Wednesday, April 01, 2020

NBA playoffs to be held in Houston during April lockdown

Moving quickly to take advantage of another month of national lockdown for the COVID-19 virus, the NBA announced today an unprecedented plan to restart their season with nearly continuous playoff games on TV throughout April.  With no other competitive sports and hundreds of millions of bored people stuck at home, TV ratings are expected to set an all-time record.

The plan involves declaring the regular season over early and bringing the 16 playoff teams to Houston to play TV-only, no-crowd games at the Toyota Center.  A "safe zone" will be established downtown involving the Toyota Center, GRB convention center, Marriott Marquis and Hilton Americas hotels.  They will receive a thorough deep-cleaning and then be strictly quarantined allowing only essential personnel, media, players and their families after passing COVID-19 tests.  The GRB convention center will be used for temporary practice courts.

Games will be scheduled back-to-back throughout the days with up to four games a day, with eastern conference games early and western conference games later to take advantage of time zone differences. Since everyone is home anyway, games don't have to just be in the evening hours to draw an audience - essentially every day will be scheduled like a weekend day with a combination of afternoon and evening games.

The NBA considered normal playoff travel schedules to crowd-less home arenas, but ultimately determined the logistics were too complex to guarantee player and personnel safety.  Since the games are TV-only anyway, it just made more sense to hold the games in a single well-controlled location, with the added benefit of not losing game days to travel.  Different locations were considered, but ultimately Houston was selected because it could offer the easiest, most-compact safe zone with an official NBA arena, top-quality hotels, and practice courts.  The central time zone is also helpful in scheduling games that work well for both the east and west coast TV markets.

When briefed on the plans, Houston officials had serious concerns, but these were alleviated when the NBA assured them they would bring their own toilet paper.


Hope you enjoyed this year's April Fools post ;-D 
(although I wish this one was real!)
Here are previous years if you missed 'em and would like a chuckle:


Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Stop the Bagby closure, oil import tariffs, Inner Katy MaX Lanes, virus vs density vs heat, HTX #1 home values, and more

Apologies for the long gap between posts - I wanted to give the 15-year anniversary post extra time as the lead post on the blog. But in the meantime we've accumulated a whole lot of news items to get out, only a few of which related to the coronavirus (maybe a good thing?).

First, following up on my post last month about the potential for a permanent closure of the Bagby and Brazos entrance/exit to/from the 59 Spur, there's now a formal opposition website to the closure where you can sign the petition.
There are more backlogged items, but I'll save them for a future post.

Finally, our quote of the week:
{NYC} Mayor de Blasio has scoffed at the “road diet” idea that traffic will melt away if fewer lanes are provided. “We have to be careful,” he told Gothamist recently. “If we say, ‘Hey, let’s reduce the amount of lanes,’ that’s not a guarantee people get out of their cars; it is a guarantee of traffic jams and other problems.

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Sunday, March 08, 2020

The best posts from the first 15 years and 1.5 million pageviews

Today is the 15th (!) birthday of Houston Strategies with our 1,280th post. Wow, time flies. It's hard to believe I've been doing this for 15 years.  We're also up to more than 1.5 million pageviews, which is an amazing acceleration given that we just hit one million page views only three years ago at the 12th anniversary, and that's not counting views at the Chronicle, COU, or the Google Group email distribution list. In honor of those milestones, I've decided to update my best posts from the first dozen years - which is now over three years out-of-date - by pulling from my annual highlights posts.  Since 15 years is still a lot of highlight posts, I've created an even shorter list of my fifteen all-time favorite posts. As you skim this list, I hope you find some of interest that you missed, forgot, or may have been posted before you discovered Houston Strategies.  Enjoy.

For those of you a little put off by the old-style webpage design, I should take this opportunity to mention again that it is sort of stuck, and that's because I have a legacy blogspot template that can't be upgraded to a newer design without either a lot of work outside my expertise or losing my archive of old posts.  One of the penalties for being an early blogger, lol.  Hope you don't mind the old format.  I'm kinda assuming the content matters more to my readers than a slick modern design ;-)

As always, thanks for your readership.

Absolute all-time favorites: 15 posts from 15 years (out of 1,280)
  1. A new brand identity for Houston: Houspitality
  2. MaX Lanes: A Next-Generation Strategy for Affordable Proximity
  3. MetroNext's bold moonshot opportunity
  4. Elements of an Opportunity City
  5. Ten years of Houston Strategies retrospective
  6. Maximizing Opportunity Urbanism with Robin Hood Planning (COU White Paper)
  7. How Opportunity Urbanism can save the global economy (Part 1Part 2)
  8. The Ultimate Houston Strategy
  9. Seizing the Astrodome opportunity to establish Houston's new global identity
  10. My TEDx Houston talk, mostly about Houston (a summary of some of my better ideas from this blog)
  11. A Pragmatic Approach to Houston’s Future (part 1part 2)
  12. A Map to Houston’s World-Class Future (part 1part 2)
  13. Architects vs. Economists (the planning vs. free-market spectrum)
  14. Applying Jane Jacobs' 4 tenets of vibrant neighborhoods to car-based cities (mobility/draw-zones for vibrancy)
  15. Why does Houston have such a great restaurant scene?

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Monday, March 02, 2020

Solving the anti-vaxer problem, Houston's dynamic culture, TX #1 food state but needs VC, city govt vision vs. competence, and CA ineptness

Before this week's items, my idea of the week: I'm probably treading on dangerous ground here with the growing coronavirus pandemic, but I've been thinking about the child vaccination problem (anti-vaxers) and new laws in some states requiring the vaccines to enroll kids in public schools, which is really causing a lot of turmoil with many families.  Now I'm a science guy all in favor of vaccinations (annual flu shot every Sept-Oct), but I also believe in more freedom and less government coercion (there are also some valid arguments on specific required vaccines and their timing).  My solution is this: ~95% of a population needs a vaccine to protect the whole population. Instead of requiring 100% of students to be vaccinated, auction off up to 5% exemptions at whatever price that clears the market.  The parents that really care the most about not vaccinating (vs. the more unsure/on-the-fence/going-with-the-herd ones) will pay that price for an exemption slot.  They may not be happy about it, but it's a better option than not enrolling their kids in school.

Moving on to just a few small items this week:
  • Great piece from Alain Bertaud in the MIT Press Reader: Do We Really Want Our Mayors to Have a Vision? Mayors and their municipal staff should not be considered visionaries, but a coordinated team of managers and janitors. Key excerpts:
"An unfortunate trend has developed over the past quarter-century: Many municipalities have begun describing their development plans as a “vision,” a word once reserved for spiritual gurus and artists. Calling a simple municipal action and investment program — such as collecting tolls on bridges — a “vision” is symptomatic of the grandiose misunderstanding that municipalities have concerning their role. A city, after all, is entirely created by its citizens’ initiatives. These citizens are required to act within a set of “good neighbor” rules, and to be supported in their endeavors by a network of physical and social infrastructure managed by a mayor and a city council. Mayors and their municipal staff, including urban planners and economists, should be considered not visionaries or rulers, then, but a well-coordinated team (one hopes) of competent managers and janitors.
Visionary leadership implies a top-down approach, in other words, but a city is mostly created from the bottom up.  A visionary mayor may feel compelled to impose her unique insights on the life of her Philistine citizens.
To be sure, a top-down approach is required to design infrastructure and services, but only as they are needed to support citizens’ activities. The support role involved in this top-down design is not trivial and requires good data and outstanding technical and financial skills, but a personal vision is not a requirement. It might rather be a hindrance.
They did not need vision, but something much less romantic: extreme competence."
"It’s a look at the role of the culture of cities in economic dynamism and resiliency. I examine a few case studies, and from these try to draw out some cultural traits that seem to be relevant to success, notably an open social structure, invested leadership and institution building by civic elites, and a high value placed on education."
Interested to hear your thoughts in the comments on how Houston does on those indicators?...

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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Discouraging panhandling, airport wag brigade, 6-figure incomes, Grand Parkway size, TAMU TMC growth, and more

Big Idea of the Week before getting to our smaller items: I think the City needs to hang signs over major panhandler intersections saying:
"Please give to charity, not panhandling."
I think this could make a major positive improvement in the city over time, both at the intersections and among the panhandling population which would have to go to charities with real comprehensive services rather than just unsafely collecting dollars in the middle of busy roadways from intimidated motorists and doing who-knows-what with it.

One key: making sure to hang them high up near the traffic lights.  If they're down low, the panhandlers will either tear them down or deface them.

Moving on to this week's items:
Finally, can we *please* get a wag brigade at Houston airports?!  Get a small army of these cuties wandering the terminals and it will give Houston a PR buzz that money can't buy.  It would also encourage more people to connect on flights through Houston as well, which would stimulate United and Southwest to add more service.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Protecting residents from dangerous industrial businesses, reducing crime, street parking for mixed-use retail, and rethinking Vision Zero

This week we have a special edition of Houston Strategies focused on... specific strategies for Houston (;-). The specific topics are protecting residents from dangerous industrial businesses, reducing crime, street parking for mixed-use retail businesses, and rethinking Vision Zero plans.

First, Judah passed along this story on zoning (or lack of it) coming up again in Houston since the warehouse explosion on the westside.  My simple observation is that we don't need zoning to address this problem.  If we have laws about minimum distances between adult business or liquor stores and schools+churches, we could certainly do the same for certain kinds of hazardous industrial businesses without adding zoning. More on this at blogHouston.

As far as reducing crime, the Houston police need to be all over using NextDoor as an intel source for neighborhood crimes.  It could make a huge difference in reducing all sorts of minor (and not-so-minor) crimes in the neighborhoods.

Midtown recently lost a very popular long-time bakery at least in part due to a lack of convenient parking near her street retail store in a mixed-use space.  This one hits home since it's my neighborhood.   Here's the quote:
“I’m so sick of Midtown,” Masson says. “The biggest issue is parking. Even though there is a humongous parking garage behind the bakery, no one knows it’s there. No one takes the time to look for it. They drive by, they don’t see a parking spot, they don’t pull over.”
I posted this to the Market Urbanism Report Facebook group and it generated a huge debate in the comments. While mixed-use sit-down restaurants seem to do well (people are willing to hunt for parking if they're staying a couple of hours), I think part of the problem for a quick in-and-out business like hers (bakeries, laundries, convenience stores, etc.) is she needs a couple of dedicated parking spaces right in front limited to her customers.  But since it's City of Houston street parking, they can't do that, so those spaces are always full of longer-term parkers visiting the neighborhood. I've noticed most strip centers (hated by urbanists), will offer their tenants dedicated spaces right in front of their businesses (with signs limiting parking to customers). Maybe the City needs to offer that for street parking as well?  Maybe the businesses pay for it?  For those sorts of businesses, people are not willing to hunt for parking and they’re also not willing to go through the parking meter hassle (it takes several minutes to go through the process at a CoH meter).  Just let the business pay for dedicated spaces during business hours (or, alternately, spaces limited to a quarter or half-hour).

Finally, Vision Zero plans have been adopted by many cities - including Houston - to reduce traffic fatalities, but they aren't working. Excerpts from another piece are a cautionary warning to Houston's efforts:
"Yet Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, among others, saw sharp increases in pedestrian and/or bicycle fatalities after adopting Vision Zero policies. 
This won’t be a surprise to Antiplanner readers. As described in Policy Brief #25, Vision Zero is an overly simplistic strategy that fails to solve the real problems that are causing pedestrian fatalities to rise. 
Vision Zero is based on the observation that pedestrians hit by cars traveling at high speeds are more likely to die than if the cars are traveling at low speeds. So Vision Zero’s primary tactic is to reduce driving speeds. Vision Zero’s secondary goal is to reduce driving period by making auto travel slower and less desirable compared to the alternatives. Neither of these are working very well.
For decades, traffic engineers followed a tried-and-true formula for reducing auto fatalities: improve roadway designs in ways that reduce the number and impact of accidents. Vision Zero has diverted cities from that formula in an overt anti-auto strategy that sometimes actually makes streets more dangerous (such as when one-way streets are converted to two-way operation). So it is no surprise that Vision Zero isn’t working."
As I've said before, I support Vision Zero when the focus is on fixing problematic intersections and other pragmatic safety improvements. I don't support it when it's just a thinly veiled mask for anti-car urbanists (road diets, reduced speeds, one-way to two-way conversions, speed humps everywhere).

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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Could Houston get Google? converting the 59 Spur to a linear park, housing crisis drives socialism, millennials are driving, Houston is the future, and more

Apologies for the delay between posts - I've had some busy travel recently. Before getting to this week's items, a couple thoughts on the City's consideration of turning the Bagby and Brazos portions of Spur 527 off 59 into a park.  I live in Midtown, so this affects me directly. I've managed to adapt ok to losing the Brazos exit since the bridge closed for repairs - Louisiana is inconvenient but works - but losing Bagby's southbound entrance is a bigger deal.  I've thought quite a bit about this.  At first I was totally opposed, then I figured I could live with it via Smith and Louisiana but still moderately opposed (even with the benefits of Bagby traffic reduction).  I do think it will substantially negatively affect some of the businesses along Bagby and Brazos that rely on drive-by traffic like Spec's, CVS, and especially the new Midtown Whole Foods (which is already struggling in what was previously a food desert), as well as thousands of commuters that connect between 59 and 45 (which, in turn, will make the already-messy 59-45-288 interchange even worse).  In fact, I'd argue the optics look pretty bad: sacrifice the commutes of a lot of working-class folks on the north and east sides commuting to jobs in the southwest so a few wealthy white people in gated Courtlandt Place can have a pocket park. Not a good look. And I think it is very likely that a City-maintained linear pocket park will turn into a homeless camp (sad, but that's the reality these days) - something I hope the neighbors have considered in their support.  They may come to really regret it...

Updated story.

On to this week's items:

“If we keep forcing them to pay for housing and parks, they will go to Houston or Austin.”
I think the advantages for a Google office here would be pretty strong. Tons of oil-and-gas tech/IT talent that’s easy to poach, a city willing to do anything to land them, plus deep expat communities from nations all over the world that could handle some global functions (esp. Latin America).  It would also work well if Google is considering any health care plays, with the world's largest med center right down the way in the innovation corridor.
 Another thought is, what if you wanted to have a US office where you could bring H1B visa talent from all over the world, and they would be able to afford to live there as well as find a comfortable expat community from their nation? Houston would be a great location for that: huge Asian, Latin American, African, Middle Eastern, and even European communities - many from the long history of the global oil industry here.
Boomer Socialism Led to Bernie Sanders 
Government policies limit millennials’ prosperity, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser argues. Will they realize more of the same isn’t the answer?
“The right answer for this is not universal basic income.  The right answer is freedom. Allow people to use their property the way they want to use it.”
"New supply is one reason the median home price in Texas is currently $207,301, while in California, it’s nearly triple that, $605,280. California’s drought in new home production has been caused in part by land-use regulations and the state’s myriad environmental laws.
 A Zillow-backed survey of economists and housing analysts predicted that in 2020, Texas’s relatively affordable big cities (Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and especially Austin) will outperform the market average in home value growth, while overpriced California metros like San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles will fare poorly.
The California housing situation, on the other hand, is a multifaceted mess. Prices have skyrocketed. A new apartment in San Francisco costs an average of $700,000 to build—including materials, labor, and land—triple the cost of a decade ago. The average value of a home in Los Angeles County is $635,000—almost double the median price in Austin and nearly triple the median price in Dallas—and many neighborhoods have seen average prices more than double in the last decade. According to the United Way, one in three Californians, or 3.3 million families, don’t have incomes to meet their basic cost of living, and most struggle with high housing costs. The state’s 150,000 homeless residents represent a quarter of the nation’s homeless population. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates it would cost “in excess of $250 billion” to provide affordable housing for all of the state’s 1.7 million rent-burdened households."
Finally, watch this if you can"No Passport Required" on PBS did an episode on West African food and culture in Houston, and it is absolutely fascinating. Will make you proud of our city. Links to Houstonia and Houston Eater stories
"When I came to Houston I did not know what to think. Leaving, I see the future." - Marcus Samuelsson, PBS "No Passport Required"

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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Nobody wants to leave Houston! plus fareless Metro update, more on NYC vs. HTX affordability, our low-carbon future, and more

This week's feature is a followup on my proposal that Metro considering going farelessThe NY Times even did an article on more transit agencies considering and going fareless to increase ridership. Metro's been studying it and had their first results at a meeting this month. If you'd like to watch the presentation, it starts around the 30m mark in the video here, or the Chronicle summarizes their findings here.  The bottom line is that - although the loss of $70m of annual fares might be manageable - there are two major problems:
  1. Providing additional buses and drivers to handle the additional demand of a 36% increase in ridership from going fareless could cost up to $170m a year on top of Metro's roughly $700m budget, and they simply can't afford that.
  2. The safety risks are substantial with "problem riders", which have been an issue when other agencies have gone fareless.  
I was impressed with Metro's thorough analysis of six different scenarios, and satisfied that they came to the right (albeit unfortunate) conclusions.  I agree that the cost and safety concerns are just too high for most of the scenarios they analyzed.  They are still analyzing additional scenarios and I have suggested it would be interesting to add a scenario with a fixed-price unlimited monthly pass, including for Park-and-Ride riders. I’m not sure what the right price point would be - maybe at the equivalent of two local rides a day? - so $2.50 x 30 days = $75/month?  I think that could get a substantial boost in ridership (especially Park-and-Ride commuters) without the safety concerns or major loss of revenue.  We'll see what comes back...

Moving on to some additional items this week:
"Texas Monthly told a story that a lot of people wanted to hear: loosely regulated housing markets like Houston have long embarrassed ideological opponents of free markets who insist that only rent controls and massive public subsidies can provide affordable housing. There is a ready audience for the argument that Houston’s affordability is a mirage. If you ever find an argument like this tempting, though, ask yourself: is it more likely that you’re mistaken, or that the millions of Americans voting with their feet are?"

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