Opportunity over inequality, Vision Zero, policing for mental health, peak transit, and moreSeveral items to get to this week, but first I'd like to highlight this excellent piece (alternate link) by fellow, uh, Fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, Anne Snyder. Fantastic and emotionally powerful story that Harris County and the City of Houston can definitely learn from (please pass it along if you know any relevant people).
This is the story of how San Antonio’s police department helped divert 100,000 people away from jail and ERs, and moved them into mental-health treatment—one 911 call at a time.
Moving on to this week's items:
- Are we approaching (or have we already passed) peak transit? Transit ridership is declining all over the country (see example below), and especially markedly in cities making large rail investments. Coming super-cheap self-driving taxis are likely to be the final nail in the coffin...
- LA Times on the long term decline in their transit ridership despite spending billions on new service. They even acknowledge the rise of ridesharing services, which I think is the canary in the coal mine. When the ridesharing cars are self-driving in 5-10 years and it's $0.50/mile to go point-to-point wherever you want whenever you want on-demand, who's going to ride traditional transit?
- The new International Housing Affordability Survey is out, and Houston does pretty well again, as usual, despite the increases of the last few years.
- Market Urbanist Scott Beyer has a pretty good Houston quote in a recent article on Miami's gentrification:
"If you have a population increase and you don’t increase housing, people will get pushed out," says Beyer. “If Miami decides to get tight on its land use regulations like New York, then Miami will have the same problems. Right now, regulatory burdens and the process of getting new buildings in New York approved is so lengthy that it doubles the cost of a unit. Consider Houston. Houston has a faster growing population than New York City and San Francisco, but it’s affordable because they have rapid construction rates.”the new Vision Zero plan, and here are my thoughts: Do I support improved safety and think there's a lot of room for improvement? Absolutely. Do I want a city of 25mph speed limits, road humps everywhere, and police pulled from real crime to writing streams of traffic tickets? Absolutely not. The problem lies where the safety goals gets mixed up with the anti-car vision of many urbanists - "if we can just make driving a car painful enough, people will be forced into density and transit" - as articulated here. Improved safety is great, but we can’t co-opt peoples’ real mobility and economic productivity.
What would my #1 solution to traffic safety be? It would be at the federal level: require all new cars to require a breathalyzer test to start after 10pm at night, when the vast majority of drunk driving accidents happen (these sensors can be very low cost at scale). But it's also probably less than 1-2% of total trips, so most people most of the time would not have to use it. And I know this is unpopular and politically impossible, but I'd also support bringing the red light cameras back to reduce intersection collisions, which are some of the most dangerous (but only to enforce intersection crossings, not right turns on red where there is a lot more room for judgement on turning safely).
My final item is a response to Chris Tomlinson's column in the Chronicle questioning Houston's reputation as a city of opportunity: I think a few things are getting mixed up here. Houston has high inequality because we have high-paying industry clusters like energy and medical, as opposed to a more average big city like Phoenix or Tampa. That's most definitely a good thing - if we lost those industries, that would certainly be a bad thing, but inequality would drop. We also haven't driven out the poor by making housing unaffordable - like the coastal cities - so our inequality stats will look relatively worse.
What makes Houston a city of opportunity is not low inequality, but 1) having a ladder of middle class and working class jobs, including industrial and manufacturing ones - as opposed to coastal cities that tend to be a barbel between high paying jobs and low paying service jobs with nothing in the middle, and 2) having affordable housing, so a middle and working class family can afford a home and build equity, as opposed to being lifetime renters (like, again, the expensive coastal cities). The question is not "does Houston have a lot of poor people?" - we absolutely do, because opportunity cities attract the poor who want to move up, especially immigrant populations - but "do they do well and move up once they're here?" Based on Klinberg's Houston Area Survey's consistently high scoring optimism around working hard and doing well in Houston, I'd say we do well on that score - the residents certainly seem to think so.