Sunday, January 11, 2015

Our #1 rankings, Houston getting travel plaudits, accessing edge city jobs, and more

Big backlog of small items to clear out...
"In fact, while much is made of rail bias, 45-foot commuter motorcoaches which directly link low-income suburbs with suburban employment may be perceived as higher-status than a rail-station “shuttle bus,” which is almost invariably the sort of cutaway-chassis affair that is usually associated with paratransit. If it’s good enough for Google, it oughtta be good enough for you."
"While fashioning a modern “adventure park” in an old facility presents technical challenges, it’s not unprecedented. In Detroit, the Globe Building, built in 1892 as a riverfront manufacturing hub, re-opened as the Outdoor Adventure Center, operated by the state’s Department of National Resources. In Pittsburgh, an 80,000-square-foot building that once housed a metal fabrication company, was transformed into The Wheel Mill, an indoor bike park."
"Yep, these days the Bayou City is cropping up more and more on travelers’ “let’s check it out” list. In 2014, for the first time ever, Houston ranked among the top five places in the United States on Travel + Leisure magazine’s list of America’s Favorite Cities. The city also grabbed the number 12 spot in TripAdvisor’s Top Travelers’ Choice Awards in 2014, jumping 13 places in one year. 
What’s the draw? Shopping, arts, entertainment, and food. The fourth-largest city in the nation is the South’s most stylish destination, with glitzy mega malls, premium outlet centers, and hundreds of up-to-the-moment fashion boutiques. The Downtown Theater District spans some 17 blocks, and the city boasts resident companies in ballet, opera, symphony and theater. The Museum District has 19 institutions within a 1.5-mile radius, including the renowned Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (with a proposed new wing in the works), the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and the Houston Zoo, which will open the $29 million Gorillas of the African Forest exhibit in spring 2015. The $1.5 billion downtown redevelopment, in anticipation of hosting Super Bowl 2017, has already brought in a slew of new restaurants and bars. The influx adds to an already dynamic, nationally recognized culinary scene showcasing the city’s rich, cultural diversity. And, the ongoing renovation and extension of rail lines is making it a lot easier to get around the fast-growing, sprawling metropolis. Then, there are the festivals, rodeos, and BBQ cook-offs. This energetic, cash-infused city knows how to spend money and throw a party."
"Don't get us wrong: Traveler enjoys a long weekend in Austin as much as the next guy. But if Austin is the hipster-cool college party of Texas, Houston is the adult dinner party where we prefer to be wined and dined. Is Houston the new "it" city?, we asked in September—it seems that way, with plenty of hip places to eat, stay, and play in the bustling Texas city."

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Sunday, January 04, 2015

Life is better in red states, plus smart greenways, stupid rail, rising suburbia, reducing crime, and more

Happy new year everyone.  Unfortunately I'm going to have to open up the new year on a negative note with a take-down of a pretty absurd op-ed in the Chronicle today essentially calling for a multi-billion dollar commuter rail and monorail plan as well as aggressive land use regulation to go with it. In a world where the consensus is that the 2020s will have self-driving cars and incredibly affordable autonomous taxis that all together improve road capacity as much as 4x, why would any city in its right mind invest billions of dollars over decades to install old rail technology?  Especially a city with jobs spread over multiple decentralized job centers instead of concentrated in a single downtown?  In the meantime, he never explains what's wrong with our vast and cost-effective HOV lane network and express park-and-ride buses, or why we should just chuck that system for far more expensive and less flexible rail.  An express bus can get in the express lanes and go to any job center, as well as circulate there to get people to their buildings and keep them out of the weather - rail can only go to one destination, and it can't circulate when it gets there.  And when it comes to the land-use regulation to force dense development near transit stops: the LA Times looked at the data and found people in transit-oriented developments don't really shift their trips from cars to transit all that much.

And one more thing: I'm going to have to quibble with his estimate that we'll add 3.5 million people over the next 15 years to our existing 6.6m.  Sorry, we're growing fast, but not nearly that fast.  The GHP estimates our growth at between 1.5m and 2.7m over that time.  It will be all Metro's budget can do to just buy enough express buses to keep up with that growth, much less scrap the whole system and go to a multi-billion dollar commuter rail system of any kind.

Moving on to some smaller miscellaneous items this week:
Finally, I really like Jay Crossley's Neighborhood Greenways concept with the caveat that it focus on a grid of low volume residential streets - not our already strained arterials.  I think it's been a mistake in the past when we've lost critical arterial lanes to bike lanes nobody wants to use because they've got too much fast traffic all around them.  Be sure to check out the cool pics, graphics and maps.

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 Highlights

Time for the annual hike down memory lane for 2014, wrapping up the 10th year of this blog (official anniversary coming up in March). 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).

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 1H2014:
And don't forget the highlights from the first few years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging) and most definitely in the 5th birthday retrospective and the best of the first 1,000.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Thoughts on ULI's bold Astrodome proposal

My own snapshot of the old grey lady on a rainy day as I left the ULI event.
Longtime readers know I've talked a lot about the Astrodome over the years, with my own thoughts on the indoor park idea here.  Yesterday I was able to attend a 10-member ULI panel presentation at NRG/Reliant Park on their proposal for what to do with the Astrodome.  This panel consisted entirely of experts from outside of Houston (so no conflicts of interest), and they were surprisingly enthusiastic in their recommendation to save and re-purpose the dome.  This was not a presentation of, "well, if the all the stars line up you might be able to make this work."  The theme was more, "this is an absolutely incredible opportunity and you would be fools to not seize it."  In fact, Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh, was the anchor speaker and threw down the gauntlet, challenging us to step up to the plate, think big, and make this happen (you can see some of his speech in this KHOU Ch11 video).  He said they see way too many cities with "it'll-do disease" where they're not willing to think big, but just do enough to get by at the lowest possible cost, and it would be a tragedy if Houston went down that path here (it certainly would be a break from our big thinking past, from the ship channel to the Astrodome to NASA).  His recommendation: lock all of the relevant players (including the Texans and Rodeo) in a room with a strong local leader and don't let them out until they come to a consensus on the plan!

I'm not going to go a lot here into the details of the proposal they labeled a "Grand Civic Space" - the Chronicle and CultureMap have that well covered, including a supportive quote from me in the front page Chronicle story.  The complete presentation slide deck has also been posted online here.  Here are my thoughts on aspects of it:
  • Brilliant putting 1,500 to 2,000 parking spaces in two levels at the bottom of the dome's bowl, which makes it a lot easier to sell to the Texans and Rodeo.  In general, they said they bent over backwards trying to accommodate their needs, as well as the OTC.
  • They smartly called for refreshing the different tenet agreements at NRG Park, rather than just trying to stay within their limits that never envisioned re-purposing the dome.
  • Clever idea of making a good part of the interior green space removable like the turf trays at NRG Stadium. That allows it to be converted to hard floor space for events like the OTC, or a dirt floor for the Rodeo.
  • They did look at using it for fixed-seating concerts/events, but determined there were already plenty of venues in Houston for that, so that functionality was not included.  There certainly may still be concerts in there, but they will be more of the festival lawn variety.
  • They very explicitly did not recommend a replacement for the NRG/Reliant Arena, whose functionality they believe can be included inside the revamped Astrodome.  Boom - $150 million saved right there!  That may give the Rodeo a little heartburn, but - as I've said before - it's the right call.
  • In any discussions of finances for this, that $150 million savings of an Arena replacement should absolutely be factored in, including communications with the public.  They mentioned a ballpark potential cost number of $200 to $300 million (a bargain compared to similar scale projects elsewhere, they said), which means the Arena savings gets us more than halfway there!
  • They believe it might be possible for operating costs to be covered by revenues, so it won't be an ongoing burden.  The capital costs are the trickier part, although they laid out a lot of options there.
Overall it was far better than I had hoped or expected.  I'm looking forward to their complete report in 2-3 months, but hope the Judge Emmett and the County don't wait that long to get the ball rolling - we've only got two years until the Super Bowl and the eyes of the world are upon us.  If Brown and Root could build Rice Stadium in one year in 1950, then we should be able to do amazing things with the Astrodome in two - we just have to think big and get cracking!

Update: A video of the complete ULI panel presentation has now been posted online here.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

The future of education is here, it's just not evenly distributed

Last month I attended the iNACOL Blended and Online Learning Symposium in Palm Springs, California to learn more about where education is headed (I blogged about my 2012 experience here).  The theme was "Powering Personalized Learning," and there is some incredible stuff going on, from adaptive eLearning programs to making customized educational games.  It reminded me of a great quote by author William Gibson, "The future is already here - it's just not evenly distributed," by which he means that there are already pioneers doing now what we'll all be doing in the future, they just haven't spread to the mainstream yet.  You just have to know where to look.  There are definitely some schools doing amazing things, they just haven't spread yet.  In my opinion, the two most interesting ones are, on the private school side, Acton Academy in Austin, and on the public school side, Summit Public Schools in California.  Summit had a higher profile at the conference, but Acton was highlighted in speeches by two different keynote speakers, including Vicki Phillips from the Gates Foundation and Sal Khan of Khan Academy fame.  Their models are very similar, with lots of student agency and teachers who've switched from lecturing to mentoring and guiding.  The students work at their own pace through playlists of eLearning curriculum - earning learning badges - as well as working on collaborative projects where they learn 21st-century teamwork and leadership skills (plus outside workplace experiences like apprenticeships).  This approach is *far* more engaging for the kids, and therefore they learn so much more and faster.  Acton's kids are testing 5+ years ahead of grade level (!), and Summit is one of the top performing public schools in California (let's hope their charter school model comes to Texas).  Laura Sandefer, a founder of Acton Academy along with her husband, was just in Houston last week to talk about the school on KHOU Channel 11, which you can watch here.

Needless to say, these models seem far too radical for traditional public schools to embrace, so they've been engaging in more modest blended learning experiments, with mixed success - mainly, IMHO, because they are too locked into the rigid, sequential, single classroom/teacher/subject model, both in their mindset and their physical buildings.  Michael Horn, co-author with the famous Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen of the book "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns" a few years ago and definitely one of the leading thinkers on education, released his new book, "Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools" as a handbook sequel to Disrupting Class with a step-by-step process traditional schools can follow to embrace blended eLearning.  I bought a copy, got him to sign it, and read it on the flight home - very highly recommended if you are involved in education in any way and it can be used no matter what level you're at, from an individual teacher through school, district, and state-level administration.  In his sessions, he also discussed "micro blended learning schools" - one-room schoolhouses updated for the 21st-century like Acton Academy - as a wildcard of potential disruptive innovation in education, which I completely agree with.  He notes that they hit two of kids key motivators perfectly: (1)  making clear progress and experiencing real success (vs. traditional grading that tells most kids they're not succeeding) and (2) having fun with friends on projects (as opposed to being forced to sit quietly and listen to a lecture).

If you'd like to read more about the conference, Getting Smart has some great blog posts on day one, day two, day three, leaders, and technologies.  If you're interested in learning more about the Acton Academy model, they were profiled on Getting Smart here and Talent Unbound is their affiliate in Houston.


Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Peoples' Republic of Upper Kirby, peak car and building our way out of congestion, evaluating urban rail, combining upward mobility with affordability, and more

I'd like to open up this week talking about Salon's crazy rant about central Houston gentrification (alternate link) and, essentially, the declaration of the "Peoples' Republic of Upper Kirby" - which is just as absurd as it sounds.  Despite being the online equivalent of a homeless man screaming about the end of the world - with about as much credibility - it's getting a lot of buzz in Houston social media.  Summarizing, it essentially says "I was a lucky artist that scored some primo cheap housing near Kirby, and now I'm pissed off because the city continued to grow and evolve and I'm getting kicked out for new development."  Obviously, the solution is that Houston should have frozen all inner loop development and residents around 2000 (or maybe 1990? or maybe 1980? when did it peak again, Mr. Author?).  The rant is essentially NIMBYism in its purest form - "I moved someplace I loved and I don't want it to ever change in any way, including the people."  At one point, he even claims there is "no affordable housing within the city" which he seems to define as within 2 miles of inner loop Kirby - ignoring the other 500+ square miles of very affordable Houston (see map here).  The whole piece is so off the rails that even the lefty Houston Press weighed in against it. I suspect the whole thing might be a trolling prank.

Moving on, here are some smaller items for the week:
  • 10 good reasons for Houston to give thanks
  • "Urbanists need to face the full implications of peak car"  As vehicle-miles continue to fall, Aaron Renn at Urbanophile questions continued arguments of "induced demand" against road expansions, since with current trends it might actually be possible to build our way out of congestion after all.  Hallelujah - let's hope so.
  • Evaluating Urban Rail: Wendell Cox at New Geography shows that, despite billions being spent on urban rail in this country over the last few decades, transit's trip share has mostly stagnated or declined.
  • "Choose One, Millennials: Upward Mobility or Affordable Housing - The paradox of the American Dream: The best cities to get ahead are often the most expensive places to live, and the most affordable places to live can be the worst cities to get ahead."  Houston seems to do pretty well on both if I'm interpreting the graphs correctly, although our affordability has certainly dropped during the last few boom years. I general, I think the author might be sort of ignoring Texas because it doesn't fit their thesis - we have upward mobility with affordability. Hat tip to Neil.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

How Opportunity Urbanism can save the global economy (Part 2 of 2)

Last week in part one I clarified the problem and framed the situation. This week in part two are the solutions.  To sum up last week's post, the core challenge today is enabling affordable proximity.  Because we have mostly failed at that challenge, COLA/discretionary incomes are stagnant or down, reducing peoples’ ability to upgrade education/skills, start a business, or own a home – and resulting in a general malaise and lack of prosperity.

Drivers of Affordable Proximity
  1. Supply of commercial and residential space: overregulation and overplanning restrict the supply of both dense urban space and less dense suburban space, making it unnecessarily expensive and driving up costs for both residents and businesses.
  2. Mobility: increasing mobility increases proximity.  The appropriate measure of proximity is travel time, not distance – what matters is that you can reach your job in 30 minutes, whether that’s 3 miles or 30.  Increased mobility opens up the supply of housing within an acceptable commute time from a job center.
Strategies for increasing Affordable Proximity
  1. Reducing overregulation and overplanning to make it easier to add to the supply of both residential and commercial space at both urban and suburban densities. An additional benefit is that the construction industry can provide good paying jobs for low or semi-skilled labor.
  2. Increasing mobility: Although there are definitely practical limits, invest in road infrastructure, especially freeways.  Generally speaking, recent investments in rail transit have cost far too much for the number of people moved.  The future of mobility is becoming increasingly clear: self-driving cars, taxis and buses combined with phone apps to enable more efficient vehicle use through ride sharing (i.e. getting more people in each vehicle for each trip).  Simulations show that freeway capacities may increase 2-3x with automated vehicles, and that’s not even taking into account potential increases in passengers per vehicle with ride sharing apps.  Self-driving vehicles also better enable dense walkable neighborhoods by reducing parking needs.  In the shorter term, the wise investment is a high-speed, congestion-priced, managed lane network used by buses, vanpools, and carpools/ride-shares.  Those same lanes can host self-driving vehicles as they become available in the future.  For those concerned about the environmental impact of cars, consider that increasing the number of passengers per vehicle reduces the per-passenger-trip impact, and that future vehicles are likely to run on cleaner fuels such as natural gas or renewable electricity.
Additional benefits from increasing mobility include increasing incomes as new jobs with a better skills match and higher pay open up within a reasonable commute range, and increasing the base of potential customers and employees new and existing businesses can draw on.
  1. Improve both mobility and the housing supply à 
  2. ...affordable proximity is improved à 
  3. ...cost-of-living reduced à 
  4. ...COLA incomes increased à 
  5. ...discretionary incomes increased à 
  6. ...increased consumption and economic activity plus improved ability to pursue additional education/skills, start a business, support charities, or save up the down payment for house à 
  7. ...increased opportunity and prosperity
I'm looking forward to your feedback in the comments...

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How Opportunity Urbanism can save the global economy (Part 1 of 2)

For many years now, economists have lamented the global "new normal" of sluggish growth in the developed economies of the world, including here in America.  I recently outlined a "big picture" view of Opportunity Urbanism and how it applies to this problem, and I'd like to share it with you here in the hopes of getting some good feedback in the comments.  Today is part one where I clarify the problem and frame the situation, and next week in part 2 I'll get to the solutions.

Core problem: income stagnation, declining middle class, lack of broad prosperity

Clarifying and redefining the problem
  • What people really want is a feeling of prosperity (i.e. a high standard of living), the measure of which is really cost-of-living adjusted incomes (COLA incomes), not just nominal incomes (see graph below).

  • By redefining prosperity this way, policy levers expand from just trying to increase incomes to also trying to reduce costs, especially housing costs (the largest driver).
  • Another way of thinking about COLA incomes is discretionary incomes – income left over after the basic costs of living, including housing.  Increasing discretionary incomes not only directly stimulates the economy with increased consumption, but also makes it easier to pursue additional education/skills, start a business, support charities, or save up the down payment for house.  Discretionary income is the fuel of economic growth and opportunity.
The situation today
  • The global marketplace and technology dictate incomes for a given education/skill level, which make it a very difficult lever to increase.  But costs-of-living are strongly driven by local factors that can be controlled.
  • As the basis of the economy shifts from industry to services, proximity to others matters more than ever before.  A factory can be anywhere and ship its products anywhere, but, generally speaking, most services need to be in-person.  This is pushing more and more of the population to agglomerate around major metros, and limited housing supply has driven up home prices and rents in those metros.
  • Economic and technological factors have directed ever more wealth to a relatively small population of elites, creating another driver of proximity as the services spending of those elites is a major part of the economy.  Economic opportunity is driven not just by proximity to others in general, but by proximity to these elites specifically.  This is yet another driver of major metro agglomeration and higher housing prices.
  • This lack of affordable residential space is shrinking family sizes and leading to destabilizing demographic implosions in Europe, Japan, and now the U.S. and China.
To sum up, the core challenge today is enabling affordable proximity.  Because we have mostly failed at that challenge, COLA/discretionary incomes are stagnant or down, reducing peoples’ ability to upgrade education/skills, start a business, or own a home – and resulting in a general malaise and lack of prosperity.

On a related note, The Economist recently published an article about studies regarding one aspect of this phenomenon: The geography of joblessness: The difficulty people have in getting to jobs makes unemployment unnecessarily high

Next week: the drivers of affordable proximity and strategies for increasing it.

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