Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mixed thoughts on Smart Growth Distinguished Lecture

I attended Scott Bernstein's lecture on smart growth tonight, put on by the Gulf Coast Institute. He came in from Chicago. First, where we agree. Clearly, if a person chooses to live in walkable density close to work and ride transit, they will use less energy and generate less carbon, as well as save money if they can get rid of a car in the household or use a shared car service. And obviously that lower spending on utilities and transportation should be considered when determining credit for a mortgage. No argument there. Clearly a fine and admirable lifestyle choice.

The real question comes down to a city's approach to that lifestyle: allow vs. encourage vs. compel. Some cities can't even get through their zoning regulations and NIMBYs to the 'allow' stage. Fortunately Houston (mostly) avoids that, although we do have regulations (like setbacks and minimum parking) that will need some relaxing (a la the urban corridors initiative). I can see some level of 'encouragement' also making sense - a few incentives here and there (full blown subsidies are probably a bad idea). But 'compel'? That's where they lose me. Active efforts to shut down people who want to live in suburban single-family homes and drive. And requiring mixed-use density around rail stops may well backfire and create stagnant dead zones down each line.

Scott made quite a number of specific points I'd like to address.

First, his stat about Houston households spending 21% of our expenses on transportation vs. lower elsewhere (like 17% in Atlanta). As I've said many times on this blog before: if someone has a good income and a cheap house and they splurge on their ride (luxury car, SUV, truck), that's not the same as saying "Houston forced them to have high transportation costs." They could've bought a Civic or Prius just like anyone else. Check out the ACCRA numbers at the end of this post to see that our transportation costs are actually below the national average and well below other big metros.

He also pointed out we have the highest average vehicle miles traveled per day at 36. It's actually a sign of economic vibrancy: more people going more places, socializing more and doing more things. Also, yes, when you massively invest in freeway infrastructure, people can commute farther in their half-hour time budget, so they live farther out. But if we had fewer freeway lane-miles, people would either live in more expensive housing closer in (less discretionary income = lower quality of life), or jobs would move farther out (fragmented metro where people can't change jobs without moving to a new suburb, plus a weaker tax base in the city core). Clearly, people are rethinking where they live and what they drive with $4 gas, but it's important to understand that doing things that would have reduced VMT would also have weakened the city (IMHO).

He completely ignored school quality in peoples' choices of where to live. He also didn't include private school tuition in his lower combined housing + transportation costs in the urban core. This is why childless households are more attracted to density and the core.

His graphs noted that our household sizes have been shrinking while our houses have been growing, which reinforces my longstanding maxim, "Higher wealth desires more private space." Our economy is always growing wealthier, and people like to convert that wealth into more personal space, as they have all throughout history.

He had another graph of the "hottest" cities for real estate investment, including NY, SF, Portland, etc. - i.e. all the cities that were the most regulated, where supply is constrained far below demand, and where developers who can get over the high barriers have little competition and are very profitable. Contrast this with hyper-competitive Houston with low prices, plenty of supply, and thin developer margins. Which is really better? Should our goal really to be the city most profitable for real estate investors and developers because we limit their competition?

In another graph, he lamented that Houston has increased our job share of over $75K salaries, while reducing the absolute lowest incomes (poverty). This is bad? I think he was trying to make a "rich are getting richer" argument, but I think he was misinterpreting the graph. Isn't this exactly what cities want, to keep adding high paying jobs?

He gave some history of Houston and many anecdotes (to be honest, many seemed less than directly relevant). He pointed out the rise of air conditioning in tropical Houston while lamenting the replacement of trolleys with cars, without catching on to the fact that our cars let us bring air conditioning with us, accounting for at least some of their popularity in Houston vs. walking.

I was flummoxed by his argument that streets beat freeways because people aren't buying things and contributing to the economy when they're flying along a freeway. But aren't these people simply headed to a destination where they will shop and/or contribute to the economy? Might they even go out and do more because they can go farther in the same amount of time? Would Houston's economy really pick up if we shut down all our freeways and replaced them with surface streets? Or, more likely, would people just stay home more because they quickly tire of the options within a couple miles of their house?

Finally, he had a graph that showed higher density means fewer daily vehicle miles per household, but he neglected to point out that it doesn't decrease as fast as the density increases, so you actually get more trips and traffic per square mile, creating London/NYC/LA-style congestion.

Bottom line: a smart nice guy with admirable goals, but a weak foundation of arguments for changing Houston's good direction or interfering in people making their own free market choices. Offer the options - and even promote/market/sell the smart growth lifestyle if you like (as Apple has proven: make something seem cool and people will buy it) - but let people weigh up the costs and benefits on their own and pick the lifestyle that's right for them.

P.S. Erik, he was thankful for the Houston freeway pictures from your site he used in his presentation.

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18 Comments:

At 5:44 AM, June 27, 2008, Anonymous John Whiteside said...

"Active efforts to shut down people who want to live in suburban single-family homes and drive."

I'm just curious - what American city has done this? I don't think not building roads to new developments (that is- subsidizing them) counts as "shutting down.." Is there an American city that has tried to forbid people from living in suburban homes?

"And requiring mixed-use density around rail stops may well backfire and create stagnant dead zones down each line."

If it's done poorly, that is certainly the case. Most places I've seen it, though, it seems to result in the opposite; for example, I watched the incredibly burst of activity that sprung up by every Metro stop along the Wilson Boulevard corridor in Arlington County, VA because the county government insisted on it; meanwhile, in Fairfax County, the rail stops were indeed dead zones (with lots of traffic around them) because the county forbade the same thing.

I think you hae a problem if you insist on density around poorly utilized rail stops, though.

 
At 7:40 AM, June 27, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Portland and some other cities have used urban growth boundaries. Others have used severe downzoning to require a tremendous number of acres per house. But I also object to intentional starvation of infrastructure like roads. Places like Maryland have shown people are moving to the suburbs whether or not the infrastructure is built. Govt has an obligation to plan for and meet those citizens' needs.

Clearly, forbidding it like Fairfax is bad. But it's likely the same density would have happened in Arlington w/o the requirement - the market would have sensed the demand and built it anyway. And I don't mind a few incentives either - additional benefits developers can accrue if they meet the preferred standard. Houston seems to be headed this direction with the urban corridors, I think.

 
At 9:19 AM, June 27, 2008, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Many large cities have done exactly what you've quoted john.

What happens it that is pushes residents much further out to find an area of single family residential that isn't regulated by the large city.

Lets say if all the land within the Houston ETJ (which is pretty much all of Harris County) that is governed by the planning commission is force to be denser development, it would force more people to move further out to the areas where the Houston ETJ doesn't govern.

Portland is the most extreme example. To put it simply, if you buy a tract a land outside of a classified urban area in Oregon, you will not be allowed to build a house (even if only one) on it unless the tract is a minimum acreage and makes set income from agricultural use. The acreage limits and income from agricultural use essentially killed development (and people freedom to live where they want). Many residents moved across the state line to Vancouver, WA to get there property right freedoms back. They have a much longer commute now, but at lease a house in a neighborhood they wanted instead of being forced into the city at a high cost.

 
At 9:54 AM, June 27, 2008, Blogger Unofficial Texas Creator said...

If these cities and their "hyper-planned" environments are so wonderful, people should move there instead of converting lassiez-faire Houston into this fabricated utopia. I've traveled to all of these places. They're unaffordable and phony. See you back in Houston.

 
At 10:12 AM, June 27, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>Our economy is always growing wealthier, and people like to convert that wealth into more personal space, as they have all throughout history.

If more personal space is relatively cheap to acquire and maintain, perhaps. If investing your money in that space is actually going to decrease your wealth long term, then probably not. With $4 gas and high home energy bills, people will probably use the wealth they have to pursue other goals.

>>But I also object to intentional starvation of infrastructure like roads.

And I object to the intentional starvation of the inner cities through the lack of heavy transit and good public schools.

 
At 11:02 AM, June 27, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And I object to the intentional starvation of the inner cities through the lack of heavy transit and good public schools."

You might want to check and see what the average per pupil expenditures are in inner city public schools. You are likely to be surprised.

Further, a lot of the new urbanist types are making a grave mistake in thinking that luring people to downtowns requires increased transit infrastructure. Very often, that transit infrastructure is already there. The problem, as you can see in many of the places new urbanists laud, is that you are bringing in an upperclass demographic to a place that hasn't had it before. In so doing you actually suburbanize the downtown. I would urge you to check out a place like Hoboken, NJ, which has about 40,000 people living on a postage stamp. The area went from waterfront industrial populated by carless dockworkers, to massive urban dorm. The people who live in Hoboken, outise of the projects on the west side, are rich by the standards of most of America. As a result there are on the order of 40,000 cars on this postage stamp and no place to put them.

Hoboken spends, I'm not making this up, almost $25,000 per child per year on its schools, and I can assure you that none of the new urbanist condo dwelling commuters would ever seriously entertain allowing their kids to set foot in Hoboken schools for 30 seconds.

Meet your future, Michael:

http://hoboken411.com/archives/11031

 
At 11:32 AM, June 27, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>Further, a lot of the new urbanist types are making a grave mistake in thinking that luring people to downtowns requires increased transit infrastructure. Very often, that transit infrastructure is already there.

I was talking about Houston, not Hoboken, just to be clear. If you are claiming that Houston's inner core already has the transit infrasture requisite for its increasing population, I think you are sadly mistaken.

>>Hoboken spends, I'm not making this up, almost $25,000 per child per year on its schools

Again, I don't really see the direct comparison between Hoboken and Houston. What are the housing prices over there anyway?

Houston ISD spends $7800 per pupil according to this site.

This is less than the state average of nearly $9000 per pupil.

 
At 12:52 PM, June 27, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The inner core of Houston is going to need more auto infrastructure, not more transit infrastructure if you being in more wealthy people. You will see conditions in Houston mirror those in 'Boken, Portland, Chicago, etc. Wealthy people come in with their cars. They'll us e a transit a bit, maybe, but will still primarily get around by car because that's what people with mobility options do. The schools in Houston are not underfunded, they are dysfunctionally managed. To the extent that anyone is game to bring or raise school age children in the innercity they won't use the public school system and it doesn't matter whether per pupil spening is 5 grand or 500 grand. If you want to (i) take the bus back from the bar at 1 a.m., and (ii) send your 10 year old to a well funded inner city public school, feel free to prove me wrong. The funny thing is that when this migration occurs, the local liberals then decry the whole shebang as inauthentice "gentrification" and the 'Disneyfication" of the heretofore "authentic inner city. I'd send you links but the Internet can't handle that much traffic.

 
At 1:14 PM, June 27, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>The inner core of Houston is going to need more auto infrastructure, not more transit infrastructure if you being in more wealthy people. You will see conditions in Houston mirror those in 'Boken, Portland, Chicago, etc. Wealthy people come in with their cars.

Hehe! More auto infrastructure?! For Houston's core?! See my and Kuffner's comments re: expanding local roads. Which roads do you propose to expand? Should Westheimer be 12 lanes? There really is no alternative but to add things like Signature Bus and light rail, as we are doing. You cannot widen roads like Kirby, Westheimer, Louisiana, etc without enormous expense of either land acquisition / eminent domain, tunnels, or double-decker road systems. You can constrain demand through congestion pricing, and I might support that as well. But if you have congestion pricing, you have to have really good bus / rail service so "normal" people can still get around.

>>The schools in Houston are not underfunded, they are dysfunctionally managed.

That's not my understanding. I read an article in the paper this week that said 20 HISD schools do not even have librarians, and several are not considered to meet basic standards for a "school library" according to the state's definition - because of a lack of funding for new books, computers, etc.

>>To the extent that anyone is game to bring or raise school age children in the innercity they won't use the public school system and it doesn't matter whether per pupil spening is 5 grand or 500 grand.

That's not really true. HISD does a good job with its magnet program as well as Lamar and Bellaire.

You are correct that the problem goes far beyond funding - but adequate funding is a good starting point to achieve.

 
At 3:19 PM, June 27, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you think that you can't add more auto infrastructure to downtown, then you're probably barking up the wrong tree by seeking to induce people to move there. The new people will be using cars. I don't doubt that you can clip off a few trips with a light rail system, but you'll still be adding to car trips overall. This is especially true for non-work related trips, which is what accounts for the greatest number of trips. The days when the NJTurnpike is most crowded and HBLR most empty are weekend days. Don't worry, it'll be totally different in Houston I'm sure.

 
At 3:52 PM, June 27, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>If you think that you can't add more auto infrastructure to downtown, then you're probably barking up the wrong tree by seeking to induce people to move there.

I'm not inducing anyone to do anything. Maybe the mixed-use residential developers are inducing people to give up suburbia and try out West Ave or the Heights...

Don't get me wrong - I have no doubt that we will need to get into a transit cluster*&!k before we decide to spend real money and effort combating the problem. That's the American way.

So people will continue to move into central Houston and traffic will slowly deteriorate. At some point (after achieving complete and total gridlock like LA), people will realize that they need a better transit infrastructure, and the only way to add trip capacity will be by building up, under, or by adding a really great bus or light-rail system. Building "out" will no longer be an option - and isn't really much of an option already in many cases.

Eventually, we'll be clamoring for a separated grade system and raising the sales tax to build an elevated line or a subway, just as LA is doing now.

 
At 8:15 PM, June 27, 2008, Blogger Kevin Whited said...

** Hehe! More auto infrastructure?! For Houston's core?! See my and Kuffner's comments re: expanding local roads. **

I don't think Mr. Kuffner has deigned to comment on this thread.

Perhaps you could provide a link if you want people to see it.

** So people will continue to move into central Houston and traffic will slowly deteriorate. At some point (after achieving complete and total gridlock like LA), people will realize that they need a better transit infrastructure, and the only way to add trip capacity will be by building up, under, or by adding a really great bus or light-rail system. **

At-grade light rail that steals existing traffic lanes is hardly "really great." It contributes to the problem. You were onto something with building up/under -- and it applies to rail as well. Mixing rail with congested traffic lanes is nutty.

 
At 8:46 PM, June 27, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You say he's "a smart nice guy with admirable goals ..."

He sounds more like an idiot to me.

 
At 10:04 PM, June 27, 2008, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...

Tory,

The complaint (or even worse, the moral judgment) that Houstonians drive lots of miles everyday overlooks the idea of economic utility. Americans this year are driving four percent fewer VMT's than in 2007. Houstonians are fully capable of determining how little or how much they want (or need) to drive, and, depending upon the utility of the trip, they will make that decision on the margin. If the trip is not worth paying $4 per gallon of gas for, then they won't take the trip. I myself drive a little over 100 miles per week.

As far as the idea that there may be dead zones along rail lines, I sent in 29 photographs I took along the Main Street rail line to the FTA during the public comment period for the North and Southeast Corridor rail alignments. Those photos were of all the "for lease" signs posted on buildings in the north end of downtown, the infamous 4 1/2 year old, faded, "coming soon, mixed use development" sign at the 2900 block of Main, and boarded up development along the alignment. Cutting off road lanes for vehicle traffic, which Metro intends to do on some of these alignments, will do damage, particularly to small businesses, because cutting off access for automobiles destroys much of the would be customer base that could be otherwise reaching entrepreneurs.

Neal

 
At 10:20 PM, June 27, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Neal: I agree - but their argument is that if the city were planned better, people would be closer to where they need to go (ideally walking or riding transit), and therefore VMT would drop.

Main St. is definitely not a good omen for development around the future lines. Sigh.

 
At 10:50 PM, June 27, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

Kevin,

>>I don't think Mr. Kuffner has deigned to comment on this thread.

>>Perhaps you could provide a link if you want people to see it.

Here ya go - search for November 24, 2007 entry. Kuff says:

"I'm talking about places like the Medical Center, much of Montrose, the Rice Village, pretty much everything in the box bounded by Richmond and Westheimer, and Fountainview and Gessner - you get the idea. The key point to understand is that there is no road widening that can be done to help any of this, because it's simply not feasible to do it. The only possible remedy is mass transit."

as well as

"The addition of a couple of high-rises isn't going to help. We're going to see more of this kind of development, in other already-dense parts of town, and as I see it, the only way any of this makes sense is if there will be viable transit options that allow people to leave their cars at home, so that the city doesn't become a complete gridlocked mess."

>>At-grade light rail that steals existing traffic lanes is hardly "really great.

I agree. Light rail is a half-&*s solution that will give way ultimately to a grade-separated solution (and I don't blame liberals for ending up with this solution - this is a compromise solution that is meant to be "economical" to satisfy the likes that frequent this board). But given the choice of light rail versus nothing, I think it is far better than trying to widen roads that simply cannot be widened any more, or build a "Westheimer tunnel", extend I-10 and 610 into Memorial Park (ain't gonna happen), etc.

-Mike

 
At 1:32 AM, June 28, 2008, Blogger engineering said...

Preserving the city's roadway grid should be a must. The other is providing the city with drivable streets. It the city could do these two it will be a success.

But if selling public streets for development and decisions to reconstruct streets is based on politics, then the future of this great city is being compromised.

Houston could have had a fantastic rail system but: the rail tracks on I-10 were removed, the tracks on Westpark were removed and half of the railroad right of way sold, the downtown rail station was converted into a ball park, and stadiums are blocking what used to be trough streets.

Goes back to the old saying "don't listen to what I say but watch what I do."

I did miss HGAC-TPC's presentation on commuter rail. That should have been a very interesting presentation.

 
At 11:11 AM, June 28, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree extra street RoW is almost impossible. I like the idea of the LRT network as an alternate to reduce cars, but am not optimistic it will have a big impact vs. our rapid core densification.

What we may see instead is the need for more one-way street conversions, or biased streets like LA wants to do (most lanes in a single direction). It would be messy, but when you look at what it does for capacity in downtown and midtown, it's impressive. I'd nominate the Galleria area for the first trials. A friend suggested Post Oak should be one-way northbound, paired with the 610 feeder southbound. Once the Uptown line tracks are in place though, we may lose the option.

 

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