Sunday, May 31, 2009

Atlanta vs. Houston

I just got back from an enjoyable family vacation through Charleston, Hilton Head, Savannah, the Smokey Mountains, and Atlanta. The last couple of days were in Atlanta, and I thought I'd draw on that very limited experience to make some comparisons with Houston. Houston and Atlanta are very similar in that they're high-growth, sprawling, post-WW2, southern cities with hot climates, but there are notable differences. I should be clear that the entire two days were spent in the Downtown-Midtown-Buckhead corridor (roughly the equivalent of our Downtown to Uptown), so I can't really comment on any other parts of the city.

Freeway network: Central Atlanta tries to merge 3 large freeways down into one before downtown, and it is a mess. In our equivalent part of town, we distribute traffic over 10W, 59W, and 610W. Yes, those freeways get plenty congested too, but we do seem to spread the load better and have shorter rush hours. We also have two loops to their one. Edge to Houston.

Freeway corridors: Atlanta lines almost all of its freeways with forest ("there's a city around here somewhere..."), which is certainly more aesthetically pleasing, although not as functional IMHO as Houston's approach of lining them with feeders and commercial businesses (convenience and discovery). In both cases, they act as noise and pollution buffers. Houston does fret about the image problem of the ugliness, blight, and poor neighborhoods along some of our freeways, esp. coming from the airports, and Atlanta does a good job of hiding all of that behind a wall of trees. All in all I think it's a tie.

Arterial surface streets: Atlanta has a few impressive ones (like Peachtree) that move a lot of cars, but our navigation system often routed us on color-coded major arterials that were nothing more than two-lane roads, often through neighborhoods. At least in Houston, you can almost always count on an arterial being 4+ lanes, or at the very least 3. Both cities' street grids are a mess, although Atlanta has less of an excuse since they had the opportunity to fix it after Sherman burned them to the ground. Advantage Houston.

Traffic congestion: Atlanta traffic is crazy heavy. Stats have ranked them worse than Houston for a while, and now I understand it on a personal level. The hotel concierge warned me that morning rush hour didn't clear out until *10am*! (vs. 8:30 to 9am in Houston) Freeways were even very full on a Saturday. Surface streets are jammed too, often with huge lines of cars at signals. Edge to Houston.

Aesthetics: Maybe it was the parts of town we were in, but Atlanta had an attractive environment, with very nice new tall buildings and lots of trees. It's clear that their major building growth surge has been the more recent than Houston's, with many more newer buildings. Advantage Atlanta.

Attractions: Both cities have a full compliment of museums as well as signature attractions (Georgia Aquarium vs. NASA/Space Center Houston). We have Clear Lake/Galveston while they have the mountains. The Atlanta Botanical Gardens are very nice - how come we don't have those? (Moody Gardens and the Arboretum aren't the same) I'm going to call it a tie.

Universities and Research: Rice and UH vs. Emory, Georgia Tech (impressive campus with many new buildings), and several others. They have Georgia an hour+ outside of town, and we have TAMU. Texas Med Center vs. Emory and the CDC. Tough call, but I'd give the slight edge to Atlanta, mainly based on GT's higher rankings than UH and Emory's larger size than Rice (somewhat balanced out by the TMC).

Airports: They have the world's largest hub with the most flights to the most destinations (by far). But there are three major downsides:
  1. You need to be at the monster airport at least 1.5 to 2 hours early to have enough time to get through everything, esp. security.
  2. Extremely long airplane taxi times. We took over a half-hour to get to our gate after landing, changing from 15 mins early to 15 mins late.
  3. No Southwest Airlines, the nation's largest discount airline, although they do have discounter Airtran.
Houston has the nation's 3rd-largest hub operation (Continental at IAH), as well as the convenience of Southwest at Hobby. If you're a major world traveler, Atlanta has the advantage, but if you're a more normal business or leisure traveler, Houston airports are easier to deal with and have plenty of nonstops to major destinations. Tie.

Housing: Again, it might just be the neighborhoods we went through, but their housing seemed old (as opposed to new commercial and condo towers). In Houston and West U and Bellaire, all sorts of older houses are torn down and replaced with large, modern homes (or townhomes). Didn't see any of that in Atlanta, even in the upscale areas around Buckhead. Maybe their regulations inhibit it? (update: a friend tells me it's preservation tax incentives) Not sure. I'd like to give the advantage to Houston, but I don't feel like I have enough data or observations.

Culture: Atlanta has more of a well-dressed, young, hipster crowd and more of a design sensibility. It's really more like Dallas than Houston. The people we interacted with were mostly very nice and helpful, but the drivers most definitely were not.

That wraps it up. I'd love to hear your own thoughts in the comments.

Update: several people have asked about transit. I did not get a chance to ride MARTA while I was there, so I can't comment on it.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Surface transportation innovations for Houston

I was recently able to catch up on a stack of Surface Transportation Innovations newsletters from the Reason Foundation, and thought I'd pass along some of my favorite items:
Rather than pouring billions more into rail transit lines that will serve only a small fraction of urban trips, it would make better sense to add highway infrastructure that does double-duty by providing motorists with a congestion-relief alternative and transit agencies with high-performance guideways for region-wide express bus (Bus Rapid Transit) service. A network of Express Toll Lanes added to the freeway system would do just that.

Sound familiar?
"The basic concept calls for converting the left-most lane of a freeway (whether it's HOV or general purpose[GP]) to HOT, and simultaneously converting the right shoulder to a peak-period-only travel lane. Thus, no "free" lanes would be taken away, and the HOT lane would represent a net addition of peak-period capacity."

The study also shows that the benefits are substantially larger than the costs, and that tolls should be able to cover costs. This idea is absolutely perfect for Houston, and the prime first candidate would be the 610 loop, which lacks HOV lanes and absolutely needs the relief. If you know the right person, please pass this along.
"...AASHTO Highway Capacity Manual's standards for expressway design are based largely on two underlying assumptions: these roads must be safe for travel at high speeds, and they must all be able to carry mixed traffic, including large trucks. They then ask the logical question: if urban expressways are congested much of the day so that only a small fraction of their daily traffic can operate at high speed, should we still design to standards based on those high speeds? And also, should we design every major roadway to accommodate large trucks?

In the paper Ng and Small then explore the trade-offs involved in narrower lane and shoulder widths (which result in lower design speeds) to make possible an additional lane in each direction, on both expressways and major arterials, within the same total width. For approximately the same construction cost, the expressway or arterial with more lane capacity wins out in most cases where peak-period traffic volumes are much greater than off-peak volumes. The "narrow" designs are strongly favored in all cases in which there is appreciable queuing—i.e., serious congestion. That's because the slightly lower free-flow speeds of the narrow designs pale in comparison to their much greater ability to handle traffic before flow breaks down.

The other important comparison Ng and Small make is between a full-blown expressway and a super-arterial with grade separations (overpasses) instead of signalized intersections. Here they compare roadways with equal capacity but different costs to construct. They find that the unsignalized arterial is more cost-effective than an expressway of equal capacity under most scenarios, "because the difference in travel-time cost is relatively small while the difference in construction cost is much higher."


...a good network of six-lane arterials, Swenson proposed converting some of those arterials into a new kind of managed-lane facility. "Queue-jump" overpasses would be constructed at major signalized intersections, with four lanes on the overpasses and two retained at grade (plus turn lanes). Electronic tolls would be collected from those using the overpasses, but no one else. Thus, the concept would not violate the accepted Florida principle of charging tolls only for new capacity, not on existing roadways.

Swenson developed cost and traffic estimates for one such corridor that would involve building six queue jumps. Preliminary calculations suggest that the costs could be recovered via toll-revenue financing."
Essentially, they're arguing that we convert more of our arterials to be like Allen Parkway, which everybody I've talked to seems to think is a fantastic idea. It could certainly take a lot of the load off the freeways. There are many great candidates for such a treatment: outer Westheimer and 1960/Hwy6 immediately come to mind. Nominate your favorites in the comments.

A final note
: I'm on vacation for the rest of the month, and may or may not be able to post from the road. However it works out, posting should be back to normal the first week of June.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Gas cost vs. commuting and a realistic climate change solution

A quick post at halftime tonight: just want to pass along a couple of interesting pieces.

The first is a couple of graphs of total commuting cost by car vs. the price per gallon of gasoline. They demonstrate why it's hard to get people to switch from car commuting to other modes (like transit or carpooling) even when gas gets very expensive: it just doesn't move the needle that much on total commuting costs. Note how the cost lines are not that dramatic even up to $10 per gallon (as long as you're not driving a Hummer).

The second item lays out a very convincing set of arguments on addressing carbon and climate change. Key excerpts:
We rich people can't stop the world's 5 billion poor people from burning the couple of trillion tons of cheap carbon that they have within easy reach. We can't even make any durable dent in global emissions -- because emissions from the developing world are growing too fast, because the other 80 percent of humanity desperately needs cheap energy, and because we and they are now part of the same global economy. What we can do, if we're foolish enough, is let carbon worries send our jobs and industries to their shores, making them grow even faster, and their carbon emissions faster still.

We don't control the global supply of carbon.

Ten countries ruled by nasty people control 80 percent of the planet's oil reserves -- about 1 trillion barrels, currently worth about $40 trillion. If $40 trillion worth of gold were located where most of the oil is, one could only scoff at any suggestion that we might somehow persuade the nasty people to leave the wealth buried. They can lift most of their oil at a cost well under $10 a barrel. They will drill. They will pump. And they will find buyers. Oil is all they've got.

Poor countries all around the planet are sitting on a second, even bigger source of carbon -- almost a trillion tons of cheap, easily accessible coal. They also control most of the planet's third great carbon reservoir -- the rain forests and soil. They will keep squeezing the carbon out of cheap coal, and cheap forest, and cheap soil, because that's all they've got. Unless they can find something even cheaper. But they won't -- not any time in the foreseeable future.

He then makes a set of substantial arguments (well worth reading), concluding with:

If we're truly worried about carbon, we must instead approach it as if the emissions originated in an annual eruption of Mount Krakatoa. Don't try to persuade the volcano to sign a treaty promising to stop. Focus instead on what might be done to protect and promote the planet's carbon sinks -- the systems that suck carbon back out of the air and bury it. Green plants currently pump 15 to 20 times as much carbon out of the atmosphere as humanity releases into it -- that's the pump that put all that carbon underground in the first place, millions of years ago. At present, almost all of that plant-captured carbon is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by animal consumers. North America, however, is currently sinking almost two-thirds of its carbon emissions back into prairies and forests that were originally leveled in the 1800s but are now recovering. For the next 50 years or so, we should focus on promoting better land use and reforestation worldwide. Beyond that, weather and the oceans naturally sink about one-fifth of total fossil-fuel emissions. We should also investigate large-scale options for accelerating the process of ocean sequestration.

Carbon zealots despise carbon-sinking schemes because, they insist, nobody can be sure that the sunk carbon will stay sunk. Yet everything they propose hinges on the assumption that carbon already sunk by nature in what are now hugely valuable deposits of oil and coal can be kept sunk by treaty and imaginary cheaper-than-carbon alternatives. This, yet again, gets things backward. We certainly know how to improve agriculture to protect soil, and how to grow new trees, and how to maintain existing forests, and we can almost certainly learn how to mummify carbon and bury it back in the earth or the depths of the oceans, in ways that neither man nor nature will disturb. It's keeping nature's black gold sequestered from humanity that's impossible.

If we do need to do something serious about carbon, the sequestration of carbon after it's burned is the one approach that accepts the growth of carbon emissions as an inescapable fact of the twenty-first century. And it's the one approach that the rest of the world can embrace, too, here and now, because it begins with improving land use, which can lead directly and quickly to greater prosperity. If, on the other hand, we persist in building green bridges to nowhere, we will make things worse, not better. Good intentions aren't enough. Turned into ineffectual action, they can cost the earth and accelerate its ruin at the same time.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Mapping the money

Check out this cool set of maps showing the higher-income neighborhoods for each of the 25 largest U.S. metros (hat tip to NeoHouston). Most cities show a similar pattern with a small area of wealth in the core, surrounded by the poor, then some middle class suburbs, then more wealth on the edges. From the page:

These maps show the distribution of income (per capita) around the 25 largest metropolitan areas in the US (all those with population greater than 2,000,000). The goal was to test the "donut" hypothesis — the idea that a city will create concentric rings of wealth and poverty, with the rich both in the suburbs and in the "revitalized" downtown, and the poor stuck in between.

This does seem to have some validity in older cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Chicago, but in newer cities it is not the case. Instead of donuts, one finds "wedges" of wealth occupying a continuous pie-slice from the center to the periphery.

Just from visual inspection, it also seems that poverty donuts all tend to have about a five-mile radius, regardless of the size of the city. Perhaps this is the practical limit for commuting without a car?

The "wedge of wealth" definitely defines Dallas (north), Atlanta (north), and Houston (west), although you can see more all around if you go farther out. In Houston, the west wedge if obvious, but you can also see Kingwood, Clear Lake, Sugar Land, and Willowbrook/NW. The map does not go out far enough to show The Woodlands. As far as our gentrifying areas, note the gray middle-class areas in the core north and east of the red wedge, such as The Heights and the Washington corridor - so the wedge is growing both inward and outward.

One flaw in the maps is they only show federal interstate highways, not state freeways, so a lot of key freeways are missing (like 59, 290, 249, 288, etc.).

One other observation from these maps: often metros are ranked by population, but there's always been a bit of a mismatch between population size and perceived importance. Some smaller metros are subjectively considered "more important" (SF Bay Area, DC, Boston) than some larger cities (DFW, Houston, Atlanta, Detroit, Phoenix). In these maps, you can sort of see why: those cities have much larger high-income areas, which means more professionals with higher education. Check out Chicago vs. the SF Bay Area, Atlanta vs. DC, or Detroit vs. Boston. Or, if there were more maps, I'd bet you'd see the same thing with larger San Antonio vs. smaller Austin. I'm not saying it's fair or right, just how different metros are perceived that jumps out in these maps.

Please feel free to share your own observations from the maps in the comments.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

MetroRail cost disputes, TX growth, rankings, and more

OK, my queue of smaller misc items has been spiraling out of control, so here are some of them:

One thing hasn’t changed in this recession: Those who are mobile will continue to move where jobs are relatively plentiful and housing is cheaper.

The winners continue to be southeastern states and Texas. Some 67,000 single- and multifamily building permits were issued in the southern region in the first three months of this year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Texas alone accounted for more than 20,000 authorizations. Hot spots are still Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin.

Considering that almost 120,000 permits in the entire country were issued during that period, it shows that more than half of all new construction is in the South, where the cost of housing and living is significantly lower than in the Northeast, Midwest and on the West Coast. In contrast, just 5,571 units were approved in New York and New Jersey combined.

  • A cool new service that lets you build videos with XML text editing just launched, and to show off their service, they auto-generated 1,000 videos from Wikipedia content, including Houston. Not bad, although they should have included some sort of audio or music track.
  • Some national maps of the best cities for job growth. The devastation in CA, FL, and the automotive Midwest is pretty apparent. Hat tip to Joel.
  • Business Week ranks Houston as world's 10th most inventive city. Not bad. Hat tip to neoHouston.
  • Austin and Houston Hobby rank in North America's top 5 airports. Usually I drive to Austin, but I did get to fly through there a few months ago, and it is really nice. They did a great job with the Bergstrom conversion from an Air Force base. I never saw the old Austin airport. And of course they've done a great job with the Hobby renovations.
  • Houston was recently ranked as the #6 best city to live in, based mainly on economic and housing stability. Hat tips to Jessie and the houstonist.
  • Five of the top 10 selling master-planned communities in the country are in Houston. If you guessed The Woodlands was our #1, you'd be incorrect this year: Cinco Ranch edged it out, and they were followed by Telfair, Sienna Plantation, and Eagle Springs (by IAH). Another hat tip to Jessie.
  • A Brookings report finds that jobs continue to disperse and decentralize outside of city centers, just as they long have in Houston, raising another red flag that commuter rail transit to downtown (less than 7% of jobs) is not the answer, but this is.
The final item is a big one. Several reports say Metro's announced costs for the new light rail lines are low by more than half (KHOU Channel 11 and followup, Examiner, blogHouston, Neal analysis). From The Examiner:
Using the $1.46 billion contract as the basis for calculations, the average cost of the four corridors will be $68 million per mile. The average based on the (FTA) letters of no prejudice amounts for the North and Southeast corridors would increase the cost to $159.4 million per mile.

It would also increase the cost of the East End Corridor to $527.7 million and more than double the price of the Uptown Corridor to $688.8 million.

That would bring the estimated cost of the four lines to more than $3 billion.

Separately, the 11 miles of the University Corridor not included in the contract would be more than than $1.7 billion.
$4.7 billion is a truly staggering amount of money if that turns out to be the true cost - way, way beyond the $640 million bond issue voters approved in 2003. Metro needs to show some transparency and clarity on this soon, ideally with a full reconciliation of all the numbers on their web site - including the revenue projections and expected Fed dollars to pay for it.

I'd also like to start hearing the Mayoral candidates weigh-in on this topic, since one of them will control most of the Metro board come January.

Update: The Chronicle story, which does dissect some of the numbers, but not the ones in the FTA letters.

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PBS 7pm tonight - Houston Have Your Say on the Economy

A quick pass-along (thanks to Sandra for the heads up). Don't miss it tonight.
On a global scale, how competitive are Houston’s industries and workers? A local partnership of community and media groups will take up the topic during a televised community forum.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, May 7th, HoustonPBS, in partnership with The Center for Houston’s Future, Houston Community Newspapers, and Houston Public Radio will air their third Houston Have Your Say live on Channel 8 moderated by Patricia Gras. This community forum follows two others on immigration and regional growth.

“The goal of Houston Have Your Say is to draw attention to fundamental issues that impact our region and to create and sustain a dialogue space for our community to discuss important issues,” said John Hesse, general manager of HoustonPBS.

The regional outlook is unknown, a mixed bag of positives and negatives. Meanwhile, the Houston region is losing jobs and gaining people. The 10-county Houston metropolitan area sustained a net loss of 14,400 jobs from March 2008-2009, according to an estimate from the Texas Workforce Commission.

The live audience of participants, including the region’s leading economists and representatives from Chevron and Marathon Oil will discuss what is possible for the region, as well as where opportunities lie for work and study today.

“We designed this program to enable area residents to call or blog to express their opinions and questions. We hope it reaches a wide audience,” said Catherine Mosbacher, Center for Houston’s Future President and CEO.

During the show, viewers may call HoustonPBS at 713-741-8357 to ask questions of the audience. New this time, a jobs expert, Sue Cruver of Workforce Solutions, will moderate a live public chat following the show. A resource center for job searchers is available at The public may join the conversation online by posting comments on a blog at


Monday, May 04, 2009

Why Conservatives Should Care About Transit and TOD

Kirsten asked for my reaction to this article laying out 'conservative' arguments for transit and walkable communities. I am all for both within a free-choice framework, but I disagree with most of the arguments given here. Summing up and then addressing his arguments:

1. Federal funding is biased towards roads.

It depends on how you look at it, since 95+% of all trips are on roads. It also might be argued that government is pursuing the least-cost mobility solution because it leaves the vehicle, fuel, and driver costs to the private citizen, as opposed to government picking up those costs with transit. But we might agree that the feds should combine highway and transit dollars into block grants to localities, and let them choose the best transportation solutions for them.

2. Local zoning codes biases development towards roads.

Also true, and I am no fan of zoning, but is this conservative calling for federal action to overrule local control? I don't see that as a conservative argument.

3. Car-orientation "create social environments that are hostile to real community."

Nothing to back this up. My understanding is that studies show higher social capital, lower crime, more church attendance, higher charitable giving and participation, and many other pro-community advantages in the car-oriented suburbs. And there are certainly plenty of dysfunctional transit-oriented "walkable neighborhoods" in urban cores.

4. Car-orientation is hostile to small business.

He seems to think we'd all be shopping at the old mom-and-pop store on Main St. instead of Costco, Target, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowe's, Best Buy, etc. if wasn't for cars. Maybe it also has something to do with superior selection and prices? Why should government decide where we shop? Shouldn't the free market sort this out? McKinsey did a research report a few years ago concluding that almost half of the productivity gains in the 90s were in retail, and primarily from Wal-Mart. Are we just going to wipe out those efficiency and income gains?

5. Car-orientation forces families to drive their kids everywhere.

Partially true, although I grew up in the suburbs and biked everywhere. I think kids today have the same option (a good argument for more bike trails), although parents are a lot more paranoid about letting their kids off on their own than when I was growing up. Do we really want to tell families "We're going to save you from shuttling your kids everywhere by making you live in a cramped apartment near transit"? Maybe parents are willing to make this trade-off for the other benefits of a suburban house? I thought conservatism was about free choice?

The overall argument seemed to be a call to go back to the nostalgic family values of the Great Depression, when people couldn't afford cars and walked or rode streetcars everywhere. It's an argument of "This (community values) used to be better in the past, and now we have technology X (cars and highways) that we didn't have then, so maybe if we got rid of technology X we would get back to that nostalgic past." You know, 'family values' and the divorce rate used to be better before we let women vote, work outside the home, or get much higher education, too. Should we also 'fix' that? Do you see the fundamental flaw in the argument?

Just to reiterate, I am all for cost-effective transit and private development of more walkable neighborhoods where there is consumer demand for that lifestyle. Government should certainly look at ways it can relax regulations that make these walkable, mixed-use areas harder to develop. But let's not delude ourselves that it is some sort of morally-superior, pro-community choice that government should be forcing on the masses.

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