Thursday, January 18, 2007

Wrapping up Superstar Cities week: solutions

So, recapping the first two posts:
  • "Superstar cities" have high housing demand and limited supply, leading to high housing prices and ultimately driving out the middle class and some of the poor, leaving a bipolar community of wealthy and poor.
  • Employers needing middle class employees leave, creating a gap in the opportunity ladder for the poor trying to move up. This creates growing frustration for the poor and guilt for the wealthy, leading to more welfare state politics and policies.
  • A better label would be closed, restricted, limited, or constrained cities to better reflect the mixed bag this status brings, rather than the excessively positive connotations of "superstar".
So how can cities avoid this fate? The basic approach has to be aggressively increasing the housing supply. One way to accomplish this is via high-speed long-distance transportation infrastructure (freeways or transit) that open up new suburban land within commute range of the city's jobs. My long-time readers know that I don't think commuter rail is very cost effective or compatible with modern decentralized/distributed cities, so a network of express lanes and buses/vanpools is probably a better solution for most metros. This solution will be the most effective one for holding onto middle class families, since they prefer stand-alone houses in areas with good schools.

Another approach is to allow higher density developments inside the city. Mixing these developments with some sort of transit infrastructure helps minimize the traffic impacts (thus the new trend towards transit-oriented development). Neighborhood NIMBYs are a big problem blocking density. This implies too much land use power resides at the local level. Higher level entities - metro, region, state, or federal - have to recognize this problem and create counter-balancing forces/processes/authorities. To give a Houston example, the very important Bayport expansion would never have happened if only residents of Seabrook voted on it, but since it was a Harris County voter referendum, it passed, bringing substantial benefits to the region.

Houston has a pretty unique approach to the NIMBY problem: no zoning, but with voluntary deed restrictions. This gives NIMBYs few paths to block new dense development. Thus our recent townhome boom, plus an abundance of apartments and high-rise condos. This flexibility allows a small old house on a valuable piece of land to get replaced by a few affordable townhomes rather than a single $600K+ McMansion as is (economically) required in zoned/controlled cities like Bellaire and West University. Voila, housing supply keeps in balance with demand.

Other cities are unlikely to eliminate zoning completely, but they might get some of the benefits by aggressively designating free market zones that would be allowed to densify with little permitting or NIMBY interference. Anaheim did exactly this with its downtown, and the results have been impressive. The density answer is not so effective with middle class families (who generally prefer the detached-home suburbs), but can be an effective housing answer for all sorts of other middle class households: young singles or couples as well as empty nesters.

Some cities have tried "inclusionary zoning" to force developers to include affordable housing in their developments. Most studies show this backfires by dramatically reducing overall housing production, while making the new units that are built even more costly. The reality is that every new market-rate unit allows somebody in an older/smaller/lesser home to upgrade, and then somebody can upgrade into their space, and so on - a domino effect that ultimately creates more affordable housing at the bottom. This implies it's probably better to just let the free market work and encourage as much market-rate housing production as possible.

Those are my best suggestions for solutions. Other options welcomed in the comments. To sum up, the United States has worked pretty hard at remaining a nation of opportunity and advancement while avoiding the social welfare-state model of Europe. It would be sad if this were undermined, not by bad federal or state policies, but by local anti-growth decisions made by an increasing number of major cities (even neighborhoods), all seeming to make sense in their local context, but slowly creating a social mobility crisis of national proportions. Truly it would be a "death by a thousand cuts."

14 Comments:

At 2:47 PM, January 21, 2007, Anonymous Mike Harrington said...

It's difficult to know where to start with Tory Gattis' opinion on commuter rail. Modern Texans live in a society that is in the process of unraveling due to a long outstanding "past due" balance on their energy debit card. Commuter rail could be an important part in reducing transportation energy consumption, but we first need to understand long-term energy and transportation trends over the past century, both in North America and abroad.

Houstonians are highly dependent on cheap motor fuel, putting them more at risk than a few other parts of North America, without even mentioning people on other continents. This is a poor choice Texans have made, but if anyone should know better, it is the people of this state. Until the early 1950's, when skyrocketing domestic demand precluded doing so, Texas oil was exported outside of the US. Texas oil production peaked in 1971 and never recovered despite continued exploration and development. The typical oil well in Texas now produces thirty barrels of water for each barrel of oil. The 1971 Texas peak in oil production is an object lesson on what happens to aging, giant oil fields. You'd think that Texans, more than anyone, would realize just exactly how finite a resource fossil fuel really is.

Estimating future motor fuel production and prices is difficult, over the short and medium term, since there are many variables: long-term, capital intensive projects, demand growth vs. demand destruction (usually entailing declining living standards), political and environmental risks and population growth. Short-term price fluctuations aren't very revealing. For instance, the US uses almost nine million barrels of gasoline a day, but an increase in gasoline inventories of a mere two hundred thousand barrels can cause a twenty-cent drop in the wholesale price of a gallon of gasoline. Extreme market volatility is a precursor to supply constraints. What we can expect as a medium-term trend is a ratcheting up of price in the familiar pattern of lack of surplus capacity, followed by price increases, followed by demand destruction leading to a price reduction, ending at a price higher than the beginning of the cycle. We're either near the bottom of that cycle now, or demand destruction will occur until it is reached. Shortages caused by a combination of well depletion, aging equipment, hurricanes and widespread political instability in oil exporting countries have had the predictable outcome of increasing surplus capacity due to reduced demand because of high prices. Demand for motor fuel has declined slightly here, but most of the demand destruction since the beginning of 2005 has occurred outside the US. The poorest countries now are basically trying to make do without oil. The price will go higher in the next cycle.

What we have today are a few aging, giant oilfields, which supply most of the petroleum on the planet, going into decline. There has been a race against the calendar to bring new oil plays online as old ones deplete, but the chances are not promising. New prospects for oil development are often in countries where the political stability that long-term projects require is not guaranteed. Exploration and production of deepwater and polar oil is extremely expensive. Low-grade petroleum, heavy and sour oil require costly refining. Tar sands are hugely capital-intensive, requiring more than $3 billion to get a measly 100,000 barrels of oil for twenty years. Ethanol production in the US wouldn't exist at all if taxpayers weren't subsidizing production to the tune of seventy-five cents per gallon. We're literally scraping the bottom of the barrel.

It is very difficult to predict when world oil production will max out and then go into decline. New petroleum extraction projects, all involving long lead times and high costs, will come online over the next few years, if all goes well. In the meantime, existing oil wells are declining at a rate of a million barrels per day each year. This rate could accelerate. The other important variable is demand. The collapse of oil demand from a recession like the one occurring between 1979 and 1985 could prolong the lives of the world's oil fields by a decade. A global depression like the 1930's could postpone the day of reckoning for perhaps a quarter century, if the suffering from economic collapse is severe enough. That would provide little comfort while you are standing in line for food rations, but it would give the oil fields a chance to rest after decades of being over-pumped. Either way, there will without a doubt be energy shortages and severely declining per capita fuel consumption and living standards. I'll leave it to your imagination exactly what the impact will be. Any planning that doesn't taking future motor fuel constraints into account is no strategy at all. The time for it is long since past, even though it is the only planning Americans know how to do.

US per capita petroleum consumption remains high, actually stratospheric. It is twice what it was in 1950 and four times what it was in the USA of 1940. The Europeans use half as much per person, the Iranians a quarter, the Brazilians a fifth, the Chinese a twelfth, the Indians a thirtieth, and Africa only uses two percent per person of what the Americans burn. The numbers for per capita motor vehicles for these countries are equivalent. This wide gulf between Americans and everyone else has nothing to do with market forces at work. The only explanation for such a great imbalance is that governments in the US have institutionalized private motor vehicle transportation by subsidizing it. Because such a system is designed in defiance of market forces, not to mention physical forces defined by geology, it is an unnatural one that will continue to grow even after it has begun to die.

The true cost of automobile transportation in North America is borne by all sectors of the economy, requiring outlays by many players. To understand how this came about requires delving rather deeply into 20th century economic history. The turning point was 1920.

In 1920, when the US had a third as many people as it does now, most transportation in the US was by walking. People lived in basically two types of dwellings, as they do now. The most common urban arrangement was single-family homes, usually on small lots, surrounding neighborhood commercial centers. This living arrangement, almost entirely non-existent in present-day North America, was defined as multi-use development by Jane Jacobs in the early 1960's. Often at the junction of streetcar lines, or at interurban trolley stations in small towns in rural areas, the commercial centers contained most of the resources that would supply their citizen's daily needs. Grocery and hardware stores, pharmacies, banking and professional services were within walking distance. These commercial establishments typically were storefronts with apartments on the upper floors, also a common arrangement in European towns. People with detached homes usually had gardens and raised small livestock.

Even though this way of life required very little energy, and almost no oil, urban transportation speeds were about what they are today. It took the same amount of time to go from Galveston to Houston on Stone and Webster's Houston-Galveston Electric Railway in 1920 as it does on I-45 today. This was the height of the streetcar era, when, except for two twenty-mile gaps in New York state, you could travel from New England to northern Wisconsin by streetcar. The first successful electric traction motor railway operation began at about the same time as the invention of the internal combustion engine. By 1920, US streetcars carried eleven billion riders, and most of the population was served by them.

1912 midwest interurban map


Streetcar and interurban electric railways were private corporations, often owned by public power utilities. They typically paid substantial franchise and property taxes to the municipalities they served, and were required to maintain the streets they ran on. In addition to the passengers who paid a fare, trolley networks carried freight, mail and package express. Some cities owned their streetcar lines, but those municipal corporations were still expected to earn a profit and pay taxes.

The advent of the automobile removed private enterprise from the control of surface transportation systems, substituting a highly socialistic system with only an illusion of private ownership. Motor fuel taxes, along with general funds of all levels of government, would fund the motor vehicle transportation system. Property, sales and income taxes would help pay for building and maintaining roads, along with providing traffic police. Commercial property owners would be required to build parking facilities at their own expense. School districts would need to operate school buses and expand their fleets as public transit declined. The cost of the greatly increased injuries and deaths from motor vehicle transportation would be borne by those affected, government and medical service providers. The environmental costs of automobile and truck transportation would be paid for by everyone. Individuals are not spared, either, since household transportation expenses in North America are much higher than every other continent's. Publicly and privately funded mandates would ensure than North Americans had the most costly and wasteful transportation system on the planet.

Tory Gattis' stance on commuter rail is not surprising, since public transit in general is so underdeveloped in North America and in Houston in particular. Good commuter rail systems do not exist in a vacuum, but are contingent upon the existence of a substantial public transportation grid consisting of bus and light rail lines intersecting with commuter rail stations. Like Metro, instead of thinking of regional public transit solutions, Gattis remains fixated on point-to-point commutes. Park and ride buses are really more like point-to-point charter service than traditional public transit. The insurmountable weaknesses in Metro's commuter bus service are the failure to serve intermediate areas between the far suburbs and downtown and the related inability to provide any useful service to reverse commuters. Commuter rail would be far better than the present method. Rail stations on a northwest commuter rail line could be placed at Gessner, 43rd and Long Point. Doing so would provide connectivity with local bus service to Long Point, Hammerly, Kempwood, north Gessner, Antoine and 43rd/Crosstimbers. A station near Dacoma would be handy to bus service to the Heights. If Gattis knows anything about the existing bus network in northwest Houston, and how it might interact with a commuter rail line, as opposed to the current only-park-and-ride-to-downtown weekday setup, he's certainly not sharing it with his readers. Like most Houstonians, Gattis probably doesn't know or care much about Metro because he doesn't use it often or at all.

Advanced commuter railroad systems, like those of metropolitan Paris, are really part of a regional transportation solution, crossed by hundreds of suburban bus lines. Paris spent a lot of money improving track, rolling stock and electrifying their railroad lines since the end of WWII. In order to facilitate this system, Paris has recently built four light rail lines, each averaging about 100,000 riders per day, basically extending from and connecting with commuter rail and subway lines in suburban Paris. Parisians plan to extend their existing light rail lines and add six new ones. Such a system is not merely unidrectional point-to-point, but facilitates intermediate and reverse commutes. Integrated regional public transit in large cities is not just about a few destinations, but thousands. The existence of good light rail and bus connections at outlying commuter rail stations is an essential part of any regional transportation solution worth mentioning. Just as Europeans know this very well today, Americans knew it in 1920. We separate ourselves from our ancestors by many decades of gluttonous energy waste, to the point that we are unaware of the true cost of anything and the entropy that the 21st century promises to deal us in spades.

Prior to 1960, if asked what the American way of life is, most people would have thought of the constitution and the rule of law. For most Texans today, this apparently has something to do with driving everywhere to take care of the necessities of life. What Gattis considers to be the rule is really an exception over both time and space, and one day will come the end of it. Like most people born since 1960, it is difficult for Tory Gattis to imagine a landscape that does not consist of parking ramps, strip centers, muffler shops, drive-ins, feeder roads and gated subdivisions. The North American living arrangement, single-use development linked together by extensive highway system, is predicated on the existence of eternally cheap and abundant energy resources. Significant conservation of energy is impossible for such a system without severe economic dislocations. Houston will be proven wrong, and Paris right. A continent that has burned its bridges with the past by treating energy as an unlimited resource will learn that this century provides the cure for the late twentieth century cheap oil binge, an old-fashioned economic mauling.

 
At 4:10 PM, January 21, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Wow, that is quite the essay Mike. Thanks for taking the time to post it. As I've said before, the personal vehicle is an aspiration around the world. It's almost always faster, more convenient, and more comfortable than transit. Usually as soon as someone can afford it, they get one - even in hyper-dense places like China and Japan. The world gets wealthier every year (that's economic growth for you), and so an increase in personal vehicles is inevitable. The energy technology they run on is flexible though. It's gas now, but it could be ethanol, or natural gas, or hydrogen (generated any number of ways), or, most likely, electricity from plug-in hybrids. These technologies will dispace oil as they get cheaper and it gets more expensive. But the personal vehicle is here to stay. Old-style transit is backwards-looking nostalgia for a much poorer and low-tech past.

I did want to comment on one paragraph in particular:

> US per capita petroleum consumption remains high, actually stratospheric. It is twice what it was in 1950 and four times what it was in the USA of 1940. The Europeans use half as much per person, the Iranians a quarter, the Brazilians a fifth, the Chinese a twelfth, the Indians a thirtieth, and Africa only uses two percent per person of what the Americans burn. The numbers for per capita motor vehicles for these countries are equivalent. This wide gulf between Americans and everyone else has nothing to do with market forces at work.

Back to Tory: There is no way they have the same vehicles per capita as America, unless bikes count as "vehicles". That assertion is simply not believable. It has everything to do with market forces: Americans are the wealthiest on the planet, so we spend the most on our cars and gas. It's that simple. When gas gets expensive, people switch to more efficient cars, as they've done recently. That's the market at work.

 
At 5:38 PM, January 21, 2007, Anonymous Mike Harrington said...

You misread me Tory, or I didn't explain it right. Europe has less than half the motor vehicles per capita as the US. Brazil has about one-seventh. Per capita petroleum consumption and per capita motor vehicles are roughly equivalent for each country.

Americans are not the wealthiest on the planet, but the most indebted. Had you said that to me in 1967, I would have agreed with you. In the face of forty years of declining living standards, something I've personally witnessed, your statement is quite hollow.

There will be motor vehicles years from now, but private motor vehicles will be out of reach for the average person. There will also be motor fuel production many years from now, but only a tiny fraction of today's level.

All the alternative fuel sources you mention involve huge capital costs, long lead times and low or negative energy returns. There simply won't be enough alternative energy production to make up for the loss of conventional oil. Hydrogen isn't an energy source and is costly to produce and store. Fuel cells are for all intents and purposes perpetually twenty-five years into the future. Ethanol has limits, mainly its dependency on cheap fossil fuel for farming and transportation and a limited amount of arable farmland. Sugar cane is much better, but that's not an option for the US, and Brazil using sugar cane to power 25% of their 20 million cars is not the same as fueling 220 million autos and trucks in the US. Cellulosic ethanol is years off, and contingent upon significant technological breakthoughs which, for all we know, won't happen. Electric cars and hybrids could have some place in the future, but the prospect of swapping out hundreds of millions of internal combustion engines with storage batteries is not a likely scenario, to say nothing of the enormous electricity demand a significant number of rechargeable electric cars would cause. A more practical use for electricity will be railroads, light rail or electric trolleybuses.

Nothing is cheaper than sticking straws into the ground and extracting light, sweet crude oil. When we go around the production curve, your technological, free market hubris notwithstanding, we'll have to make other transportation arrangements. There will still be automobiles, but they'll revert to what they were in 1920, a toy for the very rich. We've got a long way to go before then, but don't kid yourself into thinking it will be easy.

 
At 7:24 PM, January 21, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Sorry for the misunderstanding.

By wealthiest, I meant GDP per capita, excluding a few niche countries like Luxembourg and oil-rich Norway.

I just don't see the 40 years of declining living standards. I am far better off than my parents were: cars, homes, air travel, technology, computers, internet, medicine - you can pretty much name it.

I actually read a stat lately that said we have 85% of the electric capacity we need to support a complete plug-in hybrid fleet. The key is that almost all cars will get charged at night, when plants are substantially underutilized today. Yes, it will take 20 years to turnover the fleet, but oil won't disappear, just decline in production and get more expensive.

You're also ignoring oil shale and tar sands, which have more energy potential than all the known oil reserves of the world, and are economic to produce at today's prices. I believe coal-to-diesel is also economic at today's prices, and we have a near infinite amount of coal available in the world. Markets will work, and energy (as well as conservation) will be plentiful.

 
At 7:26 PM, January 21, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Also see these posts:

http://houstonstrategies.blogspot.com/2005/10/
why-peak-oil-does-not-equal-death-of.html

http://houstonstrategies.blogspot.com/2005/03/
this-man-is-certifiably-nuts-james.html

 
At 11:35 PM, January 21, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

I would agree with Tory that personal vehicles are not going away - we are not simply going to adopt Paris's paradigm, or go back to how we were in 1920. I do think that personal vehicle transportation will never again be as cheap as it has been in the past. Gasoline cars were invented by a few guys tinkering in their wagon shops... alternative fuels have seen billions poured into R&D, with little to show for it. We'll have electric cars, sure, but they'll never be as fast or as fun.

I wish we could get past this mentality:

"Old-style transit is backwards-looking nostalgia for a much poorer and low-tech past."

I'm sorry, but this reeks of I've-lived-in-the-suburbs-my-whole-life, close-minded thinking. If you have ever lived in a mass-transit city, you will know that there is a type of freedom that comes from being able to get to so many destinations so easily, all without the stress of traffic and parking, that is every bit as enjoyable as the much-vaunted "freedom" offered by the personal car. Many people, including some of the most talented and wealthy strata of society, actually prefer the freedom of density and transit to the freedom of cars and suburbia. The labels of "old-fashioned" and "poor" do not wash.

 
At 8:05 AM, January 22, 2007, Blogger Owen said...

mike harrington,

With due respect, you seem to be a neo-Malthusian, i.e. a person who constantly preaches that the Western way of living is unsustainable and that we'll have to revert back to an earlier lifestyle. People have been playing that same tune for well over a hundred years, and they're never right. That's because of the market's ability to adapt by encouraging the development of new technoligies.

First of all, Tory is right that we're probably a ways off from hitting "peak oil." The date keeps getting pushed back as we develop new technolgies for extraction and find new sources.

Secondly, as gas prices increase, you first see a greater focus on fuel efficiency as a solution, and then a focus on alternative fuel sources. It's highly unlikely that we'll just spontaneously run out of oil; what we can expect is a slow increase over time that places extreme market demand on replacement technologies for the gasoline-powered engine. This is because people are unlikely to simply move to highly compact cities in droves as gas prices increase; they haven't done so yet, and most people have an aversion to the idea. Heck, they'd probably even be willing to suffer the electric car at a stopgap measure until better technologies came along, if that's what it came to.

Thirdly, you are simply wrong to state that the US has "institutionalized" automobile use through subsidies. The government provides streets, certainly, but highways are overwhelmingly paid for by the gasoline tax, and thus the costs are integrated into automobile use. No, the fact is that automobiles are better, more confortable, more personalized transportation than riding a train. Trains actually lengthen commutes -- this is because you have to find some way to get to a train station (walk, drive, or take a bicycle), then wait for the train, then go through any transfers you need, and then get from station to your final destination. For most people in all but the most densely-populated cities, this takes much, much longer than driving, and at peak travel hours, it can mean being crammed into a train car like a sardine.

Fourthly, you are simply wrong in this comment:

Even though this [the 1920's] way of life required very little energy, and almost no oil, urban transportation speeds were about what they are today. It took the same amount of time to go from Galveston to Houston on Stone and Webster's Houston-Galveston Electric Railway in 1920 as it does on I-45 today.

Excuse me, but urban streetcars were far, far slower than automobiles. Come to New Orleans and ride a 1920's streetcar if you think they can get you places as quickly as a car. Furthermore, you are quite wrong in saying that the trip from Houston to Galveston took just as long by streetcar as it does today by car. Although they managed to get their schedule down to an hour and fifteen minutes by skipping all cities in between Houston and Galveston, you can easily beat that by car today. In any case, the line was built without regard for expense, which is why it rarely made a profit and ultimately folded.

Furthermore, urban streetcars had become unprofitable by 1920 due to competition from automobiles, and without the benefit of any government subsidies for highways. The rise of "jitneys," basically private taxis running set routes, had made the Houston streecar system unprofitable by 1915. Later, the Houston city council banned jitneys to keep the streetcars alive. When the jitney driver's union got the ban overturned via a 2:1 referendum vote, the city council returned with a plan for upgraded transit service, including the introduction of buses for the first time. Eventually, Houston became a bus-only system and the streetcar tracks were finally ripped from the pavement in 1941 to provide steel for the war effort.

So please, don't tell me that cars are "socialistic" and streetcars were purely market. The streetcars only survived as long as they did with public assistance, and they fell by the wayside globally. Even cities that kept urban rail eliminated streetcars (even your beloved Paris -- where are the streetcars there?). The problem with light rail is that it takes a model from highly dense cities and attempts to apply them to low-to-medium density cities, where the model doesn't work. Urban areas laid out since the rise of the automobile need personalized transportation options, not cattle cars hearding people from point-to-point, with them transfering until they finally get somewhere near where they want to go.

I'm sorry, mike, but I just think you're wrong all around on this.

 
At 8:18 AM, January 22, 2007, Blogger Owen said...

mike harrington,

One more thing -- expecting high-density transit solutions to work for low-density cities is indeed "old fashioned" thinking. You need to realize that what works for Paris (a highly dense city laid out long before the automobile was invented) will not work for Houston. It should also be noted that Paris's density has progressed naturally; I know of no city (except perhaps Portland) that has made a conscious decision to try and achieve high population density. Thus, people aren't "choosing" the Parisian lifestyle in droves, even though it is always available.

 
At 11:42 AM, January 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just because the baby boomer generation had a higher quality of life than their parents, this doesn't mean the trend will continue. Thankfully, my generation is not as naive.

Look at the UK at the turn of the last century. They were the world's superpower and they drove themselves into decline through their preoccupation around the world in conflicts. This gave the US the ability to rise in ascendancy. Now, history is repeating itself, with China waiting in the wings as we spend our lives and money playing world police.

We are on the decline and like the UK now, our economic and political power will shrink and with that, our ability to continue to sustain our current lifestyle, including the auto-reliance and sprawling residential and commercial development. This simply is not sustainable, especially when we are no longer the world's power.

 
At 2:26 PM, January 22, 2007, Blogger kjb434 said...

If our sprawling suburbs will be the death of the US, then China should in a bad predicament. China is building low density suburban sprawl out of the US playbook. Yes, you see these huge metropoli with high-rise residential, but you also need to see (which isn't often depicted) the sprawling suburbs that stretch for miles outside of the cities. Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing are like Houston on steroids for sprawl. And it is definitely not lower class or slums, they are middle and upper middle class wanted to get out of the urban life. The Paris and London Suburbs are also much more sprawling than Houston also.

I do agree that our continuing slide into world police status and unable to identify real enemies that we should defeat with real war and not playing around like Iraq and Afghanistan is one of the key things that is hurting the US in the long term. Other things such as illegal immigration and the reluctance to codify a single official language in the US will also be in the forefront of our downfall. At least Australia has taken those issues at task, so we won't be the first to do it.

I would dive into the oil discussion, but Tory and thousands of scientist in the fields of geology have broken Mr. Harrington's talking points.

 
At 3:40 PM, January 22, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Owen,

There are two Mikes on here. I think you're mixing my arguments with Harrington's. As I said in my post, I don't expect Houston to adopt Paris's paradigm. Like you, I believe that these things must happen organically and freely. Harrington's point is that car transportation is much more subsidized than transit, so it really hasn't been a free choice so far. I'll let you debate that with him.

I am against the idea that a pedestrian-based environment with mass transit is somehow "old-fashioned." Many people prefer the excitement and proximity to things that comes with living in an urban environment to the big spaces and car-dependence that comes with suburbs. Just two different ways of life.

You and Tory seem to think that civilization, the market, whatever, is naturally progressing towards everybody owning personal vehicles and using them to get around. Houston is ahead of others in that progression; urban cities like New York and Chicago are "relics." The only people who would actually want to give up their car and live in a relic must be liberal sophisticated weirdos. That is the sense I'm getting, and let me tell you, it is narrowminded.

 
At 7:14 PM, January 22, 2007, Blogger Owen said...

mike,

Sorry, I do think I confused the two of you.

Anyway, you've got me wrong -- I don't think density itself is "old fashioned." In some cities there is a historical impetus behind density, but in many cities density has simply occurred because there is a population center that serves as a fixture of business.

Once a city reaches a certain level of density, rail transit makes sense, and when you reach that level of density, you need either a subway network or an elevated heavy rail system. In America, we've really only reached that level of density in New York and maybe Chicago (Los Angeles is large and slowly gaining density, but it hasn't reached that stage yet). Europe has far more cities that already qualify, in part due to historical factors and in part due to overall population density. London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Vienna, Milan, etc, all are justified in having heavy rail systems.

All over Asia you also need heavy rail. It's impossible to imagine Tokyo without advanced rail transit.

My problem is with taking relatively low-density cities in the US and cobbling light rail networks on to them -- it's just not smart transportation plannning. I also have a problem with scapegoating automobiles; the fact is that even in heavily-transit dependent metropolitan regions such as New York, the overwhelming majority of commuters use cars.

 
At 9:31 PM, January 22, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Wow, great debate! I would like to clarify that I don't think of the pedestrian/density lifestyle as "weird". I understand some people like to live that way, and support Houston developing more of that along the core LRT network (although I still believe the vast majority of them will choose to own a car). The "old fashioned" comment was directed at commuter rail vs. the modern, car-based metro, something on a completely different scale than pedestrian and transit-oriented neighborhoods.

As far as the "freedom" of living in a mass transit city, this is all my personal experience, but I've spent a lot of time in NYC, and found everything from hailing a taxi to riding the subway to be a slow slog compared to everything I do in Houston being an easy drive-and-park away. Even my college-age step-daughter, who just got back from a week visiting friends in NYC, noted how much time and effort went into getting places vs. just hop-in-the-car-and-go in Austin, which has more traffic and parking problems than Houston, IMHO (at least in the core).

As far as transportation of the future not being as cheap, I disagree when you look at the cost of owning and operating a basic personal vehicle as a percentage of median income. Society is always getting wealthier, and cars cheaper for what you get. A Toyota Camry today is better in most ways than a Mercedes of 20 years ago, and that progress will continue.

On the UK-decline point, it should be noted that even though the UK doesn't have its same world power on a relative basis than it did a hundred years ago, its citizens definitely live far, far better than they did that same 100 years ago. And even if China and India are far more competitive world powers with the US in a hundred years (or even surpassing us substantially), I can pretty much guarantee our citizens 100 years from now will live far better than we do now. That's the nature of economic and technological progress.

 
At 12:14 PM, January 28, 2007, Anonymous Mike Harrington said...

First of all, Paris does have streetcars, four lines now and six to come. Paris has an extremely aggressive light rail program, but in its suburbs, not central Paris. You have to view them as linking the spokes of their huge commuter railroad system, which goes out about sixty miles. The commuting radius from Paris is about twice as far as the practical commuting distance into Houston, due to the fact most people commute somewhere into greater Paris by rail, not on their hopelessly congested highways, and their electrified trains are quite fast.

Whether you call it light rail or streetcars really doesn't matter in Europe. Light rail cars in Houston and Dallas would be considered heavy, high-speed suburban cars in Europe.

I can't take the time at the moment to answer all of these, but most of the comments are clearly in error. The sprawling North American suburb was not founded by the automobile, but by the electric interurban railway.

Just about everyone that could have firsthand memories of how North American urban, suburban and interurban transportation once functioned is dead. You'd have to be in your eighties now to remember it clearly.

Metro Dallas was actually created more than 90 years ago by several interurban electric railway companies radiating out of Dallas in all directions. These electric railways ran to Denison, Corsicana, Waco, Terrell, Cleburne and Denton. The original commuting boundaries for Dallas were not defined by highways, but by the interurbans.

This trolley network was 400 miles long and served mostly rural areas. Almost nothing has changed in terms of commuting radius and speed since the early twentieth century. Nothing except the fact that we use 100 times the energy as Americans did then to go just as far and just as fast.

A system like ours founded on exponential growth is bound to fail, and fail it will.


McKinney, TX

Gross, TX

Waco

Density? Don't make me laugh.

 

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