Friday, September 29, 2006

Demolition for another Houston treasure?

(Click picture to see the full size version)

I recently received this link to a ULI event on a "Houston Vision" for downtown. The proposal to sink I45 - and now I10 - has been noted before, including in the Chronicle. My first thought has always been, "that looks incredibly expensive - would it be worth it?" I have a lot of respect for what they're trying to do downtown, and I think they've had some remarkable success. But this seems like over-reaching to me. Maybe I'm just not seeing the value. And I know some of the neighborhoods that would be affected by the freeway shift to the west would go nuts protesting. The sketch seems misleading to me too. Click on it to see the full size - notice anything missing? Like, say, Buffalo Bayou? I see a continuous depressed I45 in a trench with no water crossing over it. How does that work?

Until last night, I was skeptical but moderately neutral on the proposal. What happened last night, you may ask? My wife and I went downtown to Artista at the Hobby Center for dinner for our 5th wedding anniversary. It was a wonderful dinner on the balcony with perfect weather and the best restaurant view in Houston over Tranquility Park and the downtown skyline - I highly recommend it if you ever get the chance. But what changed my mind was the drive in from 45N. That drive, especially at night, is one of the most spectacular drives in our city. The view of downtown is amazing. I just love the elevated wrap-around of the west side of downtown, with the skyline on one side and the Buffalo Bayou on the other. I've loved that drive as long as I've lived in Houston, and sometimes will go out of my way on trips just to see it. Friends, family, and visitors have voiced their admiration too. It really is one of our city's great treasures, even if it is "just a freeway." And it's a treasure shared by just about everyone that lives in Houston at one time or another as they drive around the city, vs. the very small portion that actually work, live, or play downtown. We want to give that up for another trench view of concrete walls?

Sinking an elevated freeway often makes a lot of sense, like what they did with 59 around Montrose. But in this case we'd be giving up a treasure we won't miss until it's gone. Downtown folks, it's time to modify your vision.
Save The Downtown Elevated!

Update: Christof weighs in.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Kotkin on cities as engines of upward social mobility

Joel Kotkin has an excellent piece (pdf) in the most recent Democracy Journal on the diverging city models in America. I highly recommend all 14 pages, but I'll try to put extensive key excerpts here, including the ones that mention Houston. I apologize in advance for the length of this post - there's a lot of good stuff in here.

Urban Legend
The craze over coffeeshops and condos won’t revive American cities.
Improving urban life for the middle class will.
“A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle class people . . . greenhorns into competent citizens,” the great urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote. “Cities don’t lure the middle class, they create it.”

Sadly, in recent decades, this notion of cities as mechanisms for upward mobility has broken down. Many cities, rather than trying to uplift their working class and nurture a middle class, have chosen to concentrate on luring the affluent, the “hip,” and the young as their primary development strategy. In some cases, such as in Boston, New York, and San Francisco, this has created the basis for a new kind of urban area, the “boutique city,” which effectively abandons the middle class for the allure of an elite-based strategy focused on top-tier business services, arts, and hip culture.

Many other cities, particularly hard-pressed former industrial centers such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Detroit, have attempted to follow this “cool city” model without much success. They may have developed Potemkin villages of coolness in their center, but they remain among the poorest and most neglected regions of North America. Cleveland, for instance, with its much-ballyhooed downtown renaissance catalyzed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, ranked first in urban poverty in 2004.

In contrast, there is a group of cities which most commentators consider chronically unhip—primarily sprawling new cities of the South and West—but which are actually the most dynamic in the creation of middle-class residents. These cities—such as Phoenix, Houston, Charlotte, and Las Vegas — traditionally have put their focus on their basic infrastructure and economic competitiveness and, for the most part, enjoy relatively low costs of living, particularly for housing. As unhip as they may seem, it is these cities that present a model for how urban America can not only rejuvenate itself, but rejuvenate America’s central promise of upward mobility as well.
Cities of Aspiration
Surveying the urban landscape, one lesson of the past few years starts to become clear: It is hip to be square. In an age of loft condos and lattes, the least-appreciated American urban form may turn out to be the one that still best adheres to the traditional role of cities as generators of upward mobility. These are the new Sunbelt cities—places like Houston, Charlotte, Orlando, and Phoenix—whose sprawl and rough edges often elicit derision from traditional urbanists, even as they attract newcomers and create middle-class jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities. Between 1994 and 2005, the Phoenix area expanded its job base by 52 percent, Orlando by 48 percent, Charlotte by 31 percent, and Houston by 25 percent. In comparison, New York and greater Chicago expanded by only single digits, while the Cleveland, Baltimore, and Philadelphia areas all lost jobs.

The differentials in housing are, if anything, starker. In cities like San Francisco, less than one tenth of households can afford a median priced home; in Phoenix, one-third can do so, as can over half in Dallas, San Antonio, Charlotte, and Houston. Of course, one can argue that there are cities with even lower housing costs, notably in the depressed Midwest. But unlike those old industrial centers, the Sunbelt cities are in a rapid growth mode, creating large numbers of new jobs while attracting new residents both domestically and, increasingly, from abroad.

What drives the growth of these cities are the very aspirations that have created great urban centers throughout history. Phoenix and Houston, in terms of their job growth and appeal to those seeking a better life, resemble New York, San Francisco, Chicago, or Pittsburgh at the turn of the last century. Like the great American boomtowns of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, today’s aspirational cities are protean, being constantly redefined by newcomers. In fact, almost a third of all Phoenix residents, according to the 2000 Census, arrived only five years ago or less. The prototypical Phoenician, or Houstonian, like their counterpart in New York a century earlier, is often someone who came with little more than hopes to create a better life. “We came with nothing. We came here because it had wealth that was increasing. You can find opportunities,” Phoenix entrepreneur Deb Weidenhamer told me. “People come here for a new start and come with ambitions. . . . Longevity here doesn’t matter here. You can be here 10 years and it’s like you’re an old fogey—on the East Coast you’d be like a newcomer.”
Equally important, the lower cost of living in most aspirational cities translates into a better life, including for professionals. San Francisco and Silicon Valley may generate higher wages in fields like software of financial services, but weighted against the cost of living, Phoenix, Dallas, and Houston actually deliver to their workers, in real terms, higher purchasing power.
Towards a New Urban Strategy: Back to Basics
Late-twentieth-century cities like Houston, Phoenix, Charlotte, or Dallas were essentially built to meet the tastes of the mass of Americans for a detached house, a yard, and an automobile commute. They also enjoy, for the most part, more up-to-date infrastructure, such as major airports surrounded by lots of land allowing for expansion, which is increasingly critical to urban growth.
Perhaps the most spectacular example of this approach (back to basics) can be found in Houston. For decades, the city has focused largely on the fundamentals of growth, pressing relentlessly to dredge its harbor, improve drainage, and construct state-of-the-art industrial facilities. With a gritty efficiency, the city has transformed itself into a major global center, assuming leadership of the world’s energy industry and quietly built the world largest medical complex. [Full disclosure: I am a working on a project about the future of Houston for the Greater Houston Partnership (Tory: as am I). I have also worked on projects in Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis, among other cities, all of which, along with Houston, I feel free to criticize.]

This did not happen by coincidence. During the 1990s, Bob Lanier, the son of an oil refinery worker who grew up in nearby Baytown, served as mayor. When he took office, the city was in deep trouble; it had lost 200,000 jobs in the near-total economic meltdown after the energy bust of the 1980s. Its once proud skyline was filled with “see through” towers, empty of workers. Lanier, a former developer and lifelong Democrat, helped turn the city around by doing the little things and doing them right, such as filling potholes, streamlining regulations, reducing crime, and improving services to the city’s varied neighborhoods. Most of all, Lanier focused on infrastructure: roads, sewers, and cleaning the streets. At a time when many cities have chosen to eschew road building and actually encourage gridlock, sometimes with the hope of forcing greater densification, Houston has chosen to build new roads, including tollways, as well as an expanding mass-transit system. As a result, it is among the few major American cities to see commute times diminish over the past decade. (Actually, based on the TTI data I remember, I think they have diminished compared to the early 80s, the peak of the last oil boom, when we were the worst in the nation, but I'm not sure they've improved since '96. Still, we've done substantially better than pretty much all other major metros - not to mention many smaller metros - at restraining congestion growth.)

This is not to say Houston is without problems. It has higher than average rates of poverty and large areas of poor housing. It is also struggling to accommodate upwards of a 100,000 Katrina evacuees, many of them poor African Americans. Yet what has come out clearly in scores of interviews and discussions with a broad array of Houstonians — from business leaders and current Mayor Bill White to community activists and Katrina refugees—is that many residents regard opportunity as their city’s primary attribute. Certainly, people do not move primarily to humid and flat Houston for the weather or topography; they come largely for the chance to succeed.
The Future of American Cities
Ultimately, the critical question for cities boils down to what essential purpose they should serve. Are cities to become, as H.G. Wells predicted over a century ago, largely entertainment districts—what he called “places of concourse and rendezvous”? Or have cities, as George Gilder has argued, been rendered irrelevant as economic units by technology? After all, a broadband hook-up in Bismarck, North Dakota is just as connected to the world economy as one in Brooklyn. It could well be that our major cities, under current trends, will devolve into socially bifurcated regions increasingly irrelevant to America’s mainstream political culture, islands of ultra-affluence and poverty, many of whose residents are either temporary or part-time.

As a lifelong urban dweller, I don’t believe our cities’ best days must lie behind them — particularly if we are to include more-sprawling, multi-polar cities such as Phoenix or Houston. Cities still possess many critical assets such as historic neighborhoods, freight and rail connections, major hospitals, universities, and research institutions, which make them invaluable assets to the surrounding regions and the nation as a whole. There are also intangible assets that make the fate of cities critical to the future of the republic. For one thing, they are repositories of much of our historical memory; no matter how much the suburbs and exurbs evolve, they are unlikely to provide the sense of place and cultural focus that resides in the urban core. This is most true in older cities, like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, but also, to a much more limited extent, the case in younger, more vital places like Houston, Dallas, and Charlotte.

And as our aspirational cities today show, America’s urban centers can still be, with the right leadership and smart policies, the engines of upward mobility that have powered this country for the past century. But to do so they must pursue such basic strategies as encouraging entrepreneurial growth, reducing regulatory and tax barriers to business, creating efficient transportation systems, improving education, and prioritizing public safety and public open space. It would be far better to spend the hundred of millions now wasted by many cities on convention centers, boutique hotels, performing arts centers, and subsidized condo development on these more essential services, the true sinews of an expanding urban economy.

To be sure, fancy bookstores, organic markets, sushi bars, and art galleries are important parts of urban life, but they only represent a critical factor for a small slice of the population. And they will come along naturally, as arts and amenities tend to, with economic growth and wealth creation; focusing on amenities first gets the urban equation completely backward.

Great cities are about many things, but none more than being a place for a broad spectrum of people to improve their lives and that of their families. Great cities are about real diversity of ages, family types, and incomes—not just agglomerations of the affluent and those who serve them. What we want for our cities is what we should want for our country as a whole: to be a place of great opportunity, hope and a better life, particularly for those for whom this is still part of their American dream.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Harris County avoids trendy toll road privatization

Just a quick pass-along tonight from Otis White's Urban Notebook (no permalinks) at on why governments are looking at selling off toll roads, with a reference to Steve Radack, Harris County commissioner. As I've said before, I think this is a relatively rare case where privatization is a bad idea, and Harris County made the right decision resisting it.

Those Scary, Scary Voters
Tell Me Again Why We’re Selling This Highway

There’s a problem with many of our toll roads: They don’t charge enough in tolls. Some have gone decades without an increase and, as a result, have tolls so low that they don’t even cover the cost of collecting them. So the answer is simple, right? Raise the tolls. Nah, too much trouble. Some politicians would rather just sell the whole darned thing.

We’re not making this up. One state, Indiana, has already leased out its long-distance toll road, which runs from Illinois to Ohio, for the next 75 years. The stated reason: Well, we couldn’t bring ourselves to raise the tolls, so we decided to get out of the business. If you’re thinking that there must be more to this bizarre idea, you’re right. Only thing is, the back story is even stranger.

The back story: Money for building roads is running out fast, the result of supply and demand problems. On the demand side, the cost of road building is skyrocketing. On the supply side, motor fuel taxes aren’t keeping up. (Projections are that the federal highway trust fund will run dry in three years’ time, something that’s never happened. State highway funds are nearly as tight.)

There are some obvious solutions: Raise the gas tax, which has lagged behind inflation; hike existing tolls and use the increase to subsidize construction elsewhere; or allow state toll road authorities to impose tolls on existing roads, also with the idea of replenishing state highway funds. But these solutions run into the political cowardice problem. What if, gulp, the voters don’t like paying a little more? That’s where the bizarre idea of selling the toll roads comes in.

Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana is the most ardent advocate of privatization. The payoff? A huge windfall. When Daniels leased the Indiana Toll Road to a consortium of foreign investors, he got $3.8 billion, which he says will be used mostly for new road construction. And what will the new owners do when they take over? They’ll hike the tolls, of course, then keep raising them on a regular basis.

Keep in mind: The state could have raised the tolls itself. It could even have tacked on something extra to help pay for road construction elsewhere. So why didn’t it? Because, Daniels explained in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, the toll road “was run by politicians, who are rarely businesslike and [are] deathly afraid to annoy anyone.” This is a strange self-indictment, considering Daniels is Indiana’s top politician.

Thankfully, not everyone is buying this bizarre logic. One skeptic is Steve Radack, a county commissioner in Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located. As he told the Wall Street Journal recently, he’s handing out copies of the children’s book “The Giving Tree” to people interested in selling off the roads. The book is about a boy and a generous apple tree, which gives the boy its fruit to eat and anything else he wants, including its branches and trunk. In the end, of course, there’s nothing left but the stump. Radack uses the book to make a point: “If you can sell [a highway] for tremendous profit, then why is someone buying it? Because they know they can make even more.” And with a little courage, so could governments.

Footnote: But at least Daniels is a hero in his own state for wringing so much money out of the toll road, right? Hardly. People along the route were furious that the governor handed over their road to work to a private company. (Bumper stickers read: “Keep the Toll Road, Lease Mitch.”) Daniels’ approval ratings, the Washington Post reported recently, plunged from about 50 percent before the lease idea to 37 percent after. Next door in Illinois, the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor have taken note of Daniels’ missteps and are promising they won’t sell that state’s roads, even though some estimate the Illinois Tollway alone could fetch $15 billion. “I have no interest in turning it over to private investors,” Gov. Rod Blagojevich told reporters.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Misc: LA rail, creative approach to crime, Texas #2 for biz, gentrification & Texas pride humor

Time again to clear out the miscellaneous small-items queue.
  • Tom Kirkendall on lessons from LA rail for Houston. LA has been a bit of a failure, but to be fair to Houston, LA's trying to build a commuter rail hybrid like Dallas which I think is a bad model that Houston is wisely trying to avoid.
  • Oakland's creative approach to crime: identify the known troublemakers, and bring them before a judge to let them know they're being watched. Could work with the crime spike in Houston, especially the transplanted gangs from New Orleans...
  • Texas gets ranked #2 by Forbes for business, and Houston gets ranked the #3 city.
Forbes’ Best States for Business

"Last week’s E-News covered Entrepreneur Magazine’s list of best places for business. It’s Forbes’ turn this week, as its latest issue contains its first ever listing of the best states for business. Virginia was a clear winner in the Forbes rankings, which include thirty measures in six main categories: business costs, economic climate, growth prospects, labor, quality of life, and regulatory environment. Virginia took the crown because it performed well in all of these categories. It scored in the top ten in every category---no other state hit in the top ten in more than three categories. Other top performers (in rank order) included Texas, North Carolina, Utah and Colorado. In terms of future growth prospects, Colorado, Texas and Florida ranked at the top."

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Leveraging small dollars for big improvements in public education

There are a lot of efforts going on to improve public education in Houston and Texas (and even that's an understatement). I think just about everybody realizes at this point that a solid education is absolutely critical to success in a globalized economy, and that the long-term economic health of our city is directly related to the health of our schools. Even the Greater Houston Partnership realizes that success with its ambitious new 10-year strategic plan will be directly dependent on having an educated workforce to attract and create the 600,000 new jobs and $60 billion in new capital investment they're targeting.

My impression is that all of these efforts are having a net positive impact, but progress seems to be incremental and slow. I've spent some time trying to think of an affordable program that might have a big impact relatively quickly. And no, I'm not going to wade into the voucher battle - but I will say this: a lot of kids are not being well served by their existing schools, and we need bottom-up entrepreneurial innovation to come up with schools that serve them better. We're pushing top-down programs as hard as they can be pushed - we need a new angle. State charter schools are part of the answer, and some are doing great things, but they are so few that their net impact is limited. We need a broader approach that works through the existing public school districts.

The solution is groups of teachers, parents, administrators, academics, charities, and others who identify underserved student populations and then entrepreneurially open voluntary sub-schools within existing school buildings with an innovative curriculum custom-tailored to that specific set of students. One-size-fits-all schools are just not working for large numbers of students. It's just like the private free market: you identify an underserved market, and target it with a new product or service that meets their specific needs. Successful models would be replicated as needed across the district and metro. These innovative sub-schools may or may not be structured as district charter schools - an allowable entity under state law.

Here are just some of the variables that an innovative school might control:
  • Curriculum, instructional methods, and homework
  • School day and year length
  • Class sizes, lengths and schedules
  • Contracts with parents
  • Gender separation
  • Uniforms
  • Language
  • Admission criteria
  • Graduation requirements
  • Assessments/testing (beyond those required by state law)
  • After-school programs (required and/or voluntary)
  • Community partnerships
Some additional benefits of this approach:
  • Create opportunities to really engage and excite teachers
  • Bring entrepreneurial energy to public education
  • Reduce turnover
  • Pull good solutions from teachers and school leaders rather than push our solutions on them
  • Voluntary sub-schools have more flexibility for experimentation than converting entire schools on an obligatory basis (i.e. parents can choose whether or not their kids participate in the innovative sub-school)
“Last spring Public Agenda polled America’s schoolteachers. Amid the standard questions was a new one: “How interested would you be in working in a charter school run and managed by teachers?” Sixty-five percent of teachers with less than five years experience were very or somewhat interested. Fifty-eight percent of all teachers said the same. Even 50 percent of those with more than 20 years of experience felt the same way.”

-“System Change Goes to School”, a report by Curtis Johnson and Neal Peirce of the Citistates Group for ‘CEOs for Cities’, April 2004

So how to we get all this amazing innovative entrepreneurship to happen? That's the best part: we don't have to figure that out, the school district superintendents do. My proposal is inspired by the Broad Prize that HISD won a few years ago, as well as the MacArthur Genius Grants and X Prize for space travel: what if we offered a substantial annual prize to the local superintendent of the school district that best implemented this type of program? The "Innovative Schools Prize". I'm thinking something like $250K, with half for them personally and half to split among key administrators and teachers of the program at their discretion. That's large enough to really get their attention. We want a strong incentive for superintendents to push through their bureaucracies and develop robust and long-lasting innovative schools programs in their ISDs. The key word there is "program" - not a one-off school, but a sustainable program that nurtures many of these kinds of schools.

Here are some judging criteria we might use for awarding the prize:
  • Process for identifying underperforming and at-risk student demographics
  • Process for incubating innovative school ideas from concept to proposal to approval to implementation
  • Quantity and quality of innovative school proposals they receive, approve, and implement
  • Scope of control and accountability given to innovators
  • Parental involvement and choice
  • Measured outcomes
  • Size of challenges addressed and success levels
  • Program sustainability/longevity
  • Learning from their projects and others (lessons learned, best practices, continuous improvement, emulation of other successful models)
  • Outreach/openness/sharing of information on both successes and failures with other districts
So that's the pitch. The missing piece is a charitable sponsor of the prize. I think the Greater Houston Partnership would be perfect, but it's well within the budget of any number of businesses or charities. Any takers out there?

(Thanks to those at EFHC that helped develop this proposal. You know who you are.)

Update: Coinicidental Chronicle article this morning on HISD's International Academy, one of the their specialized small schools, with mentions of other alternative charters and specialized schools in HISD.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Thoughts on urbanism in Midtown

There's been a request for my opinions on the Chronicle Midtown urbanism article last week. The short summary for those who missed it is that Midtown is seeing a lot of development, but not the pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use urbanism people had hoped for, partially because of high parking requirements and a set of city regulations that are oriented more towards suburban forms (like large setbacks, for instance).

I'm not sure I have a whole lot to add to Kevin's and Christof's thoughtful analyses. Obviously, the city recognizes it has a problem, which is why we have the new urban corridors initiative to come up with special development rules around major transit lines. I agree that the parking requirements are probably too high. One good option would be for the Midtown TIRZ to invest in a public parking garage that could serve several blocks, and eliminate the parking requirements for developments on those blocks. Another tactical option that would be helpful in the short-term would be to recognize that a lot of workers in downtown and the Medical Center are willing to ride the rail to restaurants and bars for lunch and dinner, so such establishments within walking distance of rail stops could get an automatic waiver for some or all of their parking requirements.

There's another problem in Midtown though. Take a look at this Google map. Notice that all the diagonal Midtown streets northwest of Main are major feeders to or from Spur 527 off 59. Those streets are critical to getting massive numbers of workers in and out of downtown, and I don't see them ever being conducive to pedestrian-friendly urbanism. Not only are they wide one-way streets that move lots of cars at a pretty high speed, many of the businesses along them are specifically aimed at commuters with easy in-and-out parking, like the Spec's flagship store, and, yes, even the much-despised CVS. It's unfortunate that Midtown's first urbanist development started at Bagby and Gray, because the nature of these commuter roads has kept it from expanding southeast. Any urbanist focus in Midtown needs to be southeast of Travis, particularly along Main Street and the rail line (well, obviously).

So, that's my two cents, for what it's worth. I suspect the city will want to take it slow, and wait until the urban corridor regs get figured out before proceeding to encourage a lot more development in Midtown, especially along the rail line. They'd rather have it slowly develop the "right" way rather than quickly develop in a hodge-podge fashion with ad hoc variances.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Preservation vs. dynamic renewal

I received this link from one of my readers, and it inspires quite a few mixed feelings: Save The Bungalows in Houston (mainly the Heights). Obviously, I have a soft spot for some historic preservation, as witnessed by my recent petition to save the Alabama Theater Bookstop. And I do find the character of the Heights to be charming. But I also appreciate the huge benefits Houston has from no-zoning and flexibly allowing land to get redeveloped into higher value uses. That includes all the new townhomes inside the loop, which make it more attractive and affordable to live there, and are a big part of our core renewal. I understand the desire to preserve the character of some of the bungalow neighborhoods, but I also have some concerns. Here are few excerpts from their site and my thoughts.
Deed restriction changes require getting signatures from up to 75% of property owners, a difficult and time consuming process for volunteers.
Save The Bungalows believes that those who live in a neighborhood should have some say over its future and we advocate changes in laws and policies that will accomplish that goal.
75% signoff on deed restrictions sounds like a pretty reasonable way for a neighborhood to have a say over its future. Translated, this sounds to me like "my neighbors are being too protective of their property rights and uncooperative signing the deed restrictions I want, so we need a political option that bypasses them."
Developers have "one stop shopping" at City Hall. Homeowners face many obstacles.
Actually, developers are the "homeowners" of the land they're trying to develop. A more accurate statement would be:
Developers and homeowners have a simple and straightforward process for doing what they want with their land. Meddling NIMBY neighbors face many obstacles to stopping them.
Kind of a different perspective, heh?
...the original homes edge closer every day to being worth nothing at all. Only the land itself has value. ... The math is simple. Knock down a house appraised at land value – 200K - and put up one appraised at $750K. Better yet, TWO houses appraised at 500K.
That sounds like a lot of value creation to me. A house nobody wants got turned into one or two houses people really, really want. This is bad?
Homes are huge because, if land prices are 200K or more per lot, builders want to put up very expensive homes. The effect is chilling. Smaller, historically significant homes are being bulldozed. Remaining neighbors find their homes are worth nothing at all – only the dirt has value.
If this is true (new development lowers neighborhood home values), then getting those 75% signatures for new deed restrictions should be a snap. People are quick to protect their home values. That doesn't seem to be the case though. People realize that a lot of the value of their property is the option to do something new on it, and if they sign deed restrictions taking that option away, they're going to lose a lot of the value in their home. Maybe the deed restrictions would be more popular if they enforced neighborhood character while still allowing developers to build what people want to buy - like bigger townhomes, but in a design style that matches the neighborhood - rather than forcing the preservation of old, small bungalows nobody seems to want.
Setting these changes in motion will help ALL older neighborhoods - especially those with fewer resources than the Heights - to have a say in their future.
That's exactly what I'm worried about. A few well-meaning regulations put in place to protect the historic Heights get stretched by neighborhood extremists all across the city to stop renewal and redevelopment everywhere. It's called "the law of unintended consequences," and we could end up paying a bitter price for it as a city.
We also want to help people understand the truth about renovation by offering resources and busting myths, like the myth that renovation costs more than building new. We believe many people tear down lovely older homes out of ignorance.
Bravo. Total support here. I'm not sure if the myth is true or not, but educating people about renovation options is a fine idea that can lead to better decisions. An even better idea, if a group of people really truly want these types of neighborhoods, is to form an organization with pooled money that buys these houses as they go up for sale, renovates them, and then resells them with new deed restrictions to preserve them. That's the free market and property rights at work.

I'm not saying Houston's perfect as is. There do seem to be a few problems around our development, neighborhood and historic preservation regulations that need fixing. But lets not start swinging a sledgehammer in a china shop to kill a mosquito. A few conservative adjustments can go a long way without giving up the dynamic benefits of our flexible approach to land use.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Innovative approach to supporting education

A quick pass-along, for those who might be interested in supporting the challenge.

Hi Tory -

I'm writing because, the country’s most innovative online charity, is kicking off a huge back-to-school campaign for Texas public school students. It's the first time we've done this, and I hope Houston Strategies readers will be a part of it.

It's a simple concept, but it works brilliantly: teachers post requests on for materials and experiences their kids need to learn, but that schools can’t pay for. Then, anyone can browse the projects and choose which ones to fund directly.

Will you help by picking out a few proposals that speak to you and challenging your readers to fund them as part of our "Blogger Challenge"?

Maybe you’re into technology, and you want public school students to have access to computers. Maybe you want to get more books, music and art into our schools. You might simply want to help enrich the lives of these students, the majority of whom live below the poverty line.

Whatever the reason, I hope you'll help before September 30th, when the campaign ends.

You can check out local projects and create your own challenge at It only takes a few minutes.

You can also help our campaign here in Texas by posting a banner and blogging about the Back to School campaign. And don't forget to include a link to

Please let me know if you have any questions, and thanks so much!

Joanna Bould

On behalf of DonorsChoose

P.S. We’ve gotten great support from the blogosphere: bloggers have raised over $60,000 for classroom projects so far (we've also gotten great press in the traditional media). We hope that you’ll join bloggers throughout Texas in helping Texas classrooms!

P.P.S. DonorsChoose has expanded into the Gulf Coast to reach out to schools affected by Hurricane Katrina. If you want to add them to your challenge, you can see a list of classroom needs in hurricane-affected areas here.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Housing near jobs: theory vs. reality

One of the common planning mantras you'll hear is getting people to live closer to where they work in order to reduce congestion, commutes, and energy use. It's called "jobs-housing balance", and this article from Seattle based on recently released Census data talks about why it doesn't seem to work.

Only about 40 percent of the workers who live in Redmond — a city where jobs greatly outnumber residents — also work there, according to the Census Bureau. For Tukwila, another regional job magnet, that figure is even smaller: just 17 percent.

About three-quarters of the residents of Issaquah, Renton and Kent who work, earn their living in another town.

In the 1980s, a concept called "jobs-housing balance" arose in urban-planning circles.

If government policies promoted building new houses, condos and apartments close to offices, stores and factories, the thinking went, people would commute shorter distances and be more likely to walk, bike or take the bus to work.

Traffic and air quality would improve. Energy consumption would plummet.

The census estimates for places like Redmond and Issaquah suggest "there are limits to that notion, and they should be recognized," says Dan Carlson, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs who studies transportation and land use.

People versus planners

In other words: People don't necessarily do what planners think they will.


The census estimates indicate Enumclaw may have the best jobs-housing balance in the region. About 4,700 people work inside the city limits. About 4,800 workers live there.

For the most part, however, they're not the same people.

More than 70 percent of Enumclaw's working residents commute to out-of-town jobs. And more than 70 percent of the people who work in Enumclaw live somewhere else.


Their decisions reflect regional and national trends: more two-income households, more frequent job changes.

They also reflect personal preferences that are stronger than any aversion to longer commutes.

The article also talks about issues of housing affordability, quality of the schools, and people not wanting to uproot their family to take a new job. There are a lot of factors that go into peoples' choice of where they live, and closeness to work is only one relatively small factor in the decision. The general pattern seems to be that people buy the best value house they can in the best school district possible within about a half-hour commute of the job(s) in the household, and that tends to be closer to the far end of that commute range in most metros. That's not to say that offering more residential options near job centers is a bad thing (and improving urban school districts would certainly be a very good thing), but the impact is likely to be marginal at best.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

New petition to save the Alabama Theater Bookstop

After conferring with the folks at Houstonist, I've decided to launch a new petition to save the historic Alabama Theater Bookstop here. The difference vs. the original petition is that instead of focusing on Weingarten, this one directly pressures Barnes & Noble to preserve and expand the existing Bookstop rather than abandoning it - and if they're not willing to do that, we're not willing to patronize their business. If we get anywhere near the 23,000+ signatures the first petition received, that's enough lost customers to really make B&N think twice. Read the details here, and please tell your friends. Time is of the essence: once B&N signs the new River Oaks anchor agreement with Weingarten, they'll have no incentive to preserve and expand the Bookstop.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Reason on Why Mobility Matters

Continuing from my last post on the new Reason congestion reduction study, Reason simultaneously released an essay on why mobility matters. It's an excellent essay to remind us why these huge mobility investments are necessary. To quote the essay,
"We rarely contemplate the importance of mobility for the same reason we rarely contemplate the importance of oxygen. Mobility is so intertwined with our everyday lives that it can be easy to forget how essential it is."
Their concept of opportunity circles particularly struck me as remarkably similar to the opportunity zones concept I articulated a few months ago. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but here are some key excerpts:
Americans rightly celebrate the freedom of opportunity, but how far would it take us if our movements were severely restricted? How might the lack of mobility affect the kind of jobs we hold, the places we explore, or even the people we marry? The freedom of mobility helps make other freedoms more meaningful. The more mobility we enjoy, the more choices we have. Mobility gives us more of what’s
important in life.

Imagine that you are in the center of a circle. Call it your opportunity circle.

The space within the circle represents the amount of ground you can get to in a reasonable amount of time, say, one hour. The dots represent all the possible jobs you could apply for. The bigger your opportunity circle, the more jobs you can get to, and the better chance you have of landing the job that is right for you. If your mobility improves, the circle grows and you have more opportunities. If mobility degrades, the circle shrinks and you have fewer opportunities. And the dots need not represent just job opportunities. If you are an employer, the dots could represent potential customers or your available labor pool. The dots could actually represent just about anything, from dining opportunities (area restaurants) to opportunities for love (available singles). But whatever the dots represent, the bigger the opportunity circle the better.
We’ve come so far, but now something threatens to chip away at our progress. The freedom that mobility gives us is gradually being taken away by congestion. It strangles dynamism from our lives, our cities, and our nation. Some disagree. They argue that congestion is evidence of economic vitality. Yet clogged roads are evidence of economic vitality only in the same sad way clogged arteries are evidence of nutrition.

Clogged arteries sap life from even the strongest man. When blood flow slows, his speed of life slows. The activities that once provided fulfillment, joy, and prosperity become chores. The man gets winded from the slightest bit of activity. He reacts by doing less and less. He winds down.

Many of our great cities are winding down, forcing their productive residents farther and farther away. Here clogged streets sap the strength from the circulatory system of urban life. When mobility slows, the speed of life slows. Eventually, the city simply does less and less..

Congestion is more than 200 percent worse nationwide than it was two decades ago. Now it smothers well-established areas (it’s up 183 percent in Washington, D.C.) as well as upstart ones (up 475 percent in Atlanta). Not only has congestion gotten much worse in areas where we expect it to be bad, it’s also making life increasingly sluggish across the nation, from Portland to Austin to Charlotte.

The average American now spends 47 hours a year stuck in congestion—more than an entire work week—and it’s much worse in our big cities.
A lack of mobility is a key reason why the transit-dependent poor have trouble moving up the economic ladder. Although congestion makes auto travel increasingly sluggish, driving is still generally much faster than taking transit. It takes the average transit user twice as long to get to work as the average car commuter. This is true even in the New York metro area, where transit commuters endure our nation’s longest commutes (52 minutes each way). In Chicago, the average transit commute is 50 minutes and it’s more than 45 minutes in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

Most jobs are not clustered around a rail line or bus route. Rather, they are scattered throughout a metro area and that makes the kind of point-to-point travel offered by the automobile particularly helpful. UCLA’s Evelyn Blumenberg discovered that residents in the Watts section of Los Angeles who can drive have access to 59 times as many jobs as their neighbors who rely on public transit.

Few things are better at helping the poor pull themselves out of poverty than improved mobility. Programs that get cars to the poor—though relatively rare—have shown strong success. Surveys of workers who received cars through such programs reveal that improved mobility brought them better jobs and higher wages, and a University of California, Berkeley study estimates that auto-ownership could cut the black-white unemployment gap nearly in half.
It’s the rare city that really decides to tackle congestion, but a growing number of companies have decided that if city leaders refuse to deal with congestion, they will. They’ll leave. Degraded mobility now joins high housing costs, taxes, and regulations as a reason why companies leave or avoid certain cities (see Box).

Congestion prompted Dell to expand in Nashville instead of its home base, Austin. “We lost 10,000 jobs in one day,” recalls a local official. That incident sobered up leaders to the importance of mobility. Since then, Texas has embarked on the nation’s most ambitious congestion-reduction plans and recently those efforts were rewarded.

After considering many locations, Samsung decided to bring a multi-billion dollar chip manufacturing plant and 900 jobs to Austin. Transportation was one of the major reasons behind the choice. Initially, the congestion on I-35 made Samsung wary of Austin because silicon wafers from the new plant would be trucked to Dallas before being sent by plane to South Korea for final processing. Congestion can cause costly delays, but local officials’ new commitment to mobility assuaged Samsung’s concerns.

Congestion saps cities of their vitality, but improving mobility helps invigorate urban economies. Researchers Rémy Proud’homme and Chang-Woon Lee analyzed employment dynamics in 22 French cities. They discovered that when mobility increased—when people were able to increase the area they could reach in a fixed amount of time—the economy expanded. A 10 percent increase in average travel speeds was associated with a 15 percent expansion of the labor market and a 3 percent increase in productivity. Jobseekers were able to find better jobs, and employers had access to more workers and more customers.
But why not imagine a world where people, products, and ideas mix freely? What might the mobile society be like? Our opportunity circles would expand. Jobseekers would have access to more and better job opportunities. Business owners could attract more customers and better employees.

Some might find the preoccupation with speed and efficiency rather unseemly. Enjoy life’s journey, they might say. But sitting in gridlock is one of the least fulfilling things we do. We are trying to do something that’s important to us, but congestion holds us back. No wonder we get so frustrated. But in a mobile society, the stress of sitting in gridlock and the anxiety of never knowing when it would strike would be lifted. Since travel would be more efficient, we could get to and from work, run our errands, and have more time to spend with our loved ones. We could stay home and relax or we could do just about anything—explore a new neighborhood, drop in on a friend, take in a concert, go to a new restaurant, the zoo, the park, the beach, the gym, and know that our journey would be swift.

When it comes to the future of mobility, politicians and pundits tell us to lower our expectations; perhaps it’s time to raise them instead.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Reason calculates the cost of congestion relief

Last week, the Reason Foundation released a major report on traffic congestion trends in America and what it would cost to fix it. Here's the overview from Bob Poole's Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter:

Adding Capacity is Key to Cutting Congestion, New Study Says

Every year the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report has a little section that shows, with real numbers, that those urban areas which came the closest to keeping highway capacity growing in pace with vehicle miles traveled (VMT) had the smallest increases in congestion. But more and more of America’s metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) have been ignoring this point. In a new Reason Foundation study, David Hartgen and Greg Fields of University of North Carolina at Charlotte show that the long-range transportation plans of many urban areas downplay highway expansion, devoting well over half their total planned spending over the next 25 years to non-highway aspects of transportation ( This is true not just in those places with traditional central business districts where transit can play a meaningful role (e.g., New York, Chicago, Boston) but also in large suburbanized areas such as San Jose, Salt Lake City, Charlotte, and San Diego, where transit can serve only niche markets.

What’s happened over the past two decades is the triumph of the idea that “we can’t build our way out of congestion,” and hence that the only sensible policy is demand reduction. That accounts for the tremendous shift of resources from highways to transit, bike paths, and smart growth. The idea is that by dramatically reducing demand (VMT), we can thereby reduce congestion. Except that somewhere along the line, many of these same MPOs seem also to have lost sight of reducing congestion. As Hartgen and Fields note, in many long-range plans this no longer appears even as a goal. And if the plan’s authors are honest enough to include their projected conditions in 2030, most show that congestion will be even worse than today’s intolerable levels.

What this new study sets out to do, then, is to ask and answer the question: What if we wanted to expand highway capacity in response to the demand that’s clearly there? More specifically, Hartgen and Fields worked with 32 MPOs to run their traffic assignment models so as to answer the question: How many lane-miles would you need to have, by 2030, to eliminate all serious congestion (defined as Level of Service F)? And then, using generic cost data for various types of lane-miles (freeway, major arterial, etc.), they estimated what it would cost to add this capacity over the next 25 years. Finally, using some rather clever techniques, they extrapolated these results to all 403 urbanized areas in the United States.

The resulting numbers look big at first glance: 104,000 added lane-miles costing $533 billion in 2005 dollars. But they aren’t really that large when put in perspective. That cost of $21 billion per year is about 10 to 15% of already planned highway spending. It’s about 28% of current MPOs’ long-range transportation budgets. Thus, if none of the existing budget allowed for highway capacity expansion, the worst-case spending increase would be 28%. But in fact, most of these plans include some highway capacity additions, especially HOV lanes. And most of them include large sums that do little or nothing to reduce congestion, which conceivably could be shifted to capacity expansion, so the net cost increase might be zero.

What about the benefits? Hartgen and Fields estimate (based on the modeling results) that by 2030, nationwide travel time savings would be 7.7 billion hours per year. The cost of producing those savings varies considerably from city to city, ranging from as little as 9 cents per trip to about 75 cents per trip (in large cities). Overall, the average cost per hour saved is $2.76, far below even very conservative estimates of the average value of people’s time.

To be sure, we know that incident-related congestion amounts to about half of total congestion, so adding capacity is not the only solution. But this paper makes a solid case that it can be a major part of the solution.

This paper is the first in a whole series of studies to be published by Reason over the coming year, as part of our Mobility Project ( Forthcoming papers will address topics such as the full economic and social cost of high levels of congestion, the best ways to use road pricing to reduce congestion, innovative design ideas for adding capacity, the role of transit in reducing congestion, and many related issues.

There's some mostly good news for Houston in this report. The first is that we're not in this list:
How bad is your commute going to get? Twenty-five years from now, Los Angeles, home to the nation's worst traffic today, will still have the nation's worst delays, with a trip during peak hours taking nearly twice as long as it would during off-peak times.

But by 2030, drivers in 11 other major cities – Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, Miami, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Portland, San Francisco-Oakland, Seattle-Tacoma, and Washington, D.C. - will all be sitting in daily traffic jams worse than the infamous traffic jams that plague Los Angeles today, according to a Reason Foundation study.
Here are the Houston specifics:

Houston's Travel Time Index (TTI) is expected to rise from 1.42 to 1.61 by 2030 (Texas' stated goal is 1.18). This means that in 2030, travel times during peak traffic hours will be 61 percent longer than during off-peak times. Such congested conditions are seen today only in Los Angeles, the most congested city in the United States.

Houston could significantly reduce severe congestion and have room for the incoming population growth by adding 2,660 new lane-miles by 2030 at an estimated cost of $9.2 billion, in today's dollars. That's a cost of $111 per resident each year. This investment would save 134 million hours each year that residents currently lose sitting in traffic, at a cost of $2.74 per delay-hour saved. (a bargain, IMHO)

While $9.2 billion may sound like an exceedingly large investment, it is actually just 12 percent of the planned transportation spending under the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) long-range plans. (H-GAC is the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO.) Those plans call for $77.3 billion over the next 25 years—$46.7 billion on highway improvements, $17.9 billion on mass transit, and $12.7 billion on other projects. While about 3.3 percent of Houston area commuters now use mass transit to commute, transit accounts for 23 percent of the area's planned spending over the next 25 years. While some of the planned highway improvement funding may be used for capacity expansion, the majority is often allocated to preserving, maintaining, and operating the highway system.

That projected 1.61 congestion index (ratio of peak travel times to off-peak) is still only 23rd in the nation (cool Google ranking map). Not bad for what will probably be one of the five largest metros nationally in 2030. Almost all other large metros are in much worse shape than we are, including DFW with a TTI of 1.73, which they calculate needs over $26 billion for the same relief as our $9.2B. Of the top 15 metros, only Seattle and Minneapolis need less money than Houston.

I do have some quibbles with their population numbers for Houston, which are based on something called "urbanized area" - a definition I'm not familiar with. It shows us with only 2.6m today growing to almost 4m by 2030. Today's stats are roughly 2.1m in the city, 3.5m in the county, and 5.3m in the metro, with 3m more by 2030 for a total of 8+ million - more than double their numbers. The nice side of that discrepancy is it cuts that cost per resident per year number in half, to less than $56.

They don't say this, but I suspect that the reason Houston is in so much better shape than most other metros is we never abandoned or slashed highway capacity expansion plans as many have, and they've fallen into a much deeper hole as a result. We've also stayed more realistic about what transit can and can't do, and invested in more cost-effective transit solutions (like HOV express buses, vanpools, and carpools instead of commuter rail). Here's to staying the course.