Friday, April 29, 2005

Does Houston have a sense of 'sacredness'?

Joel Kotkin's new book, "The City: A Global History", is out, and it talks about how great cities are sacred, safe, and busy. Houston is reasonably safe, and we're certainly busy, but do we have a sense of 'sacredness'? His definition:
"Being sacred is really the sense that a city is unique, which engenders loyalty and pride. If city leaders and the populace don’t have a sense of passion about where they live, then people will not invest in it."

He has an interesting quote in a a recent interview where he's talking about sacredness and LA (where he lives):
"I just came back from Fargo, North Dakota, where I was impressed by the sense of importance and commitment among a broad spectrum of people. Cities like Houston, which does not have the natural blessings that Los Angeles has, have a sense of mission and uniqueness that we lack."

Setting aside LA's "natural blessings" of drought, wildfires, mudslides, and earthquakes, I'm curious if people out there really feel Houstonians have a "sense of mission and uniqueness"? I tend to think so - but then I'm the author of this blog, which pretty much puts me out of the mainstream. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

NY Times on express toll lanes

The NY Times, which writes pretty top notch articles, has one today on the rise of express toll lanes. The graphic includes the example from the Katy Freeway, where $2 lets you use the HOV lane. A few random paragraphs of interest and then my comments at the bottom:

Social engineering is merging with traffic engineering, creating new technologies that charge people a variable toll based on how many cars are on the road - known as congestion pricing - or reduce toll rates for high occupancy to encourage car-pooling.

In just five years, the number of regular highway bottlenecks has increased by 40 percent, with 233 daily choke points across the map, according to several auto and trucking organizations. The average commuter now loses 46 hours a year sitting idle in a car. And the number of miles driven has gone up more than 80 percent over the last two decades while the number of new highway lanes has increased by just 4 percent.

And the vast Trans-Texas Corridor project, which would be the largest private highway system in the country, would allow corporations to charge tolls for 50 years as a way to pay for high-speed lanes in the state.

Charging tolls on the road's express lanes has been a big hit in this laboratory for congestion pricing. On the 91 Express, the prices vary from hour to hour in a system where traffic is constantly monitored and costs are adjusted accordingly. The car pool lanes, which are still free, are enforced by state patrol cars.

But people say they like the fact that there are no toll booths, and they can virtually guarantee being on time - for a child's soccer match, job appointment or doctor's visit. Average peak hour speeds on the 91 Express lanes were 60 to 65 miles an hour last year, versus 15 to 20 m.p.h. on the free lanes, according to federal officials.

"It's like everything else: you can fly coach, or you can fly first class," said Caleb Dillon, an X-ray technician in Riverside whose commute is an hour each way. "I'm not a rich guy, but I like having the option of saving time when I really need it."

The tolls have also succeeded in doing what no amount of cajoling and public service announcements could do: get people to car-pool. The 91 now has the highest occupancy per vehicle of any major road in California, state officials said. The reason is that toll lanes here are still free for people who car-pool, offering an incentive to travel together - a savings in tolls of more than $50 a week.

The new tolls rely on radio technology to debit an account instantly, and they are priced to ensure maximum flow of traffic and pay for the road but still make it worthwhile for a driver to leave the free road.

Texas has taken the most ambitious step, under Gov. Rick Perry. The Trans-Texas Corridor, pegged to cost up to $185 billion, would be financed by private investors, who expect to be repaid through tolls.
A consortium, the Spanish firm Cintra, has already been chosen to build the initial segment, from Dallas to San Antonio. The corridor would be nearly a quarter-mile wide, for rail, truck and auto traffic along with oil, gas, electric and water lines, to be built over the next 50 years.

Minnesota will do just that next month on Interstate 394, converting car pool lanes into paid express lanes on a road that carries commuters to and from the suburbs west of Minneapolis. The fee will vary according to traffic and car pools will still be free. State officials are promoting the system as the wave of the future - an on-time auto commute, for a price.

This is the wave of the future in Houston (I'm not as sure about the statewide Trans-Texas Corridor). Eventually there will be a complete network of these express toll lanes across the city helping wisk buses, vanpools, carpools, and people with a few bucks in a big hurry get anywhere at full speed. Some will be converted HOV lanes, some new lanes, and some existing toll roads. I hope they even consider converting some existing free left lanes (although not entire freeways like they were looking at with 249). Some people are opposed to converting free lanes, but those lanes would actually carry more vehicles/hour at 60mph than they do at 20mph, which means fewer cars stuck in the remaining free lanes - everybody's better off.

My own proposal is to call them "MaX Lanes" - which would stand for "Managed eXpress Lanes", but would also convey the fact that they're designed to carry the maximum number of vehicles/hour at maximum speed.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

IAH feels the growth from Delta DFW hub shutdown

The Houston Business Journal has an article about soaring 20% passenger growth at IAH in March vs. March of 2004. The article doesn't give the reasons, but there are two big ones: Easter was in March this year, and SkyTeam partner Delta closed their DFW hub at the end of January. Delta connected 6.4 million passengers a year through DFW (in addition to 2.9m locals), and a whole lot of them are now choosing to connect through Houston on Continental rather than DFW on American. I imagine almost all of them live in the South and usually connect on Delta through Atlanta for most trips, but Houston is more convenient for western trips and still lets them earn Delta SkyMiles (and American doesn't). This extra demand, in turn, let's Continental offer more frequencies to more destinations, which is certainly a benefit to Houston.

If the growth holds up over the year, we have a shot at moving up in the rankings from the 10th busiest airport in the nation to 5th (after the big 4 of Atlanta, Chicago, DFW, and LAX), and from 18th to 9th in the world - depending on how fast everyone else grows. It'll probably be our peak global ranking and downhill from there - those Asian airports are growing faster than Houston grass during a rainy summer.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Intermodal transit center for Houston?

"Does Houston even need an intermodal transit center that would serve as a crossroads for light rail, Metro buses, Greyhound buses, taxis, Amtrak trains and shuttle services to the airports and cruise ships?" asks a Houston Business Journal article. Consultants are studying the idea. $100M price tag, probably north of downtown.

My initial reaction: could be pretty cool. Then a few other reactions:
  • Don't worry about placing it anywhere near the Amtrak station. They only come through town 3 times/week, and pick-up and drop-off almost no one. A small shuttle bus to/from the station those 3 times/week should be more than adequate.
  • I don't think you'll get any neighborhood to accept a Greyhound bus station. Just walk around the one in Midtown and I think you'll see why. Expect it to stay right where it is, and riders can connect on light rail up to the transit center if they want.
  • The biggest risk: transit planners will pump everything through the hub to jack up the numbers and justify the investment, even if that's way inconvenient for a lot of trips and probably costs overall ridership. This has already happened with bus transfers to the light rail line. HOV commuter busses that should circulate downtown will dump everyone off at the transit center. Places like the Medical Center and Uptown that should have their own direct airport shuttles will connect through the center instead, adding a half-hour+ to trips and killing ridership.

This last one is a big problem for transit planning. It's too easy to say "A connects to B connects to C" so everything's great, until you realize all those connections make something that's a half-hour car trip into a 90+ minute slog that people won't tolerate. Just because the connections are there doesn't mean people will use them.

"The consultants will help determine whether Houston needs one large intermodal transit center or whether the area might be better served by several smaller sites throughout the city. "

From a "city edifice complex" perspective, I'm sure it would be a big win. But from a mobility efficiency perspective, I'll bet a lot of boring, distributed local sites would be a whole lot better.

Monday, April 25, 2005

When property tax caps go horribly wrong: CA Prop 13

This open letter to Governor Schwarzenegger lays out the how the 1978 property tax cap California passed has really messed up the state and has created grossly unfair tax situations (it's a bit long, abstract here).

"...the measure's untoward consequences—from the disempowerment of local government to the decimation of a once-proud educational system, unequal taxes on equal properties and yawning tax loopholes for business—demand a rigorous re-examination of Proposition 13 and its legacy."


"We now know that Proposition 13 has greased California's slide from a model state to a state so mired in educational, fiscal and political dysfunction that you have to wonder how we can ever make things right again."

You gotta hope the Texas legislature is aware of Prop 13's hard lessons as it considers its own property tax caps.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Half of all population growth coming to CA, TX, and FL

An few interesting facts from a random article on the Drudge Report:

The U.S. Census Bureau expects Florida to become the third-biggest state within 25 years. Florida is expected to pass New York in size by adding 11 million residents by 2030. That total is on top of the 17 million already in the state. About 40 percent of the growth is expected among seniors.

California and Texas will stay larger than Florida, according to the report. All three combined will account for nearly half of the nation's growth in the coming decades.

Nearly two-thirds of the country will live in the South and West by 2030.

I think Texas is around 22 million now, but this says we will be ahead of Florida with 29 million in 2030, so we're looking at some pretty serious growth. It also bodes well for some explosive growth for Continental and IAH. Houston has traditionally been considered too far south to be a good transcontinental domestic airline hub, but as the population keeps shifting south and west we are becoming more and more central to much of the US population.

(After I wrote this, I came across the Chronicle article with more details for Texas. Here's a relatively easy, roughly accurate way to remember the numbers and impress your friends: start in 2000 with Texas at ~20m and Houston metro at ~5m. Each decade, Texas will add ~4m new people, roughly equally split between Houston, DFW, the San Antonio-Austin corridor, and the border area. That means the Houston metro is adding ~1m/decade, or 100k/year, which equals 6m ~2010, 7m ~2020, and 8m ~2030. Generally population has about a 2 to 1 ratio to jobs, so 100,000 people/year should equate to about 50,000 jobs/year - which is roughly what Houston added in 2004.)

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Urbanologist Joel Kotkin on Houston self-assessment

Recently dug up this old 2004 Chronicle interview with urbanologist Joel Kotkin about Houston. I don't necessarily agree with all of his points, but he has a lot of very good, very blunt things to say that a lot of Houstonians need to hear, particularly when it comes to deciding who and what we really want to be, rather than just envying other cities. An excerpt:

"I think Houston has lots of opportunities to do interesting things because it's got a really good economy, it's very diversified, and I think Houstonians are very innovative.

Part of what my message will be in these talks is you ought to be proud of what you are. Don't say, "Oh, if we could only be like Boston." Boston is becoming an ephemeral, elite city where the middle class has no upward mobility.

This is a city of upward mobility and aspiration, and that's what Houston should be selling itself as. Not as, "Well, we're kind of getting like Boston, we're kind of hip and cool." To hell with that crap.

Houston has vitality. It's got young demographics. It's a city of opportunity. If I was 25 years old, I probably couldn't move to Los Angeles. Houston would be one of those places you'd look at: Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas.


Ask, why do people come to Houston? Why do they stay here? What are the attributes they like? What are the things they don't like, and how do you work on your bad stuff and accentuate your good stuff like you would do with any individual? And stop trying to be somebody else. I think in L.A., we've finally gotten to a point in where we say, "You know, we don't want to be New York." We want to be who we are, and we have, if you will, a kind of urban magic of our own that we identify with. I think Houston's got to go through that maturing process."

This last paragraph matches an idea I've had for a while, which is to extend the Houston Area Survey to include more people from Houston that have moved elsewhere and people from elsewhere that have recently moved to Houston, and ask them to compare the pros and cons of the two cities (people who have really lived in both cities, not just visited them). It would give us a real feel for what weaknesses we need to work on, and - more importantly - what strengths we need to preserve.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Houston #7 for "Creative Class"

Richard Florida's "Creative Class" city rankings have Houston at a very respectable #7, actually ahead of NY, DC, LA, Chicago, and even Portland. If you're not familiar with the Creative Class, a quick definition from the Amazon book description:
"Florida, an academic whose field is regional economic development, explains the rise of a new social class that he labels the creative class. Members include scientists, engineers, architects, educators, writers, artists, and entertainers. He defines this class as those whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content. In general this group shares common characteristics, such as creativity, individuality, diversity, and merit."

I'm sure there was an amusing moment as they tweaked their formula to make sure that the "obvious" cities of San Francisco, Austin, Boston, and Seattle ended up at the top, and they said "How the hell did Houston get in the top 10?" They probably kept playing with the formula, but every time they got Houston to drop out, it probably also dropped out one of the "obvious" ones, so they were stuck.

Actually, my guess is that the problematic one was New York, which, if you look at the table, has very similar component rankings to Houston. They knew any "creative city" rankings that didn't have NY in the top 10 would be laughed out the door, and there was no way they could tweak the formula to keep NY in but exclude Houston.

I, of course, believe Houston is a great creative class city, but I know that's not our national stereotype/image. It would have been fun to be a fly on the wall watching them try to reconcile the hard facts/rankings with what they "knew" to be true about Houston (which was that it certainly couldn't come out ahead of New York... ;-)

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Houston: The Dining-Out Capital of America

Today I thought I'd reprint a great, old 1998 article from USA Today on Houston as the dining-out capital of the country. You have to pay to get into their archives, so I'm putting the whole thing here. A little long for a blog post, but it's fun to read a national publication speaking so highly of Houston, even if it is also probably a factor in our recent "Fattest City" designations.

Houstonians take the cake (and the barbecue and cole slaw, too). USA TODAY's Jerry Shriver visits the dining out capital of the nation.

Restaurant-goers in this sprawling megalopolis have the bull by the horns these days, and they're barbecuing the hell out of it. Imagine a situation where the economy is robust but the entree prices are often anemic. Where portions are hefty and dining options are vast. Where the hired help comes cheap but is still hospitable. That's Houston.

The oil boom is back, but this time it's gushing from deep-fryers. Texans love their superlatives, and it turns out that Houstonians eat out more often than the residents of any other major U.S. city, according to the Zagat Survey restaurant guides. Diners here strap on the feed bag in public 4.6 times a week, just ahead of Dallas at 4.4. But here's the kicker: Zagat's surveys of 40 major markets also show that Houstonians pay the second-lowest average meal tab, $14.86, behind Kansas City, Mo.'s $14.01 (New Yorkers pay the most, $29.28). And the city is among the national leaders in restaurants per capita, with about 8,000 places for a population of 4.3 million.

If Houston were a country song, the refrain would go "Gas up the Four-runner, Mama, there's a rib shack/fish shack/chophouse/ roadhouse/spaghetti house/burger joint/brew pub/sushi bar/tapas bar/taqueria/chez whatever opening out by the Loop, and it's calling your name."

"We're spoiled down here -- we give them a lot," says Tony Vallone, a local restaurateur for 33 years, who serves 14,000 to 16,000 customers per week among his six upscale restaurants.

"This is the Wild West of the restaurant business," says Bob Wilson, who runs Dixie's Roadhouse, a garish, barnlike eatery near Interstate 610 that can be packed at 3 p.m. on a rainy Saturday. "You're not restricted by real estate . . . and this is a no-zoning town."

"Houston is so enormous -- it's a freeway city," says Teresa Byrne-Dodge, who publishes the local restaurant review guide My Table. "The commutes eat so much into our free time that we don't have time to cook." Plus, who feels like putting on an apron when the temperature outside often rivals the inside of your stove?

The result is that, even given the relatively low prices, diners still will spend $4.3 billion in area restaurants this year, according to forecasts by the Texas Restaurant Association. So where is most of this cash flowing? Toward chow that's as honest as the city is wide. If New York is the gourmet dining capital of the USA, then Houston just might be the people's dining capital.

The strongest evidence of this is Houstonians' loyalty to locally run chains. The Olive Gardens of the world find it tough to compete against the Vallone, Cordua, Goode, Pappas and Mandola families, which between them operate more than two dozen successful mainstream restaurants, most of them midpriced. "A lot of out-of-town places that try to open here . . . fall on their face, close or pull back," Byrne-Dodge says.

The people benefit as well:
* At the modest and cheery La Tapatia Taqueria, customers are served wonderful free chips and salsa, even if they just order a couple of the equally wonderful $1.05 tacos. Add a $1.95 can of Tecate beer, which arrives with five lime wedges, and you're eating royally for under $5. So what if soccer's the only thing on the tube?
* Carrabba's is one of those mainstream, midpriced Italian eateries found in every city, but here they offer valet parking at lunch.
* Beck's Prime, a chain of burger places resembling a White Castle in a worn tuxedo, has a drive-through window where you can order a hefty steak with a credit card.
* Goode Co. Texas Barbecue serves up one of America's greatest entrees, the $5.75 beef brisket, cafeteria-style in a rustic shack housing a cooler stocked with seven kinds of Texas beer and a wall-mounted buffalo head.

The downsides: millennial waits for tables in some places; noise levels that necessitate conversing in a shout; and enduring your neighbor's elbow in your enchilada. But the hungry hordes know this goes with the wide-open territory.

"Houston excels at the $15-to-$20 experience," Wilson says. "It's a work town -- people are here to work, not enjoy the mountains or whatever. It does not take itself seriously. No one's out to impress anybody."

That slightly overstates the case. Upper-crust, cutting-edge and globe-spanning dining thrives here as well, and some of it is very impressive. Robert Del Grande, a celebrated guru of New Southwestern cuisine, runs the elegant Cafe Annie. Tony's, a luxurious Italian-American emporium, has won national acclaim. So has chef Tim Keating, late of La Reserve, now of DeVille. The steakhouses, from Rotisserie Beef & Bird to Pappas Bros. (where the average wine tab has been running $100 a bottle recently) are definitive. Add in the strong Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, Mexican, Korean, Cajun and South American currents that flow through here, and diners face a delicious dilemma.

At every level, "a ton of thought is given to eating out," Byrne-Dodge says. "People visit me and they want to hit three places in a night. It's a competitive sport to be the first in your group to try a new hot spot."Or, to quote a T-shirt from Goode Co. Texas Barbecue, "You might give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars you're in Texas."

Everything in the article matches my own experience and what I've heard from friends who've moved elsewhere: they just can't eat out as well or as often as they did here. It's really one of the great unsung strengths of our city.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Harris County #6 in the US for 2003-04 growth

The Census released new stats last week on population growth by county from mid-2003 through mid-2004. I find the numerical rankings much more interesting than the percentage ones, which typically just point out tiny rural counties on the far edge of urban areas that are starting to get exurb spillover. I'm sure #1 Flagler County, FL is struggling with 10% growth in one year, but a mere 6,309 people to bring them to 69,005 is kind of a drop in the bucket in the bigger picture. A few items of note:
  • Harris County added the sixth-most people in the nation at 51,278, which is 1.5% growth to a total of 3,644,285.
  • The 5 counties that added more people are all in the southwestern corner of the US, as people churn through southern California (LA County), and, upon realizing they have to win the lottery to afford a house, move east to the Inland Empire (Riverside and San Bernardino Counties), Las Vegas (Clark County), or Phoenix (Maricopa County). Alternately, plenty of Californians are cashing out of their highly-appreciated homes and using the proceeds to retire quite nicely in Nevada or Arizona.
  • Maricopa County, AZ (Phoenix) added the most people, a staggering 112,233 in one year, which brings them to 3,501,001. They are poised to pass Harris County in the next few years as the third largest in the nation after LA County (9.9 million) and Chicago's Cook County, IL (5.3 million). (Where's New York City, you might ask? Their 8 million people are split among the 5 boroughs, which, strangely enough, are all considered their own counties. It's the only case I can think of where counties are part of a city instead of the other way around.)
  • Ft. Bend County, home of Sugar Land, was the 28th fastest growing the country on a percentage basis, growing 5.4% to 442,620.
  • Montgomery County, home of The Woodlands, was the 36th fastest growing in the country on a percentage basis, growing 5.1% to 362,382.
  • 12 of the 100 fastest growing counties in the country are in Texas, which is second to Florida (14) and tied with Georgia (12).
  • 3 of the 10 largest numerical gainers are in Texas. In addition to Harris, there's Tarrant and Collin Counties around DFW.
  • 8 of the 100 most populous counties in the nation are in Texas, which is 3rd after California (15) and New York (9), and ahead of #4 Florida (7). No surprises there - those are the Big 4 states, holding almost a third of the US population.
  • New metro area population estimates based on these county numbers have Houston as the 11th largest metro in the country.

Whew. That turned out to be a lot longer and more numbers-intensive than I expected when I started the post. Sorry about that. Bottom line: you're not just imagining all those out-of-state license plates you're seeing around town.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Reducing pass-through truck traffic

You may have noticed an awful lot of big 18-wheeler trucks on Houston freeways. Trucks are great for commerce, but not so great for traffic congestion. Plenty of those trucks are beginning or ending in Houston, and there's not too much you can do about those. But plenty of trucks are just passing through, usually along either I-10 or 59 (map). If there where a way we could get them to go around Houston instead of through it, we'd all be better off: less congestion for us and faster trips for them (since they hate Houston traffic as much as we do).

Now, routes like Beltway 8 don't help too much, because they add a lot of distance to a trucker's route, esp. east-west along I-10. But the new Grand Parkway - when it's finally built - opens up an interesting possibility. If you look at the map, if Highway 90 heading straight west from Beaumont were upgraded to a full freeway (or something close to it, like 71 to Austin), it could connect into the Grand Parkway in northeast Harris County, which would create a complete bypass around the city with almost no added distance for truckers. I haven't driven that segment of 90, so I don't know it's current status or how expensive this upgrade would be, but it could finally offer some substantial truck-traffic relief for Houston, esp. east-west I-10 traffic and some 59 traffic to-from Mexico.

The next question is: given the expected tolls, will trucks seriously consider the bypass?  And if not, should we do the counter-intuitive thing and actually discount tolls for heavy trucks on the Grand Parkway to draw them off the congested interior freeways? (which certainly may be more valuable than the lost toll revenue)  If we wanted to get even more sophisticated, could we keep the rates same *except* for certain combinations of entrance and exit.  For example, it might be fully tolled if they get on the GP northbound in Katy and get off most exits, but they get a discount if they go all the way around to the 90 exit in Liberty County.  Local trucks pay full tolls (or pass-thrus when the GP is their best route), but pass-thrus with options get a reward for avoiding the city core.  It might be tricky figuring out all of the right entrance-exit combinations and tolls (and if pass-thru trucks don’t have EZ-tag, can we do it off license plates or paper tickets as other parts of the world do?), but I think it could be done for marginal cost and potentially large congestion reduction (an 18-wheeler removed is the same as removing 3-6 cars!).

If you know anybody with TXDoT or HCTRA, please pass this along.

(this post was updated 6/4/10)

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Thursday, April 14, 2005

Toll roads and neighborhoods

The Houston Chronicle has an article this morning on some southwest neighborhood opposition to extending the Ft. Bend Toll Road up to the southwest corner of the 610 loop.
"On April 7, members of Super Neighborhoods Nos. 39 and 40 unanimously approved a resolution that calls for changes to a state law so that the public can participate in decisions to build toll-funded roads or to convert free highways to toll roads."
I think we'll be seeing more of these kinds of stories as HCTRA continues to build out its planned network, which is absolutely critical if Houston is to maintain and improve mobility levels and keep high-tax-base employers from fleeing to the suburbs. These situations are a classic case of "greater good vs. vocal local interest", sometimes referred to as NIMBY ("not-in-my-backyard"). The whole region benefits from better mobility, but there can be negative neighborhood effects, and balancing those is the job of our elected politicians. The trick, of course, is what level of politicians: federal vs. state vs. county vs. city vs. neighborhoods. IMHO, Texas has historically done a pretty good job at this by putting the decisions at a high enough level to take into account the greater good, while still getting input from localities - one good example being the recent county-level approval of the Port of Houston expansion. When you push more power, esp. veto-level power, down to the localities, it becomes impossible to get anything done and you get gridlock.

So I guess I'd have to say I'm opposed to the changes they're proposing. If neighborhoods want to influence a toll road, they should contact their elected Harris County Commissioner. On the other hand, I would like to see efforts to:
  1. Acknowledge the concerns of local neighborhoods
  2. Mitigate impacts where economically feasible
  3. Give affected neighborhoods reasonable compensation in the form of other capital improvement projects they might not otherwise get anytime soon: other road improvements, parks, libraries, community centers, flood mitigation - whatever they'd most like to see.
Finally, on a more local note: I actually live in the Meyerland neighborhood near where they're talking about. The traffic on Post Oak barely creeps along at rush hour, which is a big inconvenience to anybody who lives in the area. A freeway would move that traffic through much quicker and clear up local surface roads. I will not be as directly impacted by the construction, but it will put additional traffic on sections of the 610 loop I use every day. I'm trying to think of it like a responsible citizen: yes, I'm inconvenienced, but I understand and accept my minor sacrifice for the greater good. I'm not saying it's easy, but it seems like a sentiment we should try to cultivate a little more in today's me-focused society.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The key to growing Houston as a global airline hub

I've posted previously here and here about Houston as a hub for international flights, but some recent articles have me a little concerned about the longer-term picture. The Economist has a story about the coming rise of low fare carriers in Mexico:

"One of the most valuable markets is for travel between Mexico and the United States, where an estimated 20m people of Mexican origin now live. American low-cost carriers such as Frontier and America West already fly to Mexico from cities relatively near the border. Another, JetBlue, may start to fly there later this year.

Ash Huzenlaub, an entrepreneur in Fort Worth, Texas, is starting a new low-cost carrier, Mexus Airlines, to serve this lucrative traffic. He plans to start flying this year, as long as he gets the landing slots. He says that none of his flights will cost more than $300, on routes that today can cost twice that. Mr Huzenlaub argues that the current Mexico-America traffic of about 15m passengers a year is artificially depressed by the high fares of the Mexican duopoly. The big American full-cost airlines that fly to Mexico charge even more. Cheap flights, he says, would get the millions of Mexican-Americans who go back and forth across the border out of their buses and into the air, expanding the market closer to 30m."

This is great for Mexico and people who want to travel there, but it will put the squeeze on Continental at IAH, possibly forcing them to cut back on service. One solution: become more of a global transfer hub. For instance, connecting Asia to Latin America or Europe (esp. Spain) to Mexico. Those lucrative global passengers make it economic for Continental to offer more nonstop service to more destinations for Houstonians.

So what's the problem? Heavy-duty security requirements after Sept 11 have made it very painful for international travelers to connect through US airports. Many prefer to go out of their way to connect in Canada, Mexico, or elsewhere to avoid the hassles. It got so bad in Miami that Iberia Airlines, the Madrid-based Spanish airline, shut down a Latin America mini-hub there because too many people were getting stuck in US customs and immigration so they missed their connections. Doesn't it seem a little excessive to put somebody flying from, say, Madrid to Mexico through Houston, through full-blown US customs and immigration when they're not even staying here?

The problem is making absolutely sure those passengers don't "accidentally" miss their connection and stay in the US. It's a tough problem, but one that should be solvable with the right kind of secure design for the transfer holding area (think Tom Hanks at JFK in "The Terminal"). Continental, IAH, and local political representatives need to partner up with other hub airports to work with Homeland Security to come up with a international transfer security standard that will protect the US but let those passengers only have to deal with customs and immigration at their final destination. The economic benefits to the city, Continental, and IAH would be substantial.


As a side note, I'd just like to say those people at Continental are pretty damn sharp. This announcement of new flights from LA to Mexico demonstrates their cleverness. They realized that all these ExpressJets were sitting idle overnighting at smaller Mexican airports, when they had enough time along with helpful time zone changes to actually make a quick run to LA and back (a red-eye) before their morning flight back to Houston - so some otherwise idle planes are now generating money. Smart move.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Improving managed lanes in Houston

There hasn't been a lot of press about this, but the consensus developing in the transportation world (at least in Houston and Texas) is that the future is toll roads. The gas tax is just not keeping up with the growth and demand. Not just normal toll roads, either, but ones that use "congestion pricing" to vary pricing during the day and keep the road flowing at full speed (by raising prices at rush hour to reduce demand). They go by the generic term "managed lanes". These lanes will also ultimately replace HOV lanes. Busses and carpools will still use them for free, but other vehicles will be able to use them if they pay the toll, so we'll get a lot better utilization out of the lane space than existing HOV lanes.

The simple reason for their newfound popularity is technology. The EZ tag makes it finally possible to implement what has been around in theory for a very long time. There's no room to do toll booths with these roads and lanes - just the electronic readers like the Westpark toll road.

In some cases, barrier separated HOV lanes may be removed and replaced with a managed lane each direction. In other cases, like I-10 and current 288 plans, new managed lanes will be created down the middle.

One of the big problems is safety, esp. if the barrier between managed and free lanes is soft instead of hard. A Dallas Morning News article notes that accidents increase substantially when the barrier is "too soft", the problem being that people jump back and forth between congested lanes and fast lanes. But additional impediments like flexible divider poles (picture with the article) can substantially improve the safety, while also allowing flexibility to move traffic around accident or emergency situations (not possible with hard barriers).

Another problem you'll notice if you go to some of these public meetings on future plans: a lot of right-of-way gets lost to shoulder lanes. The managed lanes, free lanes, and sometimes even the feeder lanes all get shoulders on both sides in both directions. It's super-safe, but adds up to a whole lot of wasted space, which is fine in the suburban countryside but a real problem in core areas of the city with limited right-of-way.

I'm not a traffic engineer, but another option that might be worth considering: could the buffer zone between managed and free lanes be expanded from 2-4 feet to a full-size lane width (or a little more) to not only reduce accidents (more separation between fast and slow traffic), but also act as the emergency shoulder for both the free lanes and the managed lanes, thereby minimizing right-of-way losses to excessive shoulder lanes. Then put those super bumpy reflector rows in the shoulder lane to prevent driving at any substantial speed in them. My crude attempt at a diagram: (visualize a road running from left to right)

  • Hard barrier
  • 2-3 feet of separation from hard barrier (nobody likes to drive right next to the wall)
  • Managed lane(s) --->
  • Extra-wide shoulder/emergency lane with soft pole barriers on each side and heavy-bump traffic-slowing reflector rows - shared by both managed and free lanes
  • Free lanes --->
  • Normal right-side shoulder lane

This solution can reduce 4 shoulder lanes to about 2.5, which, depending on the available right-of-way, might create 2 new traffic-carrying lanes each direction, which would be a very big gain.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Houston #2 with the Fortune 500

Just got the 2005 Fortune 500 issue. A few facts of potential interest:
  • Houston has 20 Fortune 500 companies, #2 behind New York (43) and ahead of #3 Atlanta (14) and #4 Chicago (10). This is based on city limits, though. If it were metro areas, the numbers would be significantly different. Houston only lost one to the city limits problem: Anadarko in The Woodlands.
  • Texas has 48 Fortune 500 companies, #3 behind New York (54) and California (52), and substantially ahead of #4 Illinois (33) and #5 Ohio (30). That means Houston has almost half of the Texas Fortune 500 headquarters.
  • Interestingly, the four largest companies in Texas outline the four largest Texas metros that form the"Texas Triangle": Exxon Mobil in Irving/DFW, ConocoPhillips in Houston, Valero Energy in San Antonio, and Dell in Round Rock/Austin. They're even in the same size order from largest company/metro to smallest company/metro.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Fun link of the day: Houston political contributions map

This link is a little dated, since it's based on the 2004 election, but it's still fun to look at just to get a feel for both where the money is in Houston and where the Republicans and Democrats tend to live and work. You can see the wealthier Democrats tend to cluster in The Heights, Montrose-Shephard, and around Rice. Republicans are much more concentrated along the westward corridor from River Oaks through Memorial and The Villages.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Looking for partners: Summer Science Academy for kids

The Education Foundation of Harris County, in cooperation with CASE from the Harris County Department of Education, are looking to create and grow a Summer Science Academy for middle, jr.high and high school kids. The long-term, big-picture concept was originally mentioned on Houston Strategies in the fourth paragraph of the Astrodome posting. The goal is to keep kids interested in math and science with fun activities through the summer so they stay more engaged and don't give up during the school year, which is very common in that age-range.

We're looking to do some small-scale pilots this summer, with a bigger ramp-up for 2006, and are seeking partnering organizations to provide content/curriculum, activities, counselors/staff, kids, sites/locations, sponsors, etc. The expectation is that parents will pay fees to cover most costs, with possible scholarships for lower-income children. If you're interested, or know anybody that might be interested, please email me at tgattis(at) (no-spam anti-spider format - replace (at) with @) and I'll forward it on to the right people. Thanks.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Clustering Cultural Institutions

The New York Times has an interesting article on the benefits of clustering cultural institutions like theaters and museums, with Philadelphia as a case study. The Planetizen abstract:
Jane Jacobs would have told city planners to diversify the location of attractions, but today's museums rely on foot traffic for customers and revenue. It is a natural decision for Philadelphia to put two new museums along side of its other non-historic cultural attractions. This may not be the best decision for a city that struggles to do non residential development. On the other hand, "Can anyone say it's bad to have the Louvre, the Orangerie, the Jeu de Paume and the Orsay within walking distance?"

Houston is very lucky in this department. For a city built around the car and sprawl, it is amazing that most museums ended up in a cluster near Hermann Park and most theaters ended up in a tight cluster in north downtown. Both are part of what make the Main St. light rail line effective, particularly for tourists (mostly conventioneers, I suspect, although out-of-town medical center patients and their friends and family might also be substantial).

Beyond cultural institutions, the Texas Medical Center is the largest medical cluster in the world (by far), which has really put it on the map globally and is a huge gem for the city. If those hospitals and schools were spread all over the city, their collective impact would be dramatically diminished.

The next clusters for Houston? There are a lot of efforts to build a biotech industry around the medical center, although that may end up fragmented with the Woodlands and Pearland. It would also be neat if the energy trading equivalent of "Wall Street" ended up clustered downtown, although the Enron collapse plus online trading make that seem like a long-shot.

What's next in international flights from Houston

In addition to Houston, I'm also an amateur follower of the airline industry. Today I thought I'd share a few thoughts on likely future long-haul destinations from Houston as a followup to my earlier post on international flight growth. Continental recently announced a new flight to Tikal/Flores, Guatemala, and their latest company profile says they now have 702 daily flights to 179 nonstop destinations from Houston (cool route maps), which gives them fair claim to the second-best hub in the country after Delta/Atlanta (1000+flights/180+destinations).

The trigger for this post was a New York Times profile of Emirates, which is the hot new high-growth international airline hubbing out of Dubai. They're growing like crazy, with Singapore Airlines service levels and a great central location between Europe, Asia, and Africa. An article excerpt:

"Emirates planned to start nonstop service to San Francisco and Houston this year, but that has been delayed because of the turmoil in oil prices. This year, he said, the airline will concentrate more on its service between New York and Dubai, probably adding a second daily flight."
Obviously, the oil and gas industry here is the pull to offer Houston service. It would offer great connections throughout the Middle East, southeastern Africa, Pakistan and India for Houston fliers. And a little piece of non-intuitive trivia for those looking at a flat map: the shortest nonstop "great circle" route from Houston to Dubai goes north over Greenland, Finland, and almost directly over Moscow.

Far and away the most important new international destination that Houston needs is London Heathrow, which is the busiest international connecting hub in the world. Because of current treaty limitations, all Houston-London flights have to go to Gatwick instead of Heathrow - which is fine if you're just going to London, but not very helpful if you want to connect to the rest of the world. British Airways can get you to Heathrow from Houston without changing planes, but you're stuck with an hour and a half stopover in Chicago. There are recent ongoing negotiations between the EU and US on a new treaty, so there's hope this restriction will be lifted in the next few years. Once Heathrow is added, Houston will have connections to the "Big 4" hubs of Europe: London Heathrow, Paris, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt.

The next highest priority would be a flight to Seoul (ideally Continental, but possibly Korean Air) with connections on partner Korean Air to the rest of Asia, esp. China. A lot of Asia can currently be reached from Houston via Continental's Tokyo flight followed by connections on Northwest (which has a hub at Tokyo Narita), but a whole lot more destinations would open up with a Seoul flight (route map p.68).

To round out its Latin America service, at some point we'll see Continental add Houston flights to Buenos Aires/Argentina and Santiago/Chile.

Finally, I'd really like to see Continental establish Houston as the SkyTeam alliance gateway to Australia and New Zealand (ANZ), with flights to Auckland, Sydney, and maybe even continuing on to Melbourne. Most loyal fliers of Continental, Northwest, and Delta are in the eastern half of the US, which routes very well through Houston to ANZ. This is more of a long shot than the other destinations because of the low populations and thin traffic, but the newer, smaller ultra-long-range Boeing aircraft make it possible. They'd be very long flights, but to very cool destinations.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Super-cool link of the day: Google Satellite Maps

Came across this in the Chronicle this morning. Very fun.
  1. Go to
  2. Just type your address into the text field and hit Search
  3. Hit the "Satellite" link on the top-right side
  4. Click and drag to fly around your neighborhood, use the left-side bar to zoom in and out

My guess is the pictures are around early 2002 vintage, since they still show construction of the new Rice business school building, Reliant Stadium is almost complete, and ground has just broken on the Toyota Center (you can see the Cirque de Soleil tents up in front of the George R. Brown next door). Light rail line is still under construction too.

Hours of fun. Dangerously addicting.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Universities revamp neighborhoods

Otis White's column has an entry this week about universities getting more involved in improving their local neighborhoods for a variety of reasons. Since his column doesn't have permalinks, and it's pretty short, I'm going to go ahead and put the whole thing here (highlights mine):

City Planning 101 - Neighborly Colleges

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that major universities and even some smaller urban colleges are a lot more engaged in their surroundings that they were, say, 20 years ago. Back then, the thought among college presidents was that what happens on the campus is our business, what happens outside is somebody else’s headache. Not anymore. Examples: Harvard is planning a new neighborhood in suburban Boston, Columbia is expanding its campus in New York, and the University of Pennsylvania is trying to revitalize the area around its campus in Philadelphia. And even when these universities are expanding, the Boston Globe reported recently, they’re not just buying up land and throwing up buildings. They’re planning expansions with an eye toward creating neighborhoods “that provide jobs, housing, services and entertainment for residents who may have no academic credentials,” the Globe said. Why? First, campuses often need to expand even if their student populations aren’t growing, because new research sometimes requires more elbowroom. Second, the competition for top-performing students and faculty is intense, and students today look for more than the Soviet-style dorm rooms and limited entertainment of the past. Faculty members, too, want livable, safe nearby neighborhoods. “You need entertainment and nightlife [near campuses] or you lose both faculty and students,” a University of Pennsylvania official said. “You need an engaged, vital and vibrant community.” Third, many universities want to encourage high-tech and biotech spinoffs near their campuses, which involves them in their surroundings. And finally, the Globe reported, some cities like Boston are pressuring colleges to house more of their students as a way of freeing up housing for other residents. Result: Colleges are coming off their campuses and getting involved in everything from starting new K-12 schools (Penn and Columbia have sponsored new elementary schools near their campuses) to revitalizing housing and encouraging new stores. “We used to be a fortress,” the Penn official said. “Now we see retail around us as a safety measure.” Footnote: It’s not just the Ivy League schools that are involved in reshaping their cities. Ohio State University in Columbus and the University of Cincinnati are also working on urban revitalization projects these days, the Globe noted.

It seems like Houston has two pretty golden opportunities to pursue the same types of projects:

  1. Rice and the Village, which they own most of anyway
  2. UH/TSU and the new southeast rail line through their neighborhood

Just like the earlier entry on venture capital, the first one requires Rice to direct its endowment in more tactical ways, rather than just a pure focus on simple return-on-investment (although, again, when looked at on an "overall returns" basis, it is likely to be much better for the university than simple pure-RoI investments). The Village and the neighborhoods around Rice are certainly not hurting, but I do think the Village could evolve beyond retail into a more mixed-use, higher-density, pedestrian-oriented area over time if it was guided in that direction. And, of course, it's perfect for biotech and high-tech spinoffs with the proximity to the Texas Medical Center, if the right kinds of commercial space were developed there.

I don't know much about the UH and TSU endowments or if they could be wielded this way, but at the very least it seems the universities should get actively involved with the transit corridor planning in their neighborhood, which I imagine they are.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

High-impact/low-cost Bus Rapid Transit and why Metro hates it

The New York Times has a good article on increasing bus speeds, which improves service and increases ridership at relatively low cost:

"In early May, a group of New York planners will visit Los Angeles to observe a program that has sped up buses there by 22 to 25 percent. The changes include designated bus lanes, straighter routes, easy-to-board low-floor buses, specially marked stations, far fewer stops, the elimination of schedules, and computerized signaling that gives buses priority at intersections. ...

Los Angeles, seen as an innovator in speedier bus transportation, began a bus rapid transit program in 2000 on two lines and 38 miles. By this June, with federal support, the city will have 28 such lines on 450 miles. The system costs $200,000 a mile, compared with $30 million to $50 million a mile to build light rail and $200 million to $300 million for a new subway, said Rex Gephart, the director of regional transit planning in Los Angeles."

If it's effective for LA, it should be great for Houston. I believe Metro is working on a few of these elements, but it would be nice to see them put more effort into these types of basic improvements rather than a narrow focus on the new light rail lines. Then maybe overall system ridership would actually increase from year to year rather than the steady decreases we've been seeing.

A great application of BRT would be special express buses (maybe in a distinct color) that run along the future rail routes with the same stops and frequency as the rail lines will have. This would build the ridership habit in those corridors and maybe even encourage some of the transit-oriented development to happen earlier. The cynical side of me says this will never happen though, because the next question out of peoples' mouths would be "if the BRT is working so well, then why are we spending $40m a mile to change it to light rail?" It's actually a pretty good question, and the answer is that high-end, high-density, mixed-use, transit-oriented developers won't commit or build based on a bus route. But Metro can never say that publicly, because their official mission is to move people cost effectively, not spur land development. It's what just about everybody that supports rail wants, but nobody can say, which certainly made for a bizarre "Metro Solutions" 2003 election campaign.

The sad fact is that Metro has a strong incentive to make bus-riding as absolutely miserable as possible to build political support for rail, which is an awfully unfortunate situation if you're poor and transit-dependent. If Metro doesn't watch out, they may end up with a bus riders union like LA (article). At the very least, it would be nice to see a high-profile "Bus Riders Advocate" appointed outside of the Metro bureaucracy that would hold them accountable for improvements to bus service. A more radical but potentially very interesting solution would be to essentially take bus service away from Metro and privatize it: Metro would offer a simple subsidy per passenger-mile, and private companies would set routes and schedules to compete for riders. It could be tricky to implement, but has the potential of radically improved service, performance, and system ridership - with the added bonus of leaving Metro with a clear, simple, unconflicted focus on rail.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Houston embraces "New Weather Urbanism"

Today, Houston’s mayor Bill White officially announced a novel program to embrace “New Weather Urbanism” as a model for Houston. “For too long, we’ve allowed uncontrolled sprawling temperatures to dictate how we live. No more. From now on, we will be actively encouraging a more compact range of temperatures for our city – ideally between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit,” he said. “And the afternoon thunderstorms? We’re definitely going to reign those in.”

Houston’s current weather pattern of heat, humidity, and rainstorms was described as “car-centric” and “anti-pedestrian”. “Our current weather has made the car’s combination of air conditioning, roof, and wipers far too compelling. It’s time to stop adapting to the weatherman, and make the weatherman adapt to what we want,” said the mayor, touting Houston’s unique approach of taking weathermen to task rather than developers.

“Have you ever tried to walk a quarter-mile in a business suit to a transit stop when it’s 99 degrees and 99% humidity? You’d stay drier riding one of those water-drenching rides at Astroworld,” said one local commuter, who believes the new approach to weather should substantially improve walkability and street life in local neighborhoods.

One reason given for the program was a perceived need for more open space. As people run from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned office building, the feeling of constant enclosure is pervasive. “The Houston region actually has plenty of open space, but now we’ll get to actually enjoy it year-round,” said the mayor.

Heat-induced sweating was also identified as a major problem for the temporary tattoos of the hipster “creative class” that cities like Houston so desperately wish to attract and retain. “It’s, like, totally uncool dude,” said twenty-something Dirk Duany as he wiped the sweat from his brow once again while baking in the heat of a quaint sidewalk café (Houston has tried to achieve the same ambience with “tunnel cafés” in the downtown tunnel system, but they’ve never had quite the same panache as a Paris street café.)

In general, the new program is looking to increase the overall density of good weather days vs. bad weather days. New York’s “bitter cold” urbanism was compared to Portland’s “constant drizzle” model and San Diego’s “always perfect” approach. After much heated debate, San Diego’s “always perfect” approach won out. The new weather will definitely take some getting used to. “Houstonians have a very ingrained habit of keeping an eye on weather reports. San Diego’s unconcerned blasé attitude will take some time to develop,” said Frank Michel, the mayor’s spokesman.

Houston is the largest city in America without zoning, and they don’t plan to use it in this program. Instead, “form-based weather design guidelines” will be set, allowing for some flexibility. “Sunny, partly cloudy, overcast, even a gentle rain shower from time to time – all will be acceptable within the city limits – but extremes of heat, cold, and rain will not be tolerated,” said Guy Hagstette, Mayor Bill White’s special assistant for urban design.

Atlanta, Dallas, and Phoenix are all watching the innovative program very closely, hoping to adapt it to their cities if it succeeds in Houston.

"I don't know why they didn't do this earlier. It seems so obvious in retrospect," said one citizen at the event, "You always hear people complain about the weather, but someone is finally actually doing something about it..."

(Hope you enjoyed this year’s April Foolery on Houston Strategies. You can find the serious stuff here.)

March highlights

The first of every month, I'll be adding a post highlighting key posts from the previous month(s), with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action. The main page will only show about a month's worth of entries, and I know most new readers won't go back into the monthly archives listed in the right-side column. If you want to browse the complete archives, here's the link: March archive. If you're just interested in the highlights, here they are:

Thanks for your interest in Houston Strategies.