Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Metro needs to rethink the University Line

In 2019 Metro convinced 68% of voters to support their $7.5B MetroNEXT plan, which I also cautiously supported. Since then we've had a global pandemic and the rise of remote work along with a transit ridership crash and anemic recovery, so Metro is stepping back to rethink everything... 

Just kidding! Nope, they're plowing right ahead like nothing happened in the last three years, currently focused on the Universities Line.


I have to give them credit for switching it from crazy-expensive light rail to just plain expensive bus rapid transit (BRT) for the referendum, but now the ugly rubber is meeting the pothole-patched road as they transition from nice lines on a map to actual detailed planning, and a hornet's nest of opposition is stirring up:

“The experience of Metro projects is that they carry the same number of riders,” said Neal Meyer, 56, a critic of the agency who has written skeptically of transit plans for years. “They’re not worth it.” ...

“I really don’t know if there is any real strategy that can be implemented that will attract more people to take transit,” he said. “For the whole project and all the mega-projects that they want us to pay for, I just have serious doubts.”

It is the same skepticism raised when Metro expanded its light rail lines. Extending the Red Line trains north and building the Green and Purple Lines took Metro more than six years and $2.1 billion. Along the Purple Line, officials at the time they applied for $450 million in federal funds estimated the route would carry 28,800 riders daily by 2030. Its highest average daily ridership, in October 2019, was 7,581. Currently it is about 3,550. ...

Even where faster, more reliable transit is welcomed, however, the project’s specifics will weigh heavily on neighbors who have seen Metro’s light rail lines gobble homes and green space, cripple businesses through years of street-choking construction and frustrate residents living in a work zone.

Plans for the University Line rely on dedicated bus lanes past Texas Southern University, along Ennis from Elgin to Blodgett through Third Ward. Now a cracked and uneven four-lane street, renderings prepared by Metro show Ennis at Wheeler with six lanes — including the two bus lanes — and wide sidewalks with painted crosswalks.

What it fails to show is where that extra space is going to come from.

“It is pretty, but it is not accurate,” said state Rep. Jolanda Jones, a Houston Democrat whose family has been in the area for decades. “They are going to take homes and that is not going to happen. Not if I have anything to do with it.” ...

Other neighborhoods have similar concerns, though the likelihood of losing homes is more concentrated in certain areas, including Third Ward and the East End. Along Richmond, business and property owners who lived through the fight over light rail along the avenue 15 years ago are mobilizing again. Daphne Scarborough, a long-time Metro critic who fought the light rail plans, said the buses are not much different and will cause problems for traffic where Richmond is narrowed to one lane east of Shepherd.

It's that last point on Richmond getting narrowed to one lane each direction that really concerns me. Given the constraints and bottlenecks on Westheimer, W. Alabama, and Bissonet, Richmond is the only surface street with significant east-west capacity from Upper Kirby to Montrose and Midtown - it absolutely needs to keep a *minimum* of two general traffic lanes each direction all the way through. As more people and businesses find out about the one-lane plan, I expect opposition to continue to mount. 

Even the Chronicle Editorial Board felt the need to acknowledge the critics and rally support for Metro:

And yet the promise of the University Line hasn’t swayed its consistent critics. The Chronicle’s Dug Begley reported last week that many transit opponents are raising a stink that Metro system’s relatively modest ridership has failed to justify the project’s high cost. They worry that construction of the University Line will snarl traffic, invite unwelcome development and cripple local businesses.

What neither Metro nor the Chronicle mention is that at a 10mph average speed this route will take *more than two hours* to ride end-to-end over 25 miles and 40 stops! I base that on the Post Oak Silver BRT line taking a half-hour to go 5 miles with 10 stops, so 4-5x that. Will people really ride that? And is it much time savings vs. existing bus routes?

What's my suggestion? Given the disruption and cost involved, as well as changes around remote work and autonomous Ubers, it would be better for the University Line to start as an express Quickline service *without* dedicated lanes to see if it can build ridership before spending $1.5 billion (easily $2 billion with inflation) on a BRT. Frequent Quickline service would be a relatively easy, cheap test without the disruption and lost lanes. It would also allow experimentation with the exact route and stops to find the best mix *before* sealing it in concrete. If it proves to be popular with growing ridership justifying more capacity, *then* let's revisit the possibility of upgrading it to BRT. By then we'll also have a lot more clarity on the future of remote work and autonomous taxis so we don't build another underutilized white elephant just like the Green, Purple, and Silver Lines. How about it Metro?

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Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Houston #1 standard of living globally, HTX vs LA, 713 Day video, NYT on Houston's homeless success, and more

I'm back in town clearing out a backlog of smaller items:

“Knowledge workers like me, who move out of the city, make urban spaces more affordable for essential workers who staff hospitals and restaurants. Meanwhile, small towns and cities that were hollowed out by deindustrialization over the last 30 years get an influx of new residents to support their tax base. Again, the majority of jobs don’t allow for remote work, but a great deal of wealth is concentrated among the jobs that do. Empowering or even encouraging those workers to live wherever they want could have a positive impact on the affordability of cities and the economic health of rural communities.”
Finally, a short funny video well worth your time on Houston vs. LA. It's awesome and actually well-balanced. Matches my experience with CA vs. TX (and particularly Houston) as well. My blog readers will particularly appreciate the 3:55 (traffic) and 16:19 points (feeders) ;-) but I really appreciated the point about the purple political diversity. Hat tip to George.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2022

New book: Houston as the bold case against zoning

This week we have excerpts from an excellent Fast Company article: A bold case against zoning - In a new book, M. Nolan Gray cites Houston as a model for rethinking zoning. These excerpts are great, but I highly recommend reading the whole thing, and even the book if you can!

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"When the zoned American lands in Houston, they are liable to be struck by parking lots reinventing themselves as apartment buildings, by postwar subdivisions transforming into dense new townhouse districts, by old strip malls being reimagined as new satellite business districts. In the zoned city, any one of these developments would be a major ordeal, the subject of endless permitting and raucous public hearings—in Houston, it just happens.
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Thanks in part to a lack of zoning, Houston builds housing at nearly three times the per capita rate of cities like New York City and San Jose. It isn’t all just sprawl either: In 2019, Houston built roughly the same number of apartments as Los Angeles, despite the latter being nearly twice as large. This ongoing supernova of housing construction has helped to keep Houston one of the most affordable big cities in the U.S., offering new arrivals modest rents and accessible home prices even amid seemingly endless demand.
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Zoning critics rightly dispensed with the comforting myths surrounding zoning—that its purpose was to merely rationalize land use—and zeroed in on its tendency to restrict new housing construction, limit access to opportunity, institutionalize segregation, and force growth outward. Far from being duped, Houston’s working-class residents exhibited a subtler understanding of the purposes of zoning than many contemporary planners and rejected it accordingly.
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Is this system of publicly enforced deed restrictions “basically zoning,” as some might argue? On the one hand, deed restrictions—like zoning—demarcate specified areas subject to a distinct set of stricter land-use rules. Both zoning and deed restrictions in Houston are enforced by the government, principally with the aim of propping up home values and maintaining a certain quality of life. Many deed restrictions even have rules banning apartments and enforcing a strict two-and-a-half-story height limit.
Yet, the similarities end there, and Houston’s system of deed restrictions is a significant improvement over zoning. For starters, deed restrictions only cover an estimated quarter of the city, largely in areas with low-rise, detached, single-family housing. Industrial areas, commercial corridors, mixed-use and multifamily neighborhoods, urban vacant lots, and yet-to-be-developed greenfields are virtually never subject to their provisions. This means that roughly three-quarters of Houston—including its more dynamic sections—are largely free to grow without anything even resembling zoning holding them back."

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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Comparing the inflating costs of Houston highways vs. transit

This week we have another always-excellent in-depth analysis guest post from Houston Freeways author Oscar Slotboom. This one is long but very worth it.
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The Chronicle recently published an Associated Press article "Inflation taking toll on infrastructure projects", listing huge cost increases for all types of infrastructure projects and reporting that the roughly 25% increase in highway funding in the recent federal infrastructure bill has already been consumed by inflation.
"The cost of those projects is going up by 20%, by 30%, and just wiping out that increase from the federal government that they were so excited about earlier in the year.”
Building public transit trains and tunnels in the United States had become absurdly expensive even before the recent inflationary surge. Tory recently mentioned the 78% increase in the estimated cost of Austin's planned light rail, from $5.8 billion to $10.3 billion, with the tunnel section now projected to cost $978 million per mile. Other crazy-expensive projects include a rail tunnel extension in San Jose projected at $1.5 billion per mile, $521 million per mile for a mostly-elevated rail line in Honolulu, and Maryland's Purple Line light rail which is 4.5 years behind schedule and sustained a $1.4 billion cost increase to $210 million per mile.
Let's take a closer look at the costs and inflation for some transit and highway projects in Houston.
Overall Cost vs. Construction Cost
The desired metric for cost evaluation is overall project cost, including not only construction but also environmental studies, engineering, project management, utility adjustments, and right-of-way acquisition. Press reports normally include overall cost for transit projects. For highways, only construction cost is typically readily available. Highway project development (pre-construction) cost has historically been in the range of 20 to 25% of construction cost, but has recently risen to 29%. (Item 7A in May 2022, 1:43) I'll use the 29% cost factor to estimate the overall cost of highway projects.
Metro Light Rail
The original Red Line, which had good pre-Covid ridership, opened in 2004 and now seems like an unbelievable bargain at $44 million per mile, especially since it included complicated sections through downtown and the medical center. Around 10 years later, cost had exploded to $143 million per mile for the 2013 Red Line North extension (328% higher) and $153 million per mile in 2015 for the new Green and Purple Lines (351% higher), all having much lower ridership than the original Red Line.
Opened Cost
millions
Length
miles
Cost per mile
millions
Original Red Line Jan 2004 $324 7.5 $43.6
Red Line North Extension Dec 2013 $756 5.3 $143
Green and Purple Lines May 2015, final section Jan 2017 $1410 9.2* $153
*Includes shared track in downtown
There is no recent data for Houston since there have been no major transit projects since 2015. In 2018 the cost of new light rail was averaging around $202 million per mile nationally, and is surely higher now. Extension of the Green or Purple Line to Hobby Airport is included in the MetroNext Plan. A 2018 plan document listed the project at an unrealistically low $881 millon for 7.3 miles, $120 million per mile, for the Purple Line option and $900 million for 6.4 miles, $141 million per mile, for the Green Line option.
The Hobby Airport extension for the Green and Purple lines is now listed in the most recent H-GAC document (May 2022) at $2.678 billion. Length is listed at 7.4 miles, which would be $362 million per mile (page 70). However, the length seems suspicious, since I come up with 10.6 miles, which would be $252 million per mile. The planned Red Line 5.9 mile north extension was listed in the 2021 document (page 77) at $1.561 billion but is now listed in the 2022 document (page 70) at $1.098 billion for 5.9 miles, $186 million per mile, which seems low. These numbers are in the column for year-of-expenditure cost, which is inflated to the project construction year, and both are listed for year 2040, which seems too far in the future. While we can't make any per-mile cost comparisons from the H-GAC numbers, it is safe to conclude that the cost is going up and will be much higher than the numbers used to get approval of MetroNext.
Silver Line Bus Rapid Transit
Houston's first BRT line opened in August 2020 with a reported cost of $192.5 million, which presumably includes the $57 million elevated connector along the West Loop and the nicely landscaped reconstruction of Post Oak. Funded by the Uptown district, it is built to high standards to enhance the area's image. Tory and I are proponents of BRT as an alternative to light rail because BRT provides all the benefits of light rail with far greater flexibility (for example buses can use it and then proceed onto HOV lanes) and at a much lower cost, around one-quarter to one-third of light rail. Cost-wise, the Silver Line delivers, coming in at $46 million per mile. But it had bad timing of opening during the Covid-induced public transit ridership collapse and its ridership, most recently 741 boardings per weekday, is far below projections. As Tory has mentioned, it is preferable to have a low-cost ridership bust instead of the high-cost bust that we have with the Green and Purple lines light rail.
Status Opened August 2020
Overall cost (millions) $192.5
Length (new construction) 4.2
Cost per mile (millions) $45.8
University Line Bus Rapid Transit
The anti-highway Chronicle was quick to report on cost increases for NHHIP in the May 2022 H-GAC 4-year transportation plan, but (no surprise) they did not mention a large cost increase for the University Line.
The 25.3-mile bus rapid transit University Line is a priority project for Metro. Estimated at $1.56 billion in a 2018 Metro document, is now listed at $2.135 billion (page 12), up 37% to $84.4 million per mile, which is 84% higher than the premium-design Silver Line. (The official Metro page has no cost information.)
This cost is shocking considering the simplicity of two-lane BRT construction. Around 8 miles will be built on the clear strip of land adjacent to the Westpark Tollway, about as simple as it gets, and the rest will run on streets like the Silver Line on Post Oak, which will involve more complexity and street rebuilding. As we'll see below, TxDOT can build major freeway expansions for around $60 million per mile and smaller freeways for around $30 million per mile.
Freeways, Tollways, and Streets
TxDOT has detailed online data for the highway cost index which is updated monthly. The chart below from the official page shows that the Texas Highway Cost Index has increased slowly over the last 10 years. At the end of 2021 the index was up 28.3% since 2012, a compound annual rate of 2.5%, only a little higher than the CPI rate of 2.1% during this period. This relatively low rate of highway cost inflation has kept highway construction affordable. However, we can see a very strong upward trend in recent months, consistent with the press report mentioned at the top of this post. No Houston projects have been adversely affected so far, but projects in Austin, El Paso, and San Antonio sustained big increases.
For its financial planning, TxDOT uses a highway cost inflation rate of 4%, which is close to the observed rate for the period from 1998 to 2017, which had highway cost inflation of 4.3% per year compared to the CPI of 2.2%.
For TxDOT projects, there has not been much work on freeway main lanes in Houston in recent years, but of course drivers on the Gulf Freeway always see orange barrels, like they've been seeing since the freeway opened in 1948. Projects around Houston are used to determine typical freeway costs.
Let's start with a regular street project financed by Harris County, all-new construction of Gessner to the standard design with 4 lanes and a median between West Road and Fallbrook Drive. Estimated cost is $8.1 million per mile.
Status Under construction
Construction cost (millions) $10.07
Estimated overall cost (millions) $13.0
Length 1.6
Estimated cost per mile (millions) $8.1
The extension of the Fort Bend Parkway toll road is the simplest freeway/tollway possible, 4 lanes and no frontage roads. The overall cost may be inflated due to right-of-way acquisition. Overall cost is $27.1 million per mile.
Status Under construction
Overall cost (millions) $43.3
Length 1.6
Cost per mile (millions) $27.1
TxDOT recently completed rebuilding and widening of 12.5 miles of Interstate 45 south of Huntsville. The estimated overall cost is likely higher than the actual cost since there was negligible right-of-way acquisition for this project.
Contracts Awarded (1 2) 2017
Status Completed 2021
Construction cost (millions) $247
Estimated overall cost (millions) $319
Length 12.5
Estimated cost per mile (millions) $25.5
Work is just underway on a major expansion in Huntsville to widen Interstate 45 to 10 main lanes and rebuild the frontage roads. Estimated overall cost is $59.7 million per mile.
Contract Awarded September 2021
Status Under Construction
Construction cost (millions) $208.3
Estimated overall cost (millions) $268.7
Length 4.5
Estimated cost per mile (millions) $59.7
There are six contacts in progress on the Gulf Freeway between NASA 1 and the causeway (1 2 3 4 5 6). The estimated cost of $61.6 million per mile is probably higher than the actual cost since these projects had very little right-of-way acquisition.
Contracts Awarded 2016 to 2020
Status Under Construction
Construction cost, 6 contracts (millions) $978.4
Estimated overall cost (millions) $1262
Length 20.5
Estimated cost per mile (millions) $61.6
Construction of the new SH 146 freeway through Seabook and Kemah is a complicated project with very long elevated structures and a new high bridge over the Clear Lake channel. This project had substantial right-of-way clearance, so the estimated overall cost of $71 million per mile could be lower than the actual cost.
Contract Awarded July 2018
Status Under Construction
Construction cost (millions) $214.2
Estimated overall cost (millions) $277
Length 3.9
Estimated cost per mile (millions) $71.0
SH 146 construction, December 2020
NHHIP
Of course, NHHIP is going to be much more expensive than the typical projects mentioned above. NHHIP is not just a freeway, but also an urban improvement project (sinking two miles below ground and retiring the Pierce Elevated) and it includes the managed lanes which will be used for public transit. NHHIP involves substantial right-of-way acquisition, highly complex utility and excavation work through downtown, very complex interchanges, widening throughout the corridor, and has $2.1 billion in property compensation and remediation (page 10). With the current cost estimate of $9.7 billion, the 26.4-mile project (EIS page 3-14) averages $367 million per mile. At a 6/24 H-GAC meeting, TxDOT Houston manager Eliza Paul warned that we can expect more cost increases. While this is expensive, it provides a tremendous amount of infrastructure compared to transit projects. Compare any section of NHHIP to a light rail line or BRT line, and the amount of end product provided by NHHIP completely dwarfs any transit project. Trips served will also dwarf transit. And NHHIP has managed lanes, which will likely carry more transit patrons than light rail lines.
Conclusion
And the winner for best value is...freeways! If we estimate the current cost of light rail at $200 million per mile, major freeway expansion at around $60 million per mile costs only about 30% of the cost of light rail. Medium-size freeway expansions and small new freeways or tollways (e.g. Fort Bend Parkway) cost about $25 to $30 million per mile, around 15% of the cost of light rail. The Silver Line bus rapid transit, $46 million per mile, delivered good cost savings compared to light rail (albeit with low ridership so far), but the estimated $84 million per mile cost of the University Line is high.
The freeway/tollway value proposition is hugely enhanced by the number of trips served, with busy freeways generally serving between 100,000 to 300,000 trips per day at any single point, and the busiest freeways such as the Katy Freeway over 300,000 at any point. The most recent data from Metro for May 2022 reports weekday boardings (entire line, not a specific point) at 29,841 for the Red Line, and the still cringe-worthy low ridership for the Green Line at 3483 and Purple Line at 3307. The Silver Line BRT had 741 daily boardings.
The highway construction cost index grew at a rate of only 2.5% per year over the last 10 years, with longer-term increases back to the 1990s around 4% per year. While there's no readily available statistic for transit construction costs and we don't have any recent data for Houston, there was a tripling of light rail cost between 2004 and 2015 (a compound rate around 12% per year). Severe cost escalation of transit projects around the country indicate an ongoing serious inflation problem with major transit projects.
Now, we just need to hope the recent infrastructure inflation surge is short-lived.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The death of Texas high-speed rail

Texas Central high-speed rail looks pretty much dead based on recent news of the CEO's departure (Chronicle). Some key items from the articles:

A Spanish news site in Madrid, “La Informacion,” reported that the entire management team of Texas Central has departed, and the project has entered “a hibernation phase in search for financing.” ...

“The unorthodox LinkedIn announcement speaks to the company’s lack of staff, lack of resources, and lack of leadership, with no successful path forward. No money, no permits, no progress…. It is abundantly clear that this project is more than dead in the water, especially when the captain jumps ship,” he added. ...

Their press release included hints that the agreement between Japan and Texas Central may not be as solid as once accepted. 

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“Texas high-speed rail is collapsing before our eyes,” Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, a longtime skeptic of the plan, said in a social media post. “Today, with no leadership, no funding, no permits and no Washington bail-out from taxpayers, this project is dead.”  ...

Texas Central, meanwhile, has not paid its property taxes for land it already purchased, something critics in rural areas opposed to the train have said for months.

“The math never made sense,” Waller County Judge Trey Duhon said Tuesday morning. “It did not cash flow at $12 billion, much less the current price tag of $30 billion, that was before the recent inflation and escalation of costs.”

Even supporters in recent weeks have started to memorialize rather than champion the project. During his annual state of transportation remarks in May, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner — who signed an agreement with Texas Central to support development of a train station at Loop 610 and Hempstead — lamented the project’s fate.

“I was hoping before I left office that at least a shovel would have been somewhere,” Turner said, joking he might build his own train. “Hopefully, it can be revitalized.”

The economics were only ever possible if Japan was willing to subsidize it as a jobs program and to show off their trains in America (hoping for future sales).  The economics never made sense: to repay $30 billion in loans (far higher now with inflation), 6m annual riders would have to pay $255 a ticket on top of whatever it costs to operate the trains! Compare that to typical Dallas-Houston airfares of around $100, and the math does not look good at all...

Sadly, I think the biggest loser here is Texas A&M and College Station, which would have been boosted enormously with the only intermediate stop and fast access to both Houston and DFW.

I wonder how much the rise of remote work/Zoom, luxury bus services, and autonomous vehicle tech also factored into investor resistance? Businesspeople just don't need to travel back and forth between Houston and Dallas like they used to, and when they do there are some very competitive options.  Newer cars almost drive themselves on road trips while also getting you to your final destination and giving you local transportation, neither of which the train does.

My own prediction is that in the next decade there will be dedicated barrier-separated MaX lanes added to I45 that will accommodate very high-speed autonomous buses and other vehicles, probably north of 100+mph. Not as nice or fast as a 200+mph train, but an order of magnitude cheaper and with the flexibility of going between any two destinations rather than fixed stations.

If there is a silver lining, it is this: far better for it to die now completely unbuilt than to go bankrupt with the tracks half built or even fully built. What a white elephant scar on the state we'd have then, essentially forcing some sort of taxpayer bailout.  I'm convinced that's the California strategy: build an absurdly incomplete line in the central valley (imagine if Texas built a Huntsville to Corsicana line!), and then point out how silly it is to not complete the SF and LA ends until somebody comes up with the funding. Let's just hope it's the California taxpayers that end up on the hook for that boondoggle rather than all of us federal taxpayers...

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Monday, June 06, 2022

2045 RTP survey, #1 permitting, POST HTX diversity, housing costs hurt education, planning tool vs NIMBYs and their mentality

Took my visiting cousin to POST Houston Saturday night and it had the most Houston diversity I've seen in one place in 40 years here, both in food and people. Just incredible. These photos don't do it justice. Every ethnicity in the city was represented! Very cool place worth visiting if you're ever near downtown.

Moving on to a few small items this week:

“Enrico Moretti (2013) estimates that 25% of the increase in the college wage premium between 1980 and 2000 was absorbed by higher housing costs. Moreover, since the big increases in housing costs have come after 2000, it’s very likely that an even larger share of the college wage premium today is being eaten by housing. High housing costs don’t simply redistribute wealth from workers to landowners. High housing costs reduce the return to education, reducing the incentive to invest in education. Thus higher housing costs have reduced human capital and the number of skilled workers with potentially significant effects on growth.”

  • Very cool tool that I'm also very glad Houston doesn't need because we don't need the public's approval over what gets built where: Fast Company - This ingenious tool helps cities avoid rabid NIMBY arguments over housing - Balancing Act helps calm the contentious process of deciding where housing should get built.
  • NYT: Twilight of the NIMBY - Suburban homeowners like Susan Kirsch are often blamed for worsening the nation’s housing crisis. That doesn’t mean she’s giving up her two-decade fight against 20 condos.
"How does a place (CA) that prides itself on progressive politics have so many policies that exacerbate inequality? How do homeowners whose window signs say they welcome every oppressed group rationalize a housing system that has caused their own children to flee?" 
  • Market Urbanism Report: "Our latest data dive shows a clear correlation between permit rates fm 2004-2021, and current median home prices, in America's 20 "superstar" metros. Houston remains America's best metro for combining strong population/job growth with low prices. It's also had the most net permits (945,068) over this period. Not a coincidence." Hear hear! Click to enlarge the graph:


Click to enlarge


Finally, be sure you fill out the H-GAC 2045 Regional Transportation Plan survey before the end of June. They also have a Comment Map where you can add comments to very specific locations.  Here was my public comment submission after attending their virtual public meeting:

"Very excited about the REAL network of managed/MaX Lanes! By far the most effective, cost-efficient, flexible, adaptable (to autonomous vehicle technology), and realistic transportation solution for a metro like Houston. Bike lanes and transit are nice amenities but will never be able to address more than a tiny slice of trips in Houston. Houston's future vibrancy and economic success is absolutely critically tied to expanding convenient, fast transportation used by the vast majority of people (cars), and if we ignore that and pretend we don't need to make any more traditional transportation expansions to accommodate growth (like freeways) we will stagnate into gridlock like LA, which has invested tens of billions into transit expansion while overall ridership *dropped*."


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Sunday, May 22, 2022

People leaving unhappy cities for Houston, fixing the housing shortage driven by remote work, Stephen Kleinberg tribute

 A few smaller items this week:

“ A paper published this week by two California economists calculated that the mass shift to remote work accounted for 15.1 percentage points of the 24% increase in U.S. home prices between November 2019 and 2021.”
“There are lots of places in America with jobs and lower climate risks or jobs and racial diversity, but if you want all three, Texas will take care of you best,” The NYTimes noted in 2021.
“Many of us move to big cities and spend little time in nature — also not a path to happiness. A study by the economists Ed Glaeser and Josh Gottlieb ranked the happiness of every American metropolitan area. They found that New York City was just about the least happy. Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco also scored low. The happiest places include Flagstaff, Ariz.; Naples, Fla., and pretty much all of Hawaii. And when people move out of unhappy cities to happy places, they report increased happiness.”

And a little humor, lol: "The data-driven answer to life is as follows: Be with your love, on an 80-degree and sunny day, overlooking a beautiful body of water, having sex."

  • And here are the academic paper details behind that excerpt: Unhappy Cities. People are the least happy in some of America's largest cities like NYC, LA, SF, Boston, and Chicago. Oddly, Dallas and Houston are not included, although Galveston scores surprisingly high (#16).
"Abstract: There are persistent differences in self-reported subjective well-being across U.S. metropolitan areas, and residents of declining cities appear less happy than other Americans. Newer residents of these cities appear to be as unhappy as longer term residents, and yet some people continue to move to these areas. While the historical data on happiness are limited, the available facts suggest that cities that are now declining were also unhappy in their more prosperous past. One interpretation of these facts is that individuals do not aim to maximize self-reported well-being, or happiness, as measured in surveys, and they willingly endure less happiness in exchange for higher incomes or lower housing costs. In this view, subjective well-being is better viewed as one of many arguments of the utility function, rather than the utility function itself, and individuals make trade-offs among competing objectives, including but not limited to happiness."
Finally, a great little video tribute to Dr. Stephen Kleinberg at Rice University, who is retiring after an amazing 40 years of conducting the Houston Area Survey. Thank you, Stephen Klineberg.



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Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Metro's pretty good Inner Katy BRT plan, Ashby's corrective ordinance, induced demand from freeway expansion isn't bad, housing policy failure and success, urban exodus

I attended Metro's public meeting last week on the Inner Katy BRT+Express Bus elevated lanes and was fairly impressed with the plan. One-seat Silver line BRT ride from downtown to uptown. Easy access for 290 and I10W HOV express buses without a transfer. Uses Purple/Green LRT lanes downtown so no new lanes are lost. Good destinations like Memorial Park, POST, Theater District, GRB convention center, and Eado/PNC Stadium.  One downside: HOV/HOT vehicles won't have access, and will lose access to existing elevated HOV lanes into and out of downtown. But TXDoT is planning to build their own to extend the Katy managed lanes all the way downtown. Seems a little duplicative to me. I sent this official public comment to Metro: 

Just attended the public meeting and am overall impressed with the plan, but non-transit HOV vehicles losing access to the CBD ramp to downtown is problematic and could generate public blowback (I use that ramp myself quite often). As you know, that ramp bypasses a significantly congested traffic bottleneck downtown. Engineering should be possible to allow those vehicles to share the lanes on the portion between the Studemont station and downtown (with ingress and egress just east of Studemont) without significantly impacting the bus service. Or if not, please coordinate closely with TXDoT to facilitate access for those vehicles with an alternate route/lanes, maybe with a shared structure/ramp/bridge? 

and got this response:

"Dear Mr. Gattis: Thank you for contacting Metro and thank you for participating in our latest public meeting. METRO is currently working with TxDOT concerning the Katy CBD Ramp. As mentioned during the virtual public meeting, TxDOT plans to tear down the Katy CBD Ramp (one lane in each direction) as part of TxDOT’s North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP). TxDOT then plans to replace the Katy CBD Ramp with managed lanes along I-10 (two lanes in each direction with shoulders) that would accommodate non-transit vehicles. 

These managed lanes would go to the east side of downtown and have connections in and out of downtown to the west. During the interim of these projects (TxDOT’s NHHIP and METRO’s METRORapid Inner Katy Project), METRO and TxDOT are looking into the timing and what can be feasibly done during the time gap between these projects. As TxDOT progresses with their projects in the I-10 corridor, they will also hold public meetings in the future to provide additional information concerning the Katy CBD Ramp.

Please visit TxDOT’s meeting schedule here for more details.

METRO appreciates your feedback regarding vehicular access and will take this into consideration during our coordination efforts. If you have any additional comments or questions, please contact us at crm.RideMETRO.org or visit RideMETRO.org/InnerKaty for more information. Thank you for contacting Metro."

Interested to hear your thoughts on it in the comments...

Moving on to a few smaller items this week:

  • From Wendell Cox: "The Australian Financial Review (the nation's equivalent to the WSJ) ran a piece suggesting that housing may be the most important policy failure in the nation" (based on our URI/COU Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey). I'd flip that and say housing may be Texas' and Houston's most important policy success!
"All the research suggests housing is a critical determinant of well-being and good community functionality and has long been considered an essential part of the “Australian dream”... Econometric analysis has shown that in some places in Australia, planning restrictions are responsible for 67 per cent of the cost of housing." (!!!)

“Induced demand isn’t necessarily bad or wasted VMT. Being able to get to a better job or access venues that offer better choices and lower costs isn’t bad. Businesses having access to a bigger labor pool and potential customer and supplier bases isn’t bad. Making those supply chains work better isn’t bad. Getting emergency vehicles where they need to go, faster, isn’t bad. Pulling cut-through traffic out of neighborhoods isn’t bad. Using infrastructure to shape development or improve economic competitiveness of given geographies isn’t bad."
"it seems less likely that those who purchased homes in the suburbs and exurbs during the pandemic, motivated in part by new remote work options, will be selling and moving back to cities."

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