Sunday, February 21, 2021

Affordably improving Texas power grid resilience

Hope you emerged from this crazy winter storm + power/water outage week relatively unscathed.  I certainly learned the value of stockpiling water and draining water pipes (esp. with a power outage), and ERCOT learned that it's a bad idea to cut off power to natural gas pumps across the state during a winter storm. I hope they spend a bit of time doing analysis before jumping to expensive solutions like full winterization of all facilities.  It's possible that if they had simply mapped natural gas pumps and compressors across the state and treated them as critical non-blackout facilities like hospitals, we might have gotten away with short-duration rolling blackouts that would have been far more manageable (like 2011). 

From the Wall Street Journal:

"Solutions will have to be nuanced and incremental. Winterizing all power plants would be unnecessarily expensive, and so would a complete overhaul of Texas' market design, which is partly responsible for consistently low power prices compared with the rest of the country." 

And an excellent idea: "One option could be rewarding liquefied natural-gas processing facilities in Texas to both curtail electricity usage and to redirect the feedstock natural gas for electricity rather than for exports."

And from Forbes - This Blizzard Exposes The Perils Of Attempting To ‘Electrify Everything’. Gas = resilience: 

"to equal the 80 Bcf/d of gas delivered during cold snaps, the U.S. would need an electric grid as large as all existing generation in the country, which is currently about 1.2 terawatts."

Unpopular observation: gas-powered cars, trucks, and SUVs were a critical source of resilience during this never-ending mass power-outage disaster by providing heat and recharging. If we all had electric vehicles, this disaster would have been epically worse. A hard truth. 

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Sunday, February 14, 2021

The future of superstar cities and Houston, CA's problems, warehouse glut, why tech in HTX?

Hope everyone's staying safe and warm during this way-way-way-too-cold Valentines+Presidents Day winter storm.  The lead item this week is a really interesting piece my friend George sent me on the future of superstar cities by Matthew Yglesias.  I think his observations are directionally correct, but he’s missing some pretty important nuances.  

First, he’s completely ignoring extended family pulls that bring people back to regions.  

Second, he’s seeing everything thru the lens of the footloose and fancy-free celebrity rich (the Matt Damon and NBA references), and that is an incredibly tiny part of the population. His alternate lens is 20-something tech startups – also a pretty narrow niche.  Normal people have family ties and different reasons for picking places.  A lot of the NYC/LA amenities he thinks are so key aren’t that valuable to families, and they’re the ones most likely to leave.  

Third, he’s ignoring the *relative* impact of remote work.  NYC and LA have a mix of people who want to be there for lifestyle and have to be there for work. Once the work reason is gone, a lot of them have left and will continue to leave (look at the Wall Street types moving to Miami). The lifestyle people may stay, but those cities are still declining relative to what they were when they could hold onto both groups.  They will face massive budget deficits which will push them to raise taxes which will push even more people to leave.

As far as Houston, we’re not on the national media radar, but I have personally seen a *ton* of out-of-state plates around recently. The media forgets that they don’t drive most people’s location decisions – it’s what they hear from friends and family, and most Houstonians like it here and plug it to their extended friend/family networks (including talking about the kind of home they can afford), and those friends/family decide to move here based on that recommendation.  But obviously the weak oil industry is not helping, and the GHP is absolutely right we need to diversify our economy and build our innovation economy (my latest idea for that).  But our core engine is a good sustainable one – not oil, but having a great lifestyle (esp restaurants) at an affordable price (from lack of zoning) that people tell their networks about. As long as we sustain and keep improving that, we will keep growing, even as ‘hotter’ cities like Austin and Miami become ever more crowded and unaffordable.  As long as articles like this are being written about us, we’ll do just fine:

Moving on to this week's items:

Houston. Houston has done it right. (one of my more popular tweets) More of these cities should look to our model for handing rapid growth without unaffordable housing.

"Conservatives do not resist many regulations of the sort seen in California because we want cities to be horrible or because we secretly are in the pockets of developers who for some reason want their cities to be horrible; rather, we are skeptical of such schemes because they tend to create artificial shortages, distort markets and investment decisions, and prevent solutions from emerging organically. “Markets work!” is cartoon libertarianism, but you know what? Markets work. And if you don’t let them work, you end up with artificial scarcity, high prices, and rationing."

Hear, hear!
    1. Houston has a welcoming and collaborative culture
    2. Great sports teams and miles of biking trails
    3. Self-care is an important part of the culture
    4. The legendary food
    5. The large talent pool
"In some ways, Houston is anomalous. Its business-friendly regulation puts very few restrictions on building. “There’s no zoning,” said Ryan Byrd, a principal of Colliers International Houston. “If there’s land that doesn’t have a pipeline, wetlands or is in a flood plain, you can build a building in less than one year.”

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Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Astrodome campaign ideas, MaX Lanes, pandemic migration, SV to TX, 4 post-pandemic predictions, superstar cities are in trouble, and more

The lead item this week is the Astrodome Conservancy spring campaign to re-engage the public on what to do with the Astrodome.  My blog has had two main ideas over the years on the Astrodome - a “go big” one that requires big money, and a far more modest, affordable one as a climate-controlled weekend festival park.  (other ideas here)

Honestly, I think the second one is the more realistic option right now, and could be very popular. The simple pitch for the second one is the world’s largest climate-controlled park. People love going to parks, but not during Houston’s extreme weather, especially summers and thunderstorms.  Having an activated park full of activities and festivals on weekends that is always protected from heat and rain would be a very popular spot for Houstonians, especially families desperate to find affordable activities every weekend. And it could easily start very modestly and then expand over time with philanthropy (like has been happening with the zoo, MFAH, and HMNS) as well as parking charges to cover operations.

Moving on to this week's items:
"But there’s another factor I hadn’t considered, one that so far appears to be the single largest driver of pandemic-era migration: family."
"Part of the reason for this trajectory had to do with another institution that continues to play a key role in driving technological innovation in the state: Houston’s Rice University, which played a role comparable to Stanford's vis-à-vis Silicon Valley. In fact, many of the early players in Silicon Valley actually moved to California after graduating from Rice, constituting what is sometimes called the “Rice Mafia.”

How appropriate, then, that Rice would play a key role in the next step in the rise of Texas. In 1961, the university donated more than a thousand acres of land for the construction of what became known as the Johnson Space Center, flooding a once-provincial city with literal rocket scientists. Like Silicon Valley, where government contracts and connections proved essential in getting the region off the ground, Houston’s leadership in the space race kick-started a host of related industries."
"If California is a vision of the sort of future the Biden administration wants for Americans, expect Americans to demur."

  • The Atlantic: Superstar Cities Are in Trouble - The past year has offered a glimpse of the nowhere-everywhere future of work, and it isn’t optimistic for big cities.  It includes four predictions and a conclusion I would never have expected to see in a magazine like The Atlantic!

    1. The rise of the supercommuter
    2. The decline of the coastal superstar cities
    3. The rise of the rest
    4. The next Silicon Valley is nowhere
"As an urban resident of Washington, D.C., writing from my dining-room table, my claim is not that I believe the internet could or should replace the riotous physical-world collision of urban work, culture, art, and life. My humbler assertion is that 2020 has punctured my confidence that the internet cannot encroach on the benefits of urban density and proximity. Going forward, many fledgling companies may agree, as they find that the city in the cloud essentially acts as a more accessible version of the city on the Earth, eerily reproducing its forces of agglomeration, specialization, and convenience. The past 12 months have offered a glimpse of the nowhere-everywhere future of work."

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Sunday, January 31, 2021

Increasing VC in Houston, Cultural Capital of the South, transportation subsidies, planner tradeoffs, minority startups, and more

The lead item this week is my guest column at Houston InnovationMap on new 401k investment options that would spur Houston venture capital and innovation, which builds on an idea from an older post of mine here. In a nutshell, it is now possible for Houston employers to offer an option to their employees in their 401k plans that would channel retirement savings into Houston-focused venture capital, which could be a huge boost to the local startup scene. I'm hoping someone like Houston Exponential or the HX Venture Fund will pick up the idea and drive it forward - if you know anyone over there, please forward it! 

Moving on to this week's items:

“It’s an amazing time to be a Houstonian because it doesn’t matter where you’re from. Once you’re here, you’re welcomed—and welcome to make a great life for yourself.”
  • Next time someone argues planes and highways are subsidized like transit, you can tell them just how wrong they are...

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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Houston's ugliness serves a purpose, Austin = next Silicon Valley? LA $20B rail fail, Texas SPDs, and more

 Just a few items this week:

"In LA, for example, rail lines costing at least $20 billion have been built since 1990, yet transit ridership dropped by one-quarter on the core Los Angeles county transit system from its 1985 peak to 2019. Yet population has increased 20 percent." 
Finally, a fun little comment I posted on Market Urbanism Report's Facebook page (humorously responding to another commenter calling Houston ugly) that Scott chose to tweet
Houston may be ugly, but that ugliness serves a purpose. It's how the city keeps the meddling pretentious aesthete NIMBY Karens away.
Lol. Amen to that.

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Sunday, January 17, 2021

How a Biden presidency can boost Houston, plus the cause of our growth, how LA is like us, Montrose is dead, and a graffiti artist guide to visiting HTX video

A lot of people are probably thinking about a Biden presidency as a negative for the oil industry and Houston, but there are some potential silver linings here. A big one would be a massive federal infrastructure investment bill that could dramatically improve Houston's flood resilience, including the Ike Dike and Galveston Bay Park surge barriers (great overview video). Another would be reopening international migration, which has been a big booster for Houston in the past (and has been significantly suppressed since 2016). 

But the biggest potential boost would be the oil industry giving him a viable alternative to the Green New Deal.  Instead of banning fracking or federal drilling permits - which just imports more oil from the Middle East - how about a tariff on imported oil to boost local jobs while also reducing carbon emissions? (by keeping prices up) Could the industry give him cover to get it passed and popular with the public?  How about channeling the industry into something it has the expertise, infrastructure, and capital to do very, very well: carbon sequestration? (i.e. injecting it into the ground) How about encouraging LNG exports to Europe to give them an alternative to coal and Russian natural gas? Or LNG exports to China to displace the massive coal plants they're building there? There are so many ways the oil industry could be part of the solution on carbon, if they would just engage in good faith. 

Moving on to some smaller items this week:

  • Market Urbanist Scott Beyer at the Foundation for Economic Education: What's the Cause of Houston's Growth? For decades, Houston has been the nation’s leading example of an “opportunity city.”
"If America had a more market-oriented urban approach, those aspects of Houston—the density and affordability—would be the ones most likely replicated. For this reason, “getting a bunch of Houstons” should be an urbanist goal."
  • Los Angeles: a city that outgrew its masterplan. Thank God. In the first of our regular series of dispatches from around the world, this longtime LA resident argues that his city's endless variety should be a key part any new metropolis's design. Sounds a lot like Houston. Hat tip to George.
"The very lack of defined form and cultural tradition here, the statelessness of the city itself or those who live in it, allows for a distinctive type of vitality that I've felt nowhere else."
Finally, I'll end with a fun video: Houston by a Local - Travel Tips for Houston - A Day in Houston, Texas. Discover Houston with a local: Graffiti artist Gonzo 247 shows you highlights of his home town in the U.S. state of Texas. One of them is Space Center Houston.  Hat tip to George.

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Sunday, January 10, 2021

My HBJ piece on NZ adopting TX MUDs, Techxodus, video on Houston's identity, future of offices, HTX developments in 2021, Stack City, rich zip codes, and more

The lead item this week is my short piece in the Houston Business Journal on New Zealand adopting the Texas Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs) model to encourage more homebuilding in a country with an extremely limited supply of overpriced housing. I helped host a research delegation from New Zealand in 2018 that brought our MUDs model back and successfully crafted and passed similar legislation there - a huge win for our Urban Reform Institute think tank and endorsement of the Texas model for supplying a continuous flow of new, affordable housing.

Moving on to this week's items:

"Harris, the most populous county in fast-growing Texas with 4.7 million people, went to six zip codes on this year’s list from just one last year." ... 
"Almost half of the richest zip codes, 49 of the 100, are in just seven counties: Manhattan & suburban Westchester County in NY, Connecticut’s Fairfield County, Chicago’s Cook County, California’s LA & Santa Clara counties, & Houston’s Harris County (6)."
"Travel is a part of our lives. Instead of treating it like a cost, we should embrace it, using it to enhance our economic and social well beings. To the extent that government is involved in transportation, instead of trying to limit travel it should do what it can to enable it and to extend the benefits of travel to as many people as possible."

“There are a number of examples of the Texas-style stack in and around our larger metropolitan areas, including Houston, which, because of its large number of stack interchanges, is known as “Stack City””
My first time hearing that nickname - curious to hear in the comments if others have come across it before?
  • NYT: The Future of Offices When Workers Have a Choice (archive link) - Some work spaces in central employment districts may become housing, and some housing in residential areas may become work spaces.  My prediction is that managers will try to get people back to the office, but it will be very bumpy (not everybody vaccinated, virus continues to circulate at a low level, employers sued by employees that get sick, people unhappy with returning to commute), and talent will start looking for employers that don’t require the commute, even a day or two a week. Also companies will find they can access much more affordable remote talent globally, and those companies will start winning vs. companies constraining themselves to limited, expensive local talent pools. Key excerpt:
“Even before the pandemic, there were signs of trouble with the office market in the handful of cities where the “creative class” had been flocking. In 2018, net migration to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco was negative, while the U.S. economy grew at a healthy 2.9 percent. Creative magnets like London and Paris were experiencing similar declines. 
The explanation for the declines — mostly high housing costs because of severe limits on new construction — obscures other forces that were destabilizing the traditional office market. In the middle of the 2010s, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and others started splitting their headquarters into multiple locations. Stripe, one of the world’s most valuable start-ups, went a step further. In 2019, it “opened” a remote hub, hoping to “tap the 99.74 percent of talented engineers living outside the metro areas of our first four hubs” in San Francisco, Seattle, Dublin and Singapore. 
For the fastest-growing companies, being able to tap into talent anywhere became more important than having all their teams in one place. Smaller cities were good enough. In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been a surprise, despite all the talk about the importance of giant, dense labor markets to fuel innovation. After all, Silicon Valley itself is not a city but a cluster of sprawling towns scattered along a highway. 
The defining characteristic of this new version of the creative class may not be where it lives, but its ability to live anywhere it wants. Put differently, people move to certain cities in search of better-paying jobs, but it’s now possible to earn high (if not the highest) salaries from almost anywhere. That has been true in certain smaller cities in recent years (Austin and Denver in the United States, for example, and Manchester and Leeds in Britain). To a lesser extent, it has also been true for people who chose not to live in cities at all.”
Finally I'll end on a couple of fun items: some very exciting items Houston can look forward to in 2021, including some really cool developments, and a really well-done video by the Rockets on Houston's identity where they hit on a lot of great aspects and moments from our history. Actually choked me up a bit during the disaster parts. Proud of H-Town! 

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Sunday, January 03, 2021

Bloomberg's Case for Moving to Houston (but not a city for the soft), URI-COU 2020 year in review video, HTX youth, TX #1 growth, and more

Happy new year everyone. Hope you enjoyed the holidays and the recent amazing weather (while staying safe). A lot of you probably had out-of-town family and/or friends visiting.  Next time nonlocal friends or family say Houston is too hot, floods too often, or gets too many hurricanes, here's my recommended reaction: politely agree with them that Houston is not a city for the soft or irresilient - they should probably choose somewhere like California. Texas welcomes the tough.

The big item this week is Bloomberg Businessweek's "The Case for Moving to Houston" graphic from a recent cover story on high-tech workers leaving the big expensive coastal cities. Click to enlarge, but note Houston in the upper-left pole position of the best bang for your buck, a combination of high average salaries and low cost of living, reinforcing my ongoing argument that Houston has the highest standard of living among major metros in the US and probably the world as well.

The Case for Moving to Houston graph

The article also has a couple of nice excerpts:
"Consider Phyllis Njoroge, who grew up in Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University in 2019 with a degree in cognitive and brain science, she started making spreadsheets of places in the U.S. that had a warm climate, were diverse, and had a reasonable cost of living. Houston won out, and she moved there in March" 
Having more remote workers means “wages in Texas are going up,” he says. So are housing prices. “You can’t have a $2 million, 2,000-square-foot house in San Francisco and a $200,000 house in Dallas that are basically the same for very long when there are airplanes and internet connections and Zoom.”
Moving on to some smaller items this week:
"I simply say, “no, please don’t be sorry. I love living in Houston. It’s a great place to live and I have a great life there. It’s actually not that place that you might imagine it to be. In fact, it’s one of the country’s most ethnically diverse and progressive cities. My children go to school with kids from all over the world. And the wine and food scene there is great, too.”
Finally, I'd like to end with a great year-end review 1m video our President Charles Blain put together on the Urban Reform Institute - Center for Opportunity Urbanism's work, events, and publications in 2020. Here's to 2021 being even better for our growth and impact!

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