Monday, July 18, 2016

Elements of an Opportunity City

As part of a project for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, I tried to take some elements of Houston and generalize them to describe an Opportunity City model that other cities could emulate. I came up with three major items supported by many descriptive sub-points. I'd love to get feedback from readers in the comments.  Did I miss anything?

Elements of an Opportunity City

  1. Energized community with an open culture
    1. Big small town - combine the best of both worlds
    2. Belonging + Diversity
    3. Strong philanthropic/charity culture
    4. Strong civic/contributing culture
    5. Arts & culture scene
    6. Friendly, welcoming
    7. Openness to outsiders, immigrants, minorities
    8. Live and let live tolerance
    9. Future orientation, optimism
  2. Entrepreneur friendly (both for-profit and nonprofit)
    1. Emphasis on “the little guy” here, small business including immigrants; tech entrepreneurs too, but that’s secondary
    2. Pro-growth, pro-business
    3. Vibrant economy
    4. Diverse and high-quality restaurants
    5. Lots of small and mid-sized developers (urban and suburban)
    6. Small businesses
    7. Competition increases affordability, lowers cost of living, improves quality of life
    8. No zoning (lowers barriers to development)
    9. Predictable checklist permitting
    10. Low regulation
    11. Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs) easily enabling new subdivisions of housing
    12. Cultural tolerance of risk-taking and failure
    13. Supporting nonprofit entrepreneurs too
  3. Affordable proximity: can affordably live within range of where the jobs and urban action are, especially family-friendly neighborhoods with good schools
    1. Good mobility infrastructure opens up more housing within a reasonable commute range
    2. Allowing housing supply to meet demand - both urban and suburban - ensuring affordability
    3. Low cost of living -> high discretionary incomes -> vibrancy
    4. #1 standard of living (graph)

Houston has the nation's highest standard of living

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

On-demand is the future of transit, #2 friendliness = Houspitality, benefits of no-zoning, red vs. blue urbanists, and more

This week's items:
"Under a shared mobility system, the Gini co-efficient dropped from 0.27 to 0.11 for access to jobs; from 0.26 to 0.08 for access to health services; and showed near perfect equality at 0.01, down from 0.26, for access to education. The more efficient use of vehicles makes it possible to cut current prices of public transport journeys in the city by 50% or more without any subsidies."
"...transit can provide mobility for people who can’t or don’t want to drive, but it can’t relieve congestion, reduce transportation costs to taxpayers, save energy, reduce pollution, create real estate development, or stimulate the economy of a region."
"...these self-driving fleets will be significantly cheaper than owning a car, which sits idle roughly 95% of the time. With the savings, you will be able to escape your cramped apartment in the city for a bigger spread farther away, offering more peace and quiet, and better schools for the children. 
Your commute will be downright luxurious, quiet time in a vehicle designed to allow you to work or relax. Shared self-driving cars will have taken so many vehicles off the road—up to 80% of them, according to one Massachusetts Institute of Technology study—that you’re either getting to work in record time or traveling farther in the same time, to a new class of exurbs."
Finally, a great piece in the City Observatory on "Why Houston has been special since at least 1999," which goes into great detail about how we've been able to add more affordable density in the core, especially townhomes.
"...Houston’s lack of an official zoning code actually does allow for more flexibility, and densification, than the vast majority of American cities."

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Monday, July 04, 2016

Building to the Grand Finale - An updated analysis of the 45N rebuild

Happy Independence Day! (a bit of that theme in the post) I'm finally back from my travels. This week we have a guest post by Houston Freeways author Oscar Slotboom on plans for the 45N project, which was recently featured in the Chronicle where I was quoted.
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In May TxDOT  posted updated schematics for the inner loop section of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project on the official project site. This is the second update after the seriously flawed original design released in April 2015 and the first update in September 2015.

The good news is that TxDOT and their engineering consultant HNTB continue their steady progress of improving the design, and my updated analysis now contains only four serious design concerns, down from sixteen in the original release and seven in the September 2015 update. See the September 2015 issue status list for the improvements in the latest version.

For the latest project design:
  • Three of the four remaining concerns are related to access to the northbound MaX (managed express) lanes from downtown, including the poorly situated proposed slip ramp, the lack of access to the MaX lanes inside the loop, and reducing northbound IH 45 to three main lanes at the Loop. TxDOT has agreed that the design in the area can be improved and is currently studying options.
  • TxDOT made a huge improvement in the latest design by restoring the on-ramp to northbound IH-69 from San Jacinto, which currently exists but was removed in the first two versions of the plan. But the new design does not restore the currently-existing southbound exit to Fannin, and still requires vehicles to exit to Almeda and then proceed west through Midtown, where the streets are not designed east-west traffic. So half of this problem is solved, and I propose possible designs to fix the other half.
Overall we’re very close to getting a plan which will be just about the best it can be within the already established framework and constraints. Let’s continue the ongoing refinement to get a plan worthy of a fireworks grand finale, with no remaining serious design concerns.

The MaX Lane North-South connectivity issue
TxDOT and HNTB say that their traffic model indicates that traffic will move through downtown much better, an average of 24 miles per hour faster, and touts the huge benefits for IH-69. But we all know that future traffic often exceeds projections as economic and population growth push volumes higher, and latent demand also consumes newly added capacity. In the larger perspective, north-south travel has become one of the most serious travel challenges at rush hour, with downtown, the West Loop and West Sam Houston Tollway all typically heavily congested.

With the IH-45 MaX lanes in this plan, construction soon to begin on the SH 288 managed lanes, existing HOV lanes on the Southwest, Gulf and Eastex freeways, the planned Hardy Toll Road extension into downtown, and possible future MaX lanes inside the loop on the Katy and Southwest Freeways, there will be a huge number of managed lanes converging into downtown with no dedicated path for managed lane traffic to get through downtown.

Ideally, this plan should have included a MaX lane connection through downtown on a north-south axis, both for transit and to give an option to motorists. The biggest beneficiary of the connection would be the Texas Medical Center, since downtown congestion limits their access to the workforce on the north side of the city.

While it may be too late to include a north-south connection in this plan, it is important that future options are not precluded by the project design. Within 6-9 months, it should be possible to do the following:
  • Launch a short-term technical study to identify future volumes of demand for MaX lanes in all directions around and through downtown, based on current and potential future MaX corridors. Also identify possible future long-term connection corridors, which could be tunnels.
  • On the section of IH 69 between Spur 527 and SH 288, consider a right-of-way set-aside for one or two managed lanes. Even if a north-south MaX lane connection is determined to be infeasible, this connection could serve as an extension of the SH 288 managed lanes to connect to the Southwest Freeway.
  • Based on the study results, adjust the design so as not to preclude potential future MaX lane connections. This could mean preserving space for an additional lane on the downtown spur (on the west side of downtown), or preserving space for connections between existing HOV lanes and lanes going through downtown, for example, allowing the Eastex Freeway HOV lane to connect into the IH-69 main lanes near IH-10 to allow passage through downtown to the medical center.
Very Nice, but Expensive
The most recent cost estimate places the overall plan cost at $7 billion, with the downtown improvements costing $4 billion.

TxDOT has fully accommodated the wishes and desires of downtown and north side interests, leading to a very ambitious downtown design which is very expensive. To put things in perspective:
  • The 35-mile-long US 290 project currently in progress from 2013 to 2017 has a total cost of $2.4 billion and a construction cost of $1.3 billion.
  • The 25-mile-long Katy Freeway expansion built from 2003 to 2008 cost around $2.7 billion, which would probably be in the range of $3.2 to 3.5 billion in today’s money.
  • At current funding levels, this project will consume virtually all funds for new construction for a period of around 10 years, or the construction could drag on for a very long time, 15 years or more
What does this mean?
  • There will probably need to be an increase in funding at the federal and/or state levels to complete this entire project in a reasonable amount of time, which I would say is seven years or less after construction begins since we don’t want downtown to be a construction zone any longer than necessary. 
  • Looking at the benefit/cost ratio of separate independent sections will be necessary if funding is short, rather than plunging straight into the entire costly downtown rebuild.
  • Independent sections which could offer the most benefit to relieve bottlenecks include the section of IH 69 between Spur 527 and SH 288, IH 69 on the east side of downtown, and the IH 45/Loop 610 interchange and adjacent sections. 
Looking Ahead
While the funding issue can be worked out in the next few years, getting the federal “record of decision” (ROD) is the top priority, since nothing can move forward until the ROD is received. Houston is a can-do city, and by getting this project done we’ll have perhaps the best, most urban-friendly downtown freeway complex in the United States.
  • Make the final needed refinements to the design as soon as possible, including adjustments to ensure any future north-south MaX lane connections are not precluded.
  • Get the record of decision by 2018, which is TxDOT’s stated goal
  • Start work on sections with the most benefit as soon as 2020.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

False sprawl tax, DART's rail fail, raves for Houston's 'zoning lite', racist red tape for aspiring Uber drivers, and more

Our featured item this week is the so-called "sprawl tax", which I argue against in the Chronicle here and on local KPRC TV here (I start at 1:15). I always struggle to keep my answers crisp in these interviews, but they worked a miracle in editing, distilling 10 minutes to 12 seconds, lol.

In short, I object to the label – sprawl tax – because it implies you have no choice (taxes are not voluntary). In these cases, people are explicitly *choosing* to live further out, whether for a bigger, more affordable house or better neighborhoods or schools. They’re voluntarily making that tradeoff. People are accepting this cost they calculate to get those benefits.  In every city they could choose to live closer to work, but that house might be smaller/older/more expensive/worse schools.  It makes about as much sense as calculating a “luxury car tax” for those who choose to buy a BMW, Mercedes, etc.  “Why are they choosing to do that when they could buy a Toyota Corolla for much less!?” Kinda obviously absurd when stated that way.  I’ll also note that the big metros that are low on their sprawl costs also have some of the highest housing costs in the country – those people are definitely not living at a lower cost.  Maybe someone should calculate a “urban housing tax” or “smart growth tax” for metros that restrict new development and push up prices?

This week's items:
“Holder explained that while fingerprint checks are a valuable law enforcement tool, they “often do not indicate whether a person who was arrested was even charged or ultimately convicted.” Thus, mandatory checks “can prevent people from getting a job even if they were never found guilty of a crime.” Because black men are arrested more than white men, the policy affects men of color disproportionately.”
Finally, despite some recent questioning of the value Houston's lack of zoning, we've recently gotten some great outside recognition for the strength of approach from both Bloomberg and Market Urbanism.

Justin Fox at Bloomberg refers to our approach as "zoning lite" and has this awesome observation in his piece:
"Houstonians do seem to understand a basic economic truth that many people in other cities have a remarkable amount of trouble getting their heads around -- that allowing more housing to be built makes housing more affordable."
He also has a companion piece, "They Know How to Build Apartments in Houston"
"If developers are building lots of apartments in and around Dallas and Houston, it's because they think they think there's demand. 
Some of that demand  is about living close-in, in walkable neighborhoods with public transportation close by. Yes, even in Houston, that's becoming a thing. But a lot of it is surely just demand for housing that a non-wealthy person can afford. Houston and Dallas have been building lots of it. Despite strong job growth in recent years, San Francisco, San Jose and the cities around them have not. That's partly because they're already more tightly packed than Houston and Dallas, and face geographical limits on expansion that Texas cities generally do not. But it's also just because it's so danged hard to get permission to put up apartment buildings there. Which is a shame."
Lastly, Nolan Gray at Market Urbanism has written one of the best pieces I've ever seen on Houston's approach to development: "Houston’s Beautiful (Yet Partial) Embrace of Market Urbanism".  Here's one good excerpt, but it's packed with them and I highly recommend reading the whole thing.
"Contrary to conventional wisdom, many US cities have a lot to learn from Houston. With tight development restrictions, out-of-date urban planning regimes, and burdensome regulations forcing middle- and lower-class Americans out of West Cost and Northeastern cities, Houston’s mix of affordable housing and economic opportunity is more valuable than ever. As other cities have attempted to maintain tight, centralized control on urban and economic development - exemplified by a recent push by Dallas to shutter local businesses in order to attract chains - Houston has opted to take a back seat to residents, entrepreneurs, and civil society groups in cultivating economic development and crafting urban communities... It is well past time that we start taking Houston’s success seriously."
I'm heading to California on business for two weeks - not sure if I'll blog again before July.

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Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Big news, METRO's future, our traffic and gentrification is better than you think, cars safer than rail, and more

Apologies for the delay since my last blog post. A lot has backlogged so this may be a long one...

First, the big news: I got mentioned in David Brooks’ New York Times column last week ("Where America Is Working", Chronicle reprint here) which I believe is the most read column in America (the column is consistently in the top ten most popular NYT articles which is unique among NYT’s regular columnists).  He’s also my favorite writer of all time, so it’s kinda made my day/week/month… :-)  The key excerpt:
"There are two kinds of places that are getting it right... The second kind of cities we might call Joel Kotkin cities, after the writer who champions them. These are opportunity cities like Houston, Dallas and Salt Lake City. These places are less regulated, so it's easier to start a business. They are sprawling with easy, hodgepodge housing construction, so the cost of living is low. Immigrants flock to them. 
As Kotkin and Tory Gattis pointed out in an essay in The City Journal, Houston has been a boomtown for the past two decades. It's America's fourth-largest city, with 35 percent metro area population growth between 2000 and 2013. It's the most ethnically diverse city in America and has had a surge in mid-skill jobs. Houston's diversified its economy, so even the energy recession has not derailed its progress."
Moving on to the other items this week:
  • I was able to attend a METRO blogger luncheon last week with the new chairwoman, Carrin Patman.  It was clear she had done her homework reading up on us and that resulted in a productive exchange of ideas.  They've begun work on a new regional transit plan, and I'm cautiously optimistic it will go in a more realistic, cost-effective, future-oriented (i.e. autonomous vehicles), and less rail-centric direction than what I saw last month.  If we're really lucky they'll get innovative with the coming new technologies, but that's pretty rare for government agencies that are usually more comfortable being a follower than a leader - with the refreshing recent exception of the bus network re-imagining (maybe the first of a forward thinking trend?!).  You can read more about it here.
  • Speaking of transit innovation that might combat declining ridership:
"And then there's this from Tesla CEO Elon Musk. At a transportation conference in Norway last month, Musk mentioned that his engineers are working on a self-driving bus-like vehicle that would help address urban congestion. He added that it could offer better service than transit buses because it would take people all the way to their actual destinations. No further details have been disclosed."
"The article says that cities shouldn’t hesitate to build light rail just because self-driving cars are about to make transit completely obsolete. In fact, light rail is the accident waiting to happen. In 2012, light-rail trains killed 40 people in the process of carrying less than 2.5 billion passenger miles; that’s more than 16 fatalities per billion passenger miles
In the same year, vehicles on urban roads and streets killed 7.7 people per billion vehicle miles, which at 1.67 persons per vehicle (see table 16) is less than five per billion passenger miles. The goal of Volvo and other self-driving car companies is to reduce that by 90 percent or more."
Finally, a pretty cool graph I came across on Twitter showing change in home values vs. expansion of developed residential area.  Houston is at the bottom with the most stable home prices among all metros, even while doubling our metro population with less sprawl than many comparably growing metros. The power of no zoning and the free market! (click the graph to see a larger version)


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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Fix our pensions like AZ, passing Chicago for #3? avoiding over-regulation, MaX Lanes, and more

I want to open this week by getting a little contrary with this call for more planning, control, and zoning in Houston to prevent future flooding problems.  While I'm sure there's more we can do to make sure new developments retain their runoff, I get a little tired of the call for more controls and regulations every time an averse event happens.  This is how stultifying bureaucracies get built, and once built they're almost impossible to remove.  Repeat after me: "planning does not lead to utopia" (if it did, please point to such a city for me).  If strong centralized planning led to thriving communities without disasters, then the USSR would have won the Cold War and Chernobyl would never have happened. (mic drop)

Moving on to this week's items:
"What would happen if your city, in the name of progress, started giving poorer residents vouchers for landline telephones rather than smartphones? Or if, rather than stocking public libraries with computers, so that people could write emails, your city installed fax machines? You would consider these unnecessary expenditures on outdated technologies. Yet when it comes to public transit, many cities splurge on modes designed for a different time and place—namely light rail.
...
Instead these officials, often backed by federal grants, are throwing money into a century-old transportation concept that is unfit for most U.S. cities. This is a lazy approach, and insofar as it perpetuates the congestion crisis, it undermines the urbanist cause, by making dense living less convenient. It’s time for transportation planners to emphasize the future over the past."
"And Houston, which lacks a formal zoning code, has become a city that, contrary to its reputation, features numerous skyscraper clusters and whole neighborhoods dominated by new townhomes. 
These trends point out a glaring contradiction in modern urbanist thinking. The people who claim they like density—such as planners, architects, environmentalists, and self-described progressives—also tend to prefer government centralization for cities. And they tend to oppose, as a broader principle, ideas that are market-oriented, anti-regulatory, capitalist, and pro-growth. But they seem not to have pondered how any of these variegated ideas actually work in practice within cities. Centralization has led to a stifling regulatory climate—most notably zoning—that prevents cities from adding new buildings and people, a point demonstrated by the New York Times. A hands-off approach, meanwhile, is what has proven to liberalize cities for this human influx, making them dense and dynamic."
Finally: Arizona has solved pension reform, can we do something similar?

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Houston's new mobility vision, how no-zoning works for us, NYT on TX, we need a police overhaul, and more

Before getting to this week's smaller items, I'd like to feature a great piece by Market Urbanist Scott Beyer in The Federalist: How No Zoning Laws Works For Houston. It makes a great case for how Houston has been able to stay affordable while booming through enabling easy growth of housing supply (i.e. not strangling it with regulation).  I'm extensively quoted in it, and although usually I would pull out excerpts here, this one has way too many great points - you'll just have to read the whole thing (honestly, it's not that long).  Enjoy.
“Houston has a wonderful opportunity because it doesn’t have an ossified, traditional Euclidean zoning structure that separates everything out by use,” says Festa. “If you want to develop mixed-use, smart growth, walkable urbanism, there are still some barriers, but you already have a head start over more traditionally zoned cities.”
But my favorite reaction is this tweet from the Urbanophile Aaron Renn:
"Better question: what if other cities fell out of love with it?"
  • Kinder and the Chronicle react to the NextCity piece, to which I ask why would we want to empower NIMBYs to stop development? That's what happens in every city, and it cuts off housing supply rapidly leading to unaffordability. Is that what we want too?  The Wall Street Journal just recognized us for growth without unaffordability - why do we want to eliminate one of our great strengths?  If you're afraid of development in your neighborhood, make sure you move to one with deed restrictions, otherwise buy your house with your eyes open to how the neighborhood may change over time.  
  • GHP May issue of Economy at a Glance looks at apartments, industrial space, sales taxes, employment and foreign trade.
  • Hat tip to Jay for this crime ranking of cities, which unfortunately we don't do so well on: "It's 'sortable' by investment in police, crime rank and community risk factors. What struck me is that Houston has among the highest investment in police, is only middle-high on risk factors, but is still second highest on crime. Clearly money spent is not money spent well."
Finally, I was able to attend the Mayor's State of Mobility address today.  It was a long, detailed, balanced, well thought-out speech on a strategy for addressing Houston's mobility needs.  I agreed with almost all of it, with one notable exception being the claim that the Katy Freeway expansion was a mistake because it's just as congested as it used to be.  That may be, but it moves twice as many people as it used to, and if we hadn't done it, congestion would be far worse out there, and I'm sure many employers in that corridor would have abandoned Houston for Katy, The Woodlands, and Sugar Land.  One interesting item of note from the Mayor: he will *not* force rail on neighborhoods that don't want it, which means the University Line is essentially dead west of Shepherd as long as he's in office (not that I think METRO has the funds available in any case).

At the same event, TAG had this graphic with the consensus $69B Regional Mobility Vision.  Two things really jumped out at me.  The first is that METRO is showing $24 *billion* of new rail lines as a "minimum need"!! Not sure where that funding is supposed to come from, or if it did magically appear, whether all these lines would be the best use of it.  The other thing that jumped out at me? Well, if you look closely, evidently the downtown CBD is moving to the East End... lol.

TAG Houston Regional Mobility Vision

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Sunday, May 01, 2016

11 signs Houston will succeed, cheap traffic reduction, winning at affordable housing, TIFs, MUDs, and more

Just a few small items this week:
  • Market Urbanist Scott Beyer on the pros and cons of tax increment financing. (TIFs) 
  • The WSJ on how to make city housing more affordable, which basically comes down to allowing more supply and variety rather than affordable housing programs, which are inherently very limited.  Houston might be the best at the country at this, including the lack of zoning easily enabling townhomes, duplexes, apartment mid- and high-rises. Also has the novel - although exceedingly difficult - suggestion of improving schools so homes in those districts become more competitive.  Love this chart - Houston wins, as you'd expect (and I expect that rent number to come down as thousands of new apartments finish construction during our slowdown).
"IN A TRUE fairy tale of a transportation project, Texas spent a measly $4.25 million widening a highway and, in defiance of conventional wisdom among transportation planners, doubled the speed of rush hour traffic on a notoriously congested highway in Dallas."
Finally, The Atlantic on Eleven Signs A City Will Succeed.  I think Houston scores pretty well - would love to hear your thoughts in the comments:
  1. Divisive national politics seem a distant concern. I think we're a pretty pragmatic and balanced "purple" city and metro.
  2. You can pick out the local patriots.  Too many to name.
  3. “Public-private partnerships” are real.  Houston First comes to mind - other suggestions?
  4. People know the civic story.  I think Klineberg's annual Houston Area Survey helps a lot here. I would also argue for Houspitality here - whether people use the term or not, it definitely exists.
  5. They have a downtown.  Has come a long way.
  6. They are near a research university. UH, Rice, TMC, and TAMU not far away.
  7. They have, and care about, a community college. HCC, plus Lone Star is growing rapidly with many innovative programs.
  8. They have unusual schools. KIPP, YES Prep, Harmony, Talent Unbound, and many others.
  9. They make themselves open.  Huge strength of ours, especially with both domestic and foreign immigrants.
  10. They have big plans. See the bayou greenways, bikeways, and arboretum projects, among many others.
  11. They have craft breweries.  St. Arnold's, 8th Wonder Brewery, and many others.

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