Sunday, April 21, 2019

HTX population crosses 7 million milestone, smart growth is dumb about commuting, BRT beats LRT, and more

Happy Easter! This week's items:
  • We're at 7 million people in the Houston metro area folks!  Yes, I realize the official number is 6,997,384 on 12/31/18, but it also says we're adding 229 new residents a day, so we crossed 7 million around January 12th of this year. Still 5th-largest metro in the country behind NYC, LA, Chicago, and DFW, but this should also put us ahead of the combined San Jose + San Francisco Bay Area, which is split by the census into two separate metros for some reason, while Dallas and Ft. Worth are combined into one. Makes no sense to me either.
  • This Grace Rodriguez interview has some good insights on Houston's entrepreneurship scene - both challenges and opportunities. My favorite excerpt:
"The challenge in Houston is trying to be shiny and polished. And, to me, shiny and polished is Dallas. No one in Houston wants to be Dallas. Let's accept the fact that we are an R&D city. We are a city that researches and develops and experiments new things. Let's lean hard into that and not say we're going to be perfect, and if we do that, then the need to try to appear perfect can go away. Being transparent on the things we are trying makes us become a role model for other cities. I feel like the feeling that we have to be polished and perfect for the rest of the world to be interested in us is the biggest hindrance to our progress. I already know the rest of the world is interested in us."
Here's the specific report excerpt with the broader context:
“US cities generally search for the sweet spot in the demand-to-capacity ratio and try not to provide service frequencies that are so high that their vehicles run empty. Thus, since LRT vehicles are larger, in order to justify providing LRT capacities that are similar to a BRT, LRT tends to operate at lower frequencies. As mentioned above, due to the perceived capacity constraint of BRT there are currently no cases in the US where LRT should be favored over BRT.”
Now we just need MetroNext to go from 70% embracing this principle to 100%...
"Building more market rate housing sets off a chain reaction supply increase that reaches low income neighborhoods. Households moving into new market rate units move out of other, lower cost housing, making it available to other households; the propagation of this effect produces additional housing supply in lower income neighborhoods."
"To achieve higher economic productivity, they recommend fostering speedier rather than slower commuting; more rather than less commuting; and longer rather than shorter commutes. 
These policies would expand the opportunity circles of employers and employees, enabling a more productive urban economy. But these are exactly the opposite of the policy prescriptions of smart growth, which generally seek to confine people's economic activity to a small portion of a larger metro area.
A less extreme version of smart growth says that we should discourage car travel and shift resources heavily toward transit. People should be encouraged to live in high-density "villages" where they can easily obtain transit service to jobs elsewhere in the metro area. The problem with this vision is the inability of transit to effectively compete with the auto highway system. 
Simply put, cars work better for workers. A 2012 Brookings study analyzing data from 371 transit providers in America's largest 100 metro areas found that over three-fourths of all jobs are in neighborhoods with transit service—but only about a quarter of those jobs can be reached by transit within 90 minutes. That's more than three times the national average commute time."

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Sunday, April 14, 2019

HTX most diverse city in America, attracting millennials, congestion pricing, bus vs. rail, Tokyo's affordable housing supply

Some good stuff this week:
"What’s frustrating is that the last 25 years have shown—in Los Angeles and other cities— that expanding bus service increases transit ridership while expanding rail service decreases transit ridership. Further, bus is almost always cheaper than rail. Even premium express bus and bus rapid transit services cost one-third to one-ninth as much as the most cost-efficient light rail lines. Yet L.A. leaders, who should know better, continue to push for rail. 
Unfortunately, this is true in many places across the country. When Houston built a multi-billion-dollar light-rail network, total transit ridership (including bus) declined. A few years ago, Houston redesigned its bus network for a minimal additional cost, which led to an increase in bus ridership. The redesign, which included adding service on weekends, helped transit-dependent riders reach jobs they could not previously access on weekends. Yet Houston politicians have responded by calling for more rail funding."
"Congestion pricing is premised instead on the notion that public roads are a valuable and scarce resource. And we should pay in some places to use it not primarily to gin up revenue, but to help manage access for everyone.
In reality, the government is a monopoly provider of road space, and the government has largely chosen to give it away. It’s no surprise, then, that the vast majority of American commuters drive to work alone, or that all those lonely commuters (plus taxis, Ubers, buses and delivery trucks) cause congestion. 
When the government holds down the price of something people value, Mr. Manville said, we get shortages. And congestion is effectively a shortage of road — one that occurs at the peak times when people want to use it most. 
If we had that problem with other kinds of infrastructure or commodities, we’d charge people more for them. If airline tickets were particularly in demand, their prices would go up. If there were a run on avocados, grocers wouldn’t respond by keeping them as cheap as possible."
Hear, hear! 
"Meyers Research, which studies housing markets, asked Millennials where they wanted to move to. Their top five choices were Denver, Portland, Seattle, Washington, DC, and New York City 
Then Meyers asked where should Millennials want to live, based on the factors millennials said were most important: job opportunities, affordability, and lifestyle. The answers were Dallas, Houston, Austin, Phoenix, and Orlando. Although Denver and Seattle were both in the top ten, neither of the top-five lists had any cities in common. 
Perhaps a more pertinent question is: where are Millennials actually moving? According to a Brookings Institution analysis of American Community Survey data, the top seven destinations for millennials have been Houston, Denver, Dallas, Seattle, Austin, Charlotte, and Portland — which is more-or-less a combination of Meyers’ two lists.
Brookings also found that Millennials are leaving New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, and Miami. That pretty much kills the myth that Millennials prefer density, as those urban areas all have much higher than average densities (4,000 people per square mile and above). Numbers six and seven are Boston and Philadelphia, which also have very dense cores although their overall urban areas are less dense."

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Wednesday, April 03, 2019

HTX #1 for economic freedom and now an Alpha global city, Metro gets pragmatic, Houspitality food scene, and more

Before getting to this week's items, I have to mention a great new book just published by my good friend Anne. It frames a 16 question test for strong organizations that I think was at least partially shaped by the time she spent in Houston, and I do think it's something that's also a part of Houston's character and identity. How does your organization stack up on the test? Definitely worth checking out!

The Fabric of Character: A Wise Giver's Guide to Supporting Social and Moral Renewal

Hope you enjoyed the April Fools post earlier this week ;-D I got some pretty positive feedback on it. Moving on to this week's items:
"Between 1980 and 2016, L.A. passed three major transit sales tax measures and built 110 miles of rail. Yet ridership on L.A.’s transit system has been slipping for years, while the number of miles traveled in private cars is rising. Other American cities that have passed major transit measures are facing the same conundrum.
Thus, few Angelenos viewed transit as an amenity that directly benefited them. People voted for Measure M as an expression of their political beliefs, and in support of a broader social good—someone else will use this public service and improve congestion, just not me."
"There’s an abundance of pride here in the state’s brief history as a nation, its superior way of life and, yes, its gas stations."
"Nearly three decades later, Houston is not just the hottest food city in Texas — it owns a growing brand as one of America’s great culinary capitals. The city’s nebulous image as a sprawling energy boomtown and space nexus has crystallized into something far more tangible and inviting.
....chef David Chang, who has pronounced Houston “the most exciting food city in America.” 
Chang — the multiple Beard Award-winning founder of Momofuku restaurant group and host of Netflix’s “Ugly Delicous” — says he’s been high on the Houston food scene for about eight years now. The diversity, the culinary talent, even the city’s lack of zoning — all conspire to make a great food destination, he believes. 
“There’s great produce, the abundance of the Gulf of Mexico, a confluence of ethnic groups, and really lax governance,” he said. “You have Texas barbecue and Tex-Mex culture, you have Vietnamese and Indian. You have all that there and you have space — you have so much land.” 
People say Austin is weird, but I think Houston is way weirder than Austin,” Chang said. “Nothing makes sense. And that’s amazing.”

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Monday, April 01, 2019

Mayor Turner and firefighters agree to compromise on Prop B

After several months of negotiating, Mayor Turner and the firefighters finally reached a compromise on implementing Prop B to get pay parity with the police.  Given the City's tight finances, the creative solution involves substantially more paid time off instead of actual salary increases.  The City saves money, and the firefighters work fewer hours for the same pay.

To make up for the reduced hours, firehouses will drop from 3 to 2 shifts a day covering 6am to 10pm daily.  Fires reported between 10pm and 6am will be gotten to first thing in the morning.  The City is recommending that all households add a good couple of garden hoses to their usual emergency supplies so they can keep any nighttime fire outbreaks contained until morning.

The limited hours will also affect emergency ambulance and EMT service.  Nighttime emergencies will get service first thing in the morning, but after-hours 911 dispatchers are prepared to help citizens by Googling WebMD as well as finding good relevant YouTube videos to help them self-EMT.

Firefighters hailed the compromise, saying they're looking forward not just to the extra paid time off, but the improved quality of life from finally being able to get a regular good night's sleep. I'm personally pretty excited to stop having fire engine and ambulance sirens screaming down West Gray at all hours of the night!

Police were less enthusiastic, asking why they couldn't get the same hours?  They're now considering their own version of Prop B for the November ballot to match the firefighters' paid time off and shifts...

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


Monday, March 25, 2019

LA's costly transit failure, tech founder picks Houston over Austin, Houston is a food lover's paradise, and more

This week's items:
"Q. Houston has made a big push lately - really, yet another push - to become more attractive to start ups and technology businesses. What do you think of that effort? 
A. You know I've been all over the world I think Houston is a really special city. It's a great place to live. It's a great place to raise a family. And I think that is important. If you look at the places that people are starting to flock to now - entrepreneurs are fleeing San Francisco and the Bay Area there - they're going to places the great quality of life. And I would put Houston above Austin there.
Houston’s a much more dynamic city. And now I think we have better food, better arts, better music. Austin is great but I think Houston is under-appreciated. And personally, I choose it."
"For a number of reasons — Houston’s position between Gulf seafood and Texas produce, its long history of overlapping immigrant cultures, and an ever-expanding vastness that has enabled those migrant cultures to settle and thrive — the city has one of the most exciting and undiscovered food cultures in the country. In a state of old traditions, Houston is a city of newcomers. It’s also now the most diverse metropolitan area in the United States.
From the looks of Houston — its vast, featureless expanse pockmarked by potholes and parking lots — it’d be easy to mistake it for a whole lot of nothing. But Space City turns out to be a universe unto itself, and the families who have settled here are serving daily lessons in how a city of the future might look — and taste."

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Monday, March 18, 2019

MaX Lanes win, #1 for millennials, traffic better than you think, our resilient culture, NYT eats here, and more

A lot of new items this week:
"By contrast, the biggest winner is Houston, a metro area that many planners and urban theorists regard with contempt. The Bayou City gained nearly 15,000 millennials net last year, while other big gainers included Dallas–Fort Worth and Austin, which gained 12,700 and 9,000, respectively. Last year, according to a Texas realtors report, a net 22,000 Californians moved to the Lone Star State."
"I want to call your attention to a new (not yet published) paper on the subject by researchers from Cornell University and McGill University. “A Comprehensive Welfare Impact Analysis for Road Expansion Projects” uses transportation data from the Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area to compare, quantitatively, the effects of four possible highway expansion options (in addition to doing nothing): adding a general purpose (GP) lane, adding a high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane, adding a priced ETL (electronic toll lane), or converting all lanes to conventional toll lanes. The priced ETL ranked highest in both regional economic impact and improving system-wide travel time, and was judged to produce the greatest increase in overall social welfare."
Finally, if you're looking for a high-impact charity to support, I was recently introduced to the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, which does an absolutely amazing job mentoring Texas prisoners back into successful lives after prison (check out the results here).  If you want to learn more, check out one of their events. Hat tip to Jay, one of their top volunteers.

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Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Houston energy salaries vs. tech and others

This week's guest post is from Oscar Slotboom:
Tuesday the Wall Street Journal published an interactive chart with the most recent median salary data as reported by publicly-traded U.S. companies.

It's a fascinating interactive tool, but most interesting is the amazingly high pay of the energy industry. Below is a screenshot where I added annotations of many energy firms with headquarters or large operations in Houston (click to enlarge)

The median salary of the energy industry is $115,700, vastly higher than the #2 industry technology, which comes in at $75,000. However, there is a strange cluster of very low paid jobs on the technology plot, maybe offshore jobs, which pushes the technology median lower. Nevertheless, the energy scatter is clearly well above the technology scatter and the finance scatter.

Of course, Houston is an energy industry hub and we have a high percentage of those high-paying energy jobs, with many large Houston employers clustering at the high end of the chart. Houston has achieved the holy grail of many employers with high pay, an affordable cost of living, and very large total employment at the high-paying firms with ExxonMobil, Anadarko, ConocoPhillips, Phillips 66, EOG Resources and Chevron.

Below is a tabular list of selected large firms in Houston and outside Houston

HoustonOutside Houston
Carrizo Oil & Gas $191,131 Facebook SV $240,430
Phillips 66 $170,988 Broadcom SV $202,915
Exxon Mobil $161,562 Alphabet (Google) SV $197,274
Anadarko $160,251 Netflix SV $183,304
ConocoPhillips $158,943 Microsoft Seattle $167,689
EOG Resources $146,016 Twitter SF $161,860
Chevron $137,849 Goldman Sachs NYC $135,165

Other energy firms with large blue-collar field workforces and large professional staff in Houston also come in above the tech average, with Halliburton at $79,636 and Schlumberger at $75,134.

Looking at the charts, we can see that only the most upper-tier tech firms equal or exceed Houston's large energy employers, and finance firms in the high-paying range appear to be smaller boutique firms which have lower numbers of employees compared to big firms.

While this is an excellent position for Houston, there is also cause for concern since Houston's high-paying cluster is entirely oil and gas, and therefore vulnerable to advancing green technology and government action. The Green New Deal promoted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seeks to make electricity generation 100% zero-emission and "[overhaul] transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible" (ref). This would destroy demand for fossil fuel energy in the U.S. and do very serious damage to the existing energy industry and Houston's high-paying job base. "New energy" jobs in wind, solar and energy storage really don't offer much hope. The wind power industry is already well-established and is mostly foreign with only one U.S. player, General Electric. Solar panel manufacturing is totally dominated by China, and China is positioning to totally dominate battery manufacturing.

So, this all leads to the conclusion that, from the economic and jobs perspective, it is in Houston's best interest for the oil and gas industry to have the longest possible remaining longevity. Maybe everyone with a stake in Houston's high-paying energy industry (companies, shareholders, State of Texas) should be more actively looking at ways for oil and gas to exist in a future with environmentalists holding more political power and battery prices dropping. For example, more participation in research for carbon capture technology.

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Monday, February 25, 2019

Fixing Houston's branding, hail-mary save for CA HSR, cautionary Chicago, learning from OKC, and more

A random thought before getting to this week's items: you know what might save the California high-speed rail white elephant recently dramatically downsized by the governor? Uber drone rides from the SF and LA metros to the new Merced and Bakersfield endpoints, respectively (ideally extended to be a bit closer, maybe Pleasanton and Palmdale).  I know it sounds a little crazy, but they might be closer to reality than you think, and the total price and travel time could be very competitive with airports if neither your origin nor destination are near airports.  Doesn't mean this thing hasn't been a gigantic waste of taxpayer money, but this solution might scrape together some value out of the boondoggle...

Moving on to this week's items:
  • Let's take a moment to be very, very thankful we're not the fiscal wreck of Chicago, and make a commitment that we never want to let Houston fall into the same hole. Some would argue we've already started down the same slippery slope :-( 
"Chicagoans are suffocating under unfunded debt liabilities from every level of government totaling $130 billion."
That's $48k of unfunded debt per person in the city, or almost $200k per household of four!! How many families would buy a house in Chicago knowing it came with an extra $200k debt attached to it?!
"It’s curious that while every company tries its hardest to convince you of how much different and better it is than every other company in its industry, every city tries its hardest to convince you it’s exactly the same as every other city that’s conventionally considered cool. 
Look at any piece of city marketing material, from promo videos to airline magazine ad inserts. It’s amazing how so many of them rely on the same basic ingredients: hipster coffee shops, microbreweries, bike lanes, creative-class members, startups, intimations of a fashion scene, farm-to-table restaurants, new downtown streetcars, etc. 
These are all good things, mind you: things cities should be happy to have. Some of them may even be modern necessities. But you can’t help but notice how few unique things about these cities manage to come through. A video from the Greater Houston Partnership, for example, shows outdoor art, bicyclists, a live music performance, and a light-rail train going by—but nothing about oil or energy. Except for some references to the space program, little else about the incredible uniqueness of Houston comes through.
Atlanta and Houston are major cities with strong identities. They are much more than a collection of generic urban elements. Why cities with great identities and heritages of their own so seldom lead with them is something of a mystery." 
The solution? Here's my suggestion.
Finally, Oklahoma City has a really innovative model for public funding of civic amenities that Houston should strongly consider.
"There is reason to take pause at such public works programs, and the general idea of attracting outside capital through industrial policy. It can lead to misappropriated resources, which in other cities have, in fact, included convention centers and streetcars. But there’s something reassuring about the way Oklahoma City does MAPS. The projects, for whatever one may think of them, are at least chosen and funded by residents themselves. And they are delivered low-cost and debt-free, providing more bang for the buck."

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