Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Problem, we have a Houston - Houstonians got a free $18k from min lot size reform, METRO 2nd worst for rail crime, The Economist loves Texas, HTX tops std of living, Houston sliding towards zoning? and more

 Lots of good smaller items again this week:

"Most of the nation’s major cities face a daunting future as middle-class taxpayers join an exodus to the suburbs, opting to work remotely as they exit downtowns marred by empty offices, vacant retail space and a deteriorating tax base."

"Firms like to open factories and offices in cities with plenty of skilled workers. When choosing between cities, they typically run an analysis to see how many potential employees live within a reasonable commute of a site. Poor traffic shrinks the radius, and by extension the labor pool, hurting a city’s chances of attracting companies."

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Thursday, March 16, 2023

Transit in crisis, great train robberies, NIMBYs are killing America, why 15-min cities are flawed, and more

 Just clearing out some backlogged misc items this week:

"Much of the national media, in chorus with urban political and economic leaders, have been pushing these train-focused approaches since the days of Jimmy Carter. The stated aim is usually to move Americans away from their supposedly evil and pernicious love of the private automobile. Americans drive not because they irrationally love cars—although some do—but because it is simply by far the best way to get around. 
We know this because for the most part, train-heavy investments have reaped little in terms of riders and virtually no reduction in auto usage. Indeed, even before the pandemic, transit ridership, despite the creation of new lines, was sagging. Since then transit has continued and accelerated its decline. By the end of 2022, the transit market share had fallen 50%. Today, despite the end of the pandemic, that number has barely moved at all. It is into this fading market share that the current administration and much of the political class now wants to throw its money."

“The country can no longer afford this form of “shadow subsidy,” Smith argues. If America continues on this path, standing by the “build-nothing” mindset, then the middle class will slip into “genteel poverty” and America will lose its leading position in the global economy, he claimed indirectly, albeit poetically: “Someone else will build the future on the bones of our civilization.”  

He urged America to slash the “thicket of red tape” around development, and it seems the world’s richest man agrees.”

"If 15-minute cities were so great, we would still be living in them. But as soon as people got cars, they moved out of them and used their new-found mobility to get better housing, better jobs, and a wider variety of low-cost consumer goods.

Every city in America is a 15-minute city if you take automobiles into account. Thanks to automobiles, the typical U.S. urban resident lives within 15 minutes of more than 100,000 jobs, several different supermarkets that compete hard for their business, one or two shopping malls, parks and other recreation facilities, a variety of health care facilities, friends and relatives, and many other potential destinations and activities. Even the densest cities in the world can’t provide that kind of variety and opportunity within 15 minutes on foot."

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Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Texas vs. 'induced demand' and tolls

Today is the official 18th (!!) anniversary of Houston Strategies, with the first post on March 8th, 2005. This is the 1,391st post (again, !!). I had no idea it would go anywhere near this long when I started, and I have absolutely no idea how long it will continue to go into the future. No matter how long that is, one thing I do know is - with the legacy limitations of blogspot - it will still have this old-school 2005 web page format, lol. I just hope my readers focus on the content rather than the aesthetics ;-)

This week I have an excellent re-post from Bob Poole at Reason's Surface Transportation Innovations on induced demand:

Experts Spar Over Induced Demand and Urban Freeway Expansion  

I-35 through downtown Austin is massively congested much of the day. That’s hardly surprising since both Austin and Texas have been growing by leaps and bounds for several decades (with no end in sight), while I-35 through central Austin still has not had a significant expansion since 1974. Trying to accommodate today’s traffic flow with the capacity of 50 years ago is like trying to put 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5-pound sack.

Yet opponents of expanding I-35 in Austin raise the concept of “induced demand,” which some refer to as the “iron law of freeway congestion.” The idea is that it’s pointless to add capacity because the improved traffic flow will (only) lead to more vehicles choosing to use the freeway, yielding renewed congestion.

One of those who raised this argument is professor and engineer Kara Kockelman, who teaches transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. In a recent piece by Kelsey Thompson of KXAN, Kockelman said that roadway improvements can lead to people changing their behavior, such as living further out in the suburbs or making trips during peak periods that they used to make at off-peak times. “By opening up I-35,” she told KXAN, “what we do is increase the attractiveness of that corridor for longer distance travel.” Also, after a long construction period, “There’ll be a lot of pent-up demand just waiting to get onto that road when it fully opens,” Kockelman added. That’s all true, but it’s not the end of the story.

At about the same time, another transportation expert, Steven Polzin of Arizona State University, published an article on Planetizen, “Induced Travel Demand Induces Media Attention.” He points out that in fast-growing states, most new highway demand comes from population growth and new jobs, not from “induced” travel. Second, he notes that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita have leveled off in the past decade, so traffic congestion will likely not grow as fast in coming decades, other things equal. Third, Polzin points out that trips accommodated by an expanded highway can provide a number of benefits, such as:

  • Residents getting access to better jobs and businesses with better selections and lower prices;
  • Businesses having access to a larger labor pool, and larger customer and supplier bases;
  • Enabling emergency vehicles getting where they are needed faster;
  • Pulling cut-through traffic out of neighborhoods; and,
  • Enabling parents to get home in time for family meals and activities.

Some of those benefits might not be long-lasting, especially as places like Austin continue to grow. But neither expert mentioned a way to make the expansion benefits last longer: add market-priced lanes instead of free lanes, so the pricing will enable high-value trips to take place even during peaks when the free lanes are getting jammed. Those can be personal trips (to the airport to catch a plane, getting to day-care in time to avoid late fees), enabling express buses to run consistently faster and more reliably, and letting emergency vehicles get where they’re needed quickly, for example. Kockelman mentions toll roads but not express toll lanes. In Houston and especially Dallas/Ft. Worth, the express toll lanes are popular and much-used. But even there, where they have proven their usefulness and popularity, regional plans for a whole network of express toll lanes have been thwarted by the Texas state legislature, which has banned any new Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) support for tolled projects, and any new long-term public-private partnerships (P3s) financed by toll revenues.

TxDOT’s earlier concepts for I-35 in Austin called for adding express toll lanes (also known as priced managed lanes). But as I noted in the August 2022 issue of this newsletter, due to the legislative ban, TxDOT’s current plan is to spend $4.9 billion of taxpayers money to add “non-priced managed lanes” to I-35 in Austin. In plain language, that means old-fashioned, ineffective high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. Based on past history, if built, those lanes will likely be either too empty (wasting costly pavement) or too full (fam-pools, cheaters). Without pricing, there is no “management” of HOV lanes.

In a recent presentation in Ft. Worth, I pointed out that TxDOT’s current plans to add HOV lanes to I-35 in Austin, I-35 in San Antonio, and I-635E in Dallas total $8.1 billion. On average, revenue-financed highway projects like express toll lanes need only 20% from the state DOT with all the rest financed based on toll revenues. Were those three projects carried out via revenue-financed P3s, TxDOT would save 80% of that $8.1 billion to spend on other projects statewide. That ought to appeal to legislators from smaller cities and rural areas. And it would produce a much more effective and long-term solution for the antiquated I-35 through Austin.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The housing theory of everything, Vision Zero accomplishes zero, HTX tops for tech growth, zoning causes homelessness, the value of VMT, and more

 Catching up on the backlog of smaller items this week...

“Although sometimes overshadowed by the cachet of Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio, Houston is absolutely a tech hub in its own right, attracting a mix of major tech companies and VC-backed startups to join its already established base of aerospace, defense, and energy companies,” Dice says.
  • Governing: Few Mayors Connect the Dots Between Zoning and Homelessness. Restrictive codes can severely limit housing development, but a new survey of mayors finds that few take them into account in their plans to address homelessness. This is definitely a major factor in Houston's relative success in alleviating homelessness vs. other major cities. Hat tip to Judah.
  • The Atlantic: Everything Is About the Housing Market (archive link) - High urban rents make life worse for everyone in countless ways.  I expect this “housing theory of everything” to continue to catch on because it’s absolutely right. It’s related to what I’ve been talking about for years with the four factors that go into Opportunity Urbanism, including discretionary income that determine how vibrant a city can be. If you pay too much for your house, you don’t have money to put into other things. That has been covered up for decades now by the wealth accumulated by those homeowners, but that’s a short-term effect that’s diminishing.
  • City Journal: Lone Star Housing Crunch - State preemption could ease the affordability crisis created by bad local policy. Texans for Reasonable Solutions is doing great work on this problem with the legislature.
  • Vision Zero Accomplishes Zero:

"I can’t help but think that Vision Zero is really more about inconveniencing auto drivers than increasing safety. Just three policies — a motorcycle helmet law, bicycle boulevards, and moving homeless people away from major arterials — would save far more lives than anything in the adopted plan."

  • The Value of VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled), and why trying to reduce them takes our economy the wrong direction:

"There is clear research showing that faster travel speeds means higher per capita incomes because such speeds give people access to more jobs and employers access to a larger pool of workers, which means more people can do the job that fits them the best.

Even if it was a good idea, no urban area anywhere has found policies, short of war or natural disaster, that can significantly reduce VMT. Yet planners keep spouting the same rhetoric while ignoring the fact that good intentions are meaningless, if not outright harmful, if they don’t produce actual results.

The lesson we need to stress to public officials is that it makes a lot more sense to make better automobiles and highways than it does to try to reduce driving. Since 1970, automobiles have become 50 percent more fuel efficient, 70 percent less likely to be involved in a fatal accident, and 95 percent less polluting of toxic chemicals. If anything, efforts to reduce driving have made these problems worse by forcing people to drive in more congested traffic where cars use more energy and produce more pollution.

I strongly suspect there is some class warfare going on here. Urban planners are by definition college educated and middle class. They probably drive cars, but the cars they drive are likely to be electrics, hybrids, or other high fuel-economy vehicles. The vehicles driven by the working class are more likely pickups, vans, and other large vehicles, partly because they need such vehicles for their work, but the planners see them as the deplorable enemy. So while planners pay lip service to low-income people and the working class, they want to design a society that has no room for them.

Those who truly care about helping low-income people and building healthy, wealthy urban areas need to take a stand in favor of more automobile ownership, more miles of driving, and better roads for those automobiles to drive on."

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Tuesday, February 21, 2023

City of Houston sneaking through backdoor zoning

The City of Houston is trying to sneak through backdoor zoning in Mayor Turner's lame-duck last year by rushing through an ordinance authorizing "conservation districts" where 51% of a neighborhood can impose a form-based code on all the owners there (Chronicle, NPR). 

"The draft recommendation characterizes conservation districts as “a more flexible way for property owners to protect their community’s character and address other concerns stemming from redevelopment.” Toward that end, these districts could regulate a variety of elements including minimum lot size; lot width and depth; front, side and rear setbacks; building height; and architectural style."

By charter, zoning is illegal in Houston without being authorized by the voters, but this is an end-run by the mayor and the council around that restriction.

Had this ordinance existed 30 years ago, Houston would not have experienced the wonderful townhome and apartment densification we've had, including the attendant affordability. Central Houston would have instead evolved like West U or Bellaire, with massive expensive McMansions on large lots displacing middle-income families.  It would have been a disaster, and it will be now if it passes. It will give a powerful tool to NIMBYs all over the city to kill development and force stagnation on their neighborhoods, and more broadly kill the vibrancy, dynamism, and affordability of Houston itself.

The council is opening it up for public comment tomorrow, February 21st (here is their FAQ). Please make your opposition heard! (written comments can be submitted here)

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Thursday, February 09, 2023

Houston drops to #9 for traffic congestion

This week I'd like to do a simple re-post from Bob Poole's excellent Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter at Reason, where Houston has dropped to #9 in the traffic congestion rankings with delay hours far below the worst cities like Chicago, Boston, NYC, Philly, Miami, SF, and LA. Highlights mine.

Traffic Congestion Roars Back, Despite Work from Home

The 2022 INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard was released last month, and it shows a strong resumption of metro area traffic congestion, despite the continued high level of telecommuting. The same pattern appears in major metro areas in Europe, Latin America, and South Africa.

The INRIX global top 25 most-congested metro areas table resembles the 2021 ranking, with London still in first place, Paris in third place, and Toronto moving up from 22nd to 7th place. The 10 most-congested metro areas worldwide had delays ranging from 121 hours per driver to 156 hours per driver in 2022.

For U.S. cities, Chicago moved up to 2nd  from 6th place, Boston zoomed from 18th to 4th, and Miami rose to 9th from the previous year’s 32nd place. Other areas rising a lot included Los Angeles, up to 14th from 33rd, San Francisco, from 15th from 34th, and Washington, D.C., which went from 99th to now 20th.

The changes in congestion rank for U.S. metro areas were nowhere near as dramatic as the worldwide changes. Here are the key 2022 INRIX figures for the top 10 metros.

2022 Rank (2021)Metro AreaAvg. Delay (hrs)Cost/driverCost per Metro
1 (2)Chicago155$2,618$9.5B
2 (4)Boston134$2,270$4.3B
3 (1)New York117$1,976$10.2B
4 (3)Philadelphia114$1,925$4.5B
5 (5)Miami105$1,773$4.5B
6 (6)Los Angeles  95$1,601$8.6B
7 (7)San Francisco  97$1,642$2.6B
8 (13)Washington  83$1.398$3.5B
9 (8)Houston  74$1,257$3.7B
10 (10)Atlanta  74$1,257$3.1B
Source: INRIX

Many factors are responsible for these traffic congestion results, but let me suggest a few that might be relevant. First, despite much rhetoric arguing that traffic congestion is a byproduct of low-density sprawl land-use patterns and that higher density and mass transit are the answer, the top four U.S. metro areas are all characterized by high-density and high-transit mode-share, in comparison with lower-density, low-transit Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Atlanta.

Second, which of these areas have added express toll lanes to portions of their freeway systems? Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, Houston, and Atlanta.

One other point about density and transit as the long-term solution: urban agglomeration benefits. Extensive research shows that large metro areas are generally more economically productive than smaller ones because a lot more positive-sum transactions can take place in the former—assuming there is fast and reliable transportation from any origin to any destination (since both residences and jobs are spread out all over the landscape). (See Alain Bartaud’s excellent book, Order Without Design, MIT Press, 2018)

Less-congested freeways, due to variably-priced express lanes, contribute to employers having a wider choice of qualified prospective hires and workers having many more good employment options. The same is true, in theory, of a large transit network. Yet, a series of “access to destinations” studies by University of Minnesota researchers have shown that in most large metro areas one can get to nearly all the potential jobs in 30-45 minutes by car, but to very few via transit.

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Monday, January 30, 2023

Restarting NHHIP brings Pierce Sky Park back to life

This week we have another excellent guest post from Oscar Slotboom.
The Chronicle recently reported on the closure of the midtown McDonalds restaurant and planned relocation of the Greyhound bus terminal, both of which are notorious for attracting elements that are not conducive to the revitalization of the area. The article mentioned the potential of a park on the current Pierce Elevated, if and when the delayed North Houston Highway Improvement Project can move forward.
This is a good time to mention a website I created in 2015 when the current plan for NHHIP was first presented to the public: advocates a recreation-oriented park on the Pierce Elevated. This is in contrast to other proposals which had depictions showing artsy designs and pathways which were not suitable for recreation (or at street level), for example
All the reasons for a recreation-oriented park are detailed at the website, but here are the key points:
  • The Skypark should be designed to serve downtown Houston residents, and attract more residents to downtown. It should not be designed or intended for visitors to downtown or tourists (which are scarce in Houston).
  • A recreation-oriented facility will attract downtown residents to the facility on a regular basis, much like the Memorial Park loop is heavily used. This will ensure substantial use of the park. On the contrary, an artsy or non-recreation facility will likely attract visitors on an irregular or occasional basis, possibly leading to underuse or sections seeming to be deserted.
  • The facility should have wide paths to accommodate walkers, joggers, bicyclists, and other modes like scooters. There should not be any bottlenecks. The Highline in New York City is mostly narrow with frequent bottlenecks, so it is not suitable for recreation.
  • A recreation-oriented facility should be less expensive for initial construction compared to an artsy design.
  • Artsy features and/or commercial components (e.g. restaurants) can be included initially or in the future, but will be enhancements which build on the success and pedestrian traffic of the recreation-oriented features.
Page 83 of this Downtown Redevelopment Authority document appears to suggest paths suitable for recreation, but the overhead view is very high-level (lacking details) and is surely preliminary. There is plenty of space available, so recreation paths for walkers and bikers should not be narrow or constricted.
The opposition effort has resulted in a long delay to NHHIP and the potential Pierce Elevated park. While there is now a local agreement to move the project forward, TxDOT is still awaiting FHWA clearance to proceed, and the recent 28% surge in highway construction cost will surely cause more delays. As of now, work to relocate I-45 to the east side of downtown is not scheduled, and the earliest start is probably 2028, with the first half of the 2030s more likely for starting work and a park becoming available in the second half of the 2030s. But there is always the chance of a faster schedule, to lessen the damage caused by the opposition effort.
I-69 Midtown, sink elevated freeway below ground Listed for bids in June 2024 (subject to change)
I-10 on north side of downtown, including I-45 Interchange Planned for bidding in 2027 (delayed from 2024)
All other downtown work, including I-45 relocation Not scheduled, probably start late 2020s or early 2030s.
Below are depictions from

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Sunday, January 08, 2023

Warren Buffet calls bs on rail, remote work permanence, induced demand idiocy, HTX tech + construction + port growth, Ike Dike, and more

Happy new year everyone! Hope you all had a good holiday season and didn't get caught up in the Southwest airlines chaos. Sadly, I accidentally wiped out all my backlog of post topics and blogspot does not have any recovery functionality (why can't it keep history like Google Docs?!). So I'm combing back through my tweets to try to find at least some of them:
Richard Florida: “When I started with the creative class, places didn’t care about young people, they were only trying to attract a family with children to the lovely suburbs, and I’m saying, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’” Mr. Florida said in an interview. “Twenty years later, people forgot about the families. And now here’s a whole generation leaving cities again, for metropolitan or virtual suburbs.” ...

"A few feet away from her, another group of young workers was playing Jenga. One by one, they took blocks away from the structure, making way for the inevitable collapse."

"Bloom provided data showing strong economic incentives for both corporations and their employees to continue the work-from-home revolution if their jobs allow it:

First, “Saved commute time working from home averages about 70 minutes a day, of which about 40 percent (30 minutes) goes into extra work.” Second, “Research finds hybrid working from home increases average productivity around 5 percent and this is growing.” And third, “Employees also really value hybrid working from home, at about the same as an 8 percent pay increase on average.”
Finally, I'll end with this good short overview video on the Ike Dike:

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