Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Benefits of Congestion Relief

The Antiplanner has an excellent post that deserves its own dedicated post over here because it gets at what's wrong with one of the most pernicious fallacies regarding highway congestion relief. Key excerpts (bold highlights mine):

"Data published by the University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory a few months ago reveals some of the benefits of congestion relief that resulted from the COVID pandemic. I’ve used 2019 data in the past to show that residents of U.S. urban areas can reach far more jobs in a 20-minute auto drive than a 60-minute transit trip. The latest data for 2021 reveal that the number of jobs reachable by transit or bicycle was about 9 percent greater in 2021 than 2019, but the number reachable by a 20-minute auto drive was 66 percent greater.

On average, over 50 urban areas and for trips of 10 to 60 minutes, auto users were able to reach 48 percent more jobs in 2021 than in 2019. Solid lines show 2021 and dotted lines show 2019.

The Texas Transportation Institute documents that congestion in U.S. urban areas dramatically rose between 1982 and 2019. The average number of hours of delay imposed on individual commuters grew by nine times. This growth was because many cities had made a deliberate decision not to try to relieve congestion under the argument that increased capacity simply leads to more driving.

The response to this should have been: So what? Very little driving is frivolous. Instead, most of it is people trying to get to work, school, shopping, health care, friends and relatives, or recreation activities. Then there are trucks moving freight, bringing construction materials and services to work sites, and so forth. Anything that results in more such travel is a good thing because it means more economic activity, more income for people, and more access to better housing, lower-cost consumer goods, and other benefits. The sign of failure is if the new road capacity isn’t used, not if it is.


Since 1992, the earliest year data are available, U.S. transportation agencies spent more than $320 billion ($420 billion in today’s dollars) constructing and reconstructing rail transit

On the other hand, if cities had spent even a quarter of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on rail transit projects since 1992 on highway improvements instead, the congestion relief those improvements would have provided would have allowed far more economic activity, giving low-income people access to better jobs and everyone access to more affordable housing and other benefits. Like most wars, the war on the automobile has done far more economic harm than the negligible benefits it provided."

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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Houston as an affordability model for other cities

Affordable housing has become a hot topic in Houston, so this might be a good time to share this excellent piece in Market Urbanism: Houston as an affordability model (Planetizen coverage). It does a great job framing Houston vs. other major metros. Key excerpts with my highlights:

"When market-oriented housing researchers point to Houston’s relatively light-touch land use regulations as a model for other U.S. localities to learn from, its declining affordability may cause skepticism. Houston, however, has fared better than many other cities in housing affordability for both renters and homebuyers.

While Houston is the only major U.S. city without use zoning, it does have land use regulations that appear in zoning ordinances elsewhere, including minimum lot size, setback, and parking requirements. These rules drive up the minimum cost of building housing in Houston. However, Houston has been a nationwide leader in reforming these exclusionary rules over the past 25 years. Houston policymakers have enacted rule changes to enable small-lot development and, in parts of the city, they have eliminated parking requirements. In part as a result, Houston’s affordability is impressive compared to peer regions....

At the least-well-off end of the income spectrum, Houston has the lowest rate of homelessness among major U.S. cities, due in part to its relative abundance of housing and in part to well-administered public and nonprofit services for formerly homeless residents.

"Houston has the lowest share of cost-burdened renter households among comparable Sun Belt markets for households earning 81% to 100% of the area median income."

"Houston's homeownership is also more attainable to residents earning the region's median income compared to the same group of Sun Belt metros shown in the chart."

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Monday, February 12, 2024

John Arnold on Houston, real impact of lowering min lot sizes, HTX attracting tech, TX #1 attracting businesses

 A few smaller items this week:

"More than 25,000 establishments relocated to Texas from 2010 to 2019, bringing more than 281,000 jobs with them and resulting in a gain of nearly 103,000 jobs for the state, data compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank shows.

The report said Texas appeals to relocating businesses for a variety of reasons, including its central location in the continental U.S., access to multiple large cities and business-friendly environment...

However, research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas found that attractive economic fundamentals — like low taxes, low regulations, a growing population, a relatively lower cost of living and less union activity — are far more important than incentive packages when businesses make location and expansion decisions."

  • Salim Furth at Mercatus: "How much are #Houston's different lot sizes in different eras showing up in real houses for real people? Here are single family houses built in the 22 years before reform, and the 22 years after - same scale." When minimum lot sizes shrank, a whole lot more small-lot houses got built because that's what the market wanted.

"Founded in Houston, Cart moved its headquarters to Austin in 2021, only to return to Houston in November.  

The company moved to Austin to hire software developers, says co-founder Remington Tonar. But Cart is a logistics company as well as an e-commerce services provider, and its leaders found the company’s rapid growth required a bigger city with a larger and more diverse talent pool, including skills that go beyond just software development.  

“If I’m looking for front-end software devs who can build beautiful tools to perform one task, a place like San Fran or Austin may be better,” says Tonar. “But if I need people who can integrate digital and physical systems, Houston is a lot more attractive, because people are coming out of logistics and energy.”  

"Most stories about reducing homelessness mention Houston.

Most stories about housing affordability mention Houston.

Most stories about new housing models mention Houston.

Most stories about zoning mention Houston.

All these issues are related."

(mic drop ;-) 

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Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Stanford on CA vs TX, the rationality of cars, Dallas now #2 in finance, both parties are NIMBYs

 A few smaller items this week:

Key Takeaways

  • California’s state and local government revenues and spending are 60 percent higher than Texas on a per-resident basis.
  • On economic performance — both have much to celebrate. Population and employment surged in Texas while California’s per-capita income and GDP have soared in recent years.
  • But both have plenty of room to improve. California stands out for its high rate of homelessness and low air quality. Texas has a larger share of residents without health insurance than any other state.
  • Crime rates and renewable energy production are similar in the two states despite very different policies. And while K-12 spending per student is much higher in California, student outcomes are if anything better in Texas. (point that out next time someone says the solution to Texas' education issues is more money)

This finding runs counter to the narrative that people are behaving irrationally by owning a car because they underestimate the true cost. Instead, we find that people value owning the car high enough to make the private cost worthwhile. Indeed, 58% of this value is in owning the car, compared with 42% in using it, suggesting that the value of the car goes well beyond the trips that it provides.”

This paper sheds some useful light on the failure of decades-long efforts to “get people out of their cars and onto transit” and more recent attempts to greatly increase urban density in the quest for a “15-minute city.”

"Now the country’s fourth-largest metro, Dallas-Fort Worth surpassed Chicago and Los Angeles during the pandemic to become the No. 2 city for finance jobs. It’s home to more than 380,000 who work in the industry, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That compares with 323,000 in Chicago, the home of CME Group Inc., Cboe and other derivatives firms that form the backbone of that city’s finance industry. New York is still No. 1, with 809,000 people employed in that sector."

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Monday, January 15, 2024

The social and political ramifications of unaffordable housing

Due to over-zealous NIMBY housing regulations all around the world, housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable to younger generations (graph below, hat tip to Jay). That is leading to more and more young adults living with their parents rather than moving out on their own (2nd graph below, also hat tip to Jay). The NYT has a story today: "‘The Social Contract Has Been Completely Ruptured’: Ireland’s Housing Crisis - Soaring rents have left many struggling to afford homes in Dublin and have created a generational divide. Two-thirds of younger adults in the city live with their parents." (no-paywall link

More anecdotally I've seen the same situation on my visits to California: houses with a half-dozen vehicles parked out front as adult children live with their parents.

A lot of this is well known, but what hasn't been discussed are the third-order impacts. First is a flaky workforce, since they don't have to pay rent. Stories abound in California of young people quitting on a dime or even just not showing up to work or a new job when they don't feel like it (and just wait until people get free universal basic incomes!). It also creates this new political constituency for socialism: if they don't see a path to affording their own home, then their only option is getting the government to give them one. The irony is that it was government in the first place that made the housing unaffordable! It's just a complete cultural disaster unfolding in slow motion with the younger generations. And it could be avoided if we would just allow builders to build the housing the market is asking for! 

(click images to zoom in)

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Friday, January 05, 2024

Texas high-speed rail update

Happy new year everyone! This week we have another excellent analytical guest post from Oscar Slotboom, author of Houston Freeways (reposted from HAIF here). TL;DR: if it was marginal with 2% interest rates before pandemic inflation, it is now *way* underwater economically at current construction costs and interest rates!


On November 17, Texas Central provided the H-GAC TPC a status update about the high-speed rail project between Houston and Dallas. There was no "new" news, but a few tidbits of interest.

* The official status (previously known) is that Texas Central is cooperating with Amtrak "seeking opportunities to advance planning and analysis work associated with the proposed Dallas-Houston 205 mph high-speed rail project to further determine its viability." Texas Central and Amtrak are "evaluating partnerships to further study and potentially advance the project". Transit industry veteran Andy Byford recently joined Amtrak to coordinate high-speed rail initiatives for Amtrak.

* The Texas Central representative mentioned the previously disclosed estimated cost of $30 billion. A TPC member mentioned $40 billion.

* The Texas Central representative says there are 16 million trips per year between Houston and Dallas. (43,800 per day)

* Texas Central has 6 employees and a new CEO Michael Bowie

* There was discussion of who actually owns Texas Central now. The Texas Central representative was vague, but said that FTI consulting group now owns it. According to the FTI website, they seem to do anything and everything, and are not focused on infrastructure.

* There was discussion of the 2019 H-GAC MOU (memorandum or understanding) between H-GAC and Texas Central. The MOU mentions no public funding, and a TPC member mentioned it is obsolete and needs to be reviewed.

* There was discussion about the Environmental Impact Statement, and if it conforms to new flood standards in the Houston area.

* The Texas Central representative said that Amtrak will complete its "due diligence" in about 6 months, and we can expect some more information in that time frame.

In Dallas-Fort Worth, NCTCOG is continuing with its study of the section between Dallas and Fort Worth, and a newsletter was just released.

My observations

* The $30 billion cost number is more than two years old. Highway construction costs are up 56% in the last two years. I think 40+ billion is probably more realistic. In my opinion, an updated cost estimate should be Amtrak's top priority. If they don't get a new cost estimate, then they won't have any credibility because they can't do any analysis without the cost number.

* The entire project was contingent on a very low interest rate. With 30-year treasury bonds at 4.6%, it seems to me that project bonds would need to be at least 7% to get investors. If the project is $40 billion, that's $2.8 billion in interest per year.

* When Texas Central started, the cost was estimated at $12 billion and interest rates were very low. Now it is probably 40+ billion and interest rates are very high. It seems to me that the only conclusion Amtrak's "due diligence" can reach is that this project can only be done with government funding.

* Interstate 45 near Centerville has a traffic count of 39,000 to 41,000 per day. So the Texas Central number of 43,000 per day is realistic. The question is, what percent of those trips could become train trips?

* Just for illustration, let's say 50% of the trips switch to rail. (Of course it will be much less than 50%, but this is an illustrative calculation). $2,800 million in interest divided by 8 million = $350 interest cost for every boarding! Obviously this cannot be a private project at $40 billion construction expense and 7% interest. There would need to be some kind of government-supplied below-market interest rate. Even at 2% interest, the interest cost per boarding is still $100 for the hypothetical 50% traffic capture.

* Andy Byford at Amtrak really has only 2 choices for true high-speed rail in the U.S.: California and Texas. (It will be impossible to build a new high-speed right-of-way in the Northeast corridor.)

* The financial status of the federal government is shockingly bad. There's no recession or emergency or military conflict, but the budget deficit was $1.7 trillion in the recent fiscal year, which is 6.3% of GDP. Interest cost was $659 billion. At some point (probably sooner rather than later), the federal government will need to drastically curtail free money giveaways and wasteful spending.


Monday, December 25, 2023

2023 Highlights

Time for our annual round-up of the best posts of 2023, with this year featuring as many great posts from Oscar as from me. If you missed them earlier this year - or just didn't have time to read them then - hopefully the holidays are a more leisurely time for perusal. 

I'd also like to thank MyBestPlan for their ongoing generous support. They always have the best and cheapest electricity plan for your Texas home. They have saved me a ton of money on electricity, and I suggest you contact them for a free, no-obligation savings estimate. Mention “HS” so they know you’re with us.

These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument; and, last but not least, they've also been invaluable for me to track down some of my best thinking for meetings or when requested by others (as is the ever-helpful Google search).

Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly once/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box at the bottom of the right sidebar. An RSS feed link for newsfeed readers is also available in the right sidebar (I'm a fan of Feedly).

As always, thanks for your readership.
And don't forget the highlights from the first few years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging) and most definitely in the best posts from the first 15 years and 1.5 million pageviews.


Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Houston's growing wealth, diversity, investability, tech scene (even over Austin!), food scene, and more

 Continuing to clear out some smaller items before the end of the year...

"Techstars isn’t the only entity scaling back in Austin, either. In November, unicorn Cart announced that it was moving its headquarters back to Houston after relocating to Austin in late 2021. The company, which describes itself as an e-commerce-as-a-service business, reached a $1.2 billion valuation in June after raising a $60 million Series C round of funding. 

Mitch Goulding, director of communications at Cart, told TechCrunch via email that the company had originally relocated its headquarters to Austin “with the explicit goal of attracting more software talent.” But as the company continues to scale (it claims to have seen its revenue climb by 9x since the end of 2021), it decided it needs to “augment other areas of the company,” including HR, finance, accounting and legal.

We feel the move to Houston will unlock a deeper talent pool in these areas based on its position as a hub for major business,” Goulding said. 

It’s also a matter of cost and convenience. 

Costs in Austin are high relative to Houston’s affordability, [and] Houston is also more accessible,” Goulding said. “It is typically easier and cheaper for employees flying in. It also tends to be easier for employees who drive in from across the state.”

"In Houston, Black-owned businesses have been thriving, with the city now rivaling Atlanta as a destination for Black families and young people.

Everyone is coming to Houston,” said Victoria Walsh, 30, who moved from New Orleans for a restaurant job in 2018. “There’s a whole lot of jobs, a whole lot of new concepts, a new pop-up each week.”...

The city of Houston has long had thriving Black communities, but in recent years, the new arrivals have driven a kind of renaissance that is fueled, in large part, by who they are: middle-class Black people from other states with good jobs and business ideas. ...

“When you look at other cities, they’re not as diverse as Houston,” he said. “They don’t have as many opportunities.”

"Now, Houston’s transformation to an international hub for a growing number of multinational corporations — backed by one of the nation’s busiest international airports and global shipping ports — has helped propel the city to the top of the second annual FT-Nikkei Investing in America rankings. ...

That reputation has drawn in businesses both big and small. The Houston area is home to 26 Fortune 500 companies, making it the third-ranking metro area in the country. ...

The transition to green energy is helped by the knowhow that made it a centre for oil and gas. Houston boasts unrivalled technical expertise in energy, including manufacturing, engineering, trading markets, and complex industrial project management. It also has a robust energy infrastructure and the nation’s biggest port by tonnage. ...

“Increasingly, people working in the energy transition space are saying, you know, actually where the action is, is here,” says Tudor. “It’s not really San Francisco. It’s not really Boston. It’s Houston, Texas.”
  • Pros 👍: pleasantly surprised by Houston; plays up affordability, inner loop density, diversity, and the amazing food scene ("strong candidate for best food city in the US")
  • Cons 👎: bike and anti-car snob, toured Houston on bike in wonderful late October - maybe try coming in August sometime and see how bike-over-A/C'd-car you are then?... 🥵🙄 I've said it before and I'll say it again: Houston was built around the car because it's the only way to bring an air conditioner with you everywhere you go!

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