2,700 passengers per mile on weekdays, compared to around 1,000 in Dallas."
Finally, HGAC has a public meeting this week to present the recommendations of the Southwest Freeway Congestion Mitigation Study.

The objective of the study is to identify relatively low-cost measures to reduce congestion. Oscar Slotboom of has analyzed the recommendations in detail and found them pretty severely problematic.

Oscar has concerns about many of the recommendations, including negative impacts, high costs and reduced freeway access to local inner-loop traffic. He's hoping HGAC and TxDOT will take a closer look at the proposal, possibly scrapping several features and further refining other items to reduce negative impacts.  A sample of some of the issues:
  • Removal of the San Jacinto entrance ramp will eliminate freeway access for a large area, including Midtown, the Museum District, the Richmond corridor and traffic coming from the Medical Center on San Jacinto.
  • Proposed changes in the outbound direction from Kirby to Weslayan have the potential to cause huge congestion problems on the frontage road between Buffalo Speedway and Weslayan
  • Proposed changes in the inbound direction will add congestion at the Buffalo Speedway intersection.
  • The plan proposes conversion to a two-way HOV costing $240 million, but there is no need for a two-way HOV outside the loop. At Loop 610 and inbound toward Edloe, a two-way HOV will be complex and expensive, so any two-way HOV should be limited to the section between Buffalo Speedway and approximately Mandell.
  • In general, changes inside the loop increase congestion on the frontage roads to achieve improvement on the main lanes.
  • Changes to entrance and exit ramps are intended to aid rush-hour traffic, but the inconvenience imposed on local traffic occurs at all times - non-peak periods, weekends and nights.
  • The active traffic management will add a very large number of signs along the corridor and cost $72 million. The benefit/cost ratio of 7.6 seems overly optimistic.
  • If relocation of the HOV to the Metro right-of-way along Westpark has not been considered, this should be looked at since it would offer many benefits and potentially cost less than the $240 million price tag for the HOV changes in the proposal.
If you agree this sounds bad, attend the Thursday meeting or send them comments and make sure your voice is heard!

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Sunday, October 25, 2015

America's affordable global city and Big 7 metros, Dallas envy, pensions, and more

Apologies for not being able to get a post out last week, which means even more items have stacked up for this week. Traveling next week as well, so there may not be a post then.

First, a random thought I had recently on a distinctive positioning for Houston: America's affordable global city (as opposed to NYC, LA, SF).  We have a global diversity not found in other affordable big metros like DFW and Atlanta, including significant populations from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and even Europe (welcome to the global energy industry).  I think our closest competitor under that distinction would be Chicago, although they are a bit more expensive and are facing an extremely serious financial situation.  America's affordable global sunbelt city?  America's affordable global non-bankrupt city? ;-)  Curious to hear your thoughts in the comments.
"If urban American governance has long been a cesspool for machine politics, then Houston, with its light regulation and pro-growth mentality, has been perceived as the exception. But it turns out that for at least one issue, Clutch City mirrors the rest. A recent report by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a local research-oriented philanthropy, found that Houston suffers from a growing public employee pension crisis that could soon make it just another debt-saddled U.S. city. 
The real culprit is that the retirement benefits themselves are too large, and the path to reform elusive. The under-funding problem for pensions began during the mayoralty of Lee Brown, right after changes were made in 2001 to increase pensions for public employees, in some cases doubling them for top officials.  The system has since run deficits, including over $50 million last year. And this system is hard to reform because it is protected by state statue, making it legally difficult to alter benefits. So what Houston residents and officials must do instead is either cut basic services, raise taxes, or both. 
Of course, the other option is for Houston to do neither, and just continue underfunding its pension system. But this strategy doesn’t seem to work out in the long run. Unfunded retirement liabilities were the main cause of default and bankruptcy in Stockton, Detroit and Puerto Rico; and have led to massive debts in other cities–$40 billion in Los Angeles, $46 billion in New York City, and nearly $60 billion in Chicago. 
The Arnold Foundation report noted that Houston’s current position is similar to Chicago’s in 2003, when the Windy City’s annual required retirement system contribution equaled one-fifth of its general tax revenue. When tax receipts dropped because of the recession, the unfunded retirement crisis worsened, and now Chicago has suffered from multiple downgrades, with the Illinois governor even seeking a legal route to bankruptcy. Houston’s debts are still mild compared to these other long-mismanaged cities, but hopefully they are addressed–aka cut–before they, too, create a fiscal emergency."
Time to get serious folks, and I'm glad to see the GHP, Chronicle, and several of the mayoral candidates (especially Bill King) really focused on solving this issue before it gets unsolvable.
Finally, the GHP recently released their October Houston Economy at a Glance, which contained a pretty interesting table of metro GDP rankings on page 8.  If you combine San Francisco and San Jose (the greater SF Bay area/Silicon Valley), you'll notice that there's a big GDP gap in the rankings after #7 (almost a $100 billion - a very clear first vs. second tier).  The Big 7 U.S. Metros (of roughly a half-trillion GDP or higher) are then NYC, LA, SF+SJ, Chicago, Houston, DFW, and DC, in that order.  These are America's tier one metros.  Fun fact: United Airlines hubs in 6 of those 7, DFW being the exception.

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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Texaplex rivalries, Sun Belt rail-fail, recycling overdone, Mayor Parker's legacy, and more

This week's items:
"Cities get ranked in numerous ways — by income, hipness, tech-savviness and livability — but there may be nothing more revealing about the shifting fortunes of our largest metropolitan areas than patterns of domestic migration. 
Bright lights and culture may attract some, but people generally move to places with greater economic opportunity and a reasonable cost of living, particularly affordable housing."
  • Yet another major company giving up on the core and moving to the suburbs (more here) - in this case Schlumberger moving out to Sugar Land.  When is Houston going to take this seriously?  I'm looking at you, Metro and TXDoT.  We need comprehensive MaX lanes and express services to every job center, or more employers are going to give up on traffic and move to the suburbs, slowly bleeding Houston's tax and job base...
  • John Tierney over at the NY Times does a clear-eyed rational analysis of our nation's near-religious dogmatic obsession with recycling and shows the benefits have declined to the point of even becoming negatives (i.e. it's actually worse for the environment to recycle than landfill for some items).  I'm an avid recycler myself, but it looks like Houston does it at the right levels with the right materials vs. extravagant "zero waste" initiatives in places like NYC, SF, and Seattle.  I also have my own somewhat unique perspective on this, which is that in a few decades we'll have smart cheap robots that can easily sort through landfills to recycle what makes sense.  Start thinking of landfills as temporary holding places until the technology gets better, and suddenly they seem a lot more reasonable, especially with all of the environmental safeguards they now have in place (linings, methane recapture for electricity production, etc.).  Worried about the lost land for landfills? How about this factoid: "all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing."
  • Love this Texas Monthly piece on the dysfunctional family of Texas cities and rivalries. Some of the best excerpts:
"Here it is in a nutshell: Fort Worth hates Dallas. Houston hates Dallas and Austin. San Antonio hates Austin. Austin wishes all the rest of us would just go away, and Dallas pretends that none of the rest of us even exist."
As East Dallas resident Mamie Joseph puts it, “Dallas is too busy hating itself to notice anybody else.” 
That observation was borne out four years back when I wrote a piece for the Houston Press and Dallas Observer about how those two cities were getting cooler while Austin was becoming more business-like and big city. The piece was met with near-universal praise in Houston, but about half of the feedback I got from Dallas was that I was a lunatic to think that way, and that only their jobs were keeping them from escaping to Austin ASAP. Meanwhile, Houstonians were printing up T-shirts with slogans like “I’m Not Moving to Austin” and “Keep Austin 170 Miles from Houston.” 
Then some more good Austin myth-busting and...
"In reality, Austin is no more “weird” or liberal than inner-loop Houston is. In fact, when I was growing up in Houston during the 70’s and early 80’s, Austin’s brand of “weird”, or bohemian culture as it were… seemed pretty tame compared to the Montrose area of inner-loop Houston. Montrose has since been heavily gentrified, but I’d say it’s still on par with Austin’s most liberal/Bohemian areas, which are hardly a majority of Austin as a whole. Houston just doesn’t toot it’s horn constantly about these things, the way Austin does."

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Sunday, October 04, 2015

Affordability sense and nonsense, 45N update, MaX Lanes adopted, and more

Another week, another BS to call.  This time on this study claiming Houston is not affordable compared to cities like Philly, Chicago, and even NYC! (Chronicle story)  And yet you wonder why Philly and Chicago are losing population, and people flee NYC because of the cost of living? Maybe there's a flaw in this ranking? I'd say it's mostly this: if you live in an expensive city (including taxes), then you naturally have less of your income left over to spend on housing and transportation. It's not because these cities are affordable, but because you're forced to live frugally. You live in affordable Houston (albeit admittedly less so the last few years), and you get to spend more on those, which makes your city look expensive by these rankings!  See the confused irony of using income percentage as an affordability indicator?  This kind of affordability ranking is specifically designed to make expensive transit-dependent cities look better, and it gets fully debunked here.

Moving on to this week's items:
Finally, check out this excellent piece by Laolu Davies-Yemitan on Maintaining Houston’s Affordability for Working Class Families (PDF version).  Houston is naturally a reasonably affordable city, but that's becoming less and less true in core urban neighborhoods, and there's more the City can do to encourage more affordable workforce housing in good core neighborhoods.

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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Houston *is* different from zoned cities, zoning drags GDP, defending Houston, impressing outsiders, and more

It's been a busy few weeks with the Opportunity Urbanism TV interview, TXDoT meeting on the 45N plan, and the Zillow Housing Roadmap to 2016 panel, so the backlog of smaller miscellaneous items has grown to bursting.  Apologies for the lack of timeliness on a few of these...

First, I have to call BS on this.  Yes, we have reasonable land-use regulations, but they are far from zoning and Houston is qualitatively different from other cities like Dallas.
  1. Massive exhibit #1: the townhouses covering the inner loop where single-family homes once stood.  No zoned city would allow that.  Without that flexibility, inner Houston would be much lower density and covered in McMansions that look like Bellaire and West U with similar pricing.  
  2. Exhibit #2: residential towers all over the place, instead of clustered downtown or in other skyscraper zones.  
  3. Exhibit #3: apartment complexes going up anywhere they can get the land, pretty much no matter what was sitting there before, like industrial or commercial uses - typical zoning doesn't allow that.  
Houston is a denser, more vibrant, more eclectic, and - most importantly - more affordable city because it lacks zoning.  Don't let anyone try to convince you otherwise.
“No, please don’t be sorry. I love living in Houston. It’s a great place to live and I have a great life there. It’s actually not that place that you might imagine it to be. In fact, it’s one of the country’s most ethnically diverse and progressive cities. My children go to school with kids from all over the world. And the wine and food scene there is great, too.”
Finally, some followup material from the Zillow Housing Roadmap to 2016 panel.  First, they created a summary article here, which includes some quotes from me as well as this conclusion:
Houston, we Have a (PR) Problem 
If you were asked to name America’s most diverse city by population groups, you might say New York. The fastest-growing? Maybe San Francisco. Most affordable? Probably Detroit, or another ailing rust-belt market. 
But in reality, Houston is at or near the top of all those superlative lists, and more. That that isn’t immediately obvious to most Americans – let alone foreign visitors to America – speaks volumes about Houston’s PR problem. Houston’s reality – it is a vibrant, growing, well-educated, affordable and diverse city full of opportunity – doesn’t square with its popular image. 
During our visit, we were constantly surprised by Houston, by the passion and thoughtfulness of its advocates and the creativity of its solutions to its mounting challenges. 
They also published a nice short video below on their Houston visit.  Note: despite what the guy in the video says, Houston is *not* increasing population by 50% in the next 5-10 years, whether you look at the city or the metro.  Most likely that will take a couple of decades or so...

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Mayoral candidate forum on Houston planning this Saturday

Wanted to pass this event along to my readers, which should be quite interesting.  Unfortunately I will be at the conflicting Rethink Education Summit and won't be able to make it, but I'm looking forward to reading about it and hearing from any of you that do attend.

Mayoral Forum - Plan Houston: A Roadmap to Success
Hear the Candidates’ Strategies for Houston’s Growth

What: Hear Houston's top mayoral candidates address key components of Plan Houston strategies for growth and development, transportation/mobility, housing, neighborhoods, and infrastructure. Blueprint Houston has advocated for a general plan for Houston for more than a decade.

With Houston City Council expected to vote in September on Houston’s first general plan, known as Plan Houston, the city’s next mayor will have a significant impact on how the plan is implemented.

When: 9 a.m.-11:30 a.m.
            Saturday, Sept. 26                         

Where:        Houston Community College, central campus auditorium
1300 Holman
Park in the lot at Alabama and San Jacinto streets. Use rear entrance to building by the auditorium.

Who:  Participating candidates are Chris Bell, Steve Costello, Adrian Garcia, Ben Hall, Bill King, Victoria Lane, Marty McVey and Sylvester Turner.

Attendees are asked to please RSVP to

Sign language interpretation services will be provided.

Event co-sponsors: AARP, American Institute of Architects, American Planning Association, American Society of Landscape Architects, Bike Houston, Citizens Environmental Coalition, Citizens Transportation Coalition, Complete Streets Coalition, Houston Tomorrow, Kinder Institute at Rice University, League of Women Voters and Super Neighborhood Alliance.