Thursday, September 27, 2007

Dallas vs. Houston GDP confusion

So, after seeing the Chronicle article this morning ranking Houston #7 nationally in metro GDP (behind NYC, LA, Chicago, DC, DFW, and Philly - and SF would be ahead of us if San Jose and Silicon Valley weren't carved off into it's own metro), I was a bit confused when this thread caught my eye on the HAIF forums quoting a Dallas Morning News article saying that Houston is actually #5 nationally, ahead of both Philly and DFW. So Houston says Dallas wins, and Dallas says Houston wins. Very strange indeed.

After doing a little digging at the Dept. of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis web site press release, I think I figured out what happened. If you look at the tables in their main pdf report, which covers 2001 through 2005, they use "millions of chained 2001 dollars" so the numbers are comparable and inflation adjusted. That yields the Chronicle numbers, with Dallas at $285 billion and Houston at $256 billion (unfortunately, the Chronicle table is mislabeled as "billions of dollars 2005"). But if you dig into their interactive tables, you can choose "millions of current dollars" instead, and then you get the DMN numbers with Houston at $316 billion and Dallas at $315 billion. I understand why the numbers change with the inflation adjustments, but don't understand why the rankings change, which is beyond my understanding of how the math works here. If you understand how it happened, a (simple) explanation would be appreciated in the comments.

But, at the end of the day, in current dollars, Houston is #5 in the country and ahead of Dallas. On the other hand, in this case, one might argue that the Dallas paper is ahead of Houston's...

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Digging into the newest congestion numbers

So the Texas Transportation Institute at TAMU came out with their 2007 Urban Mobility Report last week. In case you missed the story in the Chronicle, it's steadily getting worse in Houston, now up to 56 hours of average delay per traveler per year, which is 7th worst in the nation. On the plus side, we're only 2 hours/year over the average for very large cities (54), and only 12 hours/year over the national average of 44 hours for the 85 cities studied. That's less than 3 minutes of penalty per workday for commuting in Houston vs. the average major US city.

Some other interesting points I found in the report:
  • Multi-billion dollar transit systems don't seem to help alleviate congestion too much: DC and SF are worse than Houston, and NYC, Chicago, and Boston are each only slightly better, with 46 hours of annual delay. NYC and Chicago actually have a worse travel-time index than Houston (ratio of trip times at rush hour vs. off-peak), with 1.39 and 1.47 vs. our 1.36.
  • In the main report, Exhibit B-36 pg. 130 (B-52) has a graph showing not just Houston's change in travel times through the day, but how much margin time you have to put in your travel planning to be on-time for 19 out of 20 trips. It's very substantial, and a lot of that time goes to waste, as people arrive early at appointments. This is a strong argument for congestion-priced toll lanes, which give people the option of a guaranteed fast trip when they need it. People who need to be somewhere at a specific time can pay for it, and save the time they would otherwise waste leaving extra early "just in case." People on a more flexible schedule can stay in the free lanes.
  • "Can more road space reduce congestion growth?" Their answer is essentially 'yes':
"The analysis shows that changes in roadway supply have an effect on the change in delay. Additional roadways reduce the rate of increase in the amount of time it takes travelers to make congested period trips. In general, as the lane-mile “deficit” gets smaller, meaning that urban areas come closer to matching capacity growth and travel growth, the travel time increase is smaller."

That same appendix also has a graph on pg.3 clearly showing that cities that made a better effort to keep capacity in line with growth (such as Houston) experienced far slower growth in congestion than those cities that let it get away from them. In fact, when ranked by how much worse our congestion is vs. 1982 (when the study started), we fall dramatically to 27th, which reflects our strong capacity increases over that period.
  • Our I-10 project gets featured on pg. 23:
"Constructing transportation projects quickly and with as little extra delay as possible requires a mix of strategies, just as the regional approach to congestion relief. The Katy Freeway (I-10 West in Houston) expansion project includes additional mainlanes and high-occupancy toll lanes, in addition to reconstructed pavement, noise walls and landscaping. The regional toll authority purchased the right to operate the toll lanes using funds generated over almost two decades of successful toll operation in other corridors. The accelerated cash flow enabled the Texas DOT to decrease the construction time from 12 years to six years. The increased cost of the 24-hour construction schedule was partially offset by savings in construction cost inflation that would have occurred. The estimated $2.8 billion in benefits that resulted from six years of improvements in delay, lower fuel consumption and improved business environment more than offset the estimated $300 million in extra costs."
I'd love to see that kind of math applied to more projects in Houston.

One of the points I keep hearing over and over laments that "if we build more road capacity, it'll just fill up," implying we shouldn't bother. I believe the Chronicle editorial board even made this point, although I can't find it online to confirm. This argument really bugs me. Do you ever hear people say, "Ugh, why build more airport runways - the airlines will just fill 'em up with flights," or, "You know, if we expand the port, it'll just fill up with more ships and trade."? No, you never hear that, because people realize those are good things to have happen. Yet, somehow, expanding road capacity to enable more economic activity and better access to jobs and affordable housing for more people is a bad thing? I don't get it.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

New Urbanism comes to Galveston

Tonight I want to pass-along a Wall Street Journal article on the wave of new urbanist projects coming to the Gulf Coast, especially Galveston (7-day nonsubscriber link, permalink).
Beachtown, as Mr. Sherazi's project is called, is part of a wave of New Urbanism on the Texas coast, from Galveston to South Padre Island. A planning movement that advocates walking over driving and borrows heavily from the design of traditional neighborhoods, New Urbanism has been largely overlooked on the Texas coast, even as it has flourished in Florida and beyond.

While the movement offers something of a counterpoint to subdivisions, malls and office parks, it is attacked by critics as nostalgic and unimaginative for its reliance on 19th-century architecture. While New Urbanist communities such as Seaside often are pitched as real towns, critics say they tend to become little more than playgrounds for the rich.

The projects reflect a broader push to develop the Texas coast, while subprime woes have cooled markets in Florida and elsewhere. On the Third Coast, as some call Texas, the ocean tends to be murkier, the sand darker and the scenery arguably less impressive than on the East and West coasts. But beachfront property still is plentiful, and prices are considerably less expensive than the two coasts.

James Gaines, an economist at Texas A&M University's Real Estate Center, said beachfront property in Texas costs about a fifth of the price of similar property in California, in part because of its geography. Except for Galveston and a few coastal areas near Houston, none of Texas beachfront property is near a major urban center.

Check out the article to read the details of all the projects.

If I get some time this weekend, I'm hoping to dig into the TTI traffic congestion numbers that came out this week and post my analysis and thoughts next week.

Update: Tom has more of the WSJ article.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

The potential for GPS at Metro

Christof mentioned to me recently that Metro is planning on adding GPS units to all the buses, so they know where they are in real-time. It got me thinking about potential services they might offer with that information. Maybe display them in real-time on a web site map. But here's what I think would be most useful to everyday riders:
  1. Give every stop in the city a unique number
  2. Let people send a text message to Metro from their cell phone with that number
  3. Metro's systems would automatically send a reply text message giving the next few bus route-numbers arriving at that stop and their estimated time of arrival
I think this would help less frequent routes get a whole lot more use. Rather than sitting and waiting in the open weather at a stop, people could relax wherever they are (home, work, store, cafe, etc.) until the last minute, then head down to the stop to arrive just-in-time for the bus.

It could even be helpful with transfers between lines, because you can find out if you have time to walk across the street to Starbucks or pop into a convenience store before your transfer bus arrives.

One tricky part would be software that would learn traffic conditions over time to make good estimates. Routes may average different speeds at different times of the day. It would also need to learn in real-time: if the last bus down a stretch took 15 minutes, that's probably a better indicator than a historical average that predicts 5 minutes.

Another nice feature would be to set notification text messages to be sent when a specific bus number is a certain number of minutes from a specific stop. That would be complicated to input from a cell phone, but wouldn't be much trouble on the web. If you know it takes you five minutes to get from your office to your stop, at the end of the work day you could fill out a web page asking for a text msg alert when your bus is five minutes out. People could even have personal web site accounts to store their regularly used alerts or set recurring ones.

It's relatively simple and inexpensive services like this that could go a long way towards attracting more discretionary riders to transit.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Galveston and Uline rail, Astrodome, 2nd cities, neighborhood tyrants and cheap eats

Clearing out the queue of smaller misc items. Sorry again if you got the draft notes of this post a couple days ago.
"This film tells the real story about free enterprise by following the lives of three very different entrepreneurs. We see how they risk all to make a better future for their families and fellow citizens. With premieres from Michigan to Kenya, this film has been met with enthusiastic responses as its message of liberty spreads across the globe."
  • Brian has an excellent post on "The Tyrant Next Door," showing how land use regulations spiral out of control, each set trying to address the problems created by the last set, until total stagnation and unaffordability is achieved.
  • An article that argues "second cities" are more manageable and successful mentions that cities tend to start to go downhill beyond about 6 million people, which is right about where the Houston metro's at. I think we're making the right infrastructure investments to push higher (and the lack of zoning helps us adapt), but no doubt, it will be a challenge.
  • From an email I received:

"The third edition of my guidebook Houston Dining on the Cheap – A Guide to the Best Inexpensive Restaurants has recently been published and is now available at local bookstores, selected gift stores, and I believe that it is something that your readers will enjoy learning about. Our diverse restaurant scene is one of the joys of the city.

Previous editions of Houston Dining on the Cheap have been praised as "excellent", "remarkably comprehensive", and even "a fun read". This third edition has been completely revised, updated and thoroughly researched to provide profiles of the best 300 inexpensive restaurants in the Houston area, plus restaurant-related asides, and helpful indices such as listings by cuisine and area. It is not only more current, but also more informative and probably more interesting than the previous two editions, which have each essentially sold out.

This edition is selling very well in its first couple months since its release. Thanks.
-Mike Riccetti"

I've argued before that Houston has one of the best restaurant scenes in the country. I have the second edition, and it is excellent. The third edition will definitely be on my Christmas wish list...

Finally, I'd like end with a joint plea from Christof and I to get in last comments on the Metro Universities line before they're closed on Monday the 17th. Long-time readers know I've had my reservations, but if it's going to be built, it should be on the right route with the most riders for the least money, and that's the Cummins to Elgin route. Let Metro know that's what you support.


I know I've been talking about this for a year, but METRO's finally
getting ready to chose a route for the University Line -- Richmond or
Westpark, Alabama or Elgin. Obviously, this matters; if it gets put in
the wrong place it will be in the wrong place forever.

So here's where you come in. METRO is accepting public comments. I
encourage you to submit one. This is partially a numbers game; METRO
will tally the responses they get, and that tally could shape the

Nothing fancy is required; just a paragraph or two: say why you care
about the line (if you live/work/spend time in that area, say so) and
say what alignment you think the board should chose (I'm partial to
Richmond-Cummins-Westpark and Wheeler-Ennis-Elgin). If you have
anything else you care about with regard to the line (preserve trees,
offer non-stop service to the Galleria, put a station at ___) you
should say that, too. If you want to read up, there's (a lot) more
info on my blog.

METRO has a form that you can fill out and mail in, or you can use the online comment form.

So, if you have a spare moment between now and next Monday, 9/17
(comment deadline), do your part for a better Houston...


Monday, September 10, 2007

Trees for Houston vs. the Upper Kirby District TIRZ

A battle is brewing between some quality-of-life nonprofits in Houston. It all starts with flood control. The city is in the middle of a long-term project to connect Buffalo Bayou to Braes Bayou with a very large storm sewer line underneath Kirby Drive, which should alleviate a lot of flooding issues in the area. This line is being installed by the "cut and cover" method, with the street being rebuilt after the installation. Along most of Kirby, the street is being rebuilt basically the same width as it was before. But the Upper Kirby District TIRZ has a widening plan for Kirby between 59 and San Felipe, and the City, so far, seems to be going along with it, with construction beginning in early 2008.

Trees for Houston is circulating a nine-page Q&A sheet taking strong issue with the plan because it involves removing 300 mature trees along that stretch of Kirby. Right now, the city own a 100-ft right-of-way, with 68 for the street and 32 for the pedestrian zone (16 on each side). The TIRZ wants to widen the street by 14 feet to make room for some center esplanades, taking away 40% of the pedestrian corridor on each side (7 ft). No additional lanes will be added, although they will be slightly wider than they are now (and I'll admit they feel pretty snug right now) - there will still be 3 lanes each direction and a turn lane.

TfH believes the 300 trees can be saved by only expanding 1-2 feet on each side, still building slightly narrower esplanades (10ft instead of 14), and keep the same number of lanes - just make them 10-ft lanes instead of 11 or 12 (right now they're 9.5 ft). Evidently, the main TIRZ argument for 14-ft esplanades instead of 10-ft is to allow a 4-ft "pedestrian island" at intersections with center turn lanes, so pedestrians can have a safe spot to stop if they don't make it all the way across before the light turns. TfH agrees the pedestrian islands are a good idea, but only necessary at the intersections, so why not just do the slight widening there, where few or no trees will be lost? The 14-ft esplanade width is not really necessary the entire length of Kirby.

The TIRZ plan also involves plenty of trees, but they'll be new plantings that will take 20+ years to mature. Of course, their conceptual pictures show those as fully matured trees.

The TIRZ says they're just meeting the city's standard, but TfH points out that the city allows variances to the standard all the time for special situations.

The TIRZ has posted a response, including a detailed inventory of every tree. It claims far fewer trees will be impacted (161), and that narrower alternatives would save only a handful of trees at best - but their alternatives are not as narrow as the TfH proposal. It looks like you can take 2 feet from each side without too many trees impacted, but as soon as you get to 4 feet, you pretty much wipe them all out - and the TIRZ isn't looking at any options that take less than 4 feet.

You can see more of the TIRZ plan here, including details on a public meeting this Saturday morning the 15th. Be sure to attend if you'd like to pass along your feedback.

I think Trees for Houston makes a strong case. My impression is that the two sides are approaching the issue from different perspectives. The TIRZ perspective seems to be, "We're stuck with the city standard, and modest compromises to that won't save many trees, so we might as well go all the way." The TfH perspective seems to be "How can we think creatively and make some good compromises to save these trees?"

10-ft lanes seem reasonable to me (they're a half-foot wider than what's there now), and I think the turn lanes could even be 9.5 ft, since, by their very nature, people are driving quite slowly in them (they're slowing down to turn). The solution might be left and right 10.5 ft lanes (slightly wider is needed next to a curb) and a 10 ft center lane on each side, with a 10 ft esplanade occasionally becoming a 9.5 ft turn lane with a 0.5 ft curb (this could be larger at pedestrian intersections). That totals 72 feet, only requiring an extra 2 ft from each side, which preserves the majority of the trees.

Now it's just a matter of getting all three sides, including the City, to sit down and work it out.

If you'd like a copy of the 9-page Trees for Houston Q&A Word document with all the details, just send me an email at tgattis(at) (no-spam format, use @). Sorry, I don't have a way to post file attachments to Blogger other than images.

Update: Robin puts me to shame with a far more in-depth post on the topic and the tradeoffs, and the CTC has started a discussion forum topic.

I also received an email with data showing numerous major cities do just fine with 10' lanes. Email me and I'd be happy to forward it to you.

Update 2: Crossley weighs in, and Trees for Houston posts their documents and an online petition you can sign.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Houston and TX dominate Fortune's 100 Fastest-Growing Companies

Fortune recently released their 2007 list of the 100 Fastest-Growing Companies, and there's a pretty stunning domination by Texas and Houston. We all know there's an energy boom, but it's stats like this that really drive it home.
  • Texas has the most with 32 of the top 100. California is in distant second place with 11.
  • West Coast + Northeast combined only have 30; that's CA, OR, WA, HI, AK, ME, NH, VT, NY, NJ, CT, MA, RI, PA, DE, MD combined.
  • It's not even close within Texas. The Houston metro area has 19 of the 32 Texas companies (17 inside the city + The Woodlands and Alvin). San Antonio 3, Dallas and Ft. Worth 2 each (although more in the metro), and only one in Austin.
  • The three other Big 4 states - California, NY, and Florida - combined have only 18. That's less than Houston alone, which is simply incredible.
In the immortal words of Mel Brooks, "It's good to be the king..."

Thanks to Brian for the heads up and most of the analysis. Have a great weekend.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Whose "quality of place"?, transportation history, and Houston mixed-use

Three miscellaneous pass-alongs today:
  • A blog post comparing creative class rankings with domestic migration census data, finding an inverse relationship: a higher CC ranking tends to have lower, or reverse, migration. By far the most migration is to outer counties in any case - not central cores, with Portland being a prime example (80% outside the urban growth boundary). Conclusion:
"...the data shows that the overwhelming majority of movement within US metropolitan areas is away from locations architects and planners consider to have “quality of place.” For most people, it seems clear that “quality of place” means something quite different than what passes for the conventional wisdom."
The implication, IMHO, is that "quality of place" has to be combined with cost-of-living to get to real net value, and attract migrants and growth. To use a car analogy, the "sweet spot" for most buyers is neither high-end Mercedes nor low-end Yugo, but mid-level, high-value Toyota Camry or Honda Accord (or, in Texas' case, a Toyota Tundra truck). A lot of the Sunbelt cities fall in this category. Not just Houston, but DFW, Austin, Atlanta, Phoenix, Charlotte, and Raleigh-Durham. (See update/clarification below)
  • Neal has a very interesting post on the history of transportation costs and their steady decline, even in the 1700's. Even back then, the upper classes complained about the lower classes using more affordable transportation to join them in the country. His conclusion:
"300 years later, some people are still complaining that mankind's vastly increased mobility has resulted in the same urban ills. It seems that for some people, the more things change the more things stay the same. At the same time, one really does need to remember that one of the primary reasons why we build the cities we do today is because we can - due to the staggering drops of transportation costs in real terms. Otherwise we would still be living in huddled and cramped conditions."
  • A Chronicle article asks: Can Houston support all of the mixed-use projects under construction? Hard to say, but one thing is clear from this article: "mixed-use" does not mean "mixed-income." They're all aimed at the high end of the market. I don't blame them - that's the economics of new development and mixed-use - but let's not kid ourselves about the transit ridership from these places with this customer base. As a matter of fact, only one of them on the map is anywhere close to a planned GRT line - BLVD Place on Post Oak - and the anchor tenant for that one is a flagship Whole Foods, which is not exactly the ideal shopping trip for transit (how many grocery sacks can you carry on a train?). If we want future inner loop growth to make fewer car trips, let's hope the next round of developments are more transit-oriented and aimed at a more modest demographic.
Update: A clarification I received on the first item from a VIP reader:

"The discussion of changes in "domestic migration" is interesting, but seems to fall short of the total picture. Hopefully readers will understand that the core counties in the various CMSAs (the Census term for metropolitan regions) cited are not necessarily losing total population. Many, like Harris and Travis counties in Texas, have and are growing substantially due to natural increase (births minus deaths in the resident population) and positive net migration (from persons previously resident to the US (in the last census) and new immigrants from other countries. Nor does the analysis look at total growth in the various metropolitan areas, which is also strongly positive.

It would be wrong if the reader were to conclude that improvements in "quality of life" has reduced the economic vitality of either the heart of metropolitan areas (which is not supported by Census data) or that the growth in major metropolitan areas (whether in the central county or adjacent ones) is unrelated to improvements in "quality of life"."

I absolutely agree on the importance of quality of life. But affordability cannot be ignored. And I believe that some well-known cities that have focused exclusively on QoL and ignored affordability are experiencing reduced economic vitality and growth compared to more balanced cities (such as in the Sunbelt).

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