Lessons for Houston from the global urban revolutionThanks to a generous invitation from the World Affairs Council of Houston, I was able to attend a recent talk by Jeb Brugmann, author of "Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World", on "Cities of the Future: Ideas for Houston from Cities of the World." Most of his talk focused on the benefits and risks of the rapid urbanization of our planet, especially in the developing world (with a focus on India). He articulated four primary benefits that are driving the global rural-to-city migration:
- Concentration: making markets with proximity economies of scale. Our own example is the concentration of flower shops along Fannin north of the Medical Center, not to mention various farmers' markets.
- Density: the most efficient possible cost structure. His developing world examples were similar to what you'd see in the NYC immigrant tenements 100+ years ago. While I agree that, in a world of walking and transit mobility, maximizing density is important, I don't think it's necessarily the optimal answer when societies become wealthy enough that other mobility technologies start to dominate, like the personal vehicle. It is all about maximizing connections to other people, and that is a combination of density and mobility, or what I refer to as opportunity zones.
- Association economies
- Extension of urban infrastructure and connections
The most interesting part of his talk was on Curitiba, the Brazilian city famous for its BRT transit system. Some of his points on their system offer good lessons for Houston:
- The transit system is profitable, which is unheard of.
- 100 private bus companies compete
- Not master planned (more organic)
- Dedicated bus corridors
- Different optimally-sized buses by route
- Boarding tubes/shelters like the subway, to speed payments and boarding
- 385 routes
- 40-second headways (not sure on how many of the routes)
- 45% of daily trips are profitably served by BRT
- They have the most autos per capita of any Brazilian city, but the least gas usage per capita
He ended abruptly by saying the new urbanist, mixed-use densification of San Jose, CA represented the future, and Houston should emulate it. He said they wanted to move away from the private corporate campus model of the tech companies. I don't buy it. Can you imagine Google or Apple maintaining their security if their buildings were part of a mixed-use campus open to the public? And San Jose's transit system is one of the larger disasters in America. A key excerpt:
...VTA has “the worst operating statistics of any American transit operator.” The reason for this, he says, is that San Jose — being built mostly after World War II — is one of the most spread-out urban areas in the country. Not only are people spread out, but jobs are spread out, with no job concentrations anywhere.Does any of this sound ominously similar to Houston's direction?
This makes large buses particularly unsuitable for transit because there is no place where large numbers of people want to go. So what was VTA’s solution when its bus numbers were low relative to other transit agencies? Build light rail — in other words, use an expensive technology that requires even more job concentrations.
Now it has one of the, if not the, poorest-patronized light-rail systems in America. So what is its solution? Build heavy rail, a technology that requires even more job concentrations.
The initial analysis for building BART to San Jose, Rubin notes, projected that it would cost more than $100 to get one person out of their car for one trip on BART (!!!). (By comparison, most bus improvements cost $2 to $6 per new ride, while light rail usually costs around $10 to $30 per new ride.) To make the numbers look better, VTA assumed that downtown San Jose would grow to be 80 percent the size of downtown San Francisco, which Rubin considers unlikely in the extreme. Even if it builds this BART line, VTA admits it doesn’t have the money to operate it.
VTA is now so heavily in debt that when the dot-com bust hit Silicon Valley, it was forced to cut transit service by nearly 20 percent. The in turn contributed to a 33 percent loss in transit riders. This makes San Jose’s light rail a true planning disaster and suggests that BART to San Jose, if it ever gets built, will be an even bigger disaster.
The fact that VTA is willing to sacrifice its transit riders in order to persue a dream of ever-more-expensive rail transit leads Rubin to conclude that, while he doesn’t know for sure if VTA is the worst-managed agency, “if there is a worse one out there, I hope I never find it.”
I think there will be many more mixed-use, new urbanist projects, and they will be popular, but they will not be fundamentally transforming either San Jose or Houston. We will change the propulsion technology of cars before we make any mass, fundamental shift to density and transit.
On the other hand, he did make one point that I wholeheartedly agree with: it is extremely important to have a vibrant local developer community to do customized local development for a particular city's situation. Customize the urbanism, transit, and transportation to the city. Curitiba went against convention with BRT over heavy rail like NYC, London, and Tokyo. Houston should do the same.