Monday, May 14, 2018

The genius of Houston deed restrictions, micro-transit solution to rail fail, tech to end traffic, top rankings and more

My featured item this week is another in Nolan Gray's excellent series at Market Urbanism on Houston's unique and free market land-use regulationThe Case for Subsidizing Deed Restrictions, which Houston does with a City legal department enforcing them.  Highly recommend reading the whole thing, but he ends with this great conclusion:
"This is the genius of Houston’s unique system: Let those with strong preferences for tight restrictions have them and the city as a whole can go on operating under a largely liberal land-use regime. There is a valuable lesson here for other cities: when attempting to liberalize land-use regulations, consider strengthening the private (subdivision deed restrictions) and public (stricter local rules subject to local consensus) mechanisms whereby the most powerful opponents of liberalization can simply opt out. Houston figured this out in 1965 and again deployed this strategy to great effect in the 1998 subdivision regulation overhaul. In relationships as in city planning, sometimes you have to give a little to get a little."
Hear hear! Moving on to this week's items:
"In the meantime think about this.  What could we have done instead with the $2.2 billion that was spent on light rail?  The answer is lots.  Like solving most of our flooding problem or resurfacing virtually every street in the street in the City or repairing our dilapidated wastewater system or putting more police officers on the streets or demolishing some of the thousands of dangerous buildings in the City or any one of dozens of other critical priorities facing the City. 
The question is not whether light rail is a good thing or not.  The question is whether it was the best use of $2.2 billion of taxpayer money.  The answer to that question is pretty clearly, “No.”
"According to the American Public Transportation Association, the average speed of rapid rail (a.k.a. heavy rail) is just 20 mph, while the average speed of rapid bus is less than 11 mph. 
According to the 2016 National Transit Database, the nation’s fastest heavy-rail line is BART, which averages 35 mph. Atlanta’s is 31 and Washington’s is 27, while New York City subways average just 18 mph. Considering that most transit riders also have to take time getting to and from transit stations, none of these can compete effectively with door-to-door driving, which in San Antonio averages 33 mph."
"For decades, cities have overseen transit monopolies that use heavy infrastructure, fixed routes and set schedules, under the premise that these will spur surrounding growth. And in many cities, they have. But thanks to the rise of the gig economy, workers often find themselves making multiple trips in a given day, and public transit has proven inflexible — unable to get them from point A to point B in a timely manner, or at all. As a result, even densifying cities have seen declining ridership. 
Contrast that with private transit, which has grown in success by pursuing “microtransit.” This model stresses malleable routes, on-demand service, smaller vehicles and minimal brick-and-mortar infrastructure. Companies include the bus services Via and Chariot; the ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft; and the bike-share services Zagster and LimeBike. Their flexibility lets them locate where demand exists, rather than counting on populations to come to them.
Indeed, these new microtransit companies could increase the flexibility of  transit, creating systems that are complicated yet smart, not orderly but dumb."
Finally, building on last week's post, it turns out that not only does Houston employ more people inside its city limits than larger city Chicago, it even employs more than much larger Los Angeles!  Reasons: I'd guess good annexation and multiple major job centers. Again hat tip and graphics credit to George.  Click to enlarge.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Solving the Corps' reservoir dirt problem, HTX vs. NYC apts, HTX > Chicago, transit's expensive demise, Houston's hilarious "end of the universe", and more

Before jumping into this week's items, an idea:  The Army Corps of Engineers wants to dig out Addicks and Barker reservoirs deeper so they can hold more water, but they're not sure what to do with the dirt.  How about using it to elevate the new high-speed rail line to Dallas, which has to be grade-separated anyway?  Please pass along if you know anyone with the Corps or Texas Central.  Idea credit to Patrick.

Moving on to this week's items:
"Fares paid by riders cover only about a quarter of these costs.  That means taxpayers who do not ride transit are spending over $50 billion per year to subsidize those who do.  In 2017, trips on transit were less than 1% of the total daily trips taken by Americans.  That works out to the 99% of Americans that don't use transit paying about $160 per year for the 1% that do.  The value to the 1% who ride transit is about $14,000 per year."
But it is clear that we are in the midst of a technological revolution in transportation.  The most important thing is that we don't spend a lot of money on inflexible infrastructure.   I suspect that in the not too distant future, we are going to look back on our light rail experiment in Houston as the City's worst ever white elephant."
  • Houston has more people employed in city limits than Chicago! Hat tip and graphics credit to George.  Click to enlarge.

Finally, to end on a little humor: I've actually had this item ready to post for a long time, but read that Lewis Black was in town last weekend to do some stand-up (KUHF story link) which reminded me.  Here's his (locally) famous bit about the Starbucks across the street from a Starbucks in River Oaks being the "end of the universe".  It's hilarious, and he doesn't even mention the *third* Starbucks next door inside the Barnes and Noble! ;-D

(If the embeded video below fails to play, go here)

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Saturday, April 21, 2018

Why Houston does NOT have "basically zoning" with deed restrictions+permitting, Austin's foolish transit plan vs. Houston's wisdom, and more

I want to kick off this week with an excellent piece by Nolan Gray at Market Urbanism explaining why Houston does not "basically have zoning" with our deed restrictions and permitting.  He really gets the details right on how things work here and how flexible Houston is with our adaptive land use.  It also has a stat I hadn't seen before estimating that less than 25% of the city has deed restrictions, allowing the other 75% to pretty freely adapt.  There is too much great stuff in it to adequately summarize here, so definitely read the whole thing. But I will share the concluding paragraphs:
"Siegan concludes his discussion of this topic by perceptively noting that zoning implicitly tries to answer two very difficult questions:
  1. What is the extent of protection to which property owners are entitled?
  2. What powers should existing residents have to exclude other people and things from the municipality?
Zoning addresses these questions using an opaque political process in which certain privileged special interests—namely homeowners—may impose their particular preferences across all time. Houston’s deed restrictions, on the other hand, are constantly rediscovering the answers to these questions. It all comes back to consumer preferences: if consumers desire things like large lots and ample off-street parking and are willing to pay more for the extra land, developers will respond by bidding up the land and implementing tight deed restrictions. If they either don’t want these restrictions, or aren’t willing to pay more for them, developers might still build the houses but with deed restrictions that allow for smaller lots, higher lot coverage, or certain complimentary commercial uses. 
In this way, the process of identifying the optimal mix of land-use regulation is a dynamic discovery process, subject to ongoing changes in local conditions. As the costs of zoning stasis in cities like San Francisco become clearer, the value of understanding Houston’s uniquely dynamic system of deed restrictions only rises."
Moving on to some smaller items this week:
"If Capital Metro were serious about relieving congestion, it wouldn’t propose light rail, which typically carries about a quarter as many people per day as an urban freeway lane yet costs five to ten times as much per mile to build."
While the jury is still out, some people believe that Houston has managed to avoid the huge ridership declines suffered in Austin, Charlotte, and other cities because it restructured its bus routes to a grid system rather than a hub-and-spoke system centered on downtown."

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Houston beats Portland for urban density, what CA and others can learn from HTX, top rankings for IAH, licensing reform, and more

A couple of personal items before getting to this week's stories: I spoke at a Chapman University conference in Orange County, CA last week on What California can learn from Houston in addressing its housing crisis, and here's the paper I presented.  Got a few hostile questions (Houston and Texas are not so popular in California, lol), but nothing I couldn't handle. Certainly created some buzz/discussion over the course of the day.  Related story: California's housing crisis reaches from the homeless to the middle class — but it's still almost impossible to fix. Hat tip to Jay.

And a funny story: came across these stories in my newsfeeds, thought they sounded familiar, then realized they're older posts of mine being republished at the Market Urbanism Report, lol! (with permission, of course)  Just glad to see the ideas spread.
Moving on to this week's items:
1st most-improved in US (7th in the world)
1st in North America for best airport dining (7th in the world)
3rd overall in US
5th overall in North America
48th overall in world 
Finally, Scott Beyer has an excellent piece at Market Urbanism debating whether Houston or Portland is doing urban density better:
"So which metro area–Houston or Portland–is doing urban density better? In the objective sense, Houston is, by fitting in more people. Subjectively, it depends on one’s tastes. Portland’s dedication to historic preservation, low-rise, so-called tasteful development, and pedestrian orientation is indeed charming. The core area feels like a slightly bigger version of an antiquated liberal arts college town, where the pace of life is slow and the people are intentionally offbeat. The fact that this sits amid the backdrop of cloudy skies and evergreen-covered hills gives the place an ethereal quality. 
Houston, meanwhile, is too busy urbanizing to even try and achieve this pretension. It is building upward, outward, and everything in-between–and is doing so rapidly and unapologetically, with the metro area population increasing since 2010 by 852,054, compared to 208,946 in Portland. This has made Houston, inside and outside of its core, a completely different place than Portland: more grandiose, vertical, diverse, global, monied and in your face. Indeed, there is an extent to which Houston, with its large gleaming skyscrapers and overt street-level multiculturalism, almost makes Portland feel like a cow town
This is not to say that one is obligated to like–much less live in–either Houston or Portland. But it does make a statement about markets versus planning, in respect to urbanization. If people want cities–as many Americans seem to–they should embrace growth, markets and deregulation; it they want “towns”, they should embrace planning, regulation and a collaborative process that allows community interests to navel-gaze about every last land-use decision. 
I certainly know what type of place I’d rather live in."
Hear, hear!

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Sunday, April 01, 2018

Mayor unveils compliant housing models for new post-Harvey flood elevation regulations

Continuing the debate over the City's proposed higher elevation requirements for post-Harvey development in the city, Mayor Turner today unveiled new housing models that "meet the requirements in a pragmatic, aesthetic, affordable, and - most importantly - neighborhood-friendly way while also being unprecedentedly flood resilient."

Upscale / Meyerland

Commercial / Industrial

And finally, affordable housing options:

Public health experts also endorsed the standards as providing substantial health benefits from forced daily stair climbing, which should remove us from any future fattest city rankings.

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


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A simple reasonable home elevation standard, Houston's coolest map, amazing Harvey graphics, DFW+CA rail fails, algorithmic zoning insanity, and more

Before getting to this week's smaller items, two more important items:

First, a random idea on the city's proposed and controversial 500yr + 2ft housing elevation standard, which may raise housing costs substantially in those areas while also devaluing existing housing stock and make neighborhoods look like Galveston beach houses on stilts, even if they've never flooded: why not just make Harvey the standard, since it is a multi-thousand year storm? Don't build anything that would have flooded during Harvey, or any of our other major flood events.  Show that your development wouldn't have flooded, and you're good to go.  Keeps elevations reasonable, especially in areas that didn't flood.  Simple standard, simply enforced.

Second, a bit of a yellow flag from a recent High Capacity Transit task force meeting.  Check out the 17:30 point in the Service concepts video where they aim for an 8-fold increase (from 87 million to 758 million) in transit usage by 2045, with a transit market share increase from 2 to 20% (!). Pretty darn ambitious. I have to wonder where that's realistically coming from, since Dallas, LA and others are losing overall ridership, and that decline may accelerate with coming autonomous ride share technology. I'm skeptical (especially if the assumption is rail), but looking forward to learning more over time and understanding the model.  Maybe this is the potential of MaX Lanes?!  If it's based on solid assumptions, it would certainly be amazing, and something no other American city is doing. Hat tip to Oscar.

Moving on to this week's items:
"That means that the loss in bus ridership was nearly nine times greater than the gain in rail ridership."
Finally, ending with a fun item.  I recently purchased this totally awesome 3D laser-etched multi-layer wood chart of the Houston-Galveston area at an art shop in the New Orleans' French Quarter.  Super-cool and a steal at only $298 (order it online here).  And I don't get a commission - I just think it's cool.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

My interview on Houston's transportation future, our traffic is better and housing more affordable than you think, and more

Apologies for going almost a month without a new post.  The big new item is my interview with KPRC Channel 2 on Houston’s transportation future that finally aired this week, promoting MaX Lanes of course.  I start at the 2:29 point after Kyle Shelton from the Kinder Institute at Rice. On camera is not my strength, but I think it came out ok.  Oddly, they also included a separate 5m video with my complete raw interview (including some stuff that honestly should be outtakes), but the benefit is it includes many more of my points, as awkward as it is.  It was quite loud next to the freeway, and they were yelling questions from a good distance away.  Kyle also has his 26m raw interview video where he makes some great points.

Ok, getting to the backlog of smaller items:
"Any rail system we build will not stop at the corner of McKinney and Main," said Metro board member Christof Spieler. "We are talking about a service that is better than commuter rail."
"Eventually, driverless cars are going to completely replace transit. Until that happens, it makes sense to only spend money on transit buses, which are inexpensive, flexible, can start new service tomorrow, and don’t require 30 years of debt payments. That’s a lesson most major American cities have yet to learn."
"You Can Build Your Way out of Congestion 
Los Angeles is still the most congested urban area in the world, according to the latest INRIX traffic scorecard. However, what is more interesting is that congestion seems to be declining in several fast-growing cities in Texas, thanks to construction of new highways
Dallas is twice as big as Seattle and Houston is three times as big. The Dallas and Houston urban areas are both growing nearly twice as fast as Seattle’s, but Seattle is concentrating its growth in the city while Dallas and Houston allow more people to settle in the suburbs. INRIX found that congestion was worse in Seattle than either Dallas or Houston, which was a direct result of Washington’s growth-management policies. 
Moreover, while INRIX’s congestion index for Seattle — and most other cities — grew worse since last year’s scorecard, the congestion indices for Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso all improved."
              That's enough for this week - more next.

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              Monday, February 19, 2018

              Two choices for Houston's transit future (Chronicle op-ed)

              The Houston Chronicle featured my op-ed as the lead in their Sunday edition Opinion section yesterday.  Since I've had problems with the reliability of the Chronicle archives in the past (especially after a few years pass), I've included the full text below.  Looking forward to your thoughts in the comments!

              Two choices for Houston’s transit future

              As both H-GAC and Metro prepare new long-term transit plans, Houston is facing a critical decision point between two paths that will determine our transportation future for decades to come – and whether we continue to thrive and grow as a global city or we become another gridlocked, unaffordable LA.

              The first path - sometimes called for by local officials - is the traditional approach of adding rail as cities grow beyond a certain size, with New York, Washington DC, Chicago, and San Francisco being the largest examples.  This is not only extremely expensive to build – New York is spending $2.7 billion per mile on the Second Avenue Subway – but expensive to maintain, with massive maintenance backlogs causing well-publicized chronic service problems in New York, Washington DC, and San Francisco. Even worse, it turns out adding rail to sprawling Sunbelt cities built in the automobile age has been a costly failure almost everywhere, including recent bad press on Dallas DART’s high costs and low ridership, Denver’s $4.7 billion FasTracks, and LA’s $9 billion rail investment leading to overall transit ridership declines If LA - with twice our density, far worse traffic congestion, and perfect walking/waiting weather - can’t make massive rail investments pay off, what chance does Houston have?

              Beyond these issues, traditional transit is facing the same technological disruption as many other industries with the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles.  Shared ride services like Uber and Lyft are already causing broad transit ridership declines across the country, and estimates are that their prices could drop even further to $0.35/mile once they go autonomous in the 2020s. Despite the high risk of building obsolete and costly white elephants with taxpayer dollars, some cities continue to plunge obliviously into this technological buzz saw with obscenely expensive old-school rail plans like $54 billion in Seattle, $5.2 billion in Nashville, and $10+ billion in Honolulu ($10,500 per Oahu resident!).  And we’re not immune to the insanity: some of the rail plans under consideration for Houston could easily run into several tens of billions of dollars.

              So what’s a second path that rides this disruptive technological wave rather than drowns under it? There are hints of it in the Chronicle’s recent coverage of Metro’s commuter bus expansions and the Downtown Management District’s ‘Metro MAX’ proposal of two-way HOV-lane bus service connecting more than a dozen major job centers.  Houston is a dispersed city with many major job centers besides Downtown – like Uptown, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway, Energy Corridor, Westchase, Memorial City, etc. - needing commuter services that would be poorly served by a downtown-centric rail network feeding less than 7% of the area’s jobs.

              Taking it to the next level would be our proposal of an expanded network of two-way Managed eXpress (MaX) freeway lanes connecting every job center to every neighborhood.  These lanes would be explicitly managed to move the maximum number of people at maximum speed, including converting to autonomous-only when the technology becomes available.  At that point, vehicles can run safely at much higher speeds while platooning more closely together to increase capacity. These lanes are far more cost-effective and flexible than rail, and we estimate that such a network could support a million commuters to a million jobs Houston’s core job centers – more core jobs than any other city in the country outside of Manhattan.

              But what’s the experience like for the actual commuter?  With rail, it’s infrequent service (big capacity = longer waits to fill) with many intermediate stops, averaging 25-35 mph dropping you far from your workplace and requiring time-consuming walks or transfers in all sorts of weather.  With MaX Lanes you may be in a comfortable public or private Park-and-Ride bus or a smaller shared commuter vehicle that picks you up along with others in your neighborhood going to the same job center (such custom vehicles may even have private compartments).  As they enter the MaX Lanes, they go into autonomous “auto-pilot” mode (if they’re not already) and accelerate to high speeds – possibly as high as 100+mph! (can you imagine the global publicity for Houston and our image if we’re the first city on the planet to offer affordable 100+mph daily commuter services?!)  They then go nonstop to your job center wherever it may be, where they exit and circulate to get you right to your building – no transfers and no risk of walking or waiting in summer heat or downpours.  A faster, better experience at a far lower cost – it’s no contest.

              Historically, Houston has always been comfortable ignoring the conventional wisdom and going our own pragmatic way - like being the largest city in the country without zoning and building an extensive HOV/HOT bus lane network instead of costly, inflexible, and slow commuter rail.  We should continue that iconoclastic tradition and publicly embrace the next generation of transit instead of chasing flashy, over-priced, ineffective rail projects like other cities (and put the savings towards flood control!).

              Two paths forward – one looking to the past and one looking to the future. The choice is ours.

              Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and writes the Houston Strategies blog.  His report on MaX Lanes for Houston can be found here.

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