Sunday, August 24, 2014

Dallas vs. Houston in two words, HSR loses its sweet spot, how cities decline, and more

This week's items:
  • Dallas finally added a rail connection to DFW and thinks this helps qualify them as a world class city, even though downtown Dallas only has a tiny percentage of metro employment and it will take an hour to get there.  I've always heard a big differentiator between Dallas and Houston is that Dallas is much more image conscious about appearances (sort of an LA of Texas), and this really drives it home for me.  We're more pragmatic and are not worried about being considered world class (at this point, we already know we're there).  We tried express bus connecting downtown to IAH (far faster than a rail line), and it flopped, with only 2-3 riders per trip on average.  With that low of a demand, why would we build a multi-billion dollar rail line to the aiport that would be even slower?! That may very well sum up Dallas vs. Houston in two words: prestige vs. pragmatic.  A few years ago I laid out the case here for why rail to the airport rarely makes sense.
  • Speaking of Dallas vs. Houston, we definitely win this tourism smackdown vs. Dallas.
  • Aaron Renn kicks off a 3-post series with a devastating description of how declining cities get into a viciously reinforcing cycle of decline driven by corrupt vulturous interests in real estate, construction, and legal services.  The short version of the argument is that big local banks used to influence local politics to get broad economic growth, but those banks got rolled up into national firms and the business interests that are left really are mostly looking for narrow contracts subsidized by the taxpayer - they don't have the broader interests of the city at heart.  It is a scary and depressing trap that is almost impossible for a city to get out of once it starts (Detroit and Cleveland being two examples).  So far Houston seems to have avoided this fate, but it's certainly something we have to stay vigilant about...
  • A pretty devastating but logical case against the viability of high speed rail, with the nail in the coffin being that self-driving cars will eliminate any distance "sweet spot" that might have existed between driving and flying.
  • Governing magazine dissects the Ashby legal case and no-zoning in Houston.  My favorite excerpt:
"Whatever views one may hold about a city without zoning, it’s hard to deny that Houston has done pretty well for itself over the past generation or so. Its population has grown faster than that of almost any other American city. Its unemployment rate is among the lowest. It continues to attract new businesses no matter what slogan it chooses to adopt for itself. And a growing number of scholars, notably the urbanologist Edward Glaeser, have argued that Houston has done well precisely because it imposes so few restrictions on development."
"By 2023, Houston's gross regional product (GRP) will approach $1.1 trillion, more than double where it stands today. The region will add nearly 1.2 million residents, more than 700,000 jobs, and $300 billion in personal income."

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Reason TV features Houston, Portland vs. Austin rail, hurricane protection, greenways gamechanger, fast tech and fast cars in Texas

This week's items:
Finally, a great 10m video from Reason.TV that starts out talking about experiments with tiny houses in DC vs. their oppressive zoning regulations and bureaucracies, but then transitions to talking about the creativity and freedom allowed in Houston and Victoria.  If you want to jump to the transition about Houston, it starts at the 3:50 point with NYC.  Hat tip to Joel.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Our global ranking, Dallas sends us some respect, where we are on the political spectrum, problems of HSR in America, and more

This week's items:
"In our assessment, the three US cities with the best long-term prospects to enter the top ranks of global economy are Houston, Washington Metropolitan Area, and the San Francisco Bay area. The rise of 14th ranked Houston is based largely on its role as the “Energy Capital of the World”. The world’s oil supermajors are dispersed geographically (and include a number of state owned firms), and Houston is clearly the centre of the industry. The majority of traded foreign oil majors have their US headquarters in Houston and companies that are technically based elsewhere boast a significant Houston presence. In fact, Houston seems to be becoming more dominant. For example, Exxon, based in Dallas-Fort Worth, is opening a massive Houston campus that will be home to 10,000 employees. Additionally, a majority of the world’s largest oil services companies, such as Baker Hughes, Schlumberger and FMC Technologies, are based in Houston. The Texan city is also a centre for energy trading. Altogether, over 5,000 energy-related companies call Houston home. Houston has also developed other critical aspects of a global city, including the nation’s largest export port and the world’s largest medical centre. It has also become, by some measurements, the most diverse region in the country ethnically. In the last decade, for example, Houston increased its foreign-born population by 400,000, second only to New York and well ahead of much larger Los Angeles."
Still, even if the California, Florida and Texas projects all succeed, transportation experts say it is unlikely that the United States will ever have the same kind of high-speed rail systems as China or Europe. 
C. William Ibbs, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, said countries with successful high-speed rail projects had higher population densities, higher gas prices, higher rates of public-transportation use and lower rates of car ownership. “So it wouldn’t make any sense to have a high-speed rail train in most areas of the United States,” he said. “The geography is different and other factors are just too different.”

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Houston = urban personification of the Texas spirit, happy #1 boomtown, 18 best city in America reasons, and more

Continuing with clearing the small items backlog, and I'm traveling over the next week, so this post will cover two weeks:
"To them, Texas meant opportunity, possibility, openness, freedom... "frontier spirit"
The frontier itself may be a thing of the past, but most of the qualities that we think of as quintessentially Texan are derived from the frontier experience—individuality, frankness, boldness, optimism, self-reliance, aversion to pretense, a kind of rustic humor, small-town communitarianism writ large, and the egalitarian ethos of a place unburdened by a centuries-old pecking order."
"An article in the Financial Times points out that about $10 trillion worth of wealth in the United States is phony, created by restrictive land-use laws that have pushed up the price of housing.
First, these planning laws contribute to income inequality by making people who already own homes richer while making those who don’t poorer.
Thanks to planning restrictions, the average size of home in Britain today is not only less than half the size of an American home, it is far smaller than the average before passage of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. This is the law that so many planners want to emulate in America.
Those who want to reduce income inequality by taxing the rich, concludes Harding, should take another tack. “If we want to make society fairer and more equal, just let people build.”
"The second article takes a very different tack, "How Cars, Not Subways, Will Make Us Richer." Written by Scott Beyer for the Daily Beast (June 4th), it begins with the 2011 study from Brookings finding that in America's hundred largest metro areas, only 22% of low- and middle-skill jobs are accessible via transit in less than 90 minutes (which is more than three times the duration of the average auto commute, BTW). It then summarizes a report from the Urban Institute led by Rolf Pendall, which found that transit access has little effect on people's economic success. By contrast, the study team found that low-income people with automobile access were twice as likely as transit users to find jobs and four times as likely to keep them. Beyer suggests that planners need to give greater attention to ways of increasing auto access for lower-income people who are not well-served by transit systems. The report is "Driving to Opportunity," released by the Urban Institute in March 2014, written by a team of people from Urban Institute, the National Center for Smart Growth (at University of Maryland), and the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA."
And wrapping up with a little fun: an absolutely crazy video of a massive intersection in Ethiopia with no controls of any kind.  Just chaos, but it does seem to flow!  Hat tip to Jay.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Saving the Astrodome, Houston really is creative, Florida beating Houston at express lanes, and more

Lots of smaller items backlogged:
    "I sometimes, half-seriously, call Houston the Land of the Lotus Eaters, full of people who are continually high from a cocktail of affluence, affability, and comfort."
    Finally, a couple of quick thoughts on the silly Rodeo and Texans plan to demolish the Astrodome and replace it with a pretty lame park.  First, here's a great book excerpt on the history of the Astrodome, which makes a compelling case for why it should be saved.  And here's a great new option posted by John to the Save the Astrodome Facebook group: a high-tech ski mountain!  Considering how many Houstonians fly to the Rockies every winter, I think it would be a big hit year-round and should be able to pay for itself when you consider the insane prices of lift tickets.  Can somebody in Judge Emmett's office reach out to these guys?...

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    Thursday, July 17, 2014

    Our big Houston article in the City Journal and WSJ on "America's Opportunity City"

    I was traveling and then furiously catching-up upon returning this week, so apologies for the posting delay, but I wanted to get a quick one out here about Joel Kotkin and I's big article in the City Journal and op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

    The City Journal piece is the long main one, and is something we've been working on over several months:
    America’s Opportunity City
    Lots of new jobs and a low cost of living make Houston a middle-class magnet.
    Summer 2014

    The Wall Street Journal op-ed is a trimmed down version of the City Journal article.  It can be found on the WSJ here, or a copy is available on New Geography if you're not a WSJ subscriber.
    Success and the CityHouston's pro-growth policies have produced an urban powerhouse—and a blueprint for metropolitan revival.
    Lisa Gray at the Chronicle shares her thoughts and favorite excerpts here.

    Some of my favorite tidbits:
    • "Indeed, the Houston model of development might be described as “opportunity urbanism.”"
    • "Houston now has among the highest, if not the highest, standard of living of any large city in the U.S. The average cost-of-living-adjusted salary in Houston is about $75,000, compared with around $50,000 in New York and $46,000 in Los Angeles."
    • "An even bigger component of Houston’s growth, however, may be its planning regime, which allows development to follow the market instead of top-down government directives. The city and its unincorporated areas have no formal zoning, so land use is flexible and can readily meet demand. Getting building permits is simple and quick, with no arbitrary approval boards making development an interminable process. Neighborhoods can protect themselves with voluntary, opt-in deed restrictions or minimum lot sizes. Architect and developer Tim Cisneros credits the flexible planning system for the city’s burgeoning apartment and town-home development. “There are a lot of people who come here for jobs but don’t want to live, at least not yet, in the Woodlands,” he notes. “We can respond to this demand fast because there’s no zoning, and approvals don’t take forever. You could not do this so fast in virtually any city in America. The lack of zoning allows us not only to do neat things—but do them quickly and for less money.”"
    • "The flexible planning regime is also partly responsible for keeping Houston's housing prices relatively low. On a square-foot basis, according to Knight Frank, a London-based real-estate consultancy, the same amount of money buys almost seven times as much space in Houston as it does in San Francisco and more than four times as much as in New York. Houston has built a new kind of "self-organizing" urban model, notes architect and author Lars Lerup, one that he calls "a creature of the market.""
    • "Houston is neither the libertarian paradise imagined by many conservatives nor the antigovernment Wild West town conjured by liberals. The city is better understood as relentlessly pragmatic and pro-growth. Bob Lanier, the legendary three-time Democratic mayor who steered the city’s recovery from the 1980s oil bust, when the metro region bled more than 220,000 jobs in just five years, epitomized this can-do spirit. Lanier was more interested in building infrastructure and promoting growth than in regulation and redistribution. That focus remains strong today. “Houston is getting very comfortable with itself and what it is,” says retired Harris County judge Robert Eckels. “We are a place that has a big idea—supporting and growing through private industry, and that’s something everyone pretty much accepts.”"
    I may be biased here, but there is far too much worth excerpting, so I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing.  I'll end with the concluding paragraph of the City Journal piece:
    For now, though, most Houstonians see the city as a place that works—for minorities and immigrants, for suburbanites and city dwellers—and few want to fix what isn’t broken. “The key to Houston’s future is to keep thinking about how to be a greater city,” notes David Wolff as he passes a new set of towers off the Grand Parkway. “This road, it wouldn’t be built in many places. People might talk about these things, but in most places, they don’t get done. In Houston, we don’t just talk about the future—we’re building it.”
    Looking forward to your thoughts in the comments...

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    Monday, July 07, 2014

    1H14 Highlights

    First, an announcement: if you'd like to learn more about or contribute to the new Houston "No Limits" branding campaign, they're holding public events this week - details here.  I spent some time with the agency running the campaign last week, and they're very open to feedback and ideas...

    Moving on: it's time for the Winter and Spring 1H14 quarterly highlights post.  I skipped the 1Q highlights post this year after doing the best posts of the first 1,000 in February.

    These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument; and, last but not least, they've also been invaluable for me to track down some of my best thinking for meetings or when requested by others (as is the ever-helpful Google search). They're not quite as useful as they were when I was still doing multiple posts each week, but still have some value (at least for me).

    Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly once/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box in the right sidebar. An RSS feed link is also available in the right sidebar.

    As always, thanks for your readership.
    And don't forget the highlights from the first few years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging) and most definitely in the 5th birthday retrospective and the best of the first 1,000.


    Monday, June 30, 2014

    Big news, critiquing Dallas, Houston's transportation history, and more

    First, some big news I want to share with all of you: the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism is pulling together a book on the future of cities and their suburbs, and they've asked me to contribute a paper!  Very exciting yet humbling.  Publication is estimated for the spring of 2016, so fortunately I have a bit of time to pull it together...

    On to this week's smaller misc items:
    • Thanks to Bill King for the shout out. Total agreement supporting METRO as it revamps the bus system and backs off from the costly obsession with rail.
    • The Urbanophile does Dallas (doesn't quite roll off the tongue in the same way, does it? ;-) followed by a mixed review of Downtown Dallas specifically.  Reading the critique, I think he'd give our downtown a better review, although still mixed.  I think he has some good thoughts on potential solutions that Houston should be considering, especially #1 on creating an authentic street experience appropriate to Texas. It also includes a great excerpt on the walkability challenge that I have also stressed for Houston:
    "For one thing, Dallas temperatures are very high. It was in the 90s and blazing sun every day I was there. This renders the city functionally unwalkable. I wanted to do a lot more exploring but just couldn't because if I spent more than about 10-15 minutes outside I needed to take a shower. 
    When I tweeted this people kept talking about other places in the world with high temperatures. It may be that some places are acculturated to this, or too poor to afford air conditioning. But I actually didn't even get a good counterexample once you factor in humidity. Some folks mentioned Seville, Spain, but the July dew point in Seville ranges from 51-66 while in Dallas it’s 64-72. That’s a big difference. 
    So walkability and urbanity is going to mean something different in a hot, Southern climate vs. northern cities. Think of that as challenge #1."
    "Great and small enterprises often have two births: first in purity, then in maturity. The idealism of the Declaration of Independence gave way to the cold-eyed balances of the Constitution. Love starts in passion and ends in car pools. 
    The beauty of the first birth comes from the lofty hopes, but the beauty of the second birth comes when people begin to love frailty. (Have you noticed that people from ugly places love their cities more tenaciously than people from beautiful cities?)"
    Yes, yes we do.
    Finally, H-GAC recently released a new Mobility Now special edition video on "The Art of Transportation" celebrating 40 years of transportation planning in the region, including an extended conversation with County Judge Emmett.  A lot of interesting history in here, including (surprise!) yours truly at the 4:32 mark.

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