Wednesday, April 01, 2015

J.J. Watt running for Mayor of Houston

Adding his hat (well, helmet) into an already crowded ring, Texans defensive end and 2014 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt announced today that he'll be running for Mayor of Houston, instantly vaulting to front-runner status.  Citing Arnold Schwarzenegger as his political role model, he vowed to tackle - literally - Houston's pension, pothole, crime, and traffic problems, saying he expected them to be far easier than many of the offensive linemen and running backs he's had to deal with.  He specifically warned the firefighters that he may have to "get physical" and "bring the hurt" in pension reform negotiations, a remark that sent them scrambling to rethink their position.

He also unveiled an innovative new plan for combating traffic congestion: during rush hours, he pledged to stay helicopter airborne for rapid response to crash scenes where he would personally clear vehicles from the mainlanes to the shoulder using his bare hands.  And further demonstrating his "hands on" management style to tackling Houston's crime problem, he pledged to make himself available in the "bad cop" role for all police interrogations, a move expected to dramatically increase confessions and the case clearance rate.

Asked about campaign funding, Watt noted that his recent $100 million contract with the Texans would allow him to easily self-fund and avoid outside money influences - not that he expected to need to spend much on advertising in any case, "I think a reasonably good number of Houstonians already know who I am - name recognition should not be much of an issue."

Asked about economic development, Watt smiled cryptically and said he expected simply to "have a word" with the Saudi Oil Minister about cutting oil production and increasing prices, "I'm sure we'll be able to come to a handshake deal - a very, very... very firm handshake."

Watt also pledged to personally "sack" incompetent or lazy City managers or employees, a threat that sent waves of fear - and a sudden uptick in productivity - throughout the ranks.

In other news, immediately after Watt's announcement, Adrian Garcia's office sent out a press release stating he was perfectly happy as Harris County Sheriff and had no plans to resign and run for another office.

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Hope you enjoyed this year's April Fools post ;-D Here are previous years if you missed 'em and would like a chuckle:


  • 2014: HPD forming task force against ride services
  • 2013: Astrodome to be restored to host 2017 Super Bowl LI
  • 2012: Hobby to close, IAH turned over to United
  • 2008: Neighborhood happy with new Ashby tower modifications
  • 2007: Mayor expands historic preservation, air pollution initiatives
  • 2006: Metro settles Universities/Westpark/Richmond rail alignment
  • 2005: Houston embraces "New Weather Urbanism"
  • Sunday, March 22, 2015

    Sprawl wins in a solar world, bribing commuters to ride transit, new option to Dallas, downtown's progress, lessons from Chicago and Atlanta

    First, an event announcement: long-time readers know I don't do official political endorsements (this is a policy blog), but I have admired Bill King's strong stand on the city's pension crisis (among others), a topic most politicians seem to shy away from.  You can learn more about his Back-to-Basics campaign and ask all the questions you like (the man can definitely engage seriously on policy discussions) at his kickoff fundraiser Monday from 5:30 to 7 at Cadillac Bar.  Details here.

    Moving on to this week's items:
    The solution to these issues, as proposed by Townsend, is "solar-powered, self-driving sprawl." The thinking goes like this: sprawl is the ideal land use pattern for developing a solar grid that can power the electric cars of residents while still providing the electricity that the region needs to function. He quotes from a paper issued in 2013 by University of Auckland researchers: 
    "[S]uburbia is not only the most efficient collector of solar energy but that enough excess electricity can be generated to power daily transport needs of suburbia and also contribute to peak daytime electrical loads in the city centre... While a compact city may be more efficient for the internal combustion engine vehicles, a dispersed city is more efficient when distributed generation of electricity by [photovoltaic solar cells] is the main energy source and [electric vehicles] are the means of transport."

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    Sunday, March 15, 2015

    Avoiding CA's mistakes, Astrodome talk, great rankings, cool H-town video, and more

    Let's kick off this week's post with an event announcement: if you have even the slightest interest in the Astrodome, don't miss Jim Gast's talk this Thursday.  I saw him speak at Rice, and he has a really compelling mix of great slides and stories of the Astrodome's history - so good I suggested he get it turned into a documentary.  As an added bonus, he'll sign a copy of his Astrodome book ("The Astrodome: Building an American Spectacle - A book about the people, technology, and times that built the biggest room in the world") for you.  Not to be missed.  Details here.

    In other news, our new Center for Opportunity Urbanism think tank had an incredible inaugural luncheon event last week, with over 200 in attendance (!) and yours truly got some nice pics and quotes on the front page of the Chronicle.  California land use attorney David Friedman gave a scary talk about how environmental good intentions went awry in California starting in the 1970s and, combined with judicial activism, led to complete development and infrastructure stagnation as well as a gutting of the middle class there (housing and jobs).  You can see his slides here. A cautionary tale for Houston and Texas.

    Other misc items this week:
    "Paradoxically, perhaps the city’s biggest strength is its sprawl. Unlike most other big cities in America, Houston has no zoning code, so it is quick to respond to demand for housing and office space. Last year authorities in the Houston metropolitan area, with a population of 6.2m, issued permits to build 64,000 homes. The entire state of California, with a population of 39m, issued just 83,000... Joel Kotkin of Chapman University in California argues that thanks to cars, even over its vast size, Houston creates the same possibilities for people to meet and share ideas that generate wealth in denser cities such as New York. Sprawl may not be pretty—but it seems to work."
    "Since 2009 the area has welcomed some 1,500 corporate relocations or expansions—and that’s just counting those that created 50 or more jobs, leased 20,000 or more square feet of office space, or invested $1 million or more in capital improvements.
    ...
    In the past four years, greater Houston grew by half a million people—half from moves, half from births. Population growth means housing demand, and realtors sold more than 425,000 homes in the last five years, amounting to a home-closing rate of one every six minutes, according to the Greater Houston Partnership. What’s more, jobs boost construction, which is why last year Houston topped our list of Building Boom Towns: metro areas with the most new construction. 
    What’s behind the boom, besides the obvious oil explosion? Exports. Between 2009 and 2013, the value of Houston’s exports grew 74.5%. More than 3,000 companies in greater Houston do business internationally, by Jankowski’s count, from oilfield services giant Schlumberger to Universe Technical Translation. The metro area is now the nation’s top exporter, ahead of New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Detroit. "
    Finally I'd like to end with this really well done short promotional video of Houston by the GHP.  It'll make you proud to be a Houstonian (you can make it a more impressive full screen size with a click on the lower right corner brackets).

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    Sunday, March 08, 2015

    Ten years of Houston Strategies

    Exactly ten years ago today were my very first posts on Houston Strategies: a welcome/kickoff/teaser post and an idea for a UH Institute of Technology campus (the idea didn't take, but I'm still hopeful UH will see the light one day...).  And here we are 1,050 posts later with thousands of readers - I can't thank you enough for your support over the years.  Over that time the posts have shifted away from ideas and strategies towards summarizing relevant items from around the web for your consideration, but the overall goal remains the same: celebrating what Houston does right and promoting ideas for making it better.

    By far the biggest success story from this incubator of ideas has been Opportunity Urbanism, which led to a TEDx talk, a twin blog at the Houston Chronicle, a couple of commissioned reports, and, most importantly, a new national think tank based in Houston with myself as a Founding Senior Fellow (with our free kickoff luncheon event this Thursday - would love to see you there, details and rsvp here or email me).  Other ideas have not been as successful, but what's the old saying? "If you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough."

    Looking back over the last ten years, what strikes me the most is the incredible shift in Houston's confidence in itself.  Ten+ years ago, Houston was almost apologetic about not being Austin/Portland/San Francisco/New York.  There was much fretting about our need to attract the college-educated creative class and implement much stronger land use controls along with rail transit, since "that's what global cities do".  Since then, they had a massive housing crash, and we've had hyper-growth and come into our own as a city confident in itself and the unique way we do things in Houston, including our market-oriented approach to land use instead of traditional zoning and more flexible and value-oriented busways instead of budget-busting fixed rail (unfortunately we only made that discovery *after* it busted our budgets).  We identified specific needs to fix and tackled them, including quality of life issues like parks, bayous, bike trails, flood control, a vibrant downtown, and neighborhood and historic preservation - all within the context of doing things "the Houston way", with a heavy emphasis on philanthropy, ground-up volunteerism, and voluntary opt-ins - with the occasional government support as needed (big projects up next: the Astrodome, hopefully followed soon after by the Ike Dike).

    You can find my all-time favorite posts from the first 1,000 here, with the best of the newer ones since then here.  Looking those over, here are the biggest ideas to come out of this blog over the last ten years that I'd like to continue to promote going forward (in addition to Opportunity Urbanism, of course):
    So ten years yields five big ideas still worth promoting plus a plethora of smaller ones.  Not bad - I'll take that.  As always, thanks for your readership, and here's to the next ten years being even better!

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    Sunday, March 01, 2015

    Our evolving "Houston style" general plan

    I actually attended this event on the process to create a new general plan for Houston a few weeks ago, but wanted to wait to blog on it until the new web site was up, which it now is (kudos to Jeff at January Advisors).  Definitely worth exploring, and you can give them feedback as well.

    So far they have two things:

    1. A pretty good vision statement:
    "Houston offers opportunity for all and celebrates its diversity of people, economy, culture, and places. Houston promotes healthy and resilient communities through smart civic investments, dynamic partnerships, education, and innovation. Houston is the place where anyone can prosper and feel at home. 
    Houston: Opportunity. Diversity. Community. Home."
    2. An extensive list of draft goals, which do what most general plans do - describe utopia.

    If planning led to utopia, then we'd all live in paradise.  But the problem is that the real world involves tradeoffs and limited resources, and the plans I've seen don't seem to help much with those.  The very good news in this process is that they've agreed up front this will be a "Houston-style plan", which means no zoning or land-use controls (bravo).  People now seem to realize the value of Houston's adaptive, market-based approach to land use and don't want to lose those benefits.  Instead, they are compiling a complete inventory of available policy tools, like TIRZs.  But there can still be some benefits from a general plan, mainly around better coordination, collaboration, and consistency among all of the various entities in this huge city.

    The final plan will eventually include:
    • a vision
    • website with plans, policies, and projects
    • key performance indicators (KPIs)
    • neighborhood enhancement strategy
    • growth and development strategy
    • implementation strategy
    I had three pieces of feedback for them:
    1. Houston's biggest strength is that it gives people all of the amenities of a coastal mega-city but at far lower cost, so affordability needs to be near the top of the list of key performance indicators.  Since this is a bureaucratic process by committee, I am concerned that there will be way too many KPIs listed, and when there's too many, there might as well be none at all.  They really need to focus on the "Key" part and strictly limit the number of indicators.  The #1 KPI should be maintaining the highest cost-of-living adjusted salaries (and therefore highest standard of living) in the country - more here and the graph at the bottom here.
    2. Be very careful with "neighborhood protection" efforts - NIMBYs fear change and will stagnate the city if you give them the mechanisms to do so.
    3. Since this is a multi-decade plan, they need to take into account the rise of self-driving vehicles and taxis coming in the 2020s.  They will dramatically reduce congestion and parking needs.  At a minimum, they should be considering slowly reducing parking requirements over time and enabling higher densities with less parking.  Ideally, they should just let the market figure out how much parking it needs, and it will adjust very nicely as the new automated vehicles come along.  Automated taxis will also revolutionize transit, and they need to take that into consideration too, including backing off from investing in fixed rail transit, which I believe will be obsoleted for the most part by those taxis.  If we focus instead on buses and managed lanes, then it's all adaptable to the new technology as it evolves.
    You can read more on this by my namesake over at Cite.

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    Monday, February 23, 2015

    TX doomed to repeat CA mistakes? plus tops for affluence and food, first class buses, densification, and more

    First this week, an event announcement: on Thursday March 12th, our new Center for Opportunity Urbanism will have it's inaugural event - "TEXAS…DOOMED TO REPEAT CALIFORNIA’S MISTAKES?", a luncheon event featuring speaker David Friedman, a California land use attorney, with yours truly serving on a panel after the keynote. Here's the description:
    California’s tough environmental rules and planning represent the wave of the future to many planners and pundits, as well as to large parts of the federal government. The goal is to rein in “sprawl,” based largely on questionable environmental and urban design considerations California consciously seeks to impose a high-density, transit-focused future on the residents of the state. 
    But California’s policies do not just affect Californians. Many federal agencies, including the EPA and US Fish and Wildlife Service, have embraced the Golden State’s regulations on climate change, wetland and endangered species protection, as role models to be adopted nationally. As California-style regulations diffuse through the federal government, Texas business could soon be subject to many of the same programs and policies. 
    In this unique program, the Center for Opportunity Urbanism has invited David Friedman, a leading California land use attorney, to discuss the evolution of California land use and environmental regulation. California’s current regulatory programs were largely invented in the 1970s, when the state’s impressive job creation and economic opportunities made it the Texas of that era. By 1990, however, the California economy increasingly came to resemble the slower growing northeastern and upper Midwestern states, albeit with still-significant population growth. 
    Dr. Friedman, who holds a PhD in political economy from MIT, will explain the social and economic impacts these regulations have had on the people of the state. He will also discuss how EPA and other federal agencies, as well as changing demographics and political pressure, could bring similar policies to Texas and the greater Houston area.
    Dr. Friedman’s talk will be followed by an insightful panel discussion, moderated by the Center’s executive director Joel Kotkin, that includes Architect Tim Cisneros, Houston Developer Walter Mischer, Senior Fellow and urban demographer Wendell Cox and Senior Fellow and Houston Strategies blogger Tory Gattis.
    Details here - hope to see you there!

    Moving on to this week's smaller miscellaneous items:
    "HOUSTON — If you set out to visit the nation's most diverse city — one with world-class dining, a flourishing arts scene, top-tier academic institutions and an influx of job-hungry college graduates — you'd be forgiven for setting your sights on New York City. 
    You'd also be mistaken. 
    But Houston, the city in question, would forgive you. That's just the kind of place she is. 
    Over the past decade, the USA's fourth-largest city has quietly become not just a powerhouse of intellect and culture in Texas, but a major player on the world stage. The Bayou City's economic boom and urban renaissance have made Houston not just a magnet for travelers, but a permanent residence for many casual visitors."
    • Little news item I caught in a recent issue of Surface Transportation Innovations:
    "In addition to services to more cities by Megabus, Red Coach, and other express carriers in 2014, at least two new luxury operators began service. Vonlane began first-class nonstop service between Austin and Dallas and Houston. Their buses have only 16 seats, an onboard attendant serving drinks and snacks, and a private six-seat boardroom. Vonlane partners with hotels in each of its cities. " 
    I've never seen them or tried them - if you have, I'd love to hear about it in the comments. Their web site has nice pics, but only seems to be showing Dallas-Austin right now.

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    Sunday, February 15, 2015

    Texas is America's America, what stupid rail looks like, Millenials love the city and the suburbs, and more

    This weeks misc items:
    "Transit agencies are spending millions of dollars on new rail infrastructure that is no faster than existing bus service, simply because riders perceive a train as better than a bus. 
    Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed AirTrain link from La Guardia Airport in New York could be the latest example. It might cost $450 million or it might be more like $1 billion — the M.T.A. head Tom Prendergast wavered between the figures in a public hearing last month — but either way, from most places in New York City, it won’t be faster than taking existing bus service to the airport, because it will run southeast from the airport, away from Manhattan. 
    In California, Bay Area Rapid Transit spent nearly half a billion dollars to build a three-mile rail connector to the airport in Oakland, which opened last year; it saves about 3,000 daily riders four minutes over the shuttle bus service it replaced. Atlanta’s downtown streetcar loop was a relative bargain at $100 million; unfortunately, Rebecca Burns, a writer at Atlanta magazine, took it to work for a week and found it was slower than walking. Washington’s shiny new streetcars, expected to serve 1,500 riders a day along H Street Northeast, are slowing the bus service that already serves 12,000 daily riders on that road."
    "But in my mind, the biggest asset of Texas is Texans. Having spent a great deal a time there, the contrasts with my adopted home state of California are remarkable. No businessperson I spoke to in Houston or Dallas is even remotely contemplating a move elsewhere; Houstonians often brag about how they survived the ‘80s bust, wearing those hard times as a badge of honor. 
    To be sure, Texans can be obnoxiously arrogant about their state, and have a peculiar talent for a kind of braggadocio that drives other Americans a bit crazy. But they are also our greatest regional asset, the one big state where America remains America, if only more so."
    "Most Americans are happy with their commutes and would be willing to trade off even longer commutes in order to live in more desirable housing, according to a survey by YouGov. Moreover, the detailed results indicate that these preferences are almost as strong among 18-29 year olds as among older age classes. "
    • Citing county growth, Emmett seeks 'new model of urban governance'.  He raises a lot of good issues in his annual State of the County speech.  He also reiterated support for the ULI Astrodome plan, details of which are supposed to come out in a report soon.  They're hopeful it can be at least partially ready for the 2017 Super Bowl at Reliant, which is aggressive but would be awesome. 
    Finally in the funny-but-kinda-pathetic media department, this short piece by Outside magazine on the Astrodome plan.  First, it claims the plan is by "Texas environmentalists" when it was a national Urban Land Institute panel.  Later, it mentions city councilors being split on the plan, when it has nothing to do with the City of Houston - it will be decided by Harris County Commissioners Court.  But then there's the real gem: "Voters narrowly rejected a 2013 referendum to convert the stadium into a convention center, largely due to a $217 billion bond price tag." Lol! Yep, our plan was to spend the equivalent of half of the national defense budget on revamping the dome!  That would be over $48,000 per citizen of the county! (think it would involve a tax increase?) As much as I'd like to see that plan (which I'm assuming involved a new solid gold coating), even I'd vote against that one!  Do they even have editors over there?  Or writers that do any fact checking at all?

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    Monday, February 09, 2015

    The great 21st-century disruption of autonomous vehicles, home searching by commute time, rail costs, world urbanization, and more

    I wanted to post this week on the new general plan Houston is developing, but I'm going to hold off another week or two until the new general plan web site is up.  Instead, we'll clear out some more of the smaller miscellaneous items...
    And there's a slew of items about the radical transportation revolution barreling towards us.  First, Uber has launched UberPool, which enables super-cheap dynamic ride sharing (hat tip to Phil).  They're also hiring from Carnegie Mellon and creating their own R-and-D facility to create self-driving cars.  The autonomous taxi is coming very soon, and it will revolutionize cities and transit.  This description of the next decade with autonomous vehicles will absolutely blow your mind.  It will be one of the most disruptive technologies of the century, including the potential loss of up to *10 million* jobs.  I do think he might be a bit excessive in his prediction of everyone switching from car ownership to on-demand autonomous taxis.  I recently visited my brother in California, and his family lives out of their mini-van - there's no way they'd switch.  There's just too much stuff that they always keep handy in their mini-van.  Families in general may not want to get too far from car ownership.  And then there's people who just want a personal status symbol - an autonomous taxi just won't do.  So I don't agree with his prediction of the collapse of the automotive industry.  But extremely disruptive? Absolutely.  Read the whole thing.  Here's a couple of my favorite excerpts:
    "A Columbia University study suggested that with a fleet of just 9,000 autonomous cars, Uber could replace every taxi cab in New York City – passengers would wait an average of 36 seconds for a ride that costs about $0.50 per mile. Such convenience and low cost will make car ownership inconceivable, and autonomous, on-demand taxis – the ‘transportation cloud’ – will quickly become dominant form of transportation – displacing far more than just car ownership, it will take the majority of users away from public transportation as well.  ... 
    Morgan Stanley estimates that a 90% reduction in crashes would save nearly 30,000 lives and prevent 2.12 million injuries annually. Driverless cars do not need to park – vehicles cruising the street looking for parking spots account for an astounding 30% of city traffic, not to mention that eliminating curbside parking adds two extra lanes of capacity to many city streets. Traffic will become nonexistent, saving each US commuter 38 hours every year – nearly a full work week. As parking lots and garages, car dealerships, and bus stations become obsolete, tens of millions of square feet of available prime real estate will spur explosive metropolitan development."

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