Monday, September 15, 2014

Smart traffic lights could be our salvation, Scotland vs. Texas secession, the South's secret of success, and more

The smaller misc items have been piling up fast last week...
"...as Harvard’s Edward Glaeser and others have emphasized, high housing prices in slow-growing states also owe a lot to policies that sharply limit construction. Limits on building height in the cities, zoning that blocks denser development in the suburbs and other policies constrict housing on both coasts; meanwhile, looser regulation in the South has kept the supply of housing elastic and the cost of living low. 
So conservative complaints about excess regulation and intrusive government aren’t entirely wrong, but the secret of Sunbelt growth isn’t being nice to corporations and the 1 percent; it’s not getting in the way of middle- and working-class housing supply."
  • Houston needs this!  Love this new technology for dynamically adjusting traffic lights.  If you know anybody in CoH or Harris County Public Works, please pass it along.  Check out the amazing results:
"Smith's team installed nine smart signals back in 2012 and saw instant results. Travel times along the corridor with the new signals were reduced by 25 percent, idle time fell by 40 percent, and vehicle emissions dropped by 20 percent. The system is also scalable for cash-strapped cities, says Smith, because you can install the signals one intersection at a time as funding becomes available. "
    "Taken individually, each development requirement and restriction may be a legitimate exercise of a city’s police power. With increasing reliance on developers and their projects to satisfy societal goals through a multitude of land use controls, the potential cumulative effect of all regulations risks turning all proposals into discretionary or conditional approvals. When the increased number of regulatory constraints causes development to be so economically infeasible that the only way for a property owner to gain the right to develop is to request discretionary approvals, have we not effectively removed the right to make reasonable economic use of the land?"
    Finally, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments on how you think Houston measures up on these criteria for having a vibrant tech scene?...

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    Friday, September 12, 2014

    Great infographic - 6 reasons everyone is moving to Houston

    Just love this infographic and wanted to share it for your enjoyment on a rainy Fri afternoon even though it is going to break the formatting of my blog (if you have trouble reading it, right click on it and open the image in its own tab, or just go here to read it).  Great stuff in here - definitely worth your perusal, especially #4...

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    Tuesday, September 09, 2014

    Dallas airport rail not very popular and reducing city corruption

    This week we have a couple of followups from my post a couple of weeks ago.

    First, I criticized Dallas' decision to build a very expensive light rail line to DFW airport, and it doesn't seem to be getting much ridership traction, nor do their downtown rail lines seem to be doing as well as our very full HOV express buses:
    Here’s the crazy thing: She was the only one who got off the train at DART’s Terminal A station. She said she looked up and down the rail cars and station platform, and not one other person disembarked. 
    I was surprised, for two reasons: 
    1) About 60,000 people work at D/FW. That includes airline workers, concessions employees, parking people, security personnel, folks with badges and everything. With all those thousands punching the clock there, you’d think one or two might have been heading there at 8 a.m. from the 13-city DART service area. Strange. 
    2) The sheer volume of outgoing local passengers, about 30,000 a day. (That’s based on 31 million enplanements a year, with 35 percent of fliers with local origination/destination — all figures provided by David Magana, D/FW’s PIO. Blame me, not him, for any bad math.) 
    Not all of those tens of thousands of fliers come from the Dallas side of the airport, but still. A pile of them do.
    I hope DART reaches and exceeds 1,200 passengers a day at D/FW. I’d like to think the line to the airport was worth the civic investment. It makes sense, on the face of it. But we’re a car-loving metro area, and it’s rare that I see a DART park-n-ride approaching half full on my way to work each day. 
    Public transit can be a hard sell in these parts.
    Secondly, I mentioned the Aaron Renn's Urbanophile series on city corruption a couple of weeks ago, linking to part one, and now parts two, three, and four are out, listed here along with interesting excerpts from part two on fixing corruption:
    1. The City As a Decline Machine, or How the Loss of Hometown Banks Paved the Way For Corruption (short summary in my post here)
    2. Fixing Corrupt Cities
    3. Thoughts On Eliminating Systemic Corruption
    4. When the People Are Corrupted
    "The authors’ basic formula for corruption is simple: C = M + D – A. That is Corruption = Monopoly power + Discretion by officials – Accountability. Resultingly, as they put it:
    A strategy against corruption, therefore, should not begin or end with fulmination about ethics or the need for a new set of attitudes. Instead, it should look cold-bloodedly at ways to reduce monopoly power, limit and clarify discretion, and increase transparency, all the while taking account of the costs, both direct and indirect, of these ways. 
    There is another crucial point in designing an anti-corruption strategy: Corruption is a crime of calculation, not of passion. People will tend to engage in corruption when the risks are low, the penalties mild, and the rewards great. This insight overlaps the formula just mentioned because the rewards will be greater as monopoly power increases. But it adds the idea that incentives at the margin are what determine the calculations of corrupt and potentially corrupt official and citizens. Change information and incentives, and you change corruption.
    ...
    The book is also notable for being against what would appear to be one of the most popular responses to incidents of corruption, namely adding more rules. This often just makes it easier for corruption to flourish. As they put it, “Corruption loves multiple and complex regulations.” We also see in the US that more regulation increase the rent seeking returns to corruption and leads to regulatory capture, either by regulated industries or activists (or some combination of both).

    They also say that corruption shouldn’t be looked at in isolation or as the sole aim, but rather that anti-corruption efforts should be seen as a tool for reinventing and improving the delivery of public services...
    ...
    Among their recommended approaches in the fight against corruption are having a point person with a high profile and public accountability for delivering results, creating an independent anti-corruption office (such as an inspector general type organization), starting by picking low-hanging fruit, eliminating the perception of impunity by “frying big fish” via prosecuting senior officials , working with and not against the bureaucracy, and many other things. "

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    Tuesday, September 02, 2014

    Thoughts on the proposed Astrodome Park

    I was really excited to hear Judge Emmett's proposal last week for converting the Astrodome into an indoor park (official proposal news release).  Although I have touted a big idea for the Astrodome as well as some smaller ones, my longest running proposal and backup plan has always been the one with an absolute minimum of capital requirements: an indoor festival park, first articulated here in 2005 and briefed to the Judge in 2009.  The benefits are huge:
    • Low cost, with the ability to incrementally add new features over the years as private funding is raised (like the zoo does).
    • Climate control and protect festivals, enabling Houston to have festivals year-round instead of in narrow spring and fall seasons, and with no rain-out risk.  We currently have 75-100 festivals a year in Houston subject to weather risk, according to the Judge.
    • Easy fit with the Rodeo and Texans' needs and contractual rights to NRG Park, including the option to just shut the park down during their days (although I doubt that would end up being the case).
    • And of course, historically preserving the world's first domed stadium(!!).  Did I mention the benefits were huge?
    Here's my biggest thought on the design moving forward: the park inside the Astrodome should be design integrated with an outdoor festival park between the Astrodome and NRG (aka Reliant) Stadium. This will allow festivals to have a large outdoor component if the weather is nice, but also shift indoors if the weather forecast becomes problematic.  It's the best of both worlds.

    Some other thoughts:
    • Could it include the proposed Houston Botanical Gardens that are looking for a home?  No freeze risk would allow for even more exotic tropical plants...
    • There's a proposal on HAIF for replacing the currently darkened ceiling panels with clear solar panels that would generate power to run that big air conditioner while also letting light through.  Love the idea if it's technically feasible and NRG is willing to sponsor them.
    • It would be cool if they could put a bike track in one of the upper level concourses.  Imagine the feeling of speed biking through essentially a long circular tunnel! (well, maybe with a view to one side if seating tiers get removed)
    • One of my original ideas was renovating the sky boxes to hold some of Houston's 92+ international consular offices, with each country's flag hanging in a giant circular ring around the dome, emphasizing Houston's international diversity (and reinforcing the international festivals that would be held there).  It would be very cool, but the tricky part would be having them operate during the Rodeo.
    • The Judge is saying parking will be free for the park, but I think they should consider keeping that revenue source on the table, considering what it will cost to run the air conditioning there.  I think the right model might be paid parking with some free days every month, just like the museums do. Parking and admission fees are perfectly normal for federal and state parks, I don't know why they shouldn't be considered for a local park too.  People will always have the option of riding the train there to avoid the parking charges.
    • Naming: how about "Historic Astrodome Park", which everybody would just call "Dome Park" for short?   
    Finally, check out a very personal story from a sophomore at Rice (and a friend of mine) about what the Astrodome meant to him as he experienced the Hurricane Katrina evacuation as a child.

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    Sunday, August 24, 2014

    Dallas vs. Houston in two words, HSR loses its sweet spot, how cities decline, and more

    This week's items:
    • Dallas finally added a rail connection to DFW and thinks this helps qualify them as a world class city, even though downtown Dallas only has a tiny percentage of metro employment and it will take an hour to get there.  I've always heard a big differentiator between Dallas and Houston is that Dallas is much more image conscious about appearances (sort of an LA of Texas), and this really drives it home for me.  We're more pragmatic and are not worried about being considered world class (at this point, we already know we're there).  We tried express bus connecting downtown to IAH (far faster than a rail line), and it flopped, with only 2-3 riders per trip on average.  With that low of a demand, why would we build a multi-billion dollar rail line to the aiport that would be even slower?! That may very well sum up Dallas vs. Houston in two words: prestige vs. pragmatic.  A few years ago I laid out the case here for why rail to the airport rarely makes sense.
    • Speaking of Dallas vs. Houston, we definitely win this tourism smackdown vs. Dallas.
    • Aaron Renn kicks off a 3-post series with a devastating description of how declining cities get into a viciously reinforcing cycle of decline driven by corrupt vulturous interests in real estate, construction, and legal services.  The short version of the argument is that big local banks used to influence local politics to get broad economic growth, but those banks got rolled up into national firms and the business interests that are left really are mostly looking for narrow contracts subsidized by the taxpayer - they don't have the broader interests of the city at heart.  It is a scary and depressing trap that is almost impossible for a city to get out of once it starts (Detroit and Cleveland being two examples).  So far Houston seems to have avoided this fate, but it's certainly something we have to stay vigilant about...
    • A pretty devastating but logical case against the viability of high speed rail, with the nail in the coffin being that self-driving cars will eliminate any distance "sweet spot" that might have existed between driving and flying.
    • Governing magazine dissects the Ashby legal case and no-zoning in Houston.  My favorite excerpt:
    "Whatever views one may hold about a city without zoning, it’s hard to deny that Houston has done pretty well for itself over the past generation or so. Its population has grown faster than that of almost any other American city. Its unemployment rate is among the lowest. It continues to attract new businesses no matter what slogan it chooses to adopt for itself. And a growing number of scholars, notably the urbanologist Edward Glaeser, have argued that Houston has done well precisely because it imposes so few restrictions on development."
    "By 2023, Houston's gross regional product (GRP) will approach $1.1 trillion, more than double where it stands today. The region will add nearly 1.2 million residents, more than 700,000 jobs, and $300 billion in personal income."

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    Monday, August 18, 2014

    Reason TV features Houston, Portland vs. Austin rail, hurricane protection, greenways gamechanger, fast tech and fast cars in Texas

    This week's items:
    Finally, a great 10m video from Reason.TV that starts out talking about experiments with tiny houses in DC vs. their oppressive zoning regulations and bureaucracies, but then transitions to talking about the creativity and freedom allowed in Houston and Victoria.  If you want to jump to the transition about Houston, it starts at the 3:50 point with NYC.  Hat tip to Joel.

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    Tuesday, August 12, 2014

    Our global ranking, Dallas sends us some respect, where we are on the political spectrum, problems of HSR in America, and more

    This week's items:
    "In our assessment, the three US cities with the best long-term prospects to enter the top ranks of global economy are Houston, Washington Metropolitan Area, and the San Francisco Bay area. The rise of 14th ranked Houston is based largely on its role as the “Energy Capital of the World”. The world’s oil supermajors are dispersed geographically (and include a number of state owned firms), and Houston is clearly the centre of the industry. The majority of traded foreign oil majors have their US headquarters in Houston and companies that are technically based elsewhere boast a significant Houston presence. In fact, Houston seems to be becoming more dominant. For example, Exxon, based in Dallas-Fort Worth, is opening a massive Houston campus that will be home to 10,000 employees. Additionally, a majority of the world’s largest oil services companies, such as Baker Hughes, Schlumberger and FMC Technologies, are based in Houston. The Texan city is also a centre for energy trading. Altogether, over 5,000 energy-related companies call Houston home. Houston has also developed other critical aspects of a global city, including the nation’s largest export port and the world’s largest medical centre. It has also become, by some measurements, the most diverse region in the country ethnically. In the last decade, for example, Houston increased its foreign-born population by 400,000, second only to New York and well ahead of much larger Los Angeles."
    Still, even if the California, Florida and Texas projects all succeed, transportation experts say it is unlikely that the United States will ever have the same kind of high-speed rail systems as China or Europe. 
    C. William Ibbs, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, said countries with successful high-speed rail projects had higher population densities, higher gas prices, higher rates of public-transportation use and lower rates of car ownership. “So it wouldn’t make any sense to have a high-speed rail train in most areas of the United States,” he said. “The geography is different and other factors are just too different.”


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    Monday, July 28, 2014

    Houston = urban personification of the Texas spirit, happy #1 boomtown, 18 best city in America reasons, and more

    Continuing with clearing the small items backlog, and I'm traveling over the next week, so this post will cover two weeks:
    "To them, Texas meant opportunity, possibility, openness, freedom... "frontier spirit"
    ...
    The frontier itself may be a thing of the past, but most of the qualities that we think of as quintessentially Texan are derived from the frontier experience—individuality, frankness, boldness, optimism, self-reliance, aversion to pretense, a kind of rustic humor, small-town communitarianism writ large, and the egalitarian ethos of a place unburdened by a centuries-old pecking order."
    "An article in the Financial Times points out that about $10 trillion worth of wealth in the United States is phony, created by restrictive land-use laws that have pushed up the price of housing.
    ...
    First, these planning laws contribute to income inequality by making people who already own homes richer while making those who don’t poorer.
    ...
    Thanks to planning restrictions, the average size of home in Britain today is not only less than half the size of an American home, it is far smaller than the average before passage of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. This is the law that so many planners want to emulate in America.
     
    Those who want to reduce income inequality by taxing the rich, concludes Harding, should take another tack. “If we want to make society fairer and more equal, just let people build.”
    "The second article takes a very different tack, "How Cars, Not Subways, Will Make Us Richer." Written by Scott Beyer for the Daily Beast (June 4th), it begins with the 2011 study from Brookings finding that in America's hundred largest metro areas, only 22% of low- and middle-skill jobs are accessible via transit in less than 90 minutes (which is more than three times the duration of the average auto commute, BTW). It then summarizes a report from the Urban Institute led by Rolf Pendall, which found that transit access has little effect on people's economic success. By contrast, the study team found that low-income people with automobile access were twice as likely as transit users to find jobs and four times as likely to keep them. Beyer suggests that planners need to give greater attention to ways of increasing auto access for lower-income people who are not well-served by transit systems. The report is "Driving to Opportunity," released by the Urban Institute in March 2014, written by a team of people from Urban Institute, the National Center for Smart Growth (at University of Maryland), and the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA."
    And wrapping up with a little fun: an absolutely crazy video of a massive intersection in Ethiopia with no controls of any kind.  Just chaos, but it does seem to flow!  Hat tip to Jay.

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