Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Houston, sprawl, and density

As a followup to my earlier post on sprawl, I came across this interesting report that shows Houston had one of the highest density increases among cities in the 1990s (chart p.3) - the highest among what they called "unconstrained" cities - meaning we had no natural geographic or regulatory constraints to sprawl. Our density actually increased at the same rate as Portland or San Francisco: 8% (to 3,856 people/sq.mile in our case). Much more density increase than my earlier example city, DC (2%), which did not build many roads and invested heavily in transit. And if you're thinking it's all about immigration: San Antonio proportionally gets as much or more immigration as Houston, yet actually lost density.

Again, I would argue that because we invested heavily in freeways, jobs stayed in the core, which made the core more attractive and led to more dense development. If you look at the bottom of their list, a lot of those cities have lost most of their jobs to their surburban and exurban periphery, so there's no incentive for development in the core, leading to density loses in those cities - even big transit-investing cities like Boston, Chicago, and Philly.


At 10:36 PM, June 14, 2005, Blogger John Whiteside said...

My problem with the argument that you're trying to make is that there are many, many factors in play, and you're picking the one you want to talk about and assigning causality to it. That's sloppy.

For example: some of the reasons DC lost jobs to suburbs were that it was expensive, tax rates were much higher, and during a good part of that period there was a perception that the city was unsafe.

For any fully-built city, there's a natural constraint on space; thus if a whole region is growing (as was the case in DC) naturally you're going to have higher growth rates in the outer areas; there's little there compared with the city.

Someone mentioned the housing costs in DC in comment to an earlier post. It's true, as i found when I sold my home in the city to move to Houston. Housing close in to downtown is fantastically expensive, and the outer burbs are somewhat cheaper. If there was some big drain of jobs out to the burbs, you would not see that.

The comparitive density changes are also pretty meaningless. Houston is one of the least dense cities in the US. Cities can only accomodate a certain density level; in DC, where there are strict height limits on buildings, much of the city is as dense as it ever can be. So of course the rate isn't going to be as high as somewhere like Houston.

Anyway, my point is that you're picking one factor in a very complicated system and asserting that it's the prime factor. Sloppy logic. It's an interesting idea, but you haven't proven it.

Great discussion though.

At 11:33 PM, June 14, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

DC's not the ideal case study, because of the federal government factor. Private business makes cost-benefit decisions about location. The feds aren't moving anytime soon - they force the jobs to stay in the core: your housing costs, lifestyle, and commute are not really their problem. Most cities can't say that about their core economic base.

Houston's more dense than you might think. Look at that chart. We have almost twice the density of Atlanta or Charlotte. We rank 16 out of 35 - right in the middle of the pack. And it's also worth noting that almost all of the higher density cities have significantly higher housing costs.

Definitely a complicated system. Every city has its own factors and story, but I do think mobility is a key driver in where people choose to live and employers choose to locate.

Let's try a little thought experiment. If tomorrow we closed most of the lanes on our freeways, would you expect a rapid exodus of employers to Sugar Land and The Woodlands? I think you would. When you can only realistically draw your employees from 10 miles around instead of 20 or 30, you want to locate near the nicest, newest, cheapest housing you can get for your employees, and that's where it is.

At 7:00 AM, June 15, 2005, Blogger John Whiteside said...

Have you ever read the Richard Florida stuff on "creative cities?" Some of it is, um, tenuous shall we say, but one of the interesting points he makes is that the most successful cities offer a wide range of options from urban to suburban living. Houston is a bit weak in the urban part (& the reputation is worse than reality). Some businesses would just never consider Houston if their employees could only live in places like Sugar Land. And many choose to go to the Bay Area or Boston despite the hassles because people want to be there, and they can get the best people. If those people have to live in the Woodlands, many of them won't work for you.

My point is not that freeways are bad; it's that you haven't made the case that more freeways = better economic life for the city. Bear in mind that economic life consists of jobs and residents both. The trick is to figure out how much road access is the right balance.

At 5:07 PM, June 15, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yep, familiar with it and posted on it:

We rank a very respectable #7 in his city list.

My simple belief is that more freeways = more mobility = more job options for residents (within a reasonable commute) = more potential employees for business. Not saying pave the city over with freeways, but where we have access to right-of-way, it's a pretty good investment. I agree with we need a balance, but I would argue that balance point should be more pro-freeway than most cities are.

At 11:39 PM, June 15, 2005, Blogger Christopher Loyd said...

This isn't my blogging specialty, but I used to study urban issues before shifting interets. In any case, I've lived in San Antonio and Houston, and been to DC. Comparing the three is a tricky business, since one is dealing with three different economic mentalities.

For Houston, freeways make sense, given the distances that people cross, and the density that they live in. Cars have a relative geometric ineffeciency to, say, subways. Free-flowing traffic on a three-lane expressway at 70 mph with less than 2 people per car probably doesn't carry as many people as a double-decked subway car, twelve cars long, running at one minute intervals with 15 second bording times. However, these are extremes (car traffic is often slower than 70 mph, and most subways don't have that kind of capacity -- at least not in Paris and Madrid that I saw). What one seems to run into, wherever one goes, is that traffic congestion builds up long before mass transit becomes viable. There is a population density where buses become profitable, then the various rail types, but those are probably far above what is necessary to bring traffic to a stop. Think of cities with high usage of mass transit, and imagine if >90% of workers there tried to go to work via their cars. Does Manhattan even have that many parking spaces?

In my line of work, density is a function of what a developer thinks he can profit at. There are lots in inner-loop Houston that cost so much, that many developers think that they can't sell a single-family house on it. The market for $1m single-family houses in inner-loop Houston is only so much. However, the developer may bet that $250,000 townhouses, four to a lot, may have a larger market. Keeping this trend, a forty-unit hi-rise (somehow squeezed onto a single lot :-) that rents for an average of $25,000 per unit over a given length of time may have yet a larger market. Or not. Interesting things happen when densities go up, especially in the parking.

Cars, even little ones, are big. That is, even in parking, they need room to manuever, access, and take up space. There was a Saturn TV commercial showing people "stuck in traffic" but there were no cars. They were just standing there, representing their cars. At best, even in the worst congestion, the freeway is but a very wide street with some pedestrians standing around. Hardly dense, unless the whole freeway is HOV'ed with 2+ people per car...now we're beginning to talk about density.

Houston allows the possibilities of density, mixed-use, [insert most loved or most hated type of development here] to exist because of no zoning. In San Antonio, there are circa-1900 neighborhoods just outside downtown that are zoned single-family housing (or whatever) forever and ever Amen. Nevermind what the market wants, San Antonio is going to keep it's small-town atmosphere (with historical identities, etc) 'till Kingdom Come.

Cities are a new thing to the United States. I remember reading in my history book way back when, that most Americans didn't live in cities until the 1920s, and that by 1970 most people had moved to a suburban setting. That's an "urban memory" of barely 50 years, and fifteen of them spent in a depression and world war. Imagine that it's the year 2020, and that you've lived in the same place (or been in similar places) that haven't seen much investment since 2005, thanks to a depressed economy and war-time restrictions. Heck, *anything* that is new, whether it be suburbia, Tokyo-in-Texas, or space colonies, would look mighty attractive compared to your fifteen-year-long neglected house/apartment/shack.

Especially when certain modes of transit are heavily subsidized, built quickly, and certain tax structures reward X-development over Y-development.

Maybe one day in the future, with clogged train networks (or space elevators), there will be radical calls for "old-fashioned" individual transit modes, complete with their own subsidies and favored tax codes.

At 5:57 PM, June 16, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Interesting, thought-provoking stuff, Christopher. Thanks for commenting.


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