Sunday, July 19, 2020

Misleading poverty stats, what $250k buys you, density and transit vs. Covid, great HTX murals

A new piece is out examining Houston's increase in high-poverty neighborhoods (Chronicle coverage here - hat tip to Charles).  This kind of analysis has always rubbed me the wrong way, because it rewards cities that tighten housing supply and force gentrification and displacement – pushing people out so their “high-poverty neighborhoods” decline.  It's a game of hot potato with low-income populations. I like that Houston allows plenty of new supply (almost always at the higher end) so older housing can become affordable (like the “newly poor” and “deepening poverty” neighborhoods in their analysis) - with the prime example being middle-class apartments built during the 70s oil boom that are affordable immigrant housing today – that’s great! Houston always allows even the poorest to come here seeking opportunity rather than blocking them out thru restrictive housing policy.

And their point about rich neighborhoods being next to poor ones is also great! That means there is affordable housing near the jobs (esp. service jobs). Every major job center in Houston has affordable neighborhoods within a 15-minute transit ride.  A lot of cities can’t say that.  I would say it’s a better model than Dallas, where poverty is concentrated on the south side while wealth is concentrated on the north side, so the south side has very limited access to opportunity.

What this report labels “turned around” neighborhoods would be labeled as “gentrified” in a lot of other reports, and while I’m glad Houston has had a few turnarounds, I’m also glad we don’t have too many because I think that would be an unhealthy sign of too much gentrification because of lack of housing supply in the neighborhoods people want to move to.

What we need is not geographic analysis, but generational cohorts analysis over time: do poor families that move to Houston do better in the 2nd and 3rd generations? I think they do, but data is hard to come by.

Moving on to a few other smaller items this week:

Finally, a good short excerpt from my radio show with Bill King on the impact of coronavirus fear on transit.

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Sunday, July 05, 2020

Better understanding what makes Houston special

Just a few short items this week mostly around a common theme of what makes Houston special:
"I love the ugliness of Houston, but I know that’s far from all this city is. I can’t wait to get to know the community that has already felt welcoming and warm and to experience the food, music, museums, parks and more. Houston is far, far more than its outward appearance. 
Until then, I’ll appreciate the comforting ugliness and continue my mission of trying all the take-out I can. Houston already has the best food in Texas, hands down."
"In Houston, African Americans enjoy high political representation, homeownership, historically black universities and several black newspapers – all of which empower the community, Conyers said. 
“If people can negotiate and communicate, they don’t need protests,” he said. 
Stein agreed that leadership in Houston has played an important role – and not just in city government. 
“The black leadership in these communities tends to be church-centric, very much built into the churches. That’s not what you see in the North and Northeast,” he said. “And the second is, it’s an older population… and to a large extent, these are people who followed Dr. King’s nonviolence.” 
Stein also credits less racial segregation than in other cities and its low density as factors that help keep Houston relatively peaceful in times of social unrest."
"The article is right, Houston isn't about the city, it's about the people. What most people outside of Houston don't understand is what that means. Houston is an attitude, a drive, a motive. Houston thinks forward, never back. The most generous, open people you will ever meet. Houston is not a destination, it's a journey."
  • WSJ: The Coming Urban Exodus - Failing progressive governance is making daily life too chaotic and stressful in many U.S. cities.  A warning for Houston, where we're already seeing population shifting out of the city and county.
  • Scott Beyer, Market Urbanist: Three Ways the Government Blocks Urban Density - Limits on height, floor-area ratio, and dwelling units per acre have tremendous societal costs. Luckily Houston has very few of these. Excerpt: 
"All these rules and more strip creativity and artistic flair from the city development process. Ultimately they raise rents preventing our cities from densifying, robbing the nation of wealth, productivity, and the opportunity for more people to live in economically vibrant urban settings. They’re perhaps the costliest regulations we have in the U.S., and, at least to me, make for our biggest domestic policy mistake."

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Is Traffic Congestion a Con?

Since I'm traveling this week, I'm just going to pass along this excellent section from a recent Surface Transporation Innovations newsletter from Robert Poole at Reason: (highlights mine)

Is Traffic Congestion a Con?

Last month, INRIX issued a new report on urban traffic congestion worldwide, with new rankings for U.S. metro areas. Based on a revised method of assessing commuter traffic (counting trips to more than just the central business district of each metro area—finally) it identified Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia as having the highest amount of delay hours per driver, worse than Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Due to their much greater size, the New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago metro areas are ranked as first, second, and third in the total cost of congestion, which is quite plausible.

These numbers are based on 2019 INRIX traffic data, whereas the well-known data in the most recent 2019 Urban Mobility Report (UMR) from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute are from 2017. Despite INRIX having worked with TTI on that report, its delay and cost numbers are very different, with INRIX now reporting an average delay per driver nationwide of 99 hours per year compared with 54 hours per year in the 2019 UMR. Even more startling, the UMR estimated total U.S. congestion cost as $179 billion a year, while the new INRIX report’s number is a mere $88 billion. Due to TTI’s more sophisticated methodology, I’m inclined to accept their congestion numbers.

Meanwhile, about the same time as the INRIX report reached my inbox, Transportation for America (T4A) released a new report called “The Congestion Con.” Its thesis is that our main national strategy for dealing with congestion is expanding freeway capacity—and that this has utterly failed. The report uses data from the 2019 Urban Mobility Report together with Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) highway statistics and census bureau data in an attempt to demonstrate its case—and utterly fails. An excellent rebuttal, well informed with data and reasoning, is Randal O’Toole’s response, “The Induced-Demand Con.”

The T4A authors use some odd measurements to make their case. First, they compare the percentage growth in freeway lane-miles with the percentage growth in population between 1993 and 2017, finding that the lane-mile increase was generally higher than the population increase. O’Toole points out a major problem with this. FHWA highway statistics reveal that large amounts of exurban freeway mileage that already existed in 1993 were outside the 1993 definition of urbanized areas, but are included in their 2017 boundaries. He plausibly estimates that “well over a third of the 30,511 [lane-miles] that T4A implies were built in that time period already existed in 1993.”

A second problem is that the percentage increase in congestion is a poor basis for comparing metro areas. O’Toole notes that low-congestion metro areas (like Bakersfield, CA) still have low 2017 congestion but may have had a high percentage increase since 1993. By contrast, a highly congested area like Los Angeles typically has relatively small percentage increases in its already enormous traffic congestion. He suggests a better metric would be to compare freeway vehicle miles of travel (VMT) per lane-mile over time. That metric allows us to discern differences among metro areas that did and didn’t add a lot of freeway lane-miles.  For example, neither Portland nor Seattle added many lane-miles between 1993 and 2018, but their freeways got increasingly clogged: VMT/ln-mi. up 84 percent in Portland and 44 percent in San Francisco. By contrast, the increases in metro areas that added a lot of capacity are much lower: VMT/ln-mi. up only 21 percent in Houston and 14 percent in Phoenix.

T4A’s assertion that adding capacity has failed to reduce congestion is also falsified by data that used to be included in TTI’s Urban Mobility Reports but has been omitted since their 2012 report. With TTI’s permission, I reproduced a graph from that report in my book, Rethinking America’s Highways (page 258). It shows that 17 metro areas that had capacity growth within 10 percent of traffic growth actually had a declining trend in congestion increases between 1998 and 2010, compared with strong and ongoing congestion increases from 1982 through 2010 for 84 metro areas that added far less capacity.

Another major problem is that T4A continues to put forth the “induced-demand” thesis: that it is futile to add freeway capacity because new lanes will simply fill up, and congestion will soon get back to what it was before. If that were literally true, as O’Toole and others have pointed out, every freeway would have high levels of congestion, yet, for example, Los Angeles freeways are overloaded with 23,000 VMT per lane-mile per day, while Pittsburgh freeways (for example) breeze along with just 9,000. In my book, I devoted several pages to a critique of the most-cited source on induced demand, the 2011 paper in American Economic Review titled “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from U.S. Cities.” If you don’t have my book, you can read a condensed version of this sidebar here.

The bottom line of T4A’s report is that America should stop expanding freeways and radically reform land-use policy to discourage or prohibit outward expansion of metro areas (which they deride as “sprawl”). National policy, they urge, should reorient the federal surface transportation program away from reducing delay to encouraging better “access.” By that, they mean the densification of urban areas, on the premise that people could, therefore, walk, bike, or use transit to get to “jobs” and other destinations. The fallacy in all of that “access” research is that it treats jobs as generic—as long as you can get to some kind of a job, problem solved. But as researchers like Alain Bertaud of NYU (Order Without Design, MIT Press) and others have shown, this is a recipe for reducing the productivity of urban areas. Urban agglomeration effects only come about when people and companies are able to find each other and engage in positive-sum transactions—individuals finding the best jobs and companies finding the best people. This is what happens in urban areas that enable fast commutes over long distances—exactly the opposite of what “smart-growthers” like T4A recommend. A growing body of research finds that metro areas with fast, region-wide transportation infrastructure have significantly higher economic productivity.

P.S: I will give T4A credit for two good points in their 2020 policy agenda (and included in this new report). I agree that federal and state political considerations have led to a serious underfunding of highway maintenance. Also, I agree that road pricing is underused, and could make a real difference as part of reducing traffic congestion. But a lot of that requires new construction, such as adding priced managed lanes to congested freeways, which T4America does not support.

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Sunday, June 14, 2020

HTX most affordable high-growth metro, couple chooses Houston, TX winning vs CA, airport rail fail, modern innovative transit, and more

I've got a long road trip coming up so posts may get infrequent for a while. This is my attempt to clear out as much of the backlog as possible before leaving:
  1. Houston is home to more than 500 oil and gas exploration and production firms.
  2. Houston houses hundreds of firms that provide supporting activities to the oil and gas industry.
  3. Houston is home to nine refineries that process 2.3 million barrels of crude oil every day (which makes it one of the biggest crude oil producers in the world).
  4. The Energy Corridor, which stretches for 7 miles along Interstate 10, encompasses many businesses engaged in energy operations.
  5. Houston may soon end up with a second energy corridor due to the continuing expansion of local businesses.
  6. Houston houses more than 4,600 energy-related companies.
  7. The city alone employs around 1/3 of the jobs across Texas in gas and oil extraction.
  8. Houston is the center of foreign investment in energy.
  • Governing on TX vs. CA: A Leg Up in the Search for Prosperity: Economic Freedom - Despite their very different attitudes toward the role of government, California and Texas have both found success. But the Lone Star State's small-government/low-tax model gives it an edge. Some excerpts:
"Texas is best understood as a place where the private sector prevails over the public sector. Among the 50 states, it ranks near the top in economic freedom, a measure of fiscal and regulatory policy, and near the bottom in overall tax burden. It's a state known for building, with Dallas and Houston routinely among the top metros in new home permits and Austin first in the nation for permits per capita since 2004. But state and local government spending per capita is the 11th-lowest of any state, according to data from the Tax Policy Center.  ...
 And it's not just people. Businesses are leaving California too, at an estimated annual clip of over 1,000. For 12 straight years Texas has been the biggest recipient of businesses leaving California. Texas has long sought to capitalize on and accelerate that trend, even running ads in California touting Texas' business friendliness. 
More than data, though, it's the feeling of what can be accomplished in a state that emphasizes freedom versus one strangled in red tape and high taxes. Houston ended veterans' homelessness in part by cheaply building large supportive housing projects; California cities have spent billions fighting homelessness, but still have tent cities because it costs so much to build affordable housing there. Dallas has, over three decades, built the nation's longest light-rail system, and a private company is planning high-speed rail between there and Houston. California metros have struggled to add capacity to their transit systems, and last year the state's high-speed rail project lost federal funding due to ongoing delay. Perhaps most damning is an annual survey by Chief Executive magazine asking CEOs nationwide to rank state business climates. Texas has been first for 15 straight years, and California in last place for five."
"Indeed, Houston’s infamous lack of zoning could end up being one of its greatest assets in pursuing climate goals. Without all of the anti-density baggage that comes with zoning — from apartment bans to an onerous approvals process — there is relatively little standing in the way of a rapidly densifying Houston and all of the environmental benefits it brings."
"The best-performing newer systems in our database, such as Minneapolis, Seattle, and Houston, are all compact, serving urban areas near downtown. By contrast, larger light rail systems that stretch into low-density suburban areas tend to underperform.  ...
Houston has taken a step in the right direction by abolishing parking minimums in the Downtown, Midtown, and East Midtown neighborhoods, all of which are served by light rail. ...
In Houston, the cornerstone of a recently approved light rail system is a line to Hobby Airport through industrial and low-density residential areas, estimated to cost $167,000 per daily rider. ...
Another form of overexpansion comes from the tendency of light rail planners to overvalue airport service. It’s easier to form a broad political coalition for airport service than for run-of-the-mill transit improvements. City power brokers like to impress out-of-town visitors with airports, and suburban residents who do not use transit regularly imagine that a train for their occasional airport trips would be convenient. 
Airport connectors, however, tend to perform poorly. Airports are usually in remote locations, so light rail to airports requires extensive capital construction; the slow speeds of light rail relative to freeways matter more for long-distance trips from airports to downtown. Moreover, businesses that surround airports, such as industrial suppliers and distribution centers, demand large amounts of land and are difficult to access on foot, making them low-value destinations for transit ridership. Finally, airport noise and pollution make the surrounding areas less desirable for the sort of redevelopment that might improve ridership."
Finally, I wanted to end with one of my most popular tweets ever about walking through a random neighborhood near Midtown and boom - this awesomeness suddenly appears. Think a zoned city would allow this?! Gotta love Houston!

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Sunday, June 07, 2020

Klineberg plugs Houspitality, cool IAH-BeSomeone t-shirt, HTX outbuilds NYC, escape from New York, and more

Still working through the backlog of smaller items - almost caught up! But first, if you're looking for something new to read during this lockdown, I wanted to suggest a new book from Rice's Stephen Klineberg: The Prophetic City - Houston on the Cusp of a Changing America, all about how we've evolved over recent decades through the lens of his annual Houston Area Survey. Houston Strategies and Houspitality get a mention! (you can search inside the book at Amazon)
"Physical distancing will cut transit capacity to 15-25% of normal, but use of PPE could increase capacity to 40%."
  • NYT: The Agonizing Question: Is New York City Worth It Anymore? For many, the call of an easier, safer and more affordable life beckons. But die-hard New Yorkers find the city more appealing than ever.  The new Escape from New York... 420,000 already gone in three months is a staggering number! Obviously many are temporary.  But there are also probably tons of people still there that have decided to leave but are waiting out their leases.  
“New Yorkers have been fleeing for months. But the fear some residents have of the violent reactions to the protests here is adding a new challenge to those asking themselves whether they can hack the city. Many are deciding not to return. 
It’s a decision that must be made individually and privately, one that some 420,000 New Yorkers with the resources to do so had already made between March and May in reaction to the pandemic, according to cellphone data analyzed by the Times.”
"For some, it’s a chance to be closer to family, which feels more urgent in the midst of a global health scare. For a large swath of people in the country’s most expensive cities, it’s a way to get more living space and be closer to nature, something increasingly made possible by the growing trend of remote work. And for many others it’s not really a decision at all, but a necessity in the face of growing job losses and still sky-high rents. 
… And people in cities hit hard by the pandemic — New York, San Francisco and Seattle — are searching for remote work opportunities significantly more than the rest of the country, LinkedIn data shows. Some real estate data suggests many are already considering or making a move to a smaller town or suburb. Real estate company Redfin said page views of homes in small towns more than doubled during the last week of April compared with last year. 
... She said she’s hearing from mostly young families — professionals with small children — who want to trade the confines of a locked down New York City for houses with home offices and yards. 
“It’s no longer temporary. People are saying, ‘I’m not going back. This could happen again and we don’t know when it’s going to end,’” said Bernstein. 
“New York doesn’t feel worth it anymore,” he said."
"Houston and NYC both issued around 61k permits in 2019. But metro New York City is nearly 3 times bigger than metro Houston, meaning its construction activity in 2019 (30.4 permits per 10k residents) was much less than Houston’s (88.3 permits per 10k)."

Click to enlarge
  • Cities With the Most Self-Employed Workers. Houston is #15 by percentage, but #3 by total numbers with 330,415, behind NYC and LA.  Miami is #1, I assume because drug smugglers are considered "self-employed" (just kidding! watched too much Miami Vice as a kid, lol ;-)
  • Cool new IAH T-shirt with the awesome Be Someone bridge graffiti on the back. The 'Be Someone' sold me! The shirt will help remind you there used to be these things called "planes" that took us to and from places called "airports" before the pandemic...🤔
  • City Combined Taxpayer Burden Report 2020. Houston has a combined local government debt burden of $25,800 per taxpayer, which is the 4th lowest of the top ten cities, and far better than NYC at $83,600 and Chicago at a whopping $122,100! Looking at their math, they have ~681k taxpayer households for Houston, which sounds about right for a city of 2.3m. Hat tip to Charles.
Finally, I wanted to end with a short video from the KAS Strong Cities 2030 project that I've been involved with the last couple of years.  They put together clips of how different cities are dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, including yours truly at the 1:49 point (albeit recorded a couple of months ago and a bit dated at this point).

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Monday, June 01, 2020

Our pandemic performance, post-pandemic transit and offices, remote work reducing rents, and more

Still working through a big backlog of smaller items this week:
"In contrast, areas with greater car usage—like Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston and even Los Angeles—have had dramatically fewer cases and fatalities. For example, Dallas County has 60% more residents than Manhattan, but at least 90% fewer fatalities. Houston’s core Harris County has three times the population of Manhattan and also at least 90% fewer fatalities. Los Angeles County has 20% more residents than the city of New York, yet also has at least 90% fewer fatalities than NYC. At the same time the rate of infections in nearby Orange County, where car usage is even greater and single family homes more prevalent, is barely one-seventh of that in Los Angeles County."
“In a May survey of 2,800 tech workers in Northern California, New York City and Seattle, 66% said they would be willing to work remotely and relocate out of those urban areas. 
That remote working trend is “compounding the job losses and putting significant downward pressure on rents” in the Bay Area, Georgiades said. “You have all these CEOs talking about how productive their teams are working from home and questioning whether they need to return to the office.”
“Maybe soon-to-be-defunct Malls could offer satellite space with a food court.  Malls are changing, maybe there is a synergy there.”
  • NYT: C.D.C. Recommends Sweeping Changes to American Offices - Temperature checks, desk shields and no public transit: The guidelines would remake office life. Some may decide it’s easier to keep employees at home.  Tons of comments saying this makes NYC impossible. Excerpts:
“The C.D.C. recommended that the isolation for employees should begin before they get to work — on their commute. In a stark change from public policy guidelines in the recent past, the agency said individuals should drive to work — alone. 
Employers should support this effort, the agency said: “Offer employees incentives to use forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others, such as offering reimbursement for parking for commuting to work alone or single-occupancy rides.”
"The result is that over 1,000 businesses are estimated to leave California each year, with Texas being the biggest recipient state from California for 12 straight years."

Finally, I'd like to end with a video interview I did with Charles Blain, CEO of our think tank, Urban Reform Institute - A Center for Opportunity Urbanism: What Urban Transit Might Look Like Post-Pandemic

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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Debating deed restrictions and zoning, office vs. remote work, transit radio show, and more

I've actually been accumulating items faster than I've been posting them, and it's gotten out of control, so this will be a long post to do some catching up.

The featured item this week is I got in an active debate with the Market Urbanist Scott Beyer on the value of deed restrictions vs. zoning, which you can read in the comments at the bottom of his piece on deed restrictions here.

Moving on to the rest of this week's items:
"New York City has withstood and emerged stronger from a number of catastrophes and setbacks — the 1918 Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, the 1970s financial crisis and the 2001 terrorist attacks. Each time, people proclaimed the city would forever change — after 9/11, who would want to work or live in Lower Manhattan? — but each time the prognostications fizzled.

But this moment feels substantially different, according to some corporate executives.

The economy is in a sustained nosedive, with unemployment reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression. Many companies are in financial trouble and may look to shrink their real estate as a way to cut expenses.

More fundamentally, if social distancing remains a key to public health, how can companies safely ask every worker to come back?

“If you got two and a half million people in Brooklyn, why is it rational or efficient for all those people to schlep into Manhattan and work every day?” said Jed Walentas, who runs the real estate company Two Trees Management. “That’s how we used to do it yesterday. It’s not rational now.”
“We have a lot of millennial buyers who are already used to working remotely. They don’t know how long this (pandemic) is going to last, and they’d rather be here (Tahoe),” Bednar told the Tribune, “The people I’m talking to are looking for a simpler life, a close community. They want the outdoors and don’t want to be stuck in places where there’s a health problem.” ... 
“People are starting to ask themselves, ‘Why do I have to live in such an expensive area and drive an hour to work every day, or rent out an expensive office space when everyone can work remotely?' If you don’t need to live in the city, why would you?” Bednar said.
"in the shadow of the pandemic, a recent Harris poll found that almost two-in-five urban residents are considering a move to a less crowded area."
“The COVID-19 pandemic forcing those who could work from home to do so has led to a surprising result — improved productivity. U.S. workers were 47% more productive in March and April than in the same two months a year ago through cloud-based business tools, chat applications and email, according to an analysis of 100 million data points from 30,000 Americans by workplace-monitoring company Prodoscore.”
“Our salespeople meet five to eight customers a day now [via videoconferencing] versus the one it took them three days [to see in the past] because of travel,” he added.
  • This gets reinforced in the comments of a pro-office op-ed in the NYT, which are at least worth skimming. Even though the author makes a case for some of the benefits of the office, the overwhelming sentiment in the comments is “screw that, I love working from home and not commuting!” for all sorts of reasons, including less office drama/politics and fewer worthless meetings.  It’s clear to me that both overwhelming sentiment, as well as simple economics/costs, work against offices. I think they will go into a significant decline.  One other point the author misses is that you can separate the social aspect from the work aspect with the rise of coworking spaces, which are exploding everywhere: a shared space where there are others you can interact with, but everyone works for different companies.  Still get the networking and socialization without the long commute to one central office with all of your company’s other employees.
  • The NYTimes editorial board really goes after zoning. A very in-depth piece worth the long read. 
  • And a follow-on NYT op-ed further attacking zoning and implicitly endorsing the Houston model. A couple of excerpts:
"An important step is simply to permit more housing in more locations. We should put an end to zoning policies that restrict building to single-family homes and stop mandating that lots meet large minimum-size requirements, leading to sprawling, sparsely populated neighborhoods. Ending such restrictive zoning doesn’t have to lead to the construction of towering apartment buildings. Rather, we should encourage cities to permit more homes on existing single-family lots, allow apartments in retail districts and near transit, and dedicate excess or underused public property like surface parking lots in downtowns to new housing. All of this can be done without materially changing the look, feel and experience of a place. 
The second important step is to reduce the cost and uncertainty of getting a housing project built. It often takes years to get permission to build. Local government processes often allow multiple “bites at the apple” of public comment and hearings for a plan. Sometimes, even when there is a vote to approve a project, a neighbor or special interest can sue to stop the approval, resulting in further significant delay. These delays add cost and risk, driving up the price of new homes and sometimes stopping projects in their tracks entirely. 
These types of actions, which can be taken now, will lay the groundwork for a broad and shared prosperity. When denser housing is allowed, workers can live closer to their jobs, help save the planet by driving less and pay less in rent or mortgage payments because a bigger housing supply will lead to lower costs. Research shows that children tend to be more successful in neighborhoods with access to high-quality schools. In restricting building, more-affluent Americans are shutting lower-income families off from economic opportunity. 
Now is an especially good time to reduce restrictions and allow for denser housing. Construction is hit hard during recessions, and opening up more building opportunities would be a stimulus for the industry, and it doesn’t require any extra funding. This would get workers back to work, provide safe and affordable living for those hard hit by this pandemic and get property taxes and other revenue flowing back to local governments for the services communities need. It would be a win for everyone."
"Without a significant expansion in the supply of housing, adding vouchers would be like adding players to a game of musical chairs without increasing the number of chairs. 
Market-rate construction can help: More housing would slow the upward march of housing prices. New York and San Francisco are the nation’s most tightly regulated markets for housing construction, and it is not a coincidence that they also are the most expensive. Tokyo, often cited as an international model for its permissive development policies, has expanded its supply of homes by roughly 2 percent a year in recent years, while New York’s housing supply has expanded by roughly 0.5 percent a year. Over the last two decades, housing prices in Tokyo held steady as New York prices soared."
Finally, I'd like to end with a radio show I did with Bill King along with Carrin Patman and Tom Lambert of METRO on what's happening with the past, Covid present, and potential future of transit.  Apologies for my bad body language - I didn't even realize I was being videoed until over halfway through, lol. I was just focused on my notes and getting the audio right.

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Sunday, May 17, 2020

The City of Houston's problematic requests for the I-45N project

This week's guest post is by Oscar Slotboom.

For the last 10 years the City of Houston (CoH) has worked as a partner in the development of the plan North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP). Now, within weeks or months of a record of decision on this plan, CoH is abruptly changing its position and for Segments 1 and 2 is requesting drastic changes that are harmful to mobility, safety, and aesthetics. This blog post looks at the negative impact of the CoH requested changes for Segment 1, which is the section between Loop 610 and Beltway 8.

The main features of the CoH request for Segment 1 are
  • “Rebuild the highway within the current footprint as much as possible”, and “CoH favors remaining in the existing right-of-way in Segments 1 and 2”. Note that the existing right-of-way is unusually narrow, around 260 to 280 feet, between Crosstimbers and North Shepherd.
  • “Current reversible HOV lane is replaced with dedicated transit lanes”, which are available only to “North Bus Rapid Transit [and] regional express bus service”, and the transit lanes “should include intermediate stations in the freeway”. Transit lanes are somewhat wider than the existing HOV and stations will require much more space than the existing HOV.
  • “Design exceptions and lane widths and shoulder widths to keep the footprint within the current right-of-way”
  • “Accommodate freight demand throughout the corridor”
This means that
  • The existing HOV lane is eliminated, so carpoolers, ride-sharing, and vanpools no longer have this option
  • The planned managed lanes are entirely eliminated
  • Design standards must be compromised to accommodate the dedicated transit lanes and stations, probably including 11-foot-wide lanes and narrow interior shoulder
  • With no right-of-way acquisition, the narrow corridor will basically be fully paved edge-to-edge, drastically reducing opportunities for landscaping
Let's take a closer look at the negative impacts of the changes requested by CoH
Very Harmful: Loss of the HOV lane for carpools and vanpools
Carpools and ride-sharing will be forced onto the main lanes, eliminating a strong incentive for carpooling and worsening traffic in the main lanes.
Huge Loss for Future Mobility: elimination of the managed lanes
Managed lanes are the most effective tool for providing options to freeway congestion and are widely used nationwide. Metro bus ridership on the Katy Freeway managed lanes exceeds all of the three most recent light rail expansions (see chart). The NHHIP managed lanes are currently planned to be toll-free but may be restricted to high-occupancy vehicles only at peak periods, providing a strong incentive for carpooling. The Katy Freeway managed lanes generated $22.5 million in revenue in 2019, an amount which is 33% of Metro’s (separate) 2019 systemwide farebox revenue of $67.5 million. The CoH request to eliminate the managed lanes is a huge loss to the future mobility of North Houston.

Source. For comparison, segment 1 of Interstate 45 serves average traffic of 282,000 vehicles per day (average of 4 locations).
Wasteful Duplication: the dedicated transit lanes compete with the Red Line
When study of this corridor began in the early 2000s, the community said it wanted transit first so the $756 million Red Line extension to Northline opened in 2013 and Metro Solutions includes a $634 million extension to North Shepherd. Ridership has been low on the Red line, averaging 7,414 weekday boardings over the last 15 months, which is only 24% of the original Red Line on a per-mile basis.

New dedicated transit lanes on Interstate 45 will duplicate the costly Red Line and cannibalize its ridership, reducing the Red Line's already low ridership. It is far more sensible for the Red Line to serve the local transit needs in the corridor, and for Metro’s BRT to operate on TxDOT’s planned managed lanes and serve longer high-speed trips, such as to Bush Airport and Greenspoint.
Lost Opportunity: Making the corridor more attractive
The North Freeway Segment 1 is not a scenic corridor. In fact, it is among the most unattractive of all Houston freeways (which is saying a lot), and this has always been a sore point with local promoters since it is the first thing many visitors to Houston see. As the CoH document says, "I-45 North is a major gateway to Houston".

A narrow, fully-paved corridor as requested by CoH will maintain the unsightly status quo and leave virtually no space for landscaping. With the TxDOT plan, there are typically 30 to 40 feet between the main lanes and frontage roads, a perfect setting for landscaping. Consider the West Loop in Bellaire, where we now have a nice forest of trees between the main lanes and frontage roads. This is possible with the TxDOT plan, but not with the CoH request. In addition, TxDOT's proposed plan is slated to remove 24 billboards. This will be a great improvement for the aesthetics of the corridor, similar to the improvement achieved with billboard removal along the Katy Freeway. If there is no right-of-way acquisition as requested by CoH, there is no need to remove billboards.
Contradictory Goals: "Accommodating freight demand throughout the corridor" and compromising design standards
Segment 1 is one of the main truck corridors for freight movement in Houston, and truck traffic is projected to increase 21% by 2045. The overall NNHIP corridor includes five locations in a list of the 250 worst truck bottlenecks nationwide, in ranked positions 8, 11, 13, 25, and 65.

For a corridor with heavy truck traffic, you generally want high design standards including standard-width 12-foot-wide lanes, ample and long auxiliary lanes for safe merging, geometric design which meets standards, and traffic moving at posted speeds outside of peak periods. The CoH request is the opposite of those needs.
Attention CoH Planners: frontage roads are not the same as city streets
The CoH request says “The frontage roads and frontage road intersections should be designed as city streets and not highways”, including lane widths (narrower) and off-street bike paths. This ignores the reality that frontage roads handle different situations than a neighborhood street. Vehicles exit from the freeway at high speed, and vehicles entering the freeway are increasing speed. Intersections must handle heavy traffic volumes, especially turning movements, and heavy lane weaving is normal. Furthermore, there are very few neighborhoods immediately along segment 1. Let’s be real: how many people are going to bicycle to a car lot, retailer or Gallery Furniture?
Right-of-Way Acquisition: CoH is no longer using a logical approach
CoH is suddenly hell-bent on preventing any right-of-way acquisition on Segments 1 and 2. While displacements are always unfortunate, this subject must be approached logically in terms of the existing situation, benefits, and costs. Items to consider include
  • The existing corridor width is very narrow between Loop 610 and North Shepherd, averaging around 280 feet but with some sections more narrow.
  • The current substandard freeway design is partially a result of the existing narrow right-of-way, and staying within the existing corridor will greatly limit potential improvements.
  • The overwhelming majority of displacements are on the west side, so nearly all properties are the east side are unaffected by the planned right-of-way acquisition.
  • The overwhelming majority of actual acreage planned to be acquired is lower-tier commercial establishments like fast-food restaurants, car lots, warehouses and strip malls, many of which are old and unattractive.
  • Residential displacement on segment 1 consists of 58 single-family units and 160 multifamily units. Considering that the corridor is nine miles long, this is not an excessive number of displacements.
  • A similarly large right-of-way acquisition was needed for the Katy Freeway expansion. The corridor has boomed since the expansion completion in 2008, with substantial redevelopment along the corridor, including Crown Castle reaffirming its plans for a new headquarters building just last week.
  • A wide right-of-way expansion (around 200 feet as planned) is only incrementally more disruptive than a smaller right-of-way expansion, such as 50 or 100 feet. This is because many properties along the freeway are less than 200 feet deep, and taking a narrow strip often requires the entire property to be cleared. I saw how this process works when I fully documented the US 290 corridor property acquisition and observed how very narrow acquisition strips such as 25 feet frequently caused entire properties to be cleared. I observed the same pattern with the recent clearance for SH 146 in Seabrook, where a large number of properties were displaced for a relatively narrow strip of right-of-way. The conclusion to be made is that if there is going to be right-of-way acquisition, you might as well do the full planned expansion since the impact is only incrementally more than the impact of a narrower strip.
  • The mobility benefits of NHHIP Segment 1 are totally eviscerated by the CoH request.
  • The CoH request does serious harm to current mobility by removing the existing HOV lane.
  • The CoH request compromises the $1.4 billion investment in the underutilized Metro North Red Line by introducing a competing transit facility alongside it.
  • The North Freeway corridor is perhaps the most unattractive freeway corridor in Houston, and it will stay that way with the CoH request.
  • TxDOT should reject the CoH requests for Segment 1, since the project goals will no longer be met by implementing any of the CoH main requests.
A logical path forward includes:
  • Retaining the design as planned by TxDOT, but enhancing the landscape and architectural design to transform the corridor from one of the ugliest freeway corridors in Houston into one of the most attractive.
  • Ensuring that all displaced residents have access to equal or better housing in their neighborhoods.

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