Monday, April 20, 2015

Touring METRO's new rail lines: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Today I got to take a media preview tour of Metro's new Southeast/Purple and East/Green lines, which are opening to the public May 23rd.  Metro brought a great team to give us the tour and answer our questions.  Photos below for your enjoyment, but here are my thoughts categorized into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

The Good
  • Fun to ride with really well done stops, including nice art and signage, same as the existing lines.  I used the Red line last week to attend the Astrodome 50th anniversary party (followed my Miller Outdoor Theater), and I have to say it was pretty awesome bypassing the traffic congestion of 25,000+ people attending that event.
  • Pretty quick ride: from EaDo near the Dynamo stadium, it's 6 minutes to the current end of the East Line and 17 minutes to the Palm Center at the end of the Southeast line, although it should be noted we didn't stop at the intermediate stops.
  • UH gets 3 stops which is really good access to most parts of the campus, including the new football stadium.
  • The townhome and apartment boom in the East End is even more impressive than I was aware.  I'm not sure how much of it is related to the new lines, but METRO is certainly happy to take some of the credit.  But there's a problem...
The Bad
  • I think they spaced the first two stops on the Southeast/Purple line (EaDo and Leeland/Third Ward) too far apart to effectively serve the booming townhomes out there.  The EaDo stop is right next to Dynamo/BBVA Compass Stadium and 59, and Leeland is almost next to 45S, with no stops in between. Google Maps says they're about 1.1 miles apart.  Most of the people in those townhomes are going to have a serious walk to use the lines.  I think Metro is going to need to look at building an intermediate stop. Update: Good news - Metro board member Christof Spieler has tweeted me that space for a future station has been left near Ennis and Walker.
  • The East End/Green line won't truly be complete all the way to the Magnolia Park Transit center until the bridge over the freight rail tracks is finished in Spring 2016 (estimated).  Right now it stops at Altic/Howard Hughes.  I asked about the name of that stop - did you know the Howard Hughes was a big developer of the East End?  I had no idea - pretty cool.
  • Check out the bottom two photos below.  See the problem?  UH's new stadium is called TDECU, but the stop is called Robertson Stadium.  The have the same problem with the Reliant/NRG stop, and may have it in the future with Minute Maid and BBVA Compass stadiums.  I was told it's a Board level decision, and they're trying to figure out a policy with all of these frequent stadium renamings.  It's expensive to rename a stop when you consider all the maps that have to change.  I say they charge the company that bought the naming rights for the switchover.  But another option would be to pick generic stop names that are likely to be stable: UH, Astros, Dynamo, and Texans/Rodeo Stadiums.
The Ugly
  • Final cost numbers are $823 million for the 6.6 mile Southeast/Purple line and $587 million for the 3.3 mile East/Green line, for a total of $1.4 billion dollars (!).  To work that out on a per-mile basis, it has to be noted that both lines overlap about a mile downtown, so really only 8.9 miles of new track was created (not 9.9).  That works out to $158 million per mile, folks. Ouch. As nice as they are, that's a hard number to stomach. Did I mention this was the ugly section?
  • Some friendly advice to Metro: given the numbers I just mentioned, I don't recommend continuing to promote the new Taco Bell next to UH as economic development spurred by the new line.  The scale disparity invites unflattering comparisons and humor... ;-)
Overall, I continue to stand by my original thoughts that this money would have been better spent on other transit projects, like an improved and more extensive HOT lane network and Park & Rides with more express service to more job centers - or at least a nice cross-town University line.  I don't expect these lines to generate nearly the ridership of the original Main St. line.  But there's no going back in time, so let's hope these lines can be made as successful as possible to get a return-on-taxpayer-investment, especially when it comes to neighborhood investments and redevelopment.  As UH continues to improve as a Tier One University and generate more on-campus living and activity, I could certainly see the potential for a lot of interesting redevelopment along the Southeast line between the campus and downtown, as well as adding new energy to downtown's nightlife scene.  And the East line may also grow in popularity because the rest of the inner loop has gotten so unaffordable.  We'll just have to wait and see how it develops...

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Houston's general plan and the real source of wealth inequality: housing and land-use regulation

This week I have three items that all touch on the same theme: the risks of overly restrictive local land use regulation.  The first is an amazing paper by a 26-year-old MIT graduate turning heads over his theory that income inequality is actually all about housing (all summarized in one graph). (hat tips to Payton and Josh)
"Rognlie is attacking the idea that rich capitalists have an unfair ability to turn their current wealth into a lazy dynasty of self-reinforcing investments. This theory, made famous by French economist Thomas Piketty, argues that wealth is concentrating in the 1% because more money can be made by investing in machines and land (capital) than paying people to perform work (wages). Because capital is worth more than wages, those with an advantage to invest now in capital become the source of long-term dynasties of wealth and inequality. 
Rognlie’s blockbuster rebuttal to Piketty is that “recent trends in both capital wealth and income are driven almost entirely by housing.” Software, robots, and other modern investments all depreciate in price as fast as the iPod. Technology doesn’t hold value like it used to, so it’s misleading to believe that investments in capital now will give rich folks a long-term advantage. 
Land/housing is really one of the only investments that give wealthy people a long-term leg up. According to the Economist, this changes how we should rethink policy related to income inequality
Rather than taxing businesses and wealthy investors, “policy-makers should deal with the planning regulations and NIMBYism that inhibit housebuilding and which allow homeowners to capture super-normal returns on their investments.” In other words, the government should focus more on housing policy and less on taxing the wealthy, if it wants to properly deal with the inequality problem."
The second item is how Community Control Is Destroying America’s Cities.  Finally there is some recognition that excessive neighborhood NIBMY power is strangling the ability of cities to grow and spiraling housing costs out of control.  Houston gets mentioned as a good alternative model with our lack of zoning - thank goodness we haven't slipped down that slope of ever-expanding land use development controls... but are we about to?...

That leads to the third piece by Scott Beyer in Forbes about the general plan Houston is developing, which even gives me a short shout out.  There's a lot of good stuff in here, hence the long excerpts:
"Does Houston need this? For those who dislike messing with success, the answer should be no. 
As geographer Joel Kotkin has repeatedly noted here and in other publications, Houston’s pro-growth mentality—which is distinct from the “Smart Growth” ethos of government planners—is central to its success. While many highly-regulated cities have declined, Houston has in the last two decades fostered booming oil, health, housing and manufacturing sectors. Since 1990, its population has grown by 29%, five percentage points above the national average, and it has become the de facto Gulf Coast capital. 
Along with this growth has come increased quality of life. According to data from Praxis Strategy Group, a consultancy affiliated with Kotkin, Houston residents have the nation’s highest standard of living when combining average salary with cost of living, something attributed to its unregulated—and thus cheap—housing market.
If the plan’s point is really just to pursue these goals through more data and coordination, so that officials know, for example, where to build parks and fill potholes, then it should prove benign. But that is rarely the way master plans are interpreted. Instead, their lofty goals are used by officials to justify expanded government. What results is the generic list of Smart Growth measures that planners use to try converting automobile-oriented cities into dense, “sustainable,” European-style ones. 
The plan may also encourage expansion of the light rail system, which Tory Gattis, Kotkin’s colleague, believes is inadequate for the spread-out city, especially compared to the growing taxi and ride-sharing industries. If the plan adds an ambitious open-space preservation program, then Houston can kiss goodbye its pro-development climate. All these policies have been used in heavily-planned cities like San Francisco and Portland, contributing to their high taxes and lack of affordability. 
The ironic thing is that Houston’s outward growth and congestion has already created demand for development inside the I-610 loop, which encompasses downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Given this organic urbanization, master plans may be unnecessary, or even counterproductive. The city’s lack of zoning, after all, has made it inviting for such infill projects. But if the plan creates a litany of new regulations, they could be used by neighborhood activists to discourage development, as happens in planning-oriented cities. If city officials are really interested in greater density—along with other urbanist goals like increasing wealth, job creation, and diversity—perhaps they should scrap the plan and keep Houston like it is."
I think he raises some good points about the risks of this plan, but I also know that there are people actively involved with the general plan development process that are making sure we don't make those mistakes.  Officials are more aware than ever before of Houston's strengths and are being careful not to compromise them as we continue to improve the city.  But vigilance will always be required...

More on Houston's new general plan here and my own thoughts here.

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Sunday, April 05, 2015

New life for the Astrodome at 50, everybody's coming to Texas, our openness to new ideas, the rise of private transit, and more

Hope you enjoyed last week's April Fools post - quite the backlog of items to get to this week:
"Nearly 48,000 people – including President Lyndon B. Johnson – crammed into the glistening new Astrodome on April 9, 1965, to watch the New York Yankees fall 2-1 to the newly renamed Houston Astros." 
"Another way to look at population growth in Houston last year:
A baby was born every 5.5 minutes.
A death was recorded every 14.2 minutes.
Someone moved to the region from overseas every 16.3 minutes.
Someone moved to Houston from elsewhere in the U.S. every 8.0 minutes.
All told, Houston's population grew at the rate of one new resident every 3.4 minutes last year."
"“To be able to say I can make tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people’s lives better every day, that’s meaningful. That’s what actually matters.” 
Spieler grew up in the San Francisco suburbs, he told us, before moving to Houston for college. “I thought Houston was an awful place, but I would put up with it to go to Rice. But by the time I graduated I loved this place.” Our attraction? An openness to new ideas. 
“There are cities which try really hard to block any change. And politically, the questions you get asked are: how long have you lived here? Who were your parents? Who do you know? I never would have ended up on an appointed transit board in a city like San Francisco. This is a city where, if you have good ideas and you’re willing to push for them, people will listen to you. It gives me endless hope for Houston’s ability to keep changing.”"
"When many of these voters think of economic dynamism, they think of places like Texas, the top job producer in the nation over the past decade, and, especially, places like Houston, a low-regulation, low-cost-of-living place. In places like Wisconsin, voters in the middle class private sector support candidates who cut state pensions and pass right-to-work laws, so that economic governance can be more Texas-style."
"If you pretend that the United States is populated exclusively by twentysomething graduates of national research universities, you'll develop the sense that everybody is moving to the city centers of New York, Chicago, San Jose, and Boston. In fact, all three of those metro areas have seen more Americans leaving than coming in the last five years. The cities with the highest levels of net domestic migration since 2010 are Houston, Dallas, Austin, Phoenix, Denver, and San Antonio. Once again, we're talking about Texas. More broadly, we're talking about sprawly metros with fast-growing suburbs in the Sun Belt."

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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.


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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