Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Job generating ideas for Mayor Parker

Mayor Parker recently called for job-generating ideas to be submitted to her campaign web site, and I thought I'd share with you my suggestions I submitted.

What can Mayor Parker and the City of Houston do to create more jobs in Houston right now?:

Employers are creating more new jobs outside the city than inside of it because of severe traffic congestion.  They want to be close to their employees who want new, high-quality, affordable housing and good schools (for example, see the new far north Exxon campus).  We need faster, better, nonstop HOV express commuter bus transit from all the far neighborhoods to all of Houston's job centers (not just downtown).  Open up the express commuter bus/shuttle market to private competition by offering a flat Metro subsidy per passenger-trip and/or per passenger-mile and letting private companies compete on service, routes, schedules, and amenities (like wi-fi). Let them use the existing Park-and-Rides or cut deals with private parking lots like churches and malls. This is the fastest way to not only improve commuter service, but also maximize ridership to reduce rush hour congestion.  Then employers will feel comfortable adding jobs in the city core knowing they can draw on employees from all over the metro with reasonable commutes.  Employers also get another bonus: when employees aren't driving, they can spend that hour+ a day on the express bus being productive with email and other work on their smartphones or laptops.  With that kind of productivity increase, maybe employers would also offer transit subsidies/incentives, further increasing ridership and service?

How can Mayor Parker make sure that Houston’s workforce has the skills to compete for the jobs of the future?:

Help organize a nonprofit led by some very wealthy Houstonians to convert the Astrodome and old Astroworld site into the world's largest engineering and technology museum (possibly part of the Smithsonian museum network), but focused not just on history but the great challenges of the present and future and inspiring kids into STEM fields.  More details on my blog here.

How can local government partner with the private sector to foster opportunity that will lead to more jobs for Houstonians?:

Spin internal City IT applications out to the private sector (possibly small tech startups) for continued development and marketing to other cities, creating new tech jobs, better software for the city (which can improve efficiency), and a royalty stream back to the city as other cities adopt the same technology as the 4th-largest city in the country.  Houston could become a national hub/cluster for local government IT application companies.

I welcome your own thoughts in the comments.  Even better, send them to the mayor.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Next great global health hub, TX vs. Midwest, luxury buses vs. trains, and more

Another stack of smaller misc items this week:
  • Very unfortunately, Metro's future is almost certainly going to be the same as Denver and most other transit agencies in America: Build Trains = Raise Fares + Cut Bus Service.  It's the clearest case of "the emperor has no clothes" that I've ever seen.  Everybody can clearly see the long-term financial train wreck Metro is embarking on, but they all just shrug their shoulders and nobody tries to stop it.  So frustrating and sad.  So many better things could be done for the city with that money.  Any brave officials out there to rally the cause of Houston's long-term transportation future?
UPDATE 8/25: Bill King's excellent Chronicle op-ed today - "Metro federal rail funding is resting on shaky ground" and BlogHouston recap.
Nope. Those places are major global health hubs for sure. But the emerging story is further south. In Houston, Texas to be precise. 
Houston is well-known for the Texas Medical Center (TMC), which is comprised of 49 institutions and describes itself as the largest medical center in the world. The Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative is highly regarded for its leading role in the global fight against HIV/AIDS. Beyond HIV/AIDS however, Houston hasn’t really featured prominently on the global health community’s radar. 
That is about to change.
  • Joel Kotkin defends Texas against the detractors that have come out of the woodwork since Rick Perry announced for President.  He's not as big a fan of Rick, but he makes a strong case for the state's very successful model.
  • The Wall Street Journal also has an interesting op-ed on how the Texas model beat the Midwest model:

    To understand the political economy of the Midwest, it helps to put it in historic perspective. Originally the Midwest's economy was built on its farms, then later on its factories. The long farm-to-factory migration lasted from roughly 1890 to 1970. At the end of that period, when I was working on the first edition of "The Almanac of American Politics," it seemed there were two models for the U.S. future. One was the Michigan model, which prevailed in the industrial Midwest and the factory towns of the Great Plains. The other was the Texas model, which prevailed in most of the South and Southwest.

    The Michigan model was based on the Progressive/New Deal assumption that, after the transition from farm to factory, the best way to secure growth was through big companies and big labor unions.
    The idea that the wave of the future is an ever-larger public sector financed by a more or less stagnant private sector looks increasingly absurd. The Midwest's public sector has, as Margaret Thatcher put it, run on "other people's money." Meanwhile, Mr. Obama's trip to the Midwest has been preceded by Texas Gov. Rick Perry's foray into Waterloo, Iowa. Mr. Perry points out that his state, with low taxes and light regulation, has been producing nearly half of America's new jobs. The Texas model may be sweeping the Midwest, not vice versa.

  • HGAC has put together a video on the regionally coordinated transportation plan here.  It's the most exciting, amazing video you will ever watch.  Or maybe not.  In fact, quite possibly the opposite. But they do deserve kudos for reaching out beyond the typical public information meeting.
  • Reason's Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter surveys some strong data on how inter-city buses continue to challenge Amtrak - and make high-speed rail plans expensive boondoggles.  What I can't figure out is why none of them have set up in the Texas Triangle yet?
  • The Urbanophile also touts how awesome the Megabus inter-city model is, and why the arguments against it are bogus.  Did I mention I can't wait for the Texas Triangle to get it?...
Finally, a gorgeous video of the lights of LA.  Watch it full size if you can.  Somebody should definitely do something similar for Houston.  Any ambitious aspiring videographers out there?...

LA Light from Colin Rich on Vimeo.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Zoning to catalyze growth potential. Wait, what?

I have tried several times to follow the twisted logic in this Chronicle op-ed calling for the new ordinance to limit tower development to designated areas - or at least have a large buffer between them and residential areas (a result of the Ashby high-rise controversy).  I don't know enough about the ordinance to have a strong opinion on it one way or the other.  I even proposed my own compromise solution once.  But I do have a problem with the argument this op-ed is making.
  • He lists a whole bunch of rights, but carefully neglects to mention one of the core ones: property rights.  Does my right to nature, a patch of grass, and daylight override your right to build a house on that plot of land you bought?
  • He likes dynamic, unpredictable cities (as do I), but then calls for pushing tower development into designated areas, which of course makes the city more predictable, not less.
  • He calls it a zoning of potential rather than limits, but it's clearly a law focused on limiting development.
But the biggest flaw seems to be a belief that limiting development will catalyze growth and potential in the designated zones.  Yes, if you ban towers from most of the city, the handful that do still get built will have to be built in those zones.  But no matter how you slice it you've reduced the overall amount of development inside the city because you've banned otherwise viable projects from getting built, which encourages more of the outward expansion/sprawl he says will be reduced.  You've helped a few favored zones at a steep cost to the city as a whole.

The bottom line is the market doesn't support a lot of what architects and planners would like to see.  Since they can't force developers to build things, they try to get what they want by banning everything else.  Of course that limits development and drives up costs, as well as creating a fantastic corruption mechanism for politicians wanting to extract money from developers, who of course pass those costs on to you, the buyer.  Ultimately, as we've seen in much of the country, tight zoning is a path to stagnation, high costs of living, and housing bubbles, not growth.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Great rankings, better commuting, and more

Some smaller items have piled up over the last couple of weeks:
At this point, I've upgraded my "wish tolerance" for a Texas tropical depression to a tropical storm, or maybe even a weak category 1 hurricane.  And if this drought and heat goes on much longer I might even delude myself into thinking a cat 2 or higher would be ok (no big city direct hits, please)... but let's hope it doesn't come to that...

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, August 01, 2011

Houston's not resilient? Really?

Alert reader Jessie sent me this article about Houston ranking "very low" on a "resilience capacity index".  For real.  I was dumbfounded too. And now I'm going to post out-of-character and get a little snippy...

Let's skip right past the parade of articles and data showing Houston and Texas weathering the great recession better than just about everywhere else in the country.  It's so strong Rick Perry might win the Republican presidential nomination based on it.  That alone should make them question their entire methodology.  Go back to the dot-com and Enron crashes, and you'll find the same minimal impact.  Sounds like we're pretty resilient to me.

Then there's their explicit declaration that it represents the ability of a city to weather the shock of a major storm or flood.  I'll point to both Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Ike.  Both were devastating - yet we bounced back relatively quickly from each one.  You might note on their map that New Orleans ranks higher than Houston, yet Hurricane Katrina knocked New Orleans on its back for years.  Maybe they need to add a "levees upkeep" variable to the index?

Let's look at some of the problematic variables that make up the index:
  • Economic diversification: I'll admit there's some value here, but it's also worth noting that some of the wealthiest and most successful cities in the country built that success around one strong, dominant industry: NYC and finance, DC and govt, SF/SV and tech, Houston and energy, etc.
  • Income equality: also a proxy for "we don't have any high-paying industries" - nor the corresponding tax base.  How is this helpful for resilience? (more on the value of income disparity here)
  • Educational attainment, being out of poverty, and home ownership: a proxy for using tight zoning and land-use regulation to keep out apartments, new and affordable housing, and immigrants.
  • Metropolitan Stability: aka "stagnation".  Cities that aren't growing have amazingly stable populations because nobody wants to move there and none of the residents can sell their houses.
My cynical side thinks that, since the University of Buffalo put this out, they intentionally chose variables that made Buffalo look good, even though it's one of the most stagnant metro economies in the country.

All in all one of the worst designed indexes I've ever seen - and there are some doozies out there.

OK, I feel better.  End venting (and snippyness).  Back to normal next week...

Labels: , , ,