Is a 'SmartCode' the answer to Ashby?
Andrew over at neoHouston has a really thought-provoking and detailed post (including a chart and map) on how a 'SmartCode' could be applied in Houston
to prevent problems like the Ashby high-rise. It also includes a wonderful defense of Houston:
On the other hand, many in Houston, including myself, believe that Houston’s free-market culture is a key component of its success as a city. While it may be messy, there’s no denying Houston’s role as the Opportunity City. Providing opportunity means staying clear of heavy-handed regulation.
For three generations other cities have regulated land use with conventional zoning. The principle of conventional zoning is this: by separating all the major kinds of land use, the “most sensitive” land uses are protected from the offenses of the “cruder” land uses.
Historically the purpose of these ordinances was to prevent new factories from dumping heavy pollution on previously non-industrial communities – thus wrecking their property values, and often their health and safety. The goal was to push smokestacks out to specific “zones,” and by defining these zones to allow people who didn’t want soot falling on their head to plan their construction activity accordingly.
However, as time went by this concept has morphed and grown into a very heavy set of regulations. In most cities today, the government essentially draws a map dictating what is allowed to be built, where it is allowed to be built, and what it has to look like. The state is therefore trying to predict the market, which never works well. This results in constant conflict between property owners and developers (who want to build what will sell) and the city (who “knows better” what should go where).
Here are my reactions to several of the issues he raises:
- Developers can't predict if the city will choose to 'attack' their development with obscure and arbitrary regulatory enforcement: absolutely a problem that must be addressed. Kudos to Houstonians for Responsible Growth, which is pushing this issue hard.
- Land speculation is preventing dense transit-oriented development near the rail lines: the market will eventually work this out, although I support the idea of higher property taxes for vacant and underutilized land in the urban corridors to incentivize development.
- Our 'one-size fits all' parking and setback regulations that tend to create the same type of low-density, car-oriented development everywhere: Although I do think that is what the market mostly wants in hot-and-humid Houston, I agree they need to be relaxed, and the new urban corridor regs are definite step in the right direction.
- The need to improve street connectivity to disperse traffic as density increases: Yes! And that is one benefit I see coming from the city's revival of the traffic impact analyses on new developments - it just needs to be less arbitrary and encourage reasonable mitigation without being onerous. And the city needs to step up and do its part to plan the street connectivity improvements as the growth warrants it.
On the surface, his SmartCode proposal seems pretty reasonable, but I have some serious concerns (beyond just the linkage with 'smart growth', which has been very problematic). Overall, this seems like extreme overkill relative to the problem - the proverbial "elephant gun to kill a mosquito." As I've pointed out before, are 'out of scale' buildings really that big of a disaster? Look at the towers scattered around River Oaks, Montrose, the Museum District, Greenway, and Uptown. As far as I can tell, they have had no substantial negative effect on property values or quality of life in those areas - and I suspect we will eventually see the same result after the Ashby tower is built.
He believes the necessary 'upcoding' would happen easily over time to accommodate growth, but would it really happen or would the NIMBYs block it? I suspect if we had had the SmartCode in place 50 years ago, Uptown, Greenway, and the TMC would have never developed (not to mention the Energy Corridor, Westchase, or Greenspoint) - much to Houston's detriment (yes, some of that would have gone downtown, but I suspect more of it would have gone further out).
There is a huge risk to taking a relatively successful system and going for a radical overhaul - whether that change is a SmartCode or the previous call for 'comprehensive planning'. It could be hijacked by all sorts of interests (especially NIMBYs, since it would be required to go through a zoning vote). It could create regulations that 'solve' all sorts of problems we don't have and result in unintended consequences. Yes, our process of handling deed restrictions need streamling and refinements, as do TIRZs, but do SmartCode special districts really add anything new? The T1 and T2 designations are barely discussed, but would generate huge controversy in this town, as witnessed by the problems created the last time Council tried to shut down development in the floodways and flood plains. Now take that circus times a hundred for something of this scale. What a nightmare.
The answer, in my mind, is taking our existing, successful system and incrementally tweaking it to fix the specific problems we want fixed, several of which are discussed in his post
Kudos to Andrew for putting a bold proposal
out there for discussion (many parts of it I agree with), not to mention a great defense of Houston's current approach, but, to abuse a cliche, why (over) fix what ain't (that) broke?
Labels: deed restrictions, density, development, land-use regulation, opportunity urbanism, perspectives, transit-oriented development, zoning
CA disease, DC danger, Ashby, rail, peak oil, toll roads, free buses, and more
Smaller misc items and some of my recent Opportunity Urbanist posts:
- In catching up with my badly backlogged newsfeeds, I found several items on the Antiplanner of interest:
- A ranking of states by both personal and economic freedom, where Texas scored very highly on both.
- A developer claims that Houston is too competitive and, despite our reputation, is not actually all that "developer friendly" because of the difficulty of making profits in such a competitive environment. In most other cities, substantial regulations create "barriers to entry" that limit developers to a small oligopoly with the resources to push through the regulations, and the lack of competition substantially boosts their profits
- How the 'Prius Effect' undermines the environmental case for light rail
- AP/Cato and Glaeser sum up the problem with high-speed rail: the costs are more than double the benefits even with generous assumptions. Hat tip to Barry.
“When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion--when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing--when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors--when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don't protect you against them, but protect them against you--when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice--you may know that your society is doomed.”
And here are some recent posts on my Opportunity Urbanist blog over at the Chronicle:
Have a great weekend.
Labels: development, economy, environment, high-speed rail, home affordability, land-use regulation, Metro, mobility strategies, rail, rankings, toll roads, transit
Houston’s Texas Medical Center May Outgrow Downtown Dallas
A quick pass-along from Bloomberg
. A few good excerpts:
Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city, has been buoyed by construction in the Texas Medical Center, an area with 3,000 job openings that is likely to become larger than Dallas’s downtown, said Jeff Moseley, chief executive officer of the Greater Houston Partnership.
As a result of the medical center’s expansion, Houston may emerge from the economic decline quicker than the rest of the nation, Moseley said today in an interview.
Houston, which is known as the energy capital of the world, sees about 40 percent of its economy still coming from oil, natural-gas and renewable energy industries. Many of the 3,000 energy-related establishments based in Houston, including Apache Corp. and Schlumberger Ltd., have contributed to the loss of thousands of oil and gas jobs since December in the state.
‘Nothing Like It’
The Texas Medical Center, located less than 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) from downtown Houston, continues to gain in size. Expansion plans over the next five to six years have the cluster of hospitals, medical schools and doctor offices outgrowing the current size of downtown Dallas, Moseley said. It’s already larger than the combined downtown districts of Texas cities Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso, he said.
“There’s nothing like it on the face of the globe, nothing even close,” he said. “It has been a tremendous help to this economy.”
The Texas Medical Center, which is made up of 47 institutions, has 72,600 workers, according to its Web site. The area occupies more than 1,000 acres and has 5.1 million patient visits a year. The center has $7.1 billion in approved building and infrastructure investments.
When they say "largest", they mean sq.ft., not jobs. See this graph on sq.ft. growth vs. downtown Dallas and Houston
(which it will also pass in a few years). According to this fact sheet
, downtown Dallas has 135,000 jobs, which is 20% of all jobs in Dallas (that's probably the city of Dallas, not the metro or DFW). The last job count
I heard for TMC is 75,000 with rapid growth to over 100,000 by 2014
. Why the space vs. jobs discrepancy? Normal commercial space is pretty much all for employees, while medical facilities use lots of space for patients and visitors. Still, nothing to sneeze at, and an incredible economic pillar and growth engine for Houston.
Hat tip to Jessie.
Labels: economy, growth
My new Chronicle blog, Opportunity Urbanist
The Houston Chronicle recently asked me to write a City Brights blog
for them, and I couldn't say no to such a great opportunity to reach a whole new audience. I started it earlier this week and they put me on the home page the first day, which I have to say was pretty cool. I also have the option over there to react to current news stories and they will link to my reaction from the story itself, which can certainly channel a lot of additional traffic. I decided to name it "Opportunity Urbanist
" to differentiate it from Houston Strategies, but the topics covered will be the same.
I plan on continuing to support both blogs. Because Houston Strategies
has an email list associated with it, I'll keep the infrequent longer posts/essays over here (cross-posted there). There
I'll try to do more frequent smaller posts (something that would be annoying here with my email subscribers), usually reacting to something in the news or posted on another blog (something I'd like to do more of). Seeing as it's a whole new set of readers, I'll also repost some of my older 'best of' highlight posts from the Houston Strategies archives - so if you haven't been with me since the beginning (2005), I'd recommend keeping watch over there to catch some of my better early stuff. So Houston Strategies readers and email subscribers don't miss out on the smaller posts there, I'll usually bundle them up into a single long summary post over here from time to time. I'm also well aware that Hearst can decide to shut that blog down at any time, so I want to make sure the most important content is replicated to Houston Strategies for posterity (and Google indexing and searching, of course).
I know that sounds complicated, but we'll figure it out as we go along. If you want to be sure to catch everything, just add both RSS feeds (HS
) to your newsreader (I'm a big fan of Google Reader).
As always, thanks for your readership and support.Opportunity Urbanist
Labels: opportunity urbanism
Why the 'Livable Cities' rankings are wrong
Joel Kotkin has a great piece
over at New Geography (originally at Forbes
) describing what's wrong with all the 'livable' and 'best' city rankings from places like The Economist, Mercer, and others. Highlights:
For the most part, the top ranks are dominated by well-manicured older European cities such as Zurich, Geneva, Vienna, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Munich, as well as New World metropolises like Vancouver and Toronto; Auckland, New Zealand; and Perth and Melbourne in Australia. (American cities mostly snubbed)
...To understand these rather head-scratching results, one must look at the criteria these surveys used. Cultural institutions, public safety, mass transit, "green" policies and other measures of what is called "livability" were weighted heavily, so results skewed heavily toward compact cities in fairly prosperous regions. Most of these regions suffer only a limited underclass and support a relatively small population of children... With their often lovely facades, ample parks and good infrastructure, they constitute, for the most part, a list of what Wharton's Joe Gyourko calls "productive resorts," a sort of business-oriented version of an Aspen or Vail in Colorado or Palm Beach, Fla. ...
Yet are those the best standards for judging a city? It seems to me what makes for great cities in history are not measurements of safety, sanitation or homogeneity but economic growth, cultural diversity and social dynamism. A great city, as Rene Descartes wrote of 17th century Amsterdam, should be "an inventory of the possible," a place of imagination that attracts ambitious migrants, families and entrepreneurs.
Such places are aspirational – they draw people not for a restful visit or elegant repast but to achieve some sort of upward mobility. By nature these places are chaotic and often difficult to navigate. Ambitious people tend to be pushy and competitive. Just think about the great cities of history – ancient Rome, Islamic Baghdad, 19th century London, 20th century New York – or contemporary Los Angeles, Houston, Shanghai and Mumbai.
These represent a far different urbanism than what one finds in well-organized and groomed Zurich, Vienna and Copenhagen. You would not call these cities and their ilk with metropolitan populations generally less than 2 million, "bustling." Perhaps a more fitting words would be "staid" and "controlled."
Peace and quiet is very nice, but it doesn't really encourage global culture or commerce. Growth and change come about when newcomers jostle with locals not just as tourists, or orbiting executives, but as migrants. Great cities in their peaks are all about this kind of yeasty confrontation. ...
Yet the future of urbanism, here and abroad, will not be Pittsburgh. Based on current preferences, something like 20 million – or more – people will have moved to U.S. cities by 2050. Most will likely settle in more dynamic places like New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, Chicago and Miami. These cities have become magnets for restless populations, both domestic and foreign-born. They also contain all the clutter, constant change, discomfort and even grime that characterize great cities through history.
But it's economics that drives migrants to these dirtier, busier metropolitan centers. Many of the cities at the top of the livability lists, by contrast, are also among the world's most expensive. They generally also have high taxes and relatively stagnant job markets.
Many U.S. cities, however, offer far more materially to their average residents than their elite European counterparts do. American cities, when assessed by purchasing-power parity, notes demographer Wendell Cox, do very well indeed. Viewed this way, the U.S. boasts eight of the top 10 – and 37 of the top 50 – metropolitan regions in terms of per capita income.
The top city on Cox's list, San Jose, Calif., epitomizes both the strengths and weaknesses of the American city. The heartland of Silicon Valley, the San Jose region has generated one of the world's most innovative – and well-paid – economies. On the other hand, its mass transit usage is minuscule, its cultural attributes measly and its downtown hardly a tourist destination. (sound familiar?)
... For the average person seeking to make money and improve his or her economic status, it usually pays not to settle in one of the world's "most livable" cities. ...
Ultimately great cities remain, almost by necessity, raw (and at times unpleasant) places. They are filled with the sights and smells of diverse cultures, elbowing streetwise entrepreneurs and the inevitable mafiosi. They all suffer the social tensions that come with rapid change and massive migration. New York, Los Angeles, London, Shanghai, Mumbai or Dubai may not shoot to the top of more elite, refined rankings, but they contain the most likely blueprint of our urban future.
Labels: affordability, opportunity urbanism, perspectives, quality of place, rankings, world city
Houston's intangible identity
You may have seen the recent commentary
in the Chronicle defending Houston against criticism from Outside magazine (great HAIF response: "This just in: RVing magazine rates Manhattan poorly!", or my own version, "Boating magazine disses Albuquerque.") Christopher Dentler sent me an email we agreed would be worth sharing on the blog:
I posted this on HAIF
, and I want your opinion -There’s an article on Chron.com this morning called “Stop Hating On Houston”
First off, I want to mention that the article is a thin skinned response to a legitimate criticism (we are a flat, sprawling and hot and not exactly an “out doorsy” city). But most importantly I want to comment on Houston’s national rep, which I know is a discussion that has been done to death. But I’m a relatively recent transplant (4 years) and haven’t had the chance to really discuss this anyone.
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed since living here is that Houstonians only have themselves to blame for the city’s bad reputation. They are positively the WORST ambassadors any city has ever had. You have a diverse, cosmopolitan, laid back and in many areas, hip city. But are most Houstonians even aware? Do many Houstonians even care? When I first moved to this city from Austin I lived in midtown/Montrose and worked out near Harwin and the Beltway. I was struck with how interesting and eclectic the city was. There is always a new neighborhood to discover, a new restaurant to eat at and an interesting person to talk to. I had fun exploring my new city and enjoyed showing it off to friends from Austin, Boston, San Fran, LA – all of whom were struck by how “cool” this town actually could be.
But as the years went on I was shocked at how little many Houstonians knew about their own city. I had a coworker tell me he wanted to live in another town because Houston wasn’t that interesting to him. This coworker lives, like many Houstonians do, on the outer fringes of the city (which I don’t consider Houston, but that’s beside the point). I mentioned that I found Montrose to be a very vibrant area and asked how often he explored that part of town. And his response was, and I still have trouble coming to grips with this, “Montrose? What’s that?” - and therein lies Houston’s problem.
When these people move, or visit other cities, they describe Houston as boring and soulless. When a relative visits from out of town, or when a coworker is here on business they may take them down a bland freeway to the Galleria or a sporting event (both things I love, but nothing unique), but otherwise it’s back to the suburbs by dinner. How do you expect to establish a great reputation if you’re showing people the same crap they could find anywhere.
Bottom line, I think Houston needs to work on improving its reputation with its own citizens before it starts trying to impress the world. It’s not a town for everyone.
And my response:
I saw that article, and I thought it was a good defense. I absolutely agree Houston has a problem here. We are a great city to live in. Surveys show very high satisfaction among people that live here a while. And I hear tons of people leave and then wish they could get back. The problem is that what makes us great is subtle. It's not easy to articulate. Very intangible.
Part of that comes from not having one district that represents Houston like you find in most other cities (NOLA: French Quarter; Austin: 6th street, downtown, Zilker; San Antonio: Riverwalk; Miami: South Beach, Chicago: downtown; etc.). NYC, LA, and SF don't really have a single defining district, but are so overexposed in TV and movies that people "get" those cities. We also don't have defining natural features, like Denver's mountains or Seattle or Portland's forests.
The lack of a clear district, distinct geography, or much media exposure not only makes it really hard for short-term visitors to appreciate the city, it makes it hard for locals to point to and articulate what makes it great (and why it's worth all the downsides, like heat, hurricanes, and traffic). It's some mix of diversity, eclecticism (driven by a lack of zoning), restaurants, opportunity, entrepreneurialism, openness, friendliness, tolerance, charity, and affordability (I think we have the highest standard of living among major world metros, in terms of how well the median salary lives here) - but there's no easy way to sum up that list or convey it to people. This is why I have continuously struggled with Houston's identity on my blog.
If we can define that identity clearly, we can then convey it to both locals and outsiders.
Another problem that prevents that identity formation: the city has delegated our branding to GHCVB. Their mission is to attract tourists, so they build our brand around that - when what makes Houston great really has nothing to do with tourism.
I'd like to hear your thoughts in the comments. And if you wanted to spend an afternoon showing a visitor what made Houston special, where would you take them? (including restaurants)
On an unrelated final note: the presidential commission on the future of NASA just released a document
with the final options they are evaluating. What they report - and what the President decides - will have a big impact on Houston in the years to come. Final deliberations
Wednesday afternoon are watchable on the web on NASA TV
Labels: identity, NASA, rankings, tourism
Regs, housing value, graffiti, blue states, HSR, Astrodome, and more
Finishing off the smaller items I started last week:
"Consider Texas and California. In the Bush years, liberal polemicists turned the president’s home state — pious, lightly regulated, stingy with public services and mad for sprawl — into a symbol of everything that was barbaric about Republican America. Meanwhile, California, always liberalism’s favorite laboratory, was passing global-warming legislation, pouring billions into stem-cell research, and seemed to be negotiating its way toward universal health care.
But flash forward to the current recession, and suddenly Texas looks like a model citizen. The Lone Star kept growing well after the country had dipped into recession. Its unemployment rate and foreclosure rate are both well below the national average. It’s one of only six states that didn’t run budget deficits in 2009.
Meanwhile, California, long a paradise for regulators and public-sector unions, has become a fiscal disaster area. ...
But in state capital after state capital, the downturn has highlighted the weaknesses of liberal governance — the zeal for unsustainable social spending, the preference for regulation over job creation, the heavy reliance for tax revenue on the volatile incomes of the upper upper class.
And, inevitably, the tendency toward political corruption. The Republicans have their mistresses, but the Democrats are dealing with a more serious array of scandals: the Blagojevich-Burris embarrassment in Illinois, Senator Christopher Dodd’s dubious mortgage dealings in Connecticut, the expansive graft case in New Jersey, and a slew of corruption investigations featuring Democratic congressmen.
...And it also helps explain Obama’s current difficulties. The president is pushing a California-style climate-change bill at a time when businesses (and people) are fleeing the Golden State in droves. He’s pushing a health care plan that looks a lot like the system currently hemorrhaging money in Massachusetts. His ballooning deficits resemble the shortfalls paralyzing state capitals from Springfield to Sacramento....The president wants to govern America like a blue state. But for that to work, he’ll need the nation’s economy to start performing more like Texas."
- If you're interested in the CoH Chapter 15 debate, which could seriously impact TOD and dense development in Houston, HRG outlines the issues in detail here and here. Hat tip to Josh.
- Both good and bad news for Houston: "Warning: Oil supplies are running out fast: Catastrophic shortfalls threaten economic recovery, says world's top energy economist"
- Readers of my blog know I'm a big fan of Houston's entrepreneurial culture and light regulatory touch, which is why this Chronicle story on how red tape regulations are strangling the eco-friendly downtown free cab/jitney service makes my blood boil. Come on, people. The administration and council need to get their act together on this, and soon, before the service dies. And I'm a pretty big fan of Mayor White, but if he doesn't get this fixed and the service dies, I hope it blows back on his eco-credentials for his Senate campaign. In a strong mayor city like ours, there's no excuse.
- A KHOU story on Houston's projected growth and zoning (no!). Hat tip to HAIF.
- Joel Kotkin reviews Peter T. Kilborn’s Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America's New Rootless Professional Class in the Wall Street Journal. Includes several mentions of The Woodlands. Hat tip to Allen.
- KHH on "Why our suburbs develop like they do: because of our rigid development standards" and a great piece on how zoning burdens a city more and more with time (with a focus on Portland and Austin), and how lucky Houston is to not have the burden.
- America's 10 Best Undervalued Places to Live includes Houston and College Station (hat tip to Marc). By their reckoning, we're 37 percent undervalued, and College Station-Bryan, Texas is 21 percent undervalued. Excerpt:
"Houston. Unlike other metropolitan areas, Houston has not been hammered by the national housing bust. In fact, real home prices increased nearly 5 percent from the first quarter of 2008 to the first quarter of 2009, according to a Brookings Institution report. But even without a sharp decline in real estate values, projected job and population growth should drive future home price appreciation and create value, says James Gaines, a research economist at the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University. "The medium- and long-term prospects for Houston are extremely good," he says. The area's low-tax, pro-business climate will lure new employers to Houston and help bolster an already sound local economy anchored by the energy and healthcare sectors, Gaines says. More jobs, of course, mean more residents and greater demand for housing. "[Houston has] good demographic growth, job growth, and a reasonably balanced housing market," he says. The median home price in Houston was $120,000, in the first quarter, which IHS Global Insight considers 37 percent undervalued."
- An email pass-along. Glad to see some movement by the city on this.
City of Houston Debuts Graffiti Website
New site provides information and resources on fighting graffiti
Mayor Bill White and Vice Mayor Pro-Tem and Council Member Sue Lovell have announced a new City of Houston website for citizens and organizations that want to fight graffiti in their neighborhoods. The site, www.houstontx.gov/graffiti provides resources for abating, or painting over, graffiti as well as information on government agencies, and groups that provide positive alternatives to graffiti.
The main section of the site, which will be regularly updated, features information, complete with contact phone numbers, and links to City of Houston departments, other governmental agencies, and community organizations that work to abate graffiti. The site also includes an interactive section, which invites citizens with ideas about dealing with graffiti to leave messages.
Citizens are encouraged to report graffiti by phone to 311. For more information, contact the office of Vice Mayor Pro-Tem and City Council Member Sue Lovell at 832.393.3013 or by e-mail at email@example.com
Finally, don't forget to comment on the future of the Astrodome at Offcite
(from the Rice Design Alliance) before comments close on Monday. My comment is here
Labels: affordability, Astrodome, energy, environment, graffiti, high-speed rail, home affordability, land-use regulation, transit-oriented development, zoning
Rail updates: HSR, commuter, and airports
There's been a lot of rail buzz in the blogosphere lately, some sparked by the Obama administration's interest in supporting high-speed rail. Harvard professor Edward Glaseser has an op-ed in the Boston Globe expressing strong skepticism:
For most workers in America’s sprawling metropolitan areas, no train is going to drop them within walking distance of their home or job. In Greater Houston, only 11.6 percent of jobs are within three miles of an area’s center and more than 55 percent of jobs are more than 10 miles away from the city center. In Chicago, almost 70 percent of employment is more than 10 miles from the city center. Even in Greater Boston, 48 percent of jobs are over 10 miles from Beacon Hill.
There is a reason why 48 percent of Amtrak’s passengers travel on only two routes: the Northeast Corridor and the Los Angeles-San Diego line. For travelers in the less-dense areas between the coasts, cars beat trains for modest distances and planes win over long hauls.
The national high-speed rail agenda is being pushed with claims that these trains will jump-start economic growth. No serious evidence supports such claims. When new transportation does affect local economies, it generally does so by moving activity from one place to another, not by creating nationwide benefits.
The case for subsidizing urban mass transit, like the MBTA, is certainly debatable, but it is much stronger than the case for subsidizing rail links between non-coastal cities.
The MBTA’s core problem is that its operating expenses have always been double its operating costs. To function, the system needs about $900 million a year in subsidies from taxes and local assessments, which works out to slightly more than $2 a trip.
Amtrak also regularly faces a $1 billion gap between revenues and expenses, including depreciation, but since Amtrak carries only 29 million passengers each year, the per-trip subsidy tops $30. (and that's for slow rail on shared existing freight tracks - imagine expensive fast rail in its own grade-separated RoW)
While urban transit helps reduce the congestion that plagues our dense metropolitan areas, the highways between our heartland cities are famous for their open lanes. Subsidizing urban public transit is modestly progressive, since public-transit commuters are twice as likely to be poor as car commuters. By contrast, intercity rail travelers are wealthier than car travelers. The environmental benefits are larger for urban mass transit; Amtrak itself only claims to be 17 percent more fuel efficient than airlines.
The problem is that while common sense requires transportation modes and spending to be targeted to the local environment, politics demands that federal programs spend everywhere. A serious high-speed rail project would forget about Texas (agreed) and focus on saving hours in the Northeast Corridor. A rational transportation program would target money to the areas that have the most congestion. A smart transportation policy would recognize the wisdom of using our existing infrastructure more efficiently, with the help of congestion pricing, rather than building more roads. Unfortunately, wisdom seems to take wing whenever politicians start envisioning the shining splendor of fast trains.
He goes into more detailed analysis on an NYT blog here. Reason supports inter-city bus over high-speed rail (bottom), while the Urbanophile is critical of Glaeser. The Antiplanner covers the feeding frenzy of states applying to the feds for HSR funds here and here, asking for $102 billion out of an $8 billion budget. And the head of BNSF says more modest 110 mph rail on existing tracks will probably not work - the max would be 90 mph, with an average around 60 mph - not very compelling.
Tyler Cowen at the high-profile Marginal Revolution economics blog is also skeptical of high-speed rail in Texas. Many of the commentors are too, citing poor cost-for-benefit, anti-pedestrian/transit weather, and the last-few-miles problem in the dispersed metros of the Texas Triangle. Hat tip to AC, who has his own incredulous comments on the America 2050 HSR plan for the country.
Getting a little more local, Christof gives an update on commuter rail for Houston. Sounds like a disconnected mess so far, but if they can directly connect it up to major job centers and have a long-term plan for moderately high-speed rail from Galveston to College Station and Austin - and keep it all affordable (a big if) - then they might be on to something.
Finally, on the ongoing debate over rail to the airports, this USA Today post on LAX rail had an interesting excerpt that matches what I've been saying about Houston for a while:
"The discussion to extend the Green Line has been ongoing for more than a decade. Many LAX travelers prefer to use non-stop buses, LAX FlyAway, that drop them off at various locations in the city."
How come we don't have such a useful service? (other than the Metro express to downtown)UPDATE
: Glaeser analyzes the Houston-Dallas route
and finds the costs far exceed the benefits (3 or 6 to 1). AC changes some benefit assumptions and disagrees,
finding a rough 1-to-1 cost-benefit match. I think the costs are probably substantially underestimated, which would put both of their analyses even deeper in the red. Too much wiggle room in all of the numbers. Hat tip to Jessie.
Labels: commuter rail, high-speed rail, rail