Mixed thoughts on Smart Growth Distinguished LectureI 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.