Sunday, January 13, 2019

Great quote on Houston, Complete streets not adding value, planning problems, NYT love for HTX, and more

Quite the backlog of smaller items this week:
"After adjusting the two sets of data to make them comparable prior to the time when one group adopted Complete Streets, they found that “Complete Streets policy has no effect on house prices, and therefore we are unable to find a positive amenity value from a municipality-level commitment to Complete Streets.” 
"State DOTs should be far more cautious in agreeing to requests from municipalities to convert arterial routes to Complete Streets treatment. Most of the information provided by New Urbanists consists of anecdotes, rather than careful analysis such as Vandegriff and Zandoni have provided."
Rebounding bigger and better after a hurricane

"After Hurricane Harvey, the city is back on its feet and showing off the everything-is-bigger-in-Texas attitude. Four food halls opened in 2018, including Finn Hall, which features up-and-coming chefs including the James Beard-nominated chef Jianyun Ye with a downtown outpost of his Chinese hot spot Mala Sichuan and a taqueria from the local favorite Goode Company. The five-diamond Post Oak Hotel opened in March 2018 with a two-story Rolls Royce showroom, art by Frank Stella and a 30,000-bottle wine cellar. The Menil Collection, known for its eclectic art ranging from Byzantine antiques to 20th-century Pop Art, underwent a seven-month renovation of its main building and opened the 30,000-square-foot Menil Drawing Institute. The low-slung white steel-and-glass building with a trapezoidal roof is the first addition to the Menil campus in 20 years and the first freestanding museum dedicated to modern drawing in the United States. The city’s museum boom continues with a massive expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to be completed in 2020, a newly built location for the Holocaust Museum, which will move in the spring of 2019, and a restoration of the Apollo Mission Center that will open in time for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in July." 
"Transit riders are more sensitive to frequencies than to whether a transit vehicle runs on rubber tires or steel wheels. A bus carries fewer people than a train, but that’s a virtue, not a flaw, because it allows for higher frequencies. If Ft. Worth had used buses rather than rails for this route, it could have run those buses every 10 or 15 minutes (instead of hourly), attracting a lot more riders."
"Houston is a city of immigrants and engineers. Function trumps fashion with this no-nonsense crowd that expects to work hard and earn rewards based on merit. Looking at demographics and migration patterns, people voting with their feet consider the Bayou City the most egalitarian of the Texas metro areas."
Finally, I wanted to end with a longer set of excerpts from an excellent piece by Nolan Gray in CityLab: "How Cities Design Themselves"

"Sometimes when I read the papers of my fellow urban planners, I get the sense that they think cities are Disneyland or Club Med. Cities are labor markets. People go to cities to find a good job. Firms move to cities, which are expensive, because they are more likely to find the staff and specialists that they need. If a city’s attractive, that’s a bonus. But basically, they come to get a job.
...
Urban planning has an important role to play. With the exception of fire and safety regulation, planners should focus much less on what people do on their plot or in their apartment, and much more on the management of the public spaces, like streets and parks.

Insomuch as urban planners deal with land uses and densities, they should closely monitor trends to be aware of what’s happening. For instance, in New York, household size has plummeted over the past 30 years. Urban planners should be aware of that and address rigidities that prevent the city from accommodating those demographic changes.

An area where urban planners should play a much more active role is mobility, mainly by adapting existing systems to emerging trends. Urban mobility is the key to housing affordability. Improved urban transport makes more land available for housing and therefore allows low-income people to live in areas that are both affordable and accessible to most of the city.
..
In my book, I talk a lot about income distribution curves. Every time urban planners do something, they should ask: Who is going to pay?"

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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Houston 2020: From freeways to scooters, transit will get disrupted

The Houston Chronicle Sunday editorial section today was dedicated to Houston forecasts beyond 2019, and I was honored to be featured for transportation (on the COU website here)  I'm going to include the full text below for posterity on the blog:

MOBILITY
The transportation future’s so bright, we’ll have to wear shades
From freeways to scooters, transit will get disrupted by construction and technology
By Tory Gattis

In most ways, 2020 transportation in Houston will only be incrementally different from today: the completion of the U.S. 290 expansion, new toll lanes down the middle of Texas 288, the extension of the Texas 249 toll road beyond Tomball toward College Station, the next segments of the Grand Parkway 170-mile mega-loop. And of course there’s the one constant in Houston over the last 70 years: the never-ending widening of the Gulf Freeway.

The great redevelopment of Interstate 45 and the tangle of downtown freeways will only have just begun, and although Texas Central originally forecast 90-minute high-speed rail service between Dallas and Houston in 2020, that date has almost certainly slipped since construction has not yet begun.

On a smaller scale, we’ll see the completion of 50 new miles of high-comfort bikeways as well the redevelopment of Bagby Street downtown into a “complete street” with enhanced pedestrian and biking amenities connecting the theater district with parks and City Hall.

Rapidly growing dockless bike and scooter services will likely come to Houston, making it much easier to make short distance urban trips and increasing demand for these bikeways and complete streets.

What’s far more exciting is that 2020 will kick off the greatest decade of transportation technology disruption since the invention of the car itself. We’ve already seen the beginnings with the rise of Uber and Lyft shared rides, which have been challenging transit ridership nationally. Autonomous vehicles will make these services even more affordable and transform cities in all sorts of ways with increased safety, less congestion, lower parking needs enabling all sorts of urban densification and redevelopment, and increased exurban development as long commutes become more tolerable (even more radically, Uber has begun testing autonomous drone air taxis to allow us to soar over what congestion remains — at a price).

Houston TxDOT is already preparing for this autonomous future with a strategy of next-generation HOV lanes called MaX (Managed eXpress) Lanes moving the maximum number of people at maximum speed from across our region to all of our major job centers, including high-speed autonomous buses from METRO.

In the commute of the future, you’ll be able to take a nonstop autonomous ride safely at high-speed (possibly up to 100-plus-mph) in protected MaX Lanes directly to your job center where it will circulate you right to your building, while autonomous shared-ride services will get you around for short trips during the day. And unlike driving, you’ll be able to be productive or entertained on your phone, tablet or laptop the whole time. To paraphrase the immortal Timbuk 3: the transportation future’s so bright, we’ll have to wear shades (probably with augmented reality).

Gattis is a founding senior fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

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Monday, December 24, 2018

The Good, Bad, and Ugly of the METRONext A+ Plan

Earlier this month METRO released their new "A Plus" plan through 2040 at a board workshop you can watch here (Dec 11) and review the documents here (Chronicle coverage here, Metro promotional video here).  My thoughts on their previous round of plans are here, as well as Oscar Slotboom's take here, including some great stats, and all of which still applies to this plan.  The new plan is more than double the cost of the previous A plan: from $3.5 billion to $7.5 billion.  Overall, Metro is continuing their refreshing pragmatism and financial prudence, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be even better.  In the past I've used a good/bad/ugly framework for reviewing Metro services, and that framework will work well again here.

The Good
  • Substantial BRT and HOV service expansions, including two-way service in most corridors.
  • Speed improvements to HOV service to get through downtown, midtown, and the med center
  • Express bus/BRT to IAH airport at only $11million a mile!
  • Dropped the high-cost/low-ridership LRT line from the Astrodome to Hobby.
  • Converting the major east-west Universities line from LRT to BRT.
  • Great leverage of TXDoT money on MaX Lanes.
  • BOOST Network of local bus routes with frequent, high-quality service at the bargain price of only $53 million!
  • Faster and more reliable trips between activity centers.
  • Expanded access to opportunity within commute time constraints (see their Greenway Plaza Access map on slide 17).
The Bad/Concerning
  • BRT is still a not-cheap $42 million/mile (although a bargain vs. $150m/mile LRT!), so we need to be selective about where those routes go vs. more affordable BOOST/Signature bus service.  For example, does Gessner really justify BRT vs. good signature bus service?
  • I am still concerned about the slow commuter transfers to/from the Inner Katy BRT and the I10+290 HOV lanes, as described at the bottom of my first analysis.  MaX Lanes with commuter buses making a quick stop at the NW transit center then continuing downtown makes far more sense, and those same lanes can provide all-day express service connecting downtown to the high-speed rail terminal.
  • Strongly disagree with their assessment (in the table) that the Regional Express Network has "Low" economic growth potential.  As mainlane congestion increases, these commuter bus services will be *huge* in determining whether major employers stick it out in the core or move out to the suburbs like Exxon did.
  • General concern about congested and unsafe intersection crossings across the Universities line, especially Buffalo Speedway, Kirby, Shepherd, Montrose, and Midtown/Main/Richmond/Wheeler.  This really needs to be modeled out before going ahead so we don't end up with pure chaos on our hands (like Dallas did with their LRT downtown).
  • The priorities in this plan seem to give short shrift to the recent LINK report calling for more equitable transit serving more low-income populations.  A lot more resources could be shifted from flashy, expensive, low-ridership LRT projects (see below) to improving good basic bus service in more neighborhoods that need it.
The Ugly
  • Metro is still low-balling LRT estimates, assuming $122m/mile when all of the more recent extensions were closer to $150m/mile.  They're estimating $2.45B for LRT when it will probably be closer to $3B.
  • Even if you assume their cost estimates are right, we're talking about spending $2.45 billion for only 18,900 daily riders. That's $130k per rider! (and remember they're mostly not even new riders, but existing bus riders switching to rail)  Yes, we could buy every new rider a very nice new high-end Porsche for less money!
  • Extending the Red Line north 5.9 miles to Acres Homes at an eye-popping cost of $634 million(!).  There are some arguments about the benefits of connecting to a transit center up there, but it still seems a steep price for only 9,000 additional daily riders (most of whom are probably already riding the bus).
  • The near-criminality of spending $1.8 billion to extend both the Green and Purple lines to Hobby with only 7,200 riders a day! That's a quarter-million dollars per rider! The BOOST network is already shown connecting Hobby in the same directions at a tiny fraction of the cost! Isn't that good enough? But in both cases, I'm guessing it will take a solid hour to go from Hobby to downtown.  Who's going to ride that?! Why not just do an express bus service in the MaX Lanes like they're doing to IAH that's far faster at a tiny fraction of the cost?! (it could even hook in UH with a stop just like the IAH service has a couple of intermediate stops).
    • Airports are not as great connections as people think: the slow trip times and hassle of hauling baggage are discouraging vs. family or leisure travelers getting picked up or dropped off by friends/family or parking or using Uber/Lyft, and business travelers are usually happy to expense a faster taxi/Uber/Lyft ride (or rent a car depending on how much they're getting around).  Here's the question I ask everyone when they suggest rail to the airport: Metro needs to put limited resources where it will do the most good. With that in mind, how many times per year do you commute to work vs. commute to the airport? (probably 100-to-1 for the average person)  Connecting job centers makes far more sense than airports.
Here are a few opportunity cost thought experiments: with the $2.45 billion being spent on a negligible 20 miles of light rail, the plan could instead offer:
  • 58 more miles of BRT, or...
  • 197 more miles of additional commuter bus HOV service, or...
  • 4,900 more miles (!!) of better BOOST and signature bus service, or...
  • Provide free fares for all riders for 38 years, increasing ridership and reducing traffic congestion in the bargain! 
As Metro goes through the public feedback process, I hope they consider some of these alternatives with far, far higher benefit-to-cost ratios.

Hat tip to Oscar Slotboom for some of the observations in this post.

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Monday, December 10, 2018

Bush and Houston, #1 take-home pay, Europe's rail fail, increasing access to jobs, zoning as crony capitalism, transit's decline, Houston beats Austin and Dallas for affordable housing, and more

Apologies for the long gap between posts due to travel.  Catching up on many smaller items:
"So Dallas has decided to legalize the granny flat — subject to enough rules and regulations to ensure that this has approximately zero impact on the housing market. The political mind at work again: Dallas studied Austin’s granny-flat liberalization program, which over the course of several years saw 200 units come onto the market, some of them new construction but mostly the rental of properties that hadn’t been rented before. Austin has almost 1 million people. Dallas copied the Austin model — on purpose, knowing that it would produce negligible results
Let’s summarize: The city, having prohibited a common form of affordable housing, decided to reverse that prohibition in the hopes of bringing back some of that affordable housing by following the example of another city whose efforts produced basically no affordable housing. Ingenious! 
Down the road a bit in Houston, they’ve had some success with a radically different approach: building houses."
"For decades transit planning agencies and public officials (including when I served on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission) have claimed that new transit rail systems can materially reduce traffic congestion. The development of access metrics should put an end to such misconceptions (Note 3). 
Regional planning agencies, transportation agencies and public officials should use the access metrics to direct funding to strategies that improve 30 minute access throughout cities. That principally means attention to improving the highway system. It’s time to develop a metric for urban transportation investments to address the fundamental goal of improving access, specifically the cost per new percentage point of job access. Getting people more access is critical to strong economies and reducing poverty, and deserves an assessment based on facts, not wishful thinking or mythology."
"Five cities—New York, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco—accounted for a third of all Fortune 500 headquarters and half of Fortune 500 firms’ profits last year"
Finally, a moment of remembrance for a great Houstonian, George H.W. Bush, whose statue I was admiring at the airport just hours before his death hit the news.  And a quote I love from the NYT piece talking about his relationship with Houston:
"Mr. Bush and Houston — both a little quirky, a little square, a little misunderstood — were a natural fit. "

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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Iconic urbanist Jane Jacobs would have loved Houston

I've been meaning to comment for a while on this excellent piece reinterpreting Jane Jacobs by Nolan Gray at the Market Urbanism Report site.  I *love* this, as she implicitly endorses much of the Houston model. FWIW, my own thoughts on Jane's model can be found at The Market Urbanism Report here (or on this blog here).  Here are some of the key excerpts/points:
"I argue that we should interpret Jane Jacobs as a spontaneous order theorist in the tradition of Adam Smith, Michael Polanyi, and F.A. Hayek. Built into her work is a profound appreciation of the importance of local knowledge, decentralized planning, and the spontaneous orders that structure urban life. Needless to say, this is not the prevailing interpretation of the importance and meaning of Jacobs’ work. Two very different alternative interpretations prevail. In this post, I argue that both interpretations are mistaken."
She did NOT support a form-based code, nor was she a NIMBY:
"Between the publication of Death and Life and 1961 and her passing in 2006, Jacobs regularly advocated for performance zoning, a form of zoning that focuses exclusively on the negative externalities of new development. At the 1970 event, Jacobs even articulated the key issues that such a performance zoning code should focus, including noise, pollution, scale, signs, traffic generation, and demolitions (VMT p. 216). “Under performance zoning, far greater freedom of land use could be permitted than is now the case, with superior results for the environment.” Given that her theory of urban growth and change militates against stricter top-down land-use controls, and her advocacy of performance zoning suggests a viable alternative to the status quo, there is little reason that Jacobs’ observations about urban design should be taken as a blueprint for any kind of form-based code or transect zoning."
I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Amazon HQ2 winners vs. Houston

Today's guest post is from Oscar Slotboom:

Observations on Amazon's HQ2 Announcement

Regular blog readers may recall my October 2017 post where I assessed Houston's chances for winning HQ2 and concluded that Houston and Amazon were a poor match, and Houston had no chance of winning. Of course, Houston was not among the finalists, which in my view was a good result since it avoided the expenditure of local time and resources in a futile effort, although the Greater Houston Partnership may have gladly incurred the cost for the "prestige" of being a finalist.

Tory subsequently added his views (1, 2) on Houston's lack of finalist status
  1. Amazon did not want to compete with the oil industry for talent, since periodic booms make the industry flush with cash for raiding talent
  2. Amazon did not want to be seen squeezing Houston for incentives after Hurricane Harvey
A Good Business Climate with Low Costs Was Not Amazon's Priority
Now that we know the winners, it is clear that Houston was totally incompatible with Amazon's HQ2 desires. Houston's strengths are a low cost of living, ample supply of housing, and a good business climate, providing a lower cost of doing business. Finalists Atlanta and Dallas also have these strengths. Amazon chose the cities ranked #1 and #3 for the highest cost of living in the U.S. (chart from Monday's Chronicle). The much smaller operations center in Nashville slated for 5000 workers is a lower cost location, however.


(click to enlarge)
On Sunday the Dallas Morning News reported on the higher costs of living in NYC and DC, particularly housing, including these graphics.




It appears that the deciding factors were public transit and workforce availability in both cities, and enhanced ability to influence the federal government with the Arlington location (as well as being convenient to Jeff Bezos' DC home). New York state is reported to be providing $1.5 billion in incentives plus the potential for tax credits per eligible employee, while Virginia was reported by WSJ to "grant $550 million over 12 years as long as Amazon creates 25,000 jobs with an average wage of over $150,000."

In a Twitter post after the initial leak of the winners, Tory mentioned that the selection may be designed to attract a certain workforce, mainly recent college graduates and single 20-somethings who want to live in trendy cities, while frightening away 30-something family-oriented employees who won't be able to afford housing (or face super-long commutes) and 40+ workers who won't want to pay the premium to live in a trendy area. The smaller Nashville office, in contrast, may be attractive to everyone.
"Confirms my suspicions that tech companies strongly prefer cheap young single employees willing to work long hours over older family-centered employees that cost more and work less, so they pick cities as family-unfriendly as possible to drive that turnover."
Houston's Response
Of course, Houston's exclusion from the finalist list forced some introspection on our competitive position for attracting tech jobs, and spurred local leadership to strengthen tech-oriented startup activity, as was nicely reported recently by the Dallas Morning News.

But making Houston attractive to a big tech employer like Amazon will be very difficult and may have negative effects, since a workforce realignment to Amazon-style tech skills may weaken or starve the specialized and disparate STEM skills needed by local industries. But that's another topic.

Head Scratcher
While Amazon has massive revenue and a huge market capitalization, it reported good profits for the first time only this year, and is generally a low-margin operation. It seems that Amazon will have to pay higher wages for those 50,000 workers in NYC and DC, maybe much higher, as compared to other finalist cities. The Virginia incentives appear to require an average salary of $150,000 per employee, 50% higher than the $100,000 listed in the original Amazon requirement. Also, the majority of those 50,000 jobs are likely to be routine, run-of-the-mill IT and administrative jobs, not really requiring a premium workforce in an elite location and easily handled by a lower-cost workforce in Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, or other finalist cities.

Update 2017-11-21 
WSJ is reporting that half the jobs at both the NYC and DC  sites will be non-tech positions, and will be "administrative jobs, custodial staff, HR and [other staffers]".

Biggest Losers
Chicago and Atlanta, which are both very qualified, have excellent downtown locations available, really wanted to win and were believed to offer substantial incentives. The #3 loser Dallas, which was less qualified due to weaker higher education and no prime downtown site, offered up to $1.1 billion in incentives for the full 50K jobs (or $550 million for 25K jobs). Maryland and Newark offered massive incentive packages but were passed over for other locations in their regions.

Houston can take solace in the fact that Atlanta and Dallas, which are our closest competitive/peer cities, both were shut out.

Cities that Win By Losing
Boston, Austin, and Denver, which all would sustain substantial negatives from the large Amazon presence.

The other finalist cities were not qualified and had no chance of winning, but did get some good press from being on the finalist list.

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Monday, November 05, 2018

Contrasting Dallas and Houston

A couple of items in recent months have highlighted differences in Dallas vs. Houston to me.  The first is this Urbanophile story about a "carpetbagger" critic of Dallas that is having a big influence on the city.  It just highlights to me how much more self-conscious Dallas is of its image - it went all-in on an extremely expensive and stupid commuter rail network, and now it's drinking the urbanist anti-sprawl kool-aid. Houston is full of pragmatic engineers not-so-concerned with looking good to the coastal elites.  Thank goodness.

Next is this article which is not so interesting in itself (typical anti-sprawl), but has some insightful graphs on college-degrees and incomes by the distance from downtown for different Texas cities.  Definite 'donut' effects, except in Austin, which is a little odd.  But I found it interesting that it shows how much more successful Houston has been at urbanizing with more high-incomes and college-degreed in the core than Dallas.  I'd attribute it to our lack of zoning allowing densification to meet demand - more apartments, towers, and townhomes.

(if the formatting of these graphs gets messed up, you can find them here)

Dallas-Fort Worth

While the suburbs still account for most of Dallas-Fort Worth’s population growth, downtown neighborhoods have seen the highest increases in college-educated residents and incomes.
Change in residents with a college degree, 1990-2012
0510152025Miles from city center-5010203040%
Change in per-capita income, 1990-2012
0510152025-5,000010,00020,00030,000$40,000

Houston

Houston’s urban neighborhoods and suburban developments saw increases in college-educated residents and incomes. But there were declines on both fronts in neighborhoods between those two areas.
Change in residents with college degree, 1990-2012
0510152025Miles from city center-5010203040%
Change in per-capita income, 1990-2012
0510152025-5,000010,00020,00030,000$40,000


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Monday, October 29, 2018

Congestion improvements, global superstar city, biggest homes in America, up vs out debate, Vision Zero flaws, CA vs. TX, and more

Ok, first an apology for such a *long* gap between posts.  I have been nearly continuously traveling since early Sept (multiple trips mixing work and fun), including presenting MaX Lanes at the Strong Cities 2030 sustainable mobility symposium in Essen, Germany and debating up vs. out urban development policies at the Breakthrough Institute Ecomodernism 2018 conference in DC.  Both events went really well and I got very positive feedback.  As you might expect with such a long gap, a lot of smaller items have gotten backlogged:
"The other point that leaps out of the table is the change in rank of Dallas and Houston, both of which moved significantly lower in the league table of most-congested metro areas. Both have a growing fraction of their expressways that are tollways, and both have expanding networks of variably priced managed lanes. Also striking is that Portland, with just one-third the population of Dallas, has nearly the same average congested hours per commuter and has nearly double the percentage of peak period hours that are congested."
"Vision Zero is a failed policy from a paternalistic government that takes millions of dollars to implement and never reaches its goal of zero deaths, in part because its goal is completely unrealistic. But Vision Zero does make life harder for commuters and those delivering freight. Yet this is the policy that many U.S. cities want to implement."
"The 50 cities account for 8 percent of global population, 21 percent of world GDP, 37 percent of urban high-income households, and 45 percent of headquarters of firms with more than $1 billion in annual revenue. The average GDP per capita in these cities is 45 percent higher than that of peers in the same region and income group, and the gap has grown over the past decade."
"The only cities where housing was cheaper relative to income than in Dubai were Houston and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia."
Finally, I have to end on this hilariously awesome SMBC comic on NIMBYs ;-D

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