Monday, July 31, 2006

News alert: Christof analyzes the University Line

I know this is off my usual publishing schedule, but time is running short on decisions about the Metro Universities line. Christof has added three excellent new posts at Intermodality:
  1. An alternate route that connects TSU without running through the campus
  2. A pre-response to congressman John Culberson's expected opposition
  3. An in-depth analysis of the seven Richmond vs. Westpark routing options
He also has a cool post and diagram of the evolution of IAH's terminal configuration, including the rather radical long-term plan. If you're a transportation junkie like me, they're all great reads. If you have an opinion, be sure to make sure your voice is heard by Metro.

Update: this morning's Chronicle article. Note pros/cons graphic link on the right side under "Resources."

Sunday, July 30, 2006

2016 Olympics and Astrodome math

I'm sure most of you saw the story last week that Houston is out of the running for the 2016 Olympics. We were eliminated along with Philadelphia, while LA, SF, and Chicago are still in the running. My bet is still on San Francisco: nice weather, beautiful bay, very scenic, plenty for tourists to do. It's truly America's Sydney - with a cost of living/housing to match. People can talk about facilities all day, but the reality is that the Olympics are ultimately an entertainment and tourism event, and Houston is not a top-tier tourist city.

Ultimately, as I've said before, it's probably good we didn't get it. Otis White seems to also think it's a bad idea. It would have been a huge drain of money and energy that could go into working on more important problems in Houston. And, at the end of the day, what we'd get for all that effort is thousands of journalists from around the world reporting how hot, humid, and miserable it is in Houston in the summer. I know the saying is "any publicity is good publicity," but in this case, I respectfully disagree. If they ever offer a Spring or a Fall Olympics in the off years, I say we go for it.

If you want to read some interesting comments and reasoning on Houston's loss, go to this USA Today blog post and search on the word "Houston". A lot people talk about our lack of a rail transit system, but Atlanta showed that it can be done fine with lots of buses and dedicated freeway lanes.

Moving on to implications, the Astrodome has lost one of its two potential saviors: as a track and field stadium for the Olympics. Now they're relying completely on the convention hotel concept (bottom of this post) - which just signed a letter of intent and has six months to find financing. I've been doing a little back-of-the-envelope math, and am convinced more than ever this thing will be very difficult to make fly. The official numbers reported in the Chronicle are $450 million for a 1,200 room hotel. That works out to $375,000 per room. Let's assume they're happy with only a 10% return on investment (very low for a project of this expense and risk), so that room would need to generate $37,500/year in profit, which works out to a requirement of $102/night/room in pure profit. This does not include anything for actually operating the hotel, or for nights where rooms go empty. An alternate rule of thumb in real estate is that you need monthly rent of 1% of the purchase cost. That means they need $3,750/month/room, or about $125/night - again not including the high costs of running a hotel, or empty nights. You can double both those numbers if assume only 50% occupancy, which is not an unreasonable assumption for a convention hotel in Houston. They'll need room rates in at least the $300-400+ range. Is that realistic in this town? I checked, and the Gaylord Grapevine, their model, does seem to fetch those prices, but it's also a resort hotel with a golf course and recreational lake. It seems like a big stretch to me, even with an oil boom on. I guess we'll know in the next six months if somebody's willing to put their money where their mouth is...

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Houston's identity: Global Village, American Dream, Texas Spirit

Concluding Houston branding identity week (previously: Why brand?, History and Strategy), today we wrap up with a proposal. I've talked about a differentiation strategy offering a "best of both worlds" between two categories: a big, multi-ethnic, international city with great amenities, culture, and opportunities, while also being affordable and fast-growing with a feeling of community. Remember what we're looking for here is a broad branding identity, not necessarily the short "Something City" nickname. After a lot of word tweaking, this is my best shot, although there are potential variants I'll discuss below.

Global Village,
American Dream,
Texas Spirit

Obviously trying to create a rhythmic pattern with the geographic zoom-in from globe to America to Texas. First, let me go through the logic behind each term, then we'll get to some variants.

Global Village: Clearly a little wordplay on the generally-accepted meaning of this term. In the last post near the bottom, I laid out Houston's international credentials. There are two other connotations I like here: 1) the unity and community feel of a village, and 2) the term has both technology overtones (Internet and the web bringing the world together) and connectivity implications - a nice fit with our port and Intercontinental airport hub. I thought about "Global Community" here instead, but it doesn't have the additional connotations of "Global Village", and I think community is a term that has gotten overused in recent years (nobody builds subdivisions of houses anymore, they're all communities of homes), diluting its impact.

American Dream: Optimism, opportunity, social/economic mobility, and affordable home ownership. To put a twist on NYC's famous saying, "If you can't make it here, you can't make it anywhere." (thanks to Patrick for inspiring this piece with his "Houston = Accessible American Dream" insight)

Texas Spirit: pioneering and entrepreneurial, hard-working, can-do energy, tough but friendly, independence within community, hospitality, openness to outsiders, charitable (noted worldwide after Katrina).

I think the combination of all three of those terms creates a pretty unique identity for Houston vs. other cities.

A few variants/options.
  • We already talked about "Global Community" above.
  • It could be mixed with any number of nicknames, from "Bayou City" to "Space City" to "Open City" to "City of Opportunity". I still believe "Open City" or "Open City of Opportunity" are good sum-ups of all three terms into a nickname.
  • I added "Texas Spirit" at the last minute, and it could be dropped if it needs to be shorter.
  • Finally, if we wanted to have fun with it and throw in a NASA reference, we could zoom out another level with "Galactic Hub, Global Village, American Dream, Texas Spirit"... ;-)
Well, that's my pitch. Comments and feedback welcome. Hope you enjoyed Houston branding identity week. Next week, we'll dig into a backlog of non-transportation/non-branding news topics that built up over the last two theme weeks.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Houston branding identity week: History and Strategy

Continuing our series, today we'll review Houston's branding history and talk a little about strategy. It's a lot to cover, so let's dive right in. First, a quick list of previous Houston brands (thanks to Mack for the list).
Honest attempts - some better than others - but none have really stuck, and obviously not for lack of trying. A quote from GHCVB CEO Jordy Tollett in the Houston Business Journal: "We've probably spent in excess of $75 million in the past 30 years on image campaigns, and we keep coming back and saying, 'Well, that didn't work.'"

Now, a few of my attempts:
Now, because I want this post to have comprehensive links on branding Houston for when I refer to it in the future, I'm going to throw in a couple more links:
Now, moving on to strategy. I got to sit in on a fascinating focus group a couple weeks ago talking about branding Houston. A few key words and phrases that I heard and jotted down: open, opportunity, ease of living, affordable, "big small town", "cowboys from all countries" (I really liked that one). Somebody there noted the importance of identity branding not just to tourism and economic development, but to building local cohesiveness - a point I heartily agree with. A feeling of unity instead of fragmentation in a metro region is a subtle but important one, and a strong consensus around an identity can make a big difference.

A point I made that the group agreed with was the inherent conflict between GHCVB branding for tourists and conventioneers vs. GHP branding for economic development (i.e. attracting businesses and talented residents). The former only cares about attracting people here for a few days, while the latter needs them here for the long haul. The former is all about local attractions, while the latter cares about things like opportunity, quality of life, education, and affordability. GHCVB has handled branding in the past, and I think that could be at the core of the failures. Houston is simply not a tourist town, and trying to brand us like one is folly. Houston's strength is livability and weakness is tourism - which do you think we should build our branding identity around? It's the difference between branding the way Austin, Portland, Boulder, Denver, and Seattle do it vs. the way Las Vegas, Orlando, New Orleans, Honolulu, and Miami do it.

So let's talk about what people are looking for in a place to live and what sets Houston apart. People today want the amenities, diverse culture, and career opportunities of a big city with the heart of a smaller community. They also want a "sense of place" as well as aesthetics in their city and neighborhood (often a Houston weakness). This is an over-simplification, but I'm going to categorize our competitors into two broad categories:
  • Big, international cities with great amenities, culture, and opportunities, but are often unaffordable and tend to be have more a feeling of cold "big city" anonymity or fragmentation for residents than genuine community (at least for the metro as a whole - individual neighborhoods can exhibit a strong sense of community). Examples include NYC, LA/SoCal, SF/Bay Area, London, and to some extent DC and Boston.
  • Smaller, often faster-growing cities that are more affordable and have a better feeling of community, but may be more mono- or bi-racial than internationally multi-ethnic - and thus less culturally diverse, maybe even a little bland and provincial. Examples include Atlanta, Tampa, Phoenix, DFW, Charlotte, Austin, San Antonio, Raleigh-Durham, Minneapolis, Denver, Portland, and Seattle.
It seems to me that Houston's opportunity is to offer a "best of both worlds" between these two categories: a big, multi-ethnic, international city with great amenities, culture, and opportunities, while also being affordable and fast-growing with a feeling of community (the "big small town" comment and unity link above). Dr. Stephen Klineberg at Rice has noted that Houston has one of the most balanced ethnic profiles in the nation. Even locals often don't realize how international we've become. We've obviously drawn a lot of immigrants from Mexico and Latin America, but also India, China, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Korea. Being headquarters for the global energy industry has brought in a large international population of Middle Easterners, Russians, Brits, and Africans, among others. We have 82 foreign consulates (third-most), 37 foreign chambers of commerce, and 20 foreign banks. This diversity spills over into our amazing restaurants, festivals, and shopping.

The closest match I can think of to this "best of both worlds" positioning is Chicago. They are larger, slower growing, and less affordable, but our branding profile is similar in many ways.

OK, so now we have a compelling differentiation strategy, but how do we sum that up into a concise branding identity? We'll wrap up Houston branding identity week on Thursday night with a proposal for your consideration. Stay tuned...

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Houston branding identity week: Why brand a city?

Continuing with themed weeks here at Houston Strategies, this week will be about developing a branding identity for Houston. Earlier this year, I noted that the Greater Houston Partnership has launched a $30-40 million "Opportunity Houston" fund-raising campaign to market the city. In the last few weeks, I've been exposed to some new thinking on the topic, including a CEOs for Cities civic branding report, the Chronicle story on Houston's invisibility to young professionals, and a focus group with urbanist Joel Kotkin.

The topic today is "Why brand a city?"

The LA Times had this to say in an article on civic branding a couple years back (reposted here):
"It is a very challenging process," said Tom Horton, a senior associate with the San Francisco-based planning and design firm hired to help develop the new logo, set to be stamped on everything from city stationery to bus shelters. "People feel very passionately about where they live and how their city is publicly portrayed."

California cities have long wrestled with issues of civic identity, generating new logos and slogans designed to polish their image and advertise their attributes like so many boxes of breakfast cereal. In some cases, cities have gone as far as changing their name to whip up civic pride or get out from underneath undesirable reputations. (a Houston problem)

Civic branding takes those efforts to new levels, with a growing number of cities taking a page from corporate America to market themselves to the outside world in order to attract new residents, promote economic development and draw tourist dollars.
Here are some key excerpts from the CEOs for Cities report "Branding Your City":
As international place branding authority Simon Anholt writes, “Unless you’ve lived in a particular city or have a good reason to know a lot about it, the chances are that you think about it in terms of a handful of qualities or attributes, a promise, some kind of story. That simple brand narrative can have a major impact on your decision to visit the city, to buy its products or services, to do business there, or even to relocate there.

“All of our decisions, whether they are as trivial as buying an everyday product or as important as relocating a company, are partly rational and partly emotional. No human activity is exempt from this rule, and the brand images of cities underpin the emotional part of every decision connected with those places, which in turn affects the rational part.

“Paris is romance, Milan is style, New York is energy (!), Washington is power, Tokyo is modernity, Lagos is corruption, Barcelona is culture, Rio is fun. These are the brands of cities, and they are inextricably tied to the histories and destinies of all these places.

“In today’s globalized, networked world, every place has to compete with every other place for its share of the world’s consumers, tourists, businesses, investment, capital, respect and attention. Cities, the economic and cultural powerhouses of nations, are increasingly the focus of this international competition for funds, talent and fame.”
Put simply, branding is a tool that can be used by cities to define themselves and attract positive attention in the midst of an international information glut. Unfortunately, there is the common misconception that branding is simply a communications strategy, a tagline, visual identity or logo. It is much, much more. It is a strategic process for developing a long-term vision for a place that is relevant and compelling to key audiences. Ultimately, it influences and shapes positive perceptions of a place.

Most of all, a branding project is anchored in a community’s societal, political or economic objectives by focusing on its relevant differences, identifying the core promise that it makes to key audiences, and developing and consistently communicating the core, positive attributes of the place.
There are many reasons why it is critical for a place to have a brand strategy, but the most common is to stimulate economic growth. That’s because a strong brand can:
  • Shift the perception of a place that may be suffering from a poor image among external and internal constituents.
  • Create a common vision for the future of the community and its potential.
  • Provide a consistent representation of the place.
  • Enhance its local, regional and/or global awareness and position.
  • Shed unfavorable stereotypes associated with a place and make it more appealing.
I am probably in the minority in that my top priority for branding is local civic pride and vision, over tourism or economic development (see bold bullet point above). This excellent excerpt from another CEOs for Cities report pretty much sums up why (if it sounds familiar, it's because I previously excerpted it here):
Although we identified some common elements that were attractive to many well-educated young adults, we would not say that there is one single ideal community. An important element of authenticity is distinctiveness. We live in a nation (and a world, thanks to globalization) where culture has become increasingly homogenized, where one suburban community, strip mall, freeway exit looks exactly like every other. But a reaction is brewing, emerging from the ground up. Many people want choices and a sense of place that moves past the bland of the national brand.

The essence of this notion is that every community will have to find its own unique identity. Just as quality of life means different things to different people, so too does sense of place. We know tastes differ regarding climate. Many people will find the quality of life eroded by "bad"” weather. Some will think Minnesota too cold, Portland to wet or Phoenix too hot. Just as there are many dimensions of climate, there are many dimensions of community. No city can offer the best quality of life to everyone. The challenge is to find one's niche. The Twin Cities, for example, can'’t be cheaper than Mississippi, or sunnier than Phoenix or more aggressively entrepreneurial than Silicon Valley, but they can offer their own distinctive combination of attributes that a significant set of knowledge workers will find attractive. As Michael Porter reminds us, strategy is about being different: What do you choose to be or to offer that is different than others? (Porter, 1996) This notion stands in stark contrast to our traditional view of economic development, which has asked simply whether one place was cheaper than another. The challenge for every community is to decide what kind of place it wants to be.
I think that's enough for today. In the next post Tuesday night, we'll talk about previous attempts to brand Houston (others and mine), and the inherent conflict between branding for tourism vs. economic development. I'll unveil my own new concept in the last post of the week Thursday night (very long drum roll please...).

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Bruegmann sprawl + rankings, rankings, rankings

Well, the original plan was to wrap up Transportation Week at Houston Strategies with commentary on the Bruegmann sprawl op-ed from the Chronicle last Sunday (my older posts on Bruegmann can be found through this post). But after reading it a couple times, I've decided I don't have a whole lot to add to his very good points - albeit ones delivered in a somewhat meandering fashion that don't excerpt well. You can read the Reason take on it here. I will throw out one excerpt of warning for Houston to not make the same mistakes as LA:

As the population has grown, as families have become affluent and as more women have entered the workforce, there has been a major increase in car ownership and driving — and a demand for mobility.

But mobility has been impaired. The "sprawl debates" of the last few decades have pitted citizen against citizen by suggesting that the choice is between public versus private transportation and the automobile versus the railroad. This has weakened the consensus for funding for all transportation — public and private, highway and rail. This has hurt mobility, exacerbated traffic problems and eroded the global competitiveness of Los Angeles.

Moving on, today instead will be about rankings. Lots of 'em.
  • eWeek has named Houston one of the nation’s 10 emerging tech centers:

    Houston. City population: 2,016,582. Companies that call it home: BMC Software, Universal Computer Systems, Landmark Graphics. The details: Rated No. 3 of 10 by Forbes Magazine on its Best Places for Business and Careers list. Hewlett-Packard employs more people in its Houston operations than any other HP facility in the world.

    Others on the list were Austin, Denver/Boulder, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Raleigh, Portland, Milwaukee, Phoenix, and Richmond.
  • Money magazine has Houston the third skinniest city in the nation (!), with an average body mass index of 24.8. Certainly a contrast to the Men's Fitness fat-city ranking, which I took to task here. Money was certainly clever using an actual measure of fat for their rankings rather than the arbitrary formula at Men's Fitness that included everything but. That said, I'm pretty sure Money's number is a mistype by somebody in the data department... (thanks to Metroblogs for the tip)
  • In the same Money magazine rankings, Sugar Land was ranked the third-best small U.S. city to live in, behind Ft. Collins in Colorado and Naperville outside of Chicago. They were noted for job growth, education, diversity, and affordable housing. League City made #65, The Woodlands made #73, and Texas was the top state with 10 in the top 100. I was surprised at The Woodlands' relatively low ranking. I was just out there for an "insiders tour" last week and it was pretty amazing. Planners from all over the world come in to take tours. Austin made the top 10 big cities list. Here's the Sugar Land mini-profile from their site (detailed profile here):
Population: 75,800
Typical single-family home: $170,000
Est. property taxes: $4,500
Pros: Diversity; affordable housing
Cons: Like humidity? A lot?
Sugar Land is one of the country's more diverse communities. The area's heat and humidity tended to remind Asian immigrants of home, and in the '80s, as Sugar Land became less a sleepy small town and more a land of good jobs and affordable housing, more Asians moved in. Today the city is almost a quarter Asian, and Sugar Land is home to mosques as well as Hindu and Buddhist temples. And in few desirable cities does a buck go so far: $200,000 buys a roomy house in a landscaped neighborhood with a community pool.

If you use their little "Find Your Best Place" search engine and focus on affordable housing, plentiful leisure activities, plentiful cultural options, job growth, and good health care access, but don't worry about low crime rate, good weather, or short commute time, we come out #6 in the results out of hundreds in their database. Not bad.

You can read Houston's profile here. We are clearly deficient in the "ski resorts within 100 miles" metric, vs. 10 (!) for the average "best place." If we want to move up in the rankings, time to get started on the solution...

Passengers across the country have selected William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) as the number one (small) airport in the country for customer satisfaction.

Houston’s second-largest airport was selected, this year, as the top-pick among travelers in the United States who were surveyed by J.D. Power and Associates for an Aviation Week traveler satisfaction report. ...

Customer satisfaction is based upon eight factors: airport accessibility, check-in/baggage check, security check, terminal facilities, food and beverage, retail services, baggage claim and immigration/customs control.

For Hobby passengers, the determining factor in selecting the airport as their favorite was the airport’s terminal facilities, the study revealed. ...

In the same study, Houston’s largest airport, Bush Intercontinental (IAH) came in at the top-third of large US airports, at number five, for overall customer satisfaction. Houston-based Continental Airlines, IAH’s primary carrier, was rated the number one traditional network airline in the nation for customer satisfaction.
Sorry for the long post. I didn't intend it to get this long when I started. If all goes according to plan, we'll dig into Houston's branding identity next week.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Metro Meeting + Big Dig, Roads vs. Trees, and the Astrodome

Continuing Transportation Week here at Houston Strategies, we have a raft of items tonight. First, the small stuff.
  • "Big Dig" collapse a blow to urban dream - an article about how mega-public projects, especially tunnels, are rapidly losing credibility because of the ongoing Big Dig problems (if the nails weren't already in that coffin after the 4x multi-billion-dollar cost overruns).
  • A little factoid of interest from "Ask Marilyn" in the Sunday Chronicle Parade section: if you added up all the road pavement in the country, it would only cover Indiana, but trees cover one-third of the country. I've also heard the stat that only about 5% of the country is urbanized.
The big story is the Metro Solutions University Corridor meeting I went to tonight. The Chronicle already has a preliminary story out (updated this morning, including a map graphic in the paper but not online). Metro is on a 2-week info/publicity blitz to sell the line and determine the best final routing. There are still far more route options than I thought they'd be showing at this point, but here are a few takeaways:
  • Under a Richmond alignment, no land needs to be acquired west of Kirby, no median oak trees lost west of Shepherd, no traffic lanes would be lost, most left-turn movements would remain, and no neighborhoods would be closed off. Impressive. That takes care of most of my concerns.
  • They distributed a white paper by the Gulf Coast Institute titled "Mitigation of Business Interruption During Light Rail Construction", based on six case studies in other cities. It's late and I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but it's clear Metro is trying hard to not make the same Main St. construction mistakes, and they want to convince businesses along Richmond they will be taken care of during construction.
  • Crossovers from Richmond to Westpark at Greenway Plaza would require elevated flyovers for 59. These crossovers would be to avoid Afton Oaks. The at-grade crossover at the SPRR right-of-way seems to make the most sense if they decide to avoid Afton Oaks. They also have a Shepherd/Greenbriar option, but that makes little sense, as it would leave Greenway Plaza unconnected. I'm also glad they're not considering a Weslayan crossover, which would be a traffic nightmare.
  • The line may now extend as far west as the Hillcroft Transit Center. Undetermined if it will be an LRT extension of the Universities line, or a BRT extension of the Uptown line.
  • The Universities line may continue up Post Oak as far as the Galleria, so no transfer to the Uptown line would be necessary. This is a Christof recommendation and a very, very good idea.
  • The line on the eastside may end up on Elgin, very far from TSU, which I think would be a mistake. Wheeler through the TSU campus makes the most sense, but Alabama is the best second choice. If TSU doesn't want it running completely through the campus, I think the best route would be Wheeler to TSU, then up the old empty railroad right-of-way to either Alabama or Elgin.
  • The East End BRT line will probably run along Harrisburg.
  • They have some killer color printers that do amazing, gigantic paper rolls of detailed satellite photos. It was very cool to really be able to see deep detail along the routes.
Hopefully Metro will have more info published here, including maps, by the time you read this (Powerpoint here, handout map here).

Finally, this doesn't really have to do with transportation, but I wanted to comment on the Astrodome plan in today's Chronicle article. My previous thoughts on repurposing the Astrodome can be found here. The ramp sounds a little over the top (so to speak), and then there's the "2,100-space, multistory parking garage would wrap around two-thirds of the Astrodome and markedly change the appearance of the facility once dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World." That sounds like a travesty to me, and I hope that part gets killed. If they want to put a giant parking garage on the north lot, west of Reliant Center and north of Reliant Stadium, that would be fine, but they should absolutely not block the profile of the Astrodome from the south and east.

I guess this also means they're not trying to hold on to the Astrodome for the 2016 Olympics bid. I agree with Tom, Anne, and the Rodeo guy quoted in the article: this plan really doesn't seem viable. $450 million for a 1,200 room hotel, when the Hilton Americas/GRB downtown is already struggling? (and would also get killed by this thing). I understand the Gaylord hotel concept, but those hotels have a resort setting with a golf course and a lake, neither of which are features of Reliant Park last time I checked. It just has white elephant written all over it.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Improving Metro's LRT/BRT network plan

I'm going to keep today's post short, because I'd like you to spend most of the time you'd normally dedicate to reading my post to instead read Christof's excellent recommendations for substantially improving the connectivity and convenience of Metro's proposed plan. It's a long one, but very well thought out with some really creative options for Metro to explore. FYI, the blog post is a condensed version of a longer pdf paper, which you may want to read instead if you're looking for the complete picture.

Originally, this was going to be "Branding Houston" week at Houston Strategies, but I realized two things today: 1) I need more time to develop those posts properly, 2) there's too much transportation news that needs to be covered this week. Not only is there Christof's post, but Metro will release new University Line info on Tuesday (I'm planning on attending), and I'm going to need to write up some comments on Bruegmann's sprawl op-ed in today's Chronicle. So this will now be "Transportation Week" at Houston Strategies, kicking off with Christof's post and a good Reason essay on why boulevards usually can't (and shouldn't) replace expressways, a popular fad in some cities. Boulevards are slower, with substantially less capacity, far more dangerous for both pedestrians and drivers (almost double the fatalities), and do more to block cross-neighborhood pedestrian traffic than grade-separated freeways.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Houston movie, sweatiest city, Census ranking, airport rail failure, TTC speed limits, TSU rail

Two thumbs-up for "Hot Town, Cool City". A whole new perspective on our hometown that will make you proud. A completely full River Oaks theater broke out into spontaneous applause at multiple points throughout the movie. Keep an eye out for it on DVD, probably through the web site.

It's been a long day and week, so just a few miscellaneous pass-alongs tonight.
  • Houston is again saved this year from being named America's Sweatiest City, which seems to be a competition between Phoenix and Miami.
  • New Census release with metro population numbers. Houston has steadily moved from 10th largest metro in 1990 to #8 in 2000 (passing Detroit and Boston) and #7 in 2005 (passing DC). We had the 5th-most population numeric-addition from 2004 to 2005 at 103K. We have a good shot at #6 by 2010 (pass Miami) and top five by 2020 (pass Philly).
  • A USA Today blog post on how BART rail transit to the San Francisco airport has fallen far short of ridership expectations. Here's my thinking on airport rail from a comment on an earlier post:
I'm not a fan at all of rail to the airports. Astronomically expensive for very low ridership. Express shuttles to the new intermodal center make much more sense.

It's not just the multiple job centers that are a problem. Here's why they don't get many riders: business travelers want convenience and don't care about the cost, so they either pay for parking (outbound) or use a taxi or rent car (inbound). Leisure travelers are usually couples or families, and they either load up the car with luggage and head out there (or get dropped off), or, inbound, they get picked up by friends or family locally. Who wants to manage a family with children and luggage on transit? When you get down to it, the only people who drag luggage on to transit for the long slog to or from the airport are young singles with little money for other options and no friends willing to give them a ride. It's a very, very tiny percentage of fliers.
  • Kuff on the Trans-Texas Corridor speed limit debate. The private operator will pay the state more if it can get higher speed limits to better compete with I35. Erik doesn't think it will quite become the "Texas Autobahn," but it might get close.
  • Finally, don't miss Christof's excellent arguments for making sure the new Universities light rail line is well integrated with both the TSU and UH campuses. Part 1. Part2.
Have a pleasant weekend.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Spring 2Q06 Highlights

Time again for the quarterly highlights post. 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.

And from Winter 1Q06:

2005 Highlights can be found here.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

RSVP ASAP: Hot Town, Cool City

I've been alerted to a very cool event happening this Thursday. It's a sneak preview screening and fund-raising for the local documentary "Hot Town, Cool City" this Thursday, but you need to RSVP by Monday if possible. This page has all the information about the event. Here's the overview:

Houston’s people are not just friendly —they are intimate —the City and its people are intimate, passionate, and diverse. It is the power of these qualities which makes Houston a COOL CITY. The passions of artists, chefs, philanthropists, business owners, and individuals have built a city of hidden gems that are right out in the open. When we read between the lines defined by the freeways we find a treasure map, with those gems waiting to be discovered.

On the surface Houston is about big oil, NASA, big medicine, big sports, big freeways, hot summers, and humidity. Behind that facade is a network of Cool— Houston is down to earth but still international, sophisticated, cutting edge, avant-garde and world class. The new documentary, Hot Town, Cool City, attempts to answer the question- Why Houston?

More overview here. Great stuff. A teaser/trailer is also available on the web site.

Hope to see you there to help support this extremely worthy project.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Followup to "Transportation lessons from Houston"

After posting part 2 of "Transportation lessons from Houston" last week, I received the following email and information from David Wolff, Chairman of the Board for Metro, which raised some fair points about the impact of the Main St. rail line on overall transit ridership.


As you know, I receive, read and respect your communications.

I believe that you made a significant misstatement yesterday (“overall ridership has dropped precipitously”) concerning METRO’s overall ridership. Please see the attached information from Jim Archer which indicates that we are anticipating the highest ridership in our history this year.

There was a slight drop in FY 05 because we eliminated some severely underperforming routes – we were running about 11% of our service miles carrying about 1½% of our riders on those routes. I trust you would agree with that decision although it was not a politically popular one and was a decision that no recent METRO board had been willing to address.

As I write this it has occurred to me that perhaps the numbers at which you were looking included charter operations. I think we have been reducing these as they are not our real mission.

I would very much appreciate your getting the appropriate facts ( I am sure Jim Archer would be happy to talk further with you) and, if a correction is in order, I hope you will disseminate it.

Best regards,

Thank you,

David Wolff

The table below presents METRO’s fixed-route ridership since FY03.
  • Fixed-route bus ridership experienced a significant decrease in FY05 as a result of : 1) the bus / rail interface (May / June 2004); and 2) the discontinuation of nearly 40 weekday, Saturday and Sunday poorly performing bus routes (Fall 2004, Spring 2005).


(In 000s)





% Change

















Through the first eight months of FY06, METRO has achieved the largest fixed-route ridership increase in its history with 6 million more customer boardings than for the same eight month period in FY05. Fixed-route ridership for FY06 is projected to be the highest in METRO’s history based on this trend

Jim Archer

Service Evaluation

OK, now on to my response, which I'm basing on numbers in addition to those above, but which Blogger won't let me post here, because they're from various spreadsheets and pdfs. I'll be the first to say that teasing apart the numbers is a difficult and complex task, and not one I have an appetite for. With that caveat, here are my limited observations:
  • I agree completely that Metro needed to rationalize its route system to eliminate the least productive ones.
  • That said, it's hard to tell how much of the 2005 drop is from the new forced bus-rail transfers and how much is from dropping the unproductive routes. In Jim Archer's own words above, the total was a "significant decrease."
  • A big part of the complication is that Metro counts boardings, not trips. So if a route used to be on a single bus, that would be one boarding, but if it now connects to the rail, and then you transfer to another bus, that's three boardings where there was one before. So ridership can decrease while boardings increase (or at least don't drop as much).
  • Metro's own numbers show total transit passenger miles dropped from 620 million to 584 million from 2004 to 2005, a drop of 6%. Keep in mind this drop is during a period of substantially rising gas prices, which should be pushing transit passenger-miles up, not down.
  • The next cause-effect kink that muddies the numbers is Katrina, which brought tens of thousands of transit-dependent people to Houston in Sept-Oct 2005, which would seem to explain why Metro is on track for a record 2006. Monthly numbers I have confirm a large spike after September last year, which means that 6% drop in the previous point might have been worse without Katrina.
Summing up: using the phrase “overall ridership has dropped precipitously” was probably a bad choice of words on my part. But clearly there was a drop, and by Jim Archer's own admission, it was partially caused by the bus-rail interface changes (i.e. new forced transfers), which was the point I was trying to make. I will soften the language by changing the word "precipitously" to "noticeably" in the original post, but I think the overall point still holds up: when transit agencies invest large sums in capital-intensive rail, they feel the need to justify the investment with high ridership numbers, often accomplished by linking in bus routes that were previously direct or continuous, forcing riders to transfer and making their trips slower and less convenient, which in-turn reduces overall transit system ridership, even if the individual rail line looks good. This is one of my essential arguments against commuter rail. Conversely, in the core, a short-distance urban LRT/BRT network like Metro is building has other benefits (that I won't rehash here) that I think - in net - can outweigh the costs and additional inconvenience to some riders when the bus network gets tied in.

I hope that clarifies things. Have a great weekend everybody.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Carroll on Houston's self-image

I'm back from Colorado and hope to put some Denver/Boulder city observations into a post soon. I've noticed a huge backlog of comments in my inbox, and also hope to get to them soon. Please be patient. The to-do list always seems overwhelming after a vacation, even a short one.

Today we have a guest post from Carroll Robinson, former City Councilmember and currently Associate Dean of External Affairs for Texas Southern University's Barbara Jordan – Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs. It talks about Houston's status as a great city. On a related side note, I came across a copy of "Monopoly: USA Greatest Cities Edition" this weekend in a Boulder games shop on the Pearl Street Mall. Guess what? Hasbro doesn't consider Houston a great city. San Antonio, Dallas, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Seattle, and St. Louis are, but not the fourth-largest city in the country. We get lumped with Detroit as the only cities in the top 12 metros to get left out. Needless to say, I was a little miffed. On to the op-ed:

Houston Let’s Show Them Who We Are

Carroll G. Robinson, Esq.*

Houston is a great city; it is not a small town or a bedroom community. It is a city full of generous people with great hearts who are active volunteers who care about their city, its people and its neighborhoods.

Houston is an old city (established in 1836) that is still growing and that is not as physically rundown (unattractive) as many of the old urban cities of the Mid-West or Northeast.

Despite all its detractors, Houston is a city blessed with great year-round weather. (Not great weather year round. No city has that.)

People complain that Houston has no planning and has no character because we have no zoning. That is just not true.

The character of Houston is opportunity. We may not have zoning, but we do have some land use regulations and there is planning. There is great cooperation between the public, private and civic sectors.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder (buyer?). If Houston lacked beauty and character, it would not be a city with a growing population of people moving in from other places across the country and from around the world.

Houston is ostracized for the impact on our community of being home to the heart of the nation’s energy and petro-chemical industry.

Which communities across the country are willing to give up their consumption of the energy and petro-chemical products produced in Texas to help reduce the level of our air pollution and its health effects on Houstonians?

Being able to walk around a town does not make it a great city. Nor does the presence of cars detract from the greatness of a city.

No one walks from one end of Manhattan to the other. No one walks from one end of Boston or Philadelphia or D.C. to the other.

Without their historic sites, no one would be visiting Boston or Philadelphia to walk around. In fact, most of the walking in those cities is confined to rather small geographic areas.

All the great cities in America are dominated by motor vehicles even where they have outstanding mass transit systems including rail.

Houston is a city of diverse neighborhoods inside the Loop and outside of it. Southwest Houston and Northeast Houston are two unique and distinct places in the city. Mid-Town is different from China Town on Bellaire. Downtown Houston is not the East End or Sunnyside Houston.

Each area of Houston has its own physical and historic character, beauty and needs.

Houston is a diverse and international city. It has one of the largest Hispanic, African-American, Asian, African and Caribbean populations in the nation.

It is home to an extraordinary number of minority entrepreneurs and businesses.

Houston is America’s gateway to Mexico and Latin, Central and South America. The Port of Houston is one of the busiest ports in the world and Houston has one of the busiest airport systems in the country.

Houston is a home to the arts and culture as well as The Texas Medical Center, one of the world’s greatest Medical Centers.

Houston is going to continue to grow and become more densely populated. Our rail system will grow, more of our neighborhoods will become more walkable and our air will get cleaner, and our city will get greener because Houstonians as a community, individuals, government, businesses, and civic organizations are committed to making our city a better place to live, work and raise a family now and in the future.

Its time to stop looking down at ourselves, to stop worrying about what people outside of the city are saying or writing about us.

Houston’s success has come from what we have done and continue to do, and not what others have said about our city. Our “can do” attitude is where our success will continue to come from.

The rest of America will know Houston is a great city when our children’s performance in school is the best in our nation. They will know Houston is a great city when our children are the healthiest in the nation. They will know Houston is a great city when we are the safest, cleanest, healthiest and among the greenest big cities in America.

Let’s get back to work showing America who we are in Houston and let’s stop worrying about what they say. Actions speak louder than words.