Thursday, February 07, 2008

ULI verdict on Houston

The Center For Houston's Future convened a panel of national Urban Land Institute experts this week to look at Houston's current situation and coming growth; and, surprisingly, they recommend we do more of what the Center For Houston's Future does (visioning, scenarios, leadership, etc.). Well, ok, maybe the self-promotion was not so surprising. But they actually had a lot of very interesting things to say. So much I'll probably have to spread the content over several posts. This will just be an introductory overview. If you like, you can review their PowerPoint yourself here.

Here were my key takeaways:
  • They believe we are well on our way to becoming America's fourth global city in addition to NYC, LA, and Chicago. I was surprised they didn't include the SF Bay Area in their list, but that may have something to do with it being a smaller metro with a small core city and low growth.
  • They list as our competitors as NYC, LA, Chicago, Sydney, London, Paris, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi.
  • They had two new ideas that I want to explore more in future posts:
  1. H-GAC should competitively award some portion of its transportation funding based on "livability" criteria (i.e. sustainability, walkability, open space, etc.), as LA, DFW, and Atlanta do.
  2. Development standards should be improved with the creation of a voluntary system (called R-LIDS) loosely modeled on LEED for green buildings, which would certify that developments meet certain standards and "raise the bar" for all developers. (maybe if Roger Galatas is lucky, he'll be the reference point and the system will be measured as "a percentage of The Woodlands", i.e. "this development is certified 50% as cool as The Woodlands" ;-)
  • They believe our greatest asset is affordable housing, which attracts the young and educated, and is one of the most intractable problems in competitor cities.
  • They were very opposed to zoning, which is too easy to do badly ("no zoning is better than bad zoning") and would put our greatest asset at risk (see previous point on affordability).
  • They though we should continue to embrace and improve our unique approach to development.
  • They felt Houston should rebrand itself around the key word "opportunity." The speaker even poked mild fun at the archaic 19th-century locomotive on our city seal. Time to join the 21st century. The mayor has used the term "City of Opportunity" forever, and I'm a fan of "Open City of Opportunity," which I think goes beyond branding to our core identity. I'm all for rebranding, and a new city seal to go with it.
More detail on our strengths, weaknesses, issues, and recommended actions will have to wait for another post.

I did get to ask one question in the Q&A period afterward. They recommended rail to the airports, even though they acknowledged the decentralized, distributed, multi-nodal nature of our city elsewhere in the presentation. I asked if that was really the best use limited resources with only 8% of jobs downtown, IAH 23 miles away, and our focus on an express bus lane network instead of commuter rail. They were still very strongly for it, because "every world-class city has rail to the airport," even though they had just finished telling us to embrace our uniqueness and not get too obsessed with how other cities do things.

Another questioner asked how to improve our livability, given that all her friends seem to move away as soon as they can afford to. The answer I wanted to give? I think most people would agree that our biggest livability challenge, by far, is our hot, humid climate half the year. But I'm not aware of any comprehensive planning process that can give us Southern California's weather. It would be awfully nice though...

Update: Chronicle article and part 2 of this post.

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28 Comments:

At 8:28 AM, February 08, 2008, Anonymous kjb434 said...

"every world-class city has rail to the airport,"

It's this kind of idiotic and illogical thinking that wastes tons of taxpayers' money.

I liked pretty much everything in the summary except for the line in quotes above.

Maybe we should build a massive statue like New York, a large sign like LA area, and some big fans to have wind like Chicago. As soon as we get those, we can be world class too!

 
At 9:54 AM, February 08, 2008, Anonymous RedScare said...

i.e. "this development is certified 50% as cool as The Woodlands"

This is assuming, of course, that one considers the Woodlands "cool".

 
At 9:56 AM, February 08, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

You mentioned changing the weather to help Houston. I have noticed in the last couple years that the fretting over urban heat islands seems to have died down. Obviously heat is an externality from building material choices. Any thoughts on market mechanisms to internalize them?

I think that people in Houston would be much more excited about achieving a 1 or 2 degree drop in temperatures than other environmental problems.

 
At 3:54 PM, February 08, 2008, Anonymous mike said...

Rail to the airport... world travellers kind of expect that, hence the "world class" comment. They don't want to take a bus or a cab.

Livability... actually, it's more than just our climate. Believe it or not, many people think that Houston is an ugly city. I teach high school in Dallas, and whenever I proudly say that I'm from Houston, I almost always have a couple of students exclaim "Houston is ugly!" This is a deeply entrenched reputation that won't be overcome by just telling people they're wrong.

"50% as cool as The Woodlands..." I don't get it. What does energy certification have to do with The Woodlands?

 
At 4:02 PM, February 08, 2008, Anonymous Mike said...

"I asked if that was really the best use limited resources with only 8% of jobs downtown, IAH 23 miles away"

But a few days ago you said we had more jobs in our core than Chicago. Commuter rail works pretty well there.

Since when is IAH 23 miles from downtown?

 
At 4:12 PM, February 08, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Brian: I'm no expert, but it might make sense to add it to the building code ("cool roofs").

> "50% as cool as The Woodlands..." I don't get it. What does energy certification have to do with The Woodlands?

Energy certification (LEED) is the model, but these actual ratings would be on the overall characteristics of the development, like preserving open space, walkability, environmental protection, etc.

Chicago: as I've pointed out before, they pack them all into 1 CBD. Great for rail (as is Manhattan). We spread them over 4 job centers, and each of those job centers are pretty spread out themselves (check out the tall building skyline of Uptown next time you're on one of the nearby overpasses). Not so great for rail. But good for nonstop express buses.

> Since when is IAH 23 miles from downtown?

Just used the Wikipedia number. Sounds right to me.

 
At 4:16 PM, February 08, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

You know, I've driven the other USA "world cities" (LA, Chicago, NYC), and I didn't find any of them to be beautiful places, other than the beach in LA or the skylines (from a distance) in the other two (and our skyline is pretty notable itself). LA has the weather, but their development is mostly unattractive, and their environment is very, very brown (the downside of "no rain").

 
At 5:05 PM, February 08, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>We spread them over 4 job centers, and each of those job centers are pretty spread out themselves (check out the tall building skyline of Uptown next time you're on one of the nearby overpasses). Not so great for rail. But good for nonstop express buses.

Which is why we are connecting all 4 job centers by rail? Seems like most people (including the powers that be) disagree with you.

I like how in the last post, you argue that we are like Chicago and NYC because our job-centers are so close to downtown. Nice tight-rope act!

-Mike

 
At 5:18 PM, February 08, 2008, Anonymous memebag said...

"Rail to the airport... world travellers kind of expect that, hence the 'world class' comment. They don't want to take a bus or a cab."

I was in Chicago 3 weeks ago. World travellers do want to take a cab from the airport. The train takes 45 minutes to reach the loop. I took it on arrival, then cabbed on departure.

 
At 6:14 PM, February 08, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I've (modestly) supported the core light rail plan. It will be fine for letting workers get around during the day for meetings, errands, or lunch. But express buses are still best for getting them in in the morning and out in the afternoon. The Main St. LRT takes a *half hour* end-to-end for 7 miles. The average *total commute* in Houston is a half-hour. Now imagine taking commuter rail downtown and then trying to use the LRT to get to TMC, Greenway, or Uptown. It would take far too long. Nobody would do it. If you want commuters to ride transit, take them nonstop at 60mph directly to where they work.

 
At 12:12 AM, February 09, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>The average *total commute* in Houston is a half-hour. Now imagine taking commuter rail downtown and then trying to use the LRT to get to TMC, Greenway, or Uptown

Let's be careful about comparing average times. The people coming in to downtown from Katy and the Woodlands do not currently have a 30 minute commute, unless they work off-hours, or work where they live. They may have a 45 minute to 1 hour commute - that I'll buy. I've had a 2 mile commute before, which took 10-20 minutes depending on traffic. So that's where you end up with a 30 minute average commute.

Commuter rail starts to make sense if it can get you into a connection to the 4 major job centers at times of 30 to 45 minutes. Then after connection time you are talking 45 minutes to an hour to get to work, which is comparable to what these people already spend every day in traffic. But given the choice, I think people overwhelmingly prefer to be able to take the train like this.

Granted, extending the Hardy into downtown is also a worthy goal that is going to help people out. But the reality is it will also be very expensive to build dedicated toll or HOT lanes on all major routes, and doesn't solve the problem as well to me (you are basically circumventing the problem for the wealthy).

>>I was in Chicago 3 weeks ago. World travellers do want to take a cab from the airport. The train takes 45 minutes to reach the loop. I took it on arrival, then cabbed on departure.

Well, I will agree on Chicago rail to Midway, anyway (which is the only one I've taken). It is convenient and cheap but it takes a while to get to the loop. But I don't think Chicago is truly "world class" in this regard - being outclassed by places like Shanghai and London, among others I assume - that offer high-speed business-class rail options into the city.

 
At 9:41 AM, February 09, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

OK, let's run with example of commuter rail to The Woodlands. 29 miles. Set aside the several billion to build the line. Right now Google Maps says 30 min, but "up to 55 mins in traffic". Commuter trains average around 30mph net with stops every few miles, so we're talking an hour into downtown. The HOV lane *already exists* (no billions$), and the bus goes 60mph = 30 min. So the existing service is already better, whether by bus or driving yourself.

Now connect on LRT to TMC, Greenway, or Uptown. I'd guess, with transfer time, 20 min, 30 min, or 40 min respectively - on top of the hour already spent on the commuter train.

There's no way. Not gonna happen.

 
At 10:45 AM, February 09, 2008, Anonymous mike said...

Raising the bar for development does not necessarily mean "being like the Woodlands." It means having innovative developments that push the boundaries of architecture and urban efficiency, as opposed to just gated complex after gated complex.

As for this beautiful city thing, you can keep ignoring the fact that Houston has a unique reputation for ugliness among American cities, but the problem won't be solved in that way. As for the three cities you mentioned, all of them have done an excellent job of maximizing their aesthetic qualities and eliminating eyesores.

 
At 10:46 AM, February 09, 2008, Anonymous mike said...

Commuter rail - would it really cost "several billion" to build a rail line to the Woodlands, or is this another of your misrepresentations?

 
At 10:51 AM, February 09, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ditto Tory's last comment. I rode the bus from The Woodlands for a while. In the morning, without an accident or heavy rain, it usually took 35 minutes from when the bus left to me getting to the entrance of my building. In the afternoon, it would take an extra 10-15 minutes.

1. Any hypothetical train would not drop me off 2 blocks from my office building. Maybe there would be someone lucky enough to win the "transit lottery" here, but the other 90% of people would probably have to walk 10 blocks or more, or catch another on light rail train.
2. At peak times, buses left every 5 minutes. This makes a big difference. Essentially, you never have to wait for a bus more than a couple minutes. Even with express trains, I don't think we would be able to have trains this frequently, unless we built an enormous Intermodal Center on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou.
3. As Tory said, the HOV lanes already exist. If we have to build HOV on existing highways (e.g. 3 highways: East Freeway, West Loop, and Katy Freeway inside I-610), it can be done by elevating the HOV lane for a much smaller price tag than clearing ROW for 3 rail lines and building 3 train stations.

By the way, fyi, Wikipedia now says 18 miles to IAH.

 
At 11:07 AM, February 09, 2008, Anonymous mike said...

"By the way, fyi, Wikipedia now says 18 miles to IAH."

The city is shrinking!!!

 
At 1:16 PM, February 09, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>Commuter trains average around 30mph net with stops every few miles, so we're talking an hour into downtown

From the information I've looked up, this is wrong. Commuter rail trains can get around 60 mph *average* speed, with top speeds of 80 mph, including stops. So, you have 30 minutes into downtown from the Woodlands. Plus, you can go far higher than 80 mph top speeds if you choose to invest more. Obviously, the exact speed will depend on the configuration of the line, and whether you have express trains, etc, but to say that the maximum average speed will be 30 mph is basically a falsehood. Metra lines can get up to 66 mph *average*. The new commuter rail line in Florida is 45 mph *average* speed.

>>There's no way. Not gonna happen.

Wrong. This is most likely going to happen. Probably first on:
- I-45 south to Galveston
- 290 into downtown
- Alt 90 into downtown

>>The HOV lane *already exists* (no billions$)

This is a straw-man argument, then, isn't it? Equivalent to Chicagoans arguing about whether to build an HOV line that is redundant to a Metra line. Nobody is going to argue that we should build commuter rail where existing capacity, HOV, and bus may solve the problem.

However, in cases where we are going to talk about adding capacity by any of the above methods (aside from increasing frequency of bus), I think rail makes more sense than adding more concrete.

-Mike

 
At 9:39 PM, February 09, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael,

I'm not sure if you used the term "straw-man argument" out of habit, but people certainly are pushing for rail lines that are essentially parallel to existing freeways (and therefore, existing HOV lanes). My290.com shows plans to build a parallel rail line with U.S. 290 (as you noted).

On the Gulf Freeway, there's also an HOV lane existing or under construction from outside Beltway 8 to downtown. Outside of the Belt, traffic and density taper off considerably. I suppose if you wanted to, you could have many busses running from Galveston to downtown Houston every morning and back in the afternoon, but I think very few would ride; the demand just isn't there to make it profitable. If the demand isn't there for commuter bus routes, would a train be profitable? I doubt it. The only way that rail line to Galveston might work (being only a minor money loser) is by making it a combined commuter/tourist transit system. I'd be interested to see their plans regarding number of stops, speed, transfers, and the final station layout in Galveston.

The 90A route is the only rail line that is truly not parallel to existing freeways/HOV lanes AND also in a place where it would be at least as difficult, if not more difficult, to build HOV lanes. I could see the justification for building this strictly from a commuter rail perspective if the area to the east of Sugar Land starts to get more infill and higher residential density.

Returning to my other assertion, don't you think it would be cheaper to build HOV lanes from Studemont St. to I-610 (only 4 miles) than to extend a rail line from 290/West Loop into downtown (assuming we can't use the existing rail line - it's needed for freight)?

 
At 9:48 PM, February 09, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Still says 23 miles to IAH here, where I found it:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Bush_Intercontinental_Airport

Billions for rail?
The 23-mile extension to Dulles airport outside DC is estimated at $5+ billion:
http://www.wtopnews.com/index.php?nid=30&sid=1340082
The Woodlands is 29 miles.

DOT average speed for commuter rail is 32 mph. See exhibit 4-21 at the bottom.
http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/2004cpr/chap4b.htm#body
far faster than 18-22mph heavy or light rail., but definitely a lot slower than HOV buses.

Oh, and I'm not holding up The Woodlands as the ultimate development (although it is nice, and has won many awards). Just a joke.

 
At 12:22 AM, February 10, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

Tory,

>>DOT average speed for commuter rail is 32 mph. See exhibit 4-21 at the bottom.

From the same source: In 2002, vanpools traveled at an average speed of 40.0 miles per hour. Demand response vehicles carried passengers at an average of 15.5 miles per hour, buses at an average of 13.2 miles per hour, ferryboats at an average of 10.3 miles per hour, and trolleybuses at an average of 7.3 miles per hour

So we can forget that buses go 60 mph on our *unique* HOV network and use the 13.2 mph figure? Likewise, I find the 32 mph figure for rail pretty meaningless - we'd have to decide how and what we want to build before we determine the speed of the train. As I've mentioned, it is quite reasonable to expect an average speed of 45 mph with stops, or around 70 mph express.

Anon,

>>I'm not sure if you used the term "straw-man argument" out of habit, but people certainly are pushing for rail lines that are essentially parallel to existing freeways (and therefore, existing HOV lanes). My290.com shows plans to build a parallel rail line with U.S. 290 (as you noted).

I am not arguing that rail and HOV lanes might not both be used together where it makes sense to meet demand. But Tory says that the HOV network is already built out, and therefore we should not also be examining commuter rail. I think that entirely misses the point that we have 3 million additional people coming into the area over the next 30 years, and we will need to be making additional capacity upgrades, HOV or not.

>>If the demand isn't there for commuter bus routes, would a train be profitable

Who cares? The answer is probably not. The train, like a public school, roadway, bus system, or library, is also not supposed to be profitable. It is supposed to be "cost effective" for the community, which is different. Think about it - is your public library "profitable"? No. Is it cost effective? That depends on its value to you and the community versus the cost, and ultimately there is no clear answer, but I would say yes. I think trains are far more cost-effective than running hundreds of buses, hiring hundreds of bus drivers, building HOV networks on every major roadway, etc.

>>Returning to my other assertion, don't you think it would be cheaper to build HOV lanes from Studemont St. to I-610 (only 4 miles) than to extend a rail line from 290/West Loop into downtown (assuming we can't use the existing rail line - it's needed for freight)?

Yes, I think it would be cheaper to extend HOV lanes on I-10 all the way into downtown.

However, I think what you will see play out over the next 15-20 years - is that I-10 will need to be expanded again, and people will demand rail the next time that I-10 is expanded. 290 may be a bit ahead of the curve, as they are at least reserving ROW for rail now.

I think really, if you want to look at what has happened in Houston - and the HOV / bus network and highways - their creation has not been driven by sound economics or cost-effectiveness for the community. The decisions have been made for partisan political reasons by the likes of John Culberson and Tom DeLay. It is quite sad - they have set the region back a quarter century in terms of mobility.

-Mike

 
At 8:49 AM, February 10, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

To achieve 45mph average speeds, the stops will have to be *very* far apart, which means giving up ridership, which was the whole point of building the line in the first place.

When Metro can show the fully-loaded cost curves for bus-HOV vs. commuter rail, then show ridership growth trends in a corridor that show those cost curves will cross in 5-8 years (i.e. we will either run out of HOV capacity, or it will just be too expensive to run that many buses with that many riders vs. rail), then it's time to start building a commuter rail line. I don't think we're anywhere near that, and I don't think Metro is claiming that we are.

 
At 10:24 PM, February 10, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The question posed by the person that her friends seem to move away when they could afford too hits home with some of the ppl I know too. Not only that, but talking to those that move here, their reason always seem to be that they couldn't afford elsewhere, and they could get jobs. Even though affordability attracts, I wouldn't really called this a form of attraction in the strictest sense of the word, its more like folks have no choice; most of these folks, if they had a little more money, wouldn't end up here. I wish they wouldn't make that factor as a main 'attraction'. But Houston really doesn't have other attractions, otherwise it would have a real tourism on par with other cities.Not that I want it to be like other cities, but some sort of our own unique quality tourisy stuff would be nice, instead of touting stuff other cities already have and do better anyway, museums, broadway. Many folks say Houston is ugly, and I have to agree, but that's because we don't have the natural backdrops to distract like LA and Miami does. The lack of zoning has created hideous looking but effective infrastructure but cheap living. Zoning might make it look nice, but it would take away the affordability.

 
At 7:40 AM, February 11, 2008, Blogger engineering said...

Fascinating. I read the Chronicle article on the event and thought it was silly to compare Houston to "competitors" as NYC, LA, Chicago, Sydney, London, Paris, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. Are we for real?
The comments are mostly on transportation, rail, commuter rail, HOV. Interesting that people think of competitive cities in terms of its transportation. There is one comment that brings the fact on "affordable" housing, meaning cheap housing.
When looking to relocate to a city an adult person (I think) looks at affordable housing as on of the main factors. Houston has the cheapest housing markets. If this was not the case then companies would have to increase salaries to compete with other cities. Then competition means ability to attract brain power.
Interesting statement made by an engineer friend who has been working in the Houston are for 30 years. When compared to Dallas Houston (agencies) want cheap services and short term solutions. Vs. Dallas (agencies) that are willing to pay more for better aesthetics and long term results. He might be right since what we tend to do is short term and forget about long term aesthetics.
It would be nice to think that Houston is competing for jobs with cities like New York, Paris and Dubai.

 
At 2:48 PM, February 11, 2008, Anonymous mike said...

"When compared to Dallas Houston (agencies) want cheap services and short term solutions. Vs. Dallas (agencies) that are willing to pay more for better aesthetics and long term results. He might be right since what we tend to do is short term and forget about long term aesthetics."

Says a lot about the two cities.

 
At 4:41 PM, February 11, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Try driving from Hwy6 and Memorial, down Memorial to downtown. Try driving down Sweetwater in Sugarland. Try driving down Bissonent in West U. or Briarforest between the Beltway and 610. There are plenty of beautiful areas in Houston, but they are in established areas. I bet most of the people who think Houston is ugly live in recently developed communities. There is tons of bad sprawl in Houston, but tons of beautiful looking sprawl. I've lived in Southwest Houston, specifically Fondren Southwest; even though this is a ghetto area, there are some beautiful neighborhoods. Westbury and Meyerland come to my head first. Beautiful greenery situated along Braes Bayou on the edge of 610. HISD is great if you go to Westside, Lamar, or Bellaire for HS.

 
At 4:59 PM, February 11, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>I bet most of the people who think Houston is ugly live in recently developed communities

I agree with you that there are many beautiful areas in Houston - like Memorial Dr as you suggest. But I think what most people are referring to when they say that Houston looks bad is:
- Highways
- Strip centers / massive billboards and signage all along the highways
- Lack of trees / plants in many areas (reforestation of highways helps a little bit, but there are still many areas of Houston where you basically have buildings, parking lots, roads, and concrete - everywhere)
- In some cases, lack of zoning that produces things like skyscrapers or factories right next to residential. (Or in the case of Kemah, roller coasters right next to residential)
-Cheap construction (I guess this is what you are referring to)
-Lack of mid-size, accessible parks (smaller than Hermann / Memorial, and bigger than "pocket parks")

I know from several of the people at Rice or Medical Center, that they think those are wonderful institutions. And they think that the immediate Rice surroundings or Hermann Park type of areas are great. But aside from that, they do not venture out to Sugar Land or West Houston too often. And the areas that they see along 288, 59, Kirby, Westpark, and 610 are not the most appealing places. Even Brays bayou in that area is:
- concrete
- polluted (often with things you wonder how they got there, like shopping carts)

In contrast, West Houston's Buffalo Bayou / Terry Hershey park is much more appealing and natural looking.

When I've gone with some of my friends (who don't get out of the Med Center / Rice area too often, and are not from here) out to places like Memorial Park or Terry Hershey, they almost cannot believe they are still in Houston.

 
At 2:03 PM, February 12, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael,
I agree that there are various factors that cause Houston's image problem. However, Houston has a subtropical environment and won't take long to add another ring of mature tress to its canopy. I don't agree that there is concrete everywhere. Perhaps b/c I live and occupy an established part of Houston. I never venture north of I-10 or east of I-45. Whenever I get on 59N from Beltway 8 and look north towards downtown, all I see is a forest with skyscrapers. I can understand where you are coming from though. Overall Houston has a gritty feel, no doubt about it. However, Houston is taking many steps forward. I'm pretty excited about the Brays (I always thought it was spelled Braes) Bayou project. Just think if over the long term we could turn our bayous into 25 mile long green belts or at least long segments. I doubt those folks who live along Buffalo Bayou in Memorial would like a jogging/biking trail in their backyard.

 
At 2:28 PM, February 12, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

Anon,

I agree with you overall. Houston is fortunate that we can tackle a lot of fairly non-controversial issues like tree planting, parks along the bayous, adding to park lands, expanding bike trails, taking down at least some of the signage, etc. - that will help people in all areas see the beauty of the city. We are never going to have mountains or an ocean view, but we have great trees, bayous, and good weather for 7-8 months of the year.

>>I doubt those folks who live along Buffalo Bayou in Memorial would like a jogging/biking trail in their backyard.

This is basically what Terry Hershey is - if you haven't been I would suggest checking it out. I guess it is west of Beltway 8 though.

-Mike

 

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