Previewing the new METRO North line
Friday morning METRO gave the media a preview of the new North line set to open December 21st. First some pics, then thoughts...
|New maps are on the trains. The left side red section is opening this month.|
|The Burnett St. Station and Transit Center has an impressive elevated platform view of downtown. The bus transit center is under construction.|
|The Burnett Station just north of downtown has 3 tracks, enabling trains north and south of it to run at different frequencies (more frequent/faster headways to the south)|
|More of the skyline view from the Burnett platform|
|Skyline view pulling into Burnett station.|
|The Christmas Train!|
|The Christmas train announces the opening date. Get it? It's a Christmas gift from METRO to the city.|
|Riding up front!|
|The strangeness of houses directly in front of the station. And they have to listen to those repetitive station announcements all day long...|
- You will now be able to reach a Wal-Mart Supercenter by rail, which includes groceries. Actually, Northline Commons has a lot of retail, and an HCC campus. And Midtown has the Randall's grocery store just a couple blocks off the line. It now actually might be possible to manage most everyday shopping trips off of the rail line if one were so inclined.
- The stations are very well done with nice artwork.
- Signs of new development are thin: I counted one new townhome development, another small apartment complex, and a nice strip center or two. The train buzzed with speculation of how fast any new investment and redevelopment would occur. It's a big open question at this point. My guess is very slowly, especially looking at the rail-served parts of Midtown 10 years after the line opened. Sure, there are signs of good stuff happening (like MidMain), but they've been very slow to develop. And, frankly, the north side doesn't have the same location advantages as Midtown.
- The current estimate is that the train will take about 20 mins from UHD to the Northline end covering 5.3 miles. Add that to the current Main St. line, and you have ~50 mins end-to-end for about 12 miles. That's about 14mph net speed - not exactly flying. Somebody living up there could easily be looking at a 30-40 min commute to the medical center - surprisingly long given the short distance. To put that in context, in non-rush-hour traffic it takes me about 45 mins to get from Midtown to Tomball! But it honestly might be somewhat competitive with driving at rush hour, especially when you consider the cost and hassle of med center traffic and parking.
That last point reinforces something I've been saying for a while: people may still face some daunting travel times to their final destination even after they've been connected into the rail network. I occasionally hear people sort of hand wave that once somebody has transferred to the rails they're magically at their destination, whether that's downtown, TMC, UH, or, one day, Greenway or Uptown. That is far from the case. I think once you add up the travel times, very few people will want to take an HOV bus downtown and then transfer to UH, TMC, or elsewhere. METRO still needs to work on more direct express lane service to alternate job centers like TMC and Uptown. Rail network connections are not a magic silver bullet for that.
Overall, METRO seems to have done a solid job on the new line. Only time will tell what ridership develops and how the neighborhood transforms.
Labels: Metro, mobility strategies, transit, transit-oriented development
Houston's urban revival, CA vs. TX, another reason to love Houston, and why you should love cars
Hope you had a great Thanksgiving weekend. Just a few quick items this week.
"Essentially the city relies on the market to dictate development patterns, and these patterns are sometimes at odds with what conventional planning might dictate. Even so, advocates, developers and city leaders who don’t always see eye to eye generally believe the arrangement has worked in Houston’s favor over the years, allowing developers to respond quickly to market conditions and keep housing costs low. Regardless of individual Houstonians’ views on zoning, that part of the system is probably not changing. Four attempts at altering it have all failed."
"This picture has changed over the past decade. California’s tech manufacturing sector has shrunk, and those employed in Silicon Valley are increasingly well-compensated programmers, engineers and marketers. There has been little growth in good-paying blue collar or even middle management jobs. Since 2001 state production of “middle skill” jobs—those that generally require two years of training after high-school—have grown roughly half as quickly as the national average and one-tenth as fast as similar jobs in arch-rival Texas."
Finally, another reason to be thankful you live in Houston!
Hat tip to Jim.
Labels: development, economy, governance, land-use regulation, perspectives, planning
Philly vs. Houston energy hubs, why Yankees are coming to Texas, tops for diversity and STEM, and more
Just a few misc items this short Thanksgiving week:
"...Sugar Land, the largest city in Fort Bend County, which Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University, calls the most ethnically diverse county in America. By that, he means that this county southwest of Houston comes closer than any other county in the United States to having an equal division among the nation’s four major ethnic communities — Asian, black, Latino and white residents."
- Houston ranks an impressive #3 in the growth of tech/STEM jobs in the 21st century, ahead of tech powerhouses like SF and Seattle. Austin is #1.
- Density, Unpacked: Is creative class theory a front for real estate greed?
- Forbes makes the case for Philly competing with Houston as an energy hub (hat tip to HAIF). From what I'm reading there, it sounds like it could be an energy hub, but it would be a *regional* one, not a national and certainly not a global one like Houston. A big chunk of the U.S. population lives in the northeast, and it probably needs a local energy infrastructure hub. Philly is probably not a bad place for that with a port, affordable land, and a central location in the DC-Boston corridor. Houston is a regional energy infrastructure hub too, but we're also the global hub for headquarters and professionals - and Philly is a far cry from that.
- The NY Post on why Americans are fleeing the northeast, especially for Texas. Excerpt:
"As economist Tyler Cowen points out in Time magazine, when you adjust incomes for tax rates and cost of living, Texas comes out ahead of California and New York and ranks behind only Virginia and Washington state.
Critics charge that Texas’s growth depends on the oil and gas industries and is weighted toward low-wage jobs. In fact, Texas’s low-tax, light-regulation policies have produced a highly diversified economy that from 2002 to 2011 created nearly a third of the nation’s highest-paying jobs. In those years, its number of upper- and middle-income jobs grew 24 percent.
Liberals like Noah often decry income inequality. But the states with the most unequal incomes and highest poverty levels these days are California and New York. That’s what happens when high taxes and housing costs squeeze out the middle class."
Finally, I'd like to end with a pretty mind-bogglingly impressive time lapse video of Chicago at night
. Watch it in full-screen HD for the full effect. Still waiting on someone to step up and do this for Houston...
Labels: affordability, creative class, demographics, density, economic strategy, economy, energy, growth, headquarters, home affordability, rankings
If I were mayor, Houston planning and opportunity, complete streets downside, Buffalo Bayou history, and more
Some smaller misc items this week after an event announcement: a new preservation group called "Pier and Beam" is launching with a happy hour this Wed evening (11/20) at Mongoose vs. Cobra. If you're interested you can read more at the invite here
and register here
. Hat tip to Dave.
Q: After 33 years studying it, do you believe Houston's lack of zoning hurts or helps the city?
A: It's kept Houston's marketplace moving, and I think it puts us at an advantage over other cities. I'm not your typical planner. I have seen a warehouse piece of property become a single-family development in just a matter of a year, year and a half. You go to another, zoned city and that takes years to get through the approval processes. The lack of zoning gives us a lot of flexibility as a city to reinvent ourselves fairly quickly, and it allows us the ability to amend our rules fairly quickly to respond to problems. It's part of the energy, part of that can-do spirit that's in Houston.
- KUHF asked respondents to finish this statement: "Please tell us what you would do if your were the mayor of Houston, using the sentence as a springboard: If I was the mayor, I would ..." My three answers around the Ike Dike, city branding, and METRO are near the bottom here.
- WSJ on bike lane wars and how complete streets eliminate street parking. Let's hope that's not how they get implemented in Houston - we definitely need to keep our street parking. Excerpt:
"Our little squabble illustrates the tactics you can expect to see when the bike wars reach you. Cyclist-commuters may number no more than 2% of the adult American population according to a 2002 report by The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, but they are the ones who go to city council meetings. They'll push for the kind of "Complete Streets" policy that our city adopted, one that gives priority to pedestrians and cyclists over cars.
In the abstract, that will sound innocuous, but when the time for implementation arrives, you'll find yourself losing your street parking, street by street, as roads are repaved."
For Ting, Houston still promises “the idea of ‘if you work hard, you’ll reap the benefits.'" ...
He seriously thought about moving to Austin, given its young population, but to him, “the city just feels like a college town.” Next to Austin’s revelry, Houston is the mature, moneyed older brother: “It has the resources and the population I’m going after.”
- Speaking of opportunity, there are fresh links to the Opportunity Urbanism report Joel Kotkin and I created at the GHP web site here (scroll down under Independent Research), including my policy framework. Hat tip and thanks to Patrick.
Finally, an interesting half-hour video on the history of Buffalo Bayou and Houston
(hit the bottom right corner brackets to see it full size). If you don't have a half-hour, at least watch the opening 40 seconds - good stuff. Hat tip to Paul.
Labels: development, economy, history, land-use regulation, mobility strategies, opportunity urbanism, planning, zoning
Options to save the Astrodome
Of course I was bitterly disappointed by the defeat of the Astrodome renovation bonds last week, especially given that all of the polls had it passing easily. It looks like those polls created an unwarranted sense of complacency both among campaigners and pro-Astrodome voters who didn't turn out. Based on the outpouring of "don't demolish it!" sentiment over the last week, I'd say the majority clearly support re-purposing it, they just didn't bother to vote (13% turnout!
In case you missed it, the architecture critic at the LA Times made a passionate argument for saving it
, including this powerful opening statement:
Forget Monticello or the Chrysler building: There may be no piece of architecture more quintessentially American than the Astrodome.
Widely copied after it opened in 1965, it perfectly embodies postwar U.S. culture in its brash combination of Space Age glamour, broad-shouldered scale and total climate control.
Wow. If we tear the Astrodome down, I'm convinced it will become Houston's Penn Station moment
, forever regretted.
So what are our options to keep it from being demolished?
Here are my thoughts in rough order of increasing cost:
- Mothball it, minimize maintenance costs, and wait and see if a more compelling option backed by private money comes forward at some point. The high cost of demolition in both dollars and potential regret can be avoided.
- Invest the minimum amount possible to make it a festival park for year-round climate controlled festivals (rather than just the spring and fall as they do now). I'd say that involves fixing the climate control and giving access to the floor while cordoning off/mothballing all of the upper levels. This also preserves future options.
- Value engineer the Slattery proposal to strip it down to a steel structure over a greenspace park (similar to the Eiffel Tower) at a cost marginally above full demolition ($78 to $98m). Get input from the OTC and Rodeo on how to structure the covered/rain-protected greenspace best for their needs.
- Revamp the proposal and try again next year when more voters will turn out for congressional elections and pro-Astrodome forces can mount a more effective campaign.
- Renovate the Astrodome to provide all of the functionality a new Reliant Arena is supposed to provide.
- Find wealthy backers to support the STEM institute/museum concept (big picture) or Astrodome Tomorrow's concept. They don't necessarily have to support the full cost, but enough to justify a public-private partnership.
Vote to Save the Astrodome! plus a whole lot more...
A lot of smaller misc items this week, but by far the most important one is to VOTE TO SAVE THE ASTRODOME
on Tuesday. Even if you're not thrilled with the plan, it saves it from the wreaking ball and preserves future options. I've also heard it's very cost competitive on a sq.ft basis with other convention centers recently built around the country. Watch this excellent 5min video
on the history of the dome and the plan and I think you'll be sold (click the bottom right brackets to make it full screen).
Dr. Stephen Klineberg, Joel Kotin, some nobody local blogger, and Patrick Jankowski at the GHP Oct 24th.
Labels: Astrodome, economy, growth, high-speed rail, perspectives, rankings, technology, toll roads
The Future of Transit
Last week I attended the GHP State of METRO
luncheon and was pleasantly surprised. The running theme is "Back to Basics
" which I heartily applaud. They are aggressively focusing on improving the core bus network and reversing the massive bus ridership losses of the last few years (from 90m in 1999 to 60m/year today). Ridership is back on the upswing, and they're working a very promising new initiative to re-imagine the entire bus network. They've completed a great initiative to convert the HOV lanes to HOT lanes, and they're expanding the P&R network.
Of course, rail is still the big issue. The 3 new lines have consumed billions, and readers of this blog know I'm skeptical of their value. To pay off they'll need to lead to a massive redevelopment and revitalization of the north, east, and southeast side neighborhoods they cross. There is excitement about the Uptown BRT plan, although it won't be connected to the rest of the network until the University Line gets built, which is an open question. Gilbert Garcia stated that they're studying doing a first phase shortened version of the U-Line "to Greenway Plaza", although it's unclear to me where that would start. It seems obvious to me that if they're going to do a shortened University Line in the short-term it should connect the new Uptown BRT to the Main St. line - and they can circle back and add the Hillcroft transit center and UH later (UH is already on the SE line, so it would just require some transfers).
One really good idea I heard from an attendee that METRO needs to strongly consider: making the new protected Uptown BRT lanes open to vehicles from the I-10 and 59 HOV/HOT lanes, so a bus could exit directly into those lanes and get their passengers right to their buildings instead of requiring a transfer. Brilliant. I'm guessing the mixing of those buses with the BRT could be a little tricky, but I don't see why it would be impossible.
But what I really want to do here is back up and look at the big picture future for transit. I don't think people truly appreciate how much self-driving vehicles
will change things 10 and 20 years from now. Not only will the capacity of the freeways vastly increase (automatic vehicles can travel much closer together and at higher speeds), but imagine this: waves of automated, driverless, small shuttle buses and taxis wandering the city all the time
. You tell your smartphone where you want to go, and the network automatically sends the right shuttle your way to pick you up and take you nearly directly to your destination, with the potential for a few stops along the way to pick-up or disembark other passengers. Now imagine the capacity of the freeways if they not only have more vehicles much closer together at higher speeds, but they're also carrying multiple passengers each in this manner. And congestion priced lanes to keep them free-flowing. Rail can't compete with that, either on a travel time or overall cost basis. Investments we make in rail over the coming years may look particularly foolish a decade or two from now as these automated vehicles become more ubiquitous. I'm not sure any transit agency today is really thinking about this in their planning. Houston should be the first.
Ironically, what destroys the viability of rail may actually stimulate higher-density mixed-use/TOD-type
development. What really impedes street-level retail is the lack of easy parking. But that's not a problem if you can just step out of your vehicle and it can putter off on its own to remote parking. Later, you just call it up on your phone and have it come right over to pick you up. This could also reinvigorate retail in downtowns, including Houston, which has been trying desperately for years to do so.
There is growing consensus that this technology is coming. We need to start integrating it into our planning instead of wasting money on the next wave of rail assets that will soon be obsolete.
Labels: commuter rail, Metro, mixed-use, mobility strategies, new urbanism, planning, rail, technology, transit, transit-oriented development
Why Texas is America's Future, Keep Houston Ugly, Save the Dome truck, and more
Just a few smaller items this week:
The lower house prices, along with a generally low cost of living — helped along by cheap labor, cheap produce and cheap gas (currently about $3 a gallon) — really matter when it comes to quality of life … Texas has a higher per capita income than California, adjusted for cost of living, and nearly catches up with New York by the same measure. Once you factor in state and local taxes, Texas pulls ahead of New York — by a wide margin.
What it all adds up to is a future where many more Americans live in Texas — and much of the rest of America looks more and more like the Lone Star State.
Among the policies Cowen proposes as we move into this future: cheaper education (to allow workers to upgrade their skills), looser building and zoning regulations (to radically reduce the price of housing across America), and a loosening of occupational licensing at the state and local level (to open up many more low-skill jobs).
Texas, he writes, is “America’s America,” where Americans go when they need a fresh start. And a little more Texas could go a long way.
Labels: affordability, Astrodome, demographics, home affordability, identity, land-use regulation, perspectives, smart growth
Revising the city charter, low CoL = high SoL, peak sprawl, big exports, big data, and save the birds
Getting back to our backlog of smaller misc items this week:
Finally, a small plug for a good cause. When was the last time you dressed up with the significant other and went to a fun fancy charity gala? Houston Audubon is having their annual fundraising "For the Birds" gala
this Thursday at the Houston Country Club and tickets are still available at $100 - very reasonable compared to most Houston charity galas. You might even get a sweet deal at their charity auction while you're there. Do some good and earn bonus points with the S.O. at the same time - two birds with one stone, so to speak, although the actual stoning of birds at the event is significantly frowned upon... ;-)
Labels: affordability, corruption, economy, governance, government transparency, home affordability, port, rankings, sprawl, technology
Summer 3Q13 Highlights
It's time for the Summer 3Q13 quarterly highlights post of the 9th year of this blog, and we're still on track to hit the 1,000th blog post major milestone towards the end of this year.
These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument; and, last but not least, they've also been invaluable for me to track down some of my best thinking for meetings or when requested by others (as is the ever-helpful Google search). They're not quite as useful as they were when I was still doing multiple posts each week, but still have some value (at least for me).
Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly once/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box in the right sidebar. An RSS feed link is also available in the right sidebar. As always, thanks for your readership.
And from Spring 2Q13:
And don't forget the highlights from the first few years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging) and most definitely in the 5th birthday retrospective (which I'm now updating at the end of each year).
Are messy cities like Houston more innovative?
I caught this story last week in the NY Times on how a messy desk can make you more innovative
, something I can personally relate to. It made me wonder: do you think the same thing applies on a larger scale to a "messy", unzoned city like Houston? First, the key excerpt:
A second experiment, however, found that working in chaos has its advantages, too. In this one, college students were placed in a messy or a neat office and asked to dream up new uses for Ping-Pong balls. Those in messy spaces generated ideas that were significantly more creative, according to two independent judges, than those plugging away in offices where stacks of papers and other objects were neatly aligned.
The results were something of a surprise, says Kathleen D. Vohs, a behavioral scientist at the University of Minnesota and the leader of the study. Few previous studies found much virtue in disarray. The broken-windows theory, proposed decades ago, posits that even slight disorder and neglect can encourage nonchalance, poor discipline and nihilism. Chaos begets chaos.
But in the study by Dr. Vohs, disordered offices encouraged originality and a search for novelty. In the final portion of the study, adults were given the choice of adding a health “boost” to their lunchtime smoothie that was labeled either “new” or “classic.” The volunteers in the messy space were far more likely to choose the new one; those in the tidy office generally opted for the classic version.
“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition,” Dr. Vohs and her co-authors conclude in the study, “which can produce fresh insights.”
The implications of these findings are also practical. “My advice would be, if you need to think outside the box” for a future project, Dr. Vohs says, then let the clutter rise and unfetter your imagination.
The somewhat chaotic, freewheeling nature of development in unzoned Houston is well known. Is it possible that also feeds our culture? Consider:
- We're known for being more open and friendly to outsiders and diversity in general. Maybe when you're used to constant novelty in your built environment you're more primed to accept novelty in your social circles?
- We're known for our optimistic, can-do spirit. We're also very entrepreneurial. Maybe seeing constant change around us leads us to be optimistic about changing all sorts of things?
- Our restaurant scene is getting waves of national accolades for its creativity.
- Our innovative, pioneering work in energy technology (like the fracking revolution), medicine (like the first artificial heart), space/NASA, and, of course, the Astrodome, the world's first domed stadium.
For contrast, consider very static European cities. Their cultures are far less optimistic or entrepreneurial. When the buildings around you haven't really changed for over a century, it would seem easy to get the attitude that "nothing I do matters or can really change anything."
The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that our culture and our unzoned free-market in development are inextricably linked, and attempts to more tightly control, restrict, or plan development risk long term damage to our open, optimistic, entrepreneurial culture.
Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Labels: development, economic strategy, entrepreneurship, identity, land-use regulation, planning, zoning
Ashby not hurting home values; better rankings for Houston, UH, and Rice; support the Astrodome
Just a handful of smaller items this week:
If you'd like to support the Astrodome redevelopment (and you definitely should - it's only +$8/year on your taxes), the campaign kickoff is this Tuesday at the Hyatt downtown
. Also check out the slick commercial they've made
Labels: Astrodome, economy, education, entrepreneurship