Thursday, November 29, 2007

Family-friendly, Bill White, winning cities, NIMBYs, and more

Catching up again on some smaller misc items:
" analysis of migration data by my colleagues at the Praxis Strategy Group shows that the strongest job growth has consistently taken place in those regions—such as Houston, Dallas, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham—with the largest net in-migration of young, educated families ranging from their mid-20s to mid-40s. Urban centers that have been traditional favorites for young singles, such as Chicago, Boston, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have experienced below-average job and population growth since 2000."
"For every doubling in city size, there's a 14 to 27 percent increase in productivity per worker."

Growth => Higher Productivity => Higher Pay => Higher Standard of Living => More $ to support a vibrant city. So the pain of growth is worth the payoff.
  • Minnesota is a little upset after Norway announced they're closing their Minneapolis consulate, even though the upper Midwest has the largest concentration of ancestral Norwegians in the country:

"Three other Norwegian career consulates in the United States will remain open, in New York, San Francisco and Houston. Embassy officials defend those choices as strategic; Houston, for instance, has significance for Norway’s oil interests.

For Minnesotans, that is one more rub.

“Houston?” asked the 80-year-old Mrs. Amundson, laughing faintly. “Houston, Texas?”

"New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston held the top four spots in terms of the highest percentage of 25 to 34-year-olds in both 2000 and 2006."

You can play with the table rankings yourself here, although it's important to note that it's city data, not metro.
  • Courtesy of HAIF, a slightly humorous and very sterotyped China Airlines commercial for their Taiwan-Seattle-Houston service.
  • Randal makes a good argument that planning bureaucracies (inc. zoning) aggravate NIMBY-ism:
"Crook’s second argument against homeownership is that “communities of homeowners tend to act as cartels–calling for zoning rules that suppress new development.” Again, this only happens where planning laws tell people they are entitled to have a say on what happens on other people’s private land. There are lots of NIMBYs in Oregon and California, whose state planning laws give everyone the right to challenge what happens on anyone else’s land. There are few NIMBYs in Texas, where property rights are still respected.
Take away planning and you take away the problem with unemployment. Take away planning and you take away the problem with NIMBYs. Take away planning and you take away the problem with housing bubbles."
That's it. Have a great weekend.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

An Astro-nomical blunder for Houston?

When Major League Soccer first came to Houston, I questioned the need for a new stadium with both Reliant and the Astrodome available (part 1, part 2). Since then, the Dynamo have won two national championships, and are well on their way to becoming a popular sports franchise in this town, with the potential to draw very large crowds over time. Yet now we're looking at a brand-new $80-million outdoor stadium near Minute Maid for a summer season sport in Houston (and can you imagine the parking nightmare when both teams have a game?). Meanwhile, the climate-controlled Astrodome hotel redevelopment deal is disintegrating, and an incredible piece of history - the world's first domed stadium - is at risk of demolition. What's wrong with this picture?

Others noted the blindingly obvious in the Chronicle editorial letters this morning, including this excerpt from James Glassman:
Let's give soccer champs, the Houston Dynamo, a home in the Astrodome. After two years as a guest at UH's Robertson Stadium, it's time the Dynamo had a permanent home. Reimagining the fabled Astrodome into a world-class, state-of-the-art soccer stadium is easy to do.

How difficult would it be to transform the former football and baseball stadium into a Major League Soccer stadium? Of course, the legendary Astro Turf would have to go in favor of real grass. This would pose a problem for the semi-opaque ceiling. We could return the Astrodome ceiling to clear glass spanning the gaps in the beautiful steel structure. The structural steel beams could be painted Dynamo Orange, with a soccer ball pattern on the roof. Seating, concessions, parking and utilities are all there! The newly dubbed Dynamo Dome could also be host to other soccer events. Could Houston host the World Cup? It could in the Dynamo Dome.
Commenters have noted that they want a "more intimate" setting for around 22,000 rather than 60,000. But couldn't that be accomplished with an interior makeover? Move in or reconstruct the lower tier seats, and block the upper tiers with curtains or giant flags/posters/billboards? And if we did attract something on the level of the World Cup, we would have the option to open up those seats. Let some expert architects or interior designers at it, and I'm sure all sorts of creative solutions could be found. It would be far less expensive than a new one, while preserving an amazing piece of history - not to mention being a climate-controlled environment that will attract a much wider fan base on sweltering - and thunderstorm-prone - summer days.

Mayor White and County Judge Emmett need to get their heads together and figure this out before the window of opportunity closes. We've given the hotel group more than enough time to get their act together. Give the hotel a short deadline to get a locked financing deal plus Texan and Rodeo approval, and at the same time commission an architectural concept for redoing the Astrodome interior to meet the Dynamo's needs. If the hotel can't meet the deadline, then it's time to begin a Second Golden Age of sports under the Dome - which I believe has the potential to become a beloved icon of Houston's history and identity the way Fenway Park is for Boston or Wrigley Field is for Chicago.

Will we seize this incredible opportunity for Houston's past and future, or just let it quietly slip away?


Monday, November 19, 2007

Summing up my views on transit

I've caught a little flak recently for a string of posts that were a tad hard on transit. Sorry if I offended some of my readers. Sometimes my posts are less thoughtful and balanced than I'd like them to be - just depends on my mood and time crunch when I'm posting.

To clarify, I'm a supporter of transit done in a thoughtful and cost-effective way (rather than a blind "We have to be like New York!" model), which, for the most part, Metro seems to do - especially when compared to a lot of other transit agencies in this country, which can be managed very badly indeed.

I've always supported the Main St. line. I think the core LRT network is pretty good too - esp. the Universities line. I'm not sure the projected ridership on the other lines justifies LRT over BRT, but I'll give Metro the benefit of the doubt since they're far more familiar with what the Feds will and won't pay for.

As most of my readers know, my biggest objection is favoring a downtown-centric commuter rail network over an express lane bus network that can serve all of our polycentric job centers at higher speed with no transfers and shorter trip times while getting people closer to their final destination buildings. Senior Metro people have told me that the costs of building commuter rail require concentrating as much ridership as possible, which means killing "competing" express bus services even if they are more direct and faster. That would be a huge mistake for this city.

As far as road vs. rail comparative costs, the Katy Freeway is very expensive, but when you amortize out that cost over the massive numbers of people it will move over its lifetime, it's not that bad on a per-passenger-mile served basis. The HOT lanes will always offer the option of a fast trip (including for transit) - no matter how much congestion re-builds after it's complete.

As far a other world-class mega-cities: NYC, London, Paris, etc. are all artifacts of their history - huge, dense concentrations of people and jobs packed in a core during the walking age, and rail was the first technology that let people move out of the tenements and into the burbs, while keeping the jobs concentrated in the core. In cities built in the car age (think of the U.S. Sunbelt), the jobs disperse instead of concentrating in a single downtown, making commuter rail inappropriate.

In the bigger picture, I think the vast majority of America will not give up the comfort, speed, and convenience of personal vehicles to go back to transit. The vehicles themselves certainly may change - smaller, more fuel efficient, or even using alternative and cleaner fuels - but the personal vehicle is a core part of our lives that will not be going away no matter what gas prices do or carbon limits get enacted. Even the nature of our economy is shifting against transit, as far fewer people work 9 to 5 in one office with lunch at their desk. People have unpredictable schedules, telecommute more, and spend more time going to and from meetings with others not inside their building - not to mention chaining together all sorts of errand trips. Our core LRT network will make that somewhat feasible for some people who use commuter transit, but it still won't fit with the majority of peoples' lives.

I won't argue that transit isn't part of the solution - it absolutely is - but I do object to people who believe we can just lay down a lot of rail, build a few transit-oriented developments, stop expanding road capacity, and still be a healthy growing city. That's just not realistic - as LA, Atlanta, and even to some extent Dallas are discovering the hard way.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

The problem with transit polling

A new, expanded version of the 2007 Houston Area Survey came out today, and the Chronicle story notes the high support for transit as a "solution to traffic congestion." If "solution" means "alternative" - then maybe - but if means "alleviate" - then even David Crossley will admit it does no such thing.

People often think one of two things when you ask if they support transit. One is, "yeah, so everybody else will take it and leave the roads clear for me" - which, of course, is not the case in any major transit-based city anywhere in the world (they're all gridlocked). This Onion article really sums up this sentiment the best... ;-)

The other is, in their imagination, they think "yeah, I'd love to have express transit a few blocks from my house (but not closer!), that bypasses all the traffic at high-speed and goes straight to where I work."

Of course, in reality, transit is rarely close to where you live, has quite a slow net speed with all the stops, usually requires a time-killing transfer or two to get where you're going, and still stops quite a walking distance from your final destination, where you're exposed to heat, cold, and/or rain. Then you're at work without a car, so you can't easily get out to lunch, meetings, or errands. Once people experience the "reality" of transit, they often switch back to their cars. Unfortunate, but true. We live in a society where convenience is king.

Then there's the financial reality that at least 75+% of the cost of transit is subsidized by the government, so there's the natural incentive to want that instead of paying the full cost of owning, insuring, and fueling a car yourself. People love it when somebody else buys them something they would normally have to pay for.

The real polling question should be "Should government spend tax dollars on transportation solutions that move the most people for the least cost?" - which I'm sure would enjoy overwhelming support, and, of course, would point directly at road capacity in most cases (although, admittedly, not all - the Main St. LRT is quite popular and successful, and the Galveston commuter rail plan looks not bad if these numbers hold).

The problem is the average citizen doesn't have the cost-benefit expertise to allocate transportation dollars. It's analogous to a poll asking the American public, "Given modern threats to national security, should we spend more defense money on the Army, Navy, Marines, or Air Force?" Polls aren't the right way to answer those sorts of questions - we delegate to experts with a deep understanding of the cost-benefit tradeoffs.

Hopefully I'll have time to go through the survey in more depth soon, and do a follow-up post.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The dark side of zoning

With the Ashby high-rise controversy and the scattered calls for zoning - whether traditional or form-based - Texas Monthly gives us a reminder from Dallas of one of the dark side-effects of strong government control of land-use:
There are no winners in Dallas now that sixteen indictments have been handed down in a massive public-corruption case.

Not the city council, though none of its current members were involved. Not African Americans, who saw so many of their leaders paraded through the Earle Cabell Federal Building. Not investigators, who had been roundly criticized for their lack of progress after a dramatic raid of city hall way back in June 2005. And certainly not Dallas itself, which is doomed to witness the messy details play out in the media and the courtroom. The case boils down to this: Developer Brian Potashnik and his wife, Cheryl, are accused of bribing local officials to obtain permits to build low-income housing units in mostly poor, mostly black South Dallas. The U.S. attorney contends there was no shortage of takers, including Democratic state representative Terri Hodge, former mayor pro tem and recent mayoral candidate Don Hill, his wife and political consultant Sheila Farrington, and former city plan commissioner D’Angelo Lee. (Former city councilman James Fantroy was charged with embezzlement in a separate indictment.)
And, as everybody knows, corruption is like a cockroach: for every one you see, there are dozens or even hundreds you don't...

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

IAH, deconstructing rail, planning probs, Kotkin, NYC car boom

The second half of this week's list of smaller miscellaneous items:
  • Joel Kotkin in, of all places, Details magazine, "Is it time to move to the suburbs?" - "Homogeneous cities are making the cul de sac the new downtown. PLUS: Our guide to the hippest ’burbs to live in."
  • An article on the car boom in NYC, despite having the most extensive transit network in the country (thanks to an anon commenter for the heads up)
  • As much as my heart wants to support Metro's planned LRT system, my head was reminded yet again of the dubiousness by this post which systematically deconstructs the arguments for rail, concluding:
"So rail transit does not get people out of their automobiles or cost-effectively reduce congestion, it harms transit-dependent people, it does not reduce pollution and at least some forms are more dangerous than autos. So where are the benefits of rail transit? And why do planners do so much to promote it?"

Go to the post to read the short arguments behind each of those conclusions.
  • Randal O' Toole has a couple of new items of interest out via Cato, and these are his announcements:
  1. "I am pleased to announce my new book, "The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future." The book urges Congress and the states to repeal planning laws that make housing more expensive, roads more congested, and take property rights from the people who are supposed to benefit from the plans.

    Published by the Cato Institute, this hardbound book sells for $22.95 ($15.61 at Amazon). But American Dream Coalition members can buy copies for just $15, including shipping. You can order the book (and join or renew your ADC membership) here."
  2. "Thanks to urban planners, California has the least-affordable housing and worst traffic congestion in the nation. Yet planners throughout the country are headed in the same direction.

    To help people understand just where they are going, I've written a paper on California land-use and transportation planning that the Cato Institute will release tomorrow. "Do You Know the Way to L.A.? - San Jose Shows How to Turn an Urban Area into Los Angeles in Three Stressful Decades" shows how planners used innocuous-seeming laws to cram 95 percent of California residents in just 5 percent of the state's land area, and to divert billions of dollars intended for highway improvements to wasteful rail transit projects."

    You can download a preview of this report from
  • A series of short videos on the effects of urban planning and densification in Australia, and the resulting debate on Planetizen (thanks to Hugh for the link). The Aussies are a bit stiff, but make some good points. Houston is on a chart 1:41 mins in on video 2, showing higher densities lead to higher commute travel times, regardless of the transit network.

"Within this 5 part (5 minutes each) You Tube Video Presentation by Wilchiland Communications, Australia "The End of Affordability" – Dr Tony Recsei, an environmental scientist and President of the community group Save Our Suburbs (SOS) Sydney explains in very clear terms - the failures of forced urban consolidation.

Dr Recsei dismantles the “5 Great Myths” of Smart Growth / forced urban densification and provides some of the examples of reputable international research to support his position.

The reality is that forced urban consolidation is a failure – in environmental, social and economic terms."
The key word there is "forced" - it's just fine as a voluntary choice, which is becoming a more and more popular one in Houston.

Finally, one last item from the Wall Street Journal giving a nice plug to IAH, which has the 4th best on-time arrival rate in the country so far this year:

Houston's Bush Intercontinental has also relied on a mix of expansion and new technology to keep its on-time arrival rate above 78% and even to improve it slightly from last year.

Unlike airports in crowded urban areas, such as New York's John F. Kennedy International and La Guardia airports, Bush Intercontinental has ample space to grow. In recent years, it has built a new runway and converted another from general aviation to commercial use. A new terminal brought 23 new gates, upping its overall gate capacity today to 151 from 128 in 2002.

Bush is also harnessing technology to better utilize existing space. Rick Vacar, aviation director for the Houston Airport System, said that with the number of passengers at Bush expected to soar by 10 million to 55 million in 2015, the airport could carve out a new runway between two existing ones -- an option now possible because of new technology that allows for more precise flight paths.

The airport is also starting to acquire land in the hopes of adding another runway five to 10 years from now.

Lisa Hurst, director of travel for San Diego-based Petco Animal Supplies Inc., said her employees have had more problems connecting through Dallas, Denver and Chicago. "I try to route people through Houston if possible."

Our airports and their major airlines (Continental-IAH and Southwest-Hobby) are huge underrated assets to Houston.

Whew. That's it. I'll definitely have to clear out that list more often. Have a great weekend.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Metro stats, school choice, Rice #1, NYT Texas, and more

I've let my list of smaller miscellaneous items get so long, I'll have to break it into two posts this week. Here's the first half:
  • Christof does a good job analyzing H-GAC stats on Metro's HOV system and the Main St. rail, which is "carrying more people per mile (and thus per dollar invested) than any other modern light rail line in the United States. "
  • A Dallas Morning News sports columnist picks the Rockets to go all the way this year... even past the Spurs and the Mavericks.
  • Megan McArdle writes really great arguments for school choice vouchers, and absolutely devastates the con case.
  • Reed has asked me to announce a new community-driven web site:
"The goal of is to facilitate open and honest communication between consumers and local real estate professionals by integrating a number of 'Web 2.0' features including a community blog, a question and answers section (similar to Yahoo! Answers), and an interactive neighborhood map. It's free for agents to register, and since the directory is sorted by their level of participation, professionals are incentivized to provide quality insights that any user can benefit from."
Second half of the list later this week...

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

A backup plan for the Astrodome

Most of you probably caught the story yesterday about the Texans and Rodeo coming out against the Astrodome redevelopment plan into a convention mega-hotel. The key problem is that they have veto power, so I'm sure they strung the whole process along as far as they could to maximize their negotiating leverage, waiting until ARC had sunk a lot of money and time into a plan and getting financing. I've questioned the economics of this thing before, and I'm sure whatever the Texans and Rodeo demanded made the deal even more untenable. At this juncture, there seem to be only three possible ways the deal will get done:
  1. ARC finds a way to throw enough money at them they drop their opposition
  2. Public outrage at the "Astrodome wreckers" worries the Texans/Rodeo enough that they back down, fearing a collapse in fan/customer support (the Rodeo seems particularly susceptible to this)
  3. Behind the scenes arm-twisting by city and county power brokers, esp. on the Rodeo board of directors
Since it seems to be the way things are typically done in Houston, #3 seems the most likely, maybe with a little #1 and a threat of #2 thrown in.

The Astrodome is clearly a historic structure. It even has its own MySpace page with a great chronology of that history. The problem is, people seem to think it's either this hotel or the wrecking ball, and I don't believe that to be true. I've articulated my low-cost, low-risk plan before as a climate-controlled weekend festival dome, along with an array of speakers and classes. It would cost very little, and almost certainly bring it more than enough money from parking alone to cover the annual maintenance cost. Even if it's only an interim strategy until a mega-makeover deal can be put together, it's a heck of a lot better option than tearing it down. Please, if you know any of the decision-makers involved (like the County Commissioners), please pass this post along. Thanks.

Update: Alison Cook at the Chronicle suggests a food market inside the Astrodome modeled on the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.

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