Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The booming population of downtown Houston

I eagerly searched a recent Brookings report on the population growth of downtowns for information specific to Houston. The good news is we had an incredible 200% growth rate during the 1990s. The bad news is, well, in this footnote from the report:
Many cities have historically viewed their
downtowns as repositories for locally
unwanted land uses, especially prisons,
homeless shelters, group homes for delinquents,
and treatment facilities for the
addicted. For example, Houston, which is
not included in this study, represents an
extreme case as 81 percent of its downtown
population is incarcerated. Their increase
in the 1990s yielded a growth rate for the
city of more than 200 percent. Subtracting
inmates, Houston actually lost downtown
population in the 1990s. Downtowns in the
sample cities with high proportions of prisoners
are: Pittsburgh (34 percent), Cleveland
(23 percent), Indianapolis (23
percent), San Antonio (22 percent), Charlotte
(16 percent), and Milwaukee (12 percent).
In the 1990s, these places built more
jails, collectively increasing the number of
incarcerated by 53 percent.
I still find it hard to believe we actually lost downtown population during the 1990s, esp. if you were to consider Midtown as really an extended part of downtown - or consider the new residential just east of Minute Maid and the GRB. But, hey, at least you can say we have high-density residential downtown - although I don't think the guards encourage a very pedestrian-friendly environment...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

WSJ op-ed on Texas schools

The Wall Street Journal editorial board had a short commentary today on the Texas school finance ruling. They chose to put a pretty positive spin on it, and I think they make some good points.

Texas School Lesson

The Texas Supreme Court did the expected last week and struck down the statewide property tax for funding public schools. But what was surprising and welcome was the Court's unanimous ruling that the Texas school system, which spends nearly $10,000 per student, satisfies the funding "adequacy" requirements of the state constitution. Most remarkable of all was the court's declaration that "more money does not guarantee better schools or more educated students."

Think about that one for a second. To our knowledge, this is the first time anywhere in the country that the judiciary has flatly rejected the core doctrine of the education establishment that more dollars equal better classroom performance. And it is potentially very good news for students, especially those from the poorest neighborhoods, because it shifts the policy emphasis from money to achievement. Better send the paramedics to check for heart failure at National Education Association headquarters.

Even more encouraging, the court endorsed more choices for parents and the state's 4.3 million school kids. It said flatly: "Public education could benefit from more competition." The Texas Public Policy Foundation, which provided much of the academic research for the court, looked at the Edgewood school district in San Antonio, where donors started a privately financed voucher program. The results indicate that not only have the kids with the vouchers benefited, but so have kids in the public schools that are now forced to compete for students.

We hope that courts and school boards across the country study the Texas decision -- including its comments on school financing: "The Constitution does not require a particular solution," Judge Nathan Hecht wrote for the majority. "We leave such matters to the discretion of the Legislature." In other words, it's not the proper role of the judiciary to intervene in the operation or financing of the public schools.

That kind of judicial thinking tends to be the exception these days. Over the past two decades, courts in more than 30 states have intervened in education policy and ordered billions of dollars spent on schools in the name of boosting student performance and ensuring equitable financing. The result has been an avalanche of new spending on inner-city and rural schools, but, alas, not much measurable achievement by the kids who were supposed to be helped.

In one of the most notorious cases, in Kansas City, Missouri in the 1980s, a judge issued an edict requiring a $1 billion tax hike to help the failing inner-city schools. This raised expenditures to about $14,000 per student, or double the national average, but test scores continued to decline. Even the judge later admitted that he had blundered.

The hope now is that, as Republican Governor Rick Perry and the state legislature search for a new school financing mechanism next year, they will accept the court's invitation to open up the school system to a wide range of options including charters, vouchers, scholarships and rewards for quality, such as teacher pay for performance. If so, the Lone Star State, once the home of some of the worst public schools in the country, could become the national model for educational excellence.

That conclusion, while hard to imagine, is pretty inspirational. Maybe the Legislature, facing some tough court-imposed decisions, will opt for radical change? To me, it seems sort of obvious that we have the best higher education system in the world - where schools have to compete - and some of the worst K-12 schools in the developed world, where they don't. Wouldn't it make sense to try to make the latter more like the former? And teachers: try taking a look at professors' salaries in a world where competing colleges try to poach talent, and compare it to your current salary. Considering how low teacher salaries are today, can there be anything other than upside?

Birthday request

Due to the relentless progression of time, today is yet another in an increasingly long string of my birthdays (although, like they say, it's certainly better than the alternative of ending the string). No gifts please, but if you're feeling particularly generous, there is one thing you might consider doing. Houston Strategies readership, after many months of steady growth, seems to have plateaued. If you enjoy it and can think of others you think might enjoy it, please pass along the link (or the email, if you're on our mailing list). If you or your friends prefer to get Houston Strategies via email, just drop me a line at tgattis (at) and I'll be happy to add you to the mailing list. As always, thanks for your support.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Chronicle may need to upgrade its weather forecasts

I apologize for the small, sideways graphic, but it was the best I could get shoehorned into this blog with my amateur skills. Note the "Now" temp is 79 degrees on a day with a High forecast of 68 and a Low forecast of 42. Shouldn't "Now" be somewhere in between the high and low? Isn't 11 degrees a pretty bad miss? Especially on a clear day with no fronts or other disruptive weather changes?

If somebody has access to the data, I'd love to see a weather forecasting accuracy comparison of the various Houston sources - the Chronicle, the local TV stations, radio stations, and I don't know who else (maybe they all get their weather from the same couple of sources?). If you have your own opinions, I'd love to hear 'em in the comments. I really don't know who the reputable and not-so-reputable sources are around here.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Chicago O'Hare expansion: When government runs amok

This story has little to do with Houston, other than serving as a warning to make sure we never get this stupid. The Chicago Tribune recently ran a story on the plans to expand Chicago O'Hare airport. The planned project is absolutely staggering, essentially involving the near complete destruction and rebuilding of the airport over a decade or more, totalling to $19 BILLION dollars.
O'Hare handles about 2,850 flights daily. Chicago's plan to reconfigure intersecting runways into a parallel-runway design will allow about 500 additional flights each day by the end of the decade, Mineta said.

The FAA says the expanded airport could safely accommodate 1.2 million flights annually with a reasonably low level of delays.

O'Hare handled 992,471 flights in 2004, when it scored the worst on-time flight performance of the largest U.S. airports, "causing headaches and heartaches for countless travelers nationwide," Mineta said.

But the FAA cautioned that severe flight delays could return to O'Hare shortly after construction is completed, or when activity reaches 1.4 million flights annually.
So, at the end of the day, for $19 billion they will only get about 20% more capacity. But lets take the math a bit further. Over 30 years, that's about 6 million additional takeoffs and landings (200K x 30). Divide that into $19 billion, and you get a stunning $3,167 per additional flight - and that is without assuming any time-value-of-money interest on that capital cost (which is the same reason you pay about double the cost of your house over 30 years for your mortgage). Take that into account, and you can double it to over $6,000 per additional flight supported. Assuming an average of about 100 people per flight, that's $30-60 of additional cost per passenger on these new flights. This is in a world where average total ticket prices are $100-150 each way, and just a couple of additional passengers can make the difference between profit and loss on a flight. $3-6K is a unbearable burden on a single flight - which is of course why they won't - they'll spread it over every flight at the airport, not just the new ones.

Now, to show how incredibly unnecessary this boondoggle is, consider that over 50% of the passengers at O'Hare are not starting or stopping in Chicago, but just passing through transferring between flights. Those people could have just as easily transferred through Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, or Cincinnati - or even Denver, Dallas, or Atlanta - among others. Most of those airports have plenty of capacity for growth, with absolutely no need to spend anywhere close to $19 billion dollars.

Really, this comes down to ego of Chicago politicians like Mayor Daley, who yearn to reclaim the #1 airport slot from Atlanta. A far cheaper and better alternative is a third airport south of Chicago in Peotone, but the city of Chicago wouldn't be able to control it or its patronage jobs and contracts. I can't believe American and United Airlines are going along with this plan (they both have hubs there, controlling over 85% of the flights). The additional costs will be put on their flights and passengers, making them uncompetitive for connecting flights (locals won't have much choice). The only good news in this mess is that the majority of the cost will be born by fliers in and out of Chicago rather than spread over federal taxpayers - so if you don't travel there it won't really be your problem. But that doesn't make it any less stupid.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Book plug, funny story, discussion topic

Just a few misc items before the Thanksgiving break.
"Houston Freeways is the most comprehensive book ever written about a regional freeway system. A central theme of the book is that Houston, not Los Angeles, is the world's most freeway-influenced city, mainly because of Houston's extensive use of frontage roads on 82% of its freeways. There is no better city for a freeway book. Houston earned the book, and Houston got it!"
  • I have to pass along a very funny story I heard last week. So a few years back during the Brown administration, the Fed decided they were going to build a new Houston branch building on Allen Parkway (very nice if you haven't seen it). They offered the city an interest-free $10 million loan for improvements nearby, like a pedestrian bridge over Allen Parkway and landscaping. The city ultimately decided not to take the loan, but here's the hilarious part: during discussions, the administration asked for a letter of credit from the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States of America! Note to bureaucrats: about the last entity on the planet you need a letter of credit from is the Federal Reserve. If they welch, it will be because of the end of civilization as we know it, and you'll have bigger problems at that point.
  • Finally, a topic for discussion in the comments from nmainguy. He originally published it in the comments here, but I wanted to bring it to the front page for a little more visibility.
"As a born [1952] and raised Houstonian, I have never been surprised at the lack of riots here. I'm not a Pollyanna but it seems we were never really a city consumed by racial tension and hate. Sure, there are huge inequities as far as race and ethnicisity goes, but it just seems less prevelant here-and this coming from a hard-core Liberal.

You would think a city our size would be more at tension regarding the haves and have nots - yet we aren't. Is it because there is more opportunity? More of a hand-up rather than a hand-out? I'm not sure. I just know-after traveling the world-there is something here that makes us a less tense community. This might be a great topic for a discussion. Just something I've thrown out there.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your loved ones. See ya next week.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Cities, their suburbs, and regionalism

From Otis White's Urban Notebook at, which still does not have permalinks:

The Value of an Amenity
Why Suburbs Need Cities

The history of post-World War II metropolitan America can be written in five words: Suburbs grew faster than cities. So much faster that many suburban leaders have come to believe that they are little affected by the cities their residents left behind. But as an economist at the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank wrote recently, that’s not true. The suburbs, he said, are far more tied to their cities than most believe.

As Jordan Rappaport explained in an article in the bank’s Economic Review (click here to view it), cities and their suburbs do compete in some areas (for certain kinds of population and jobs, for instance), but the more important competition occurs among metro areas. That is, most suburbs of Cleveland grew faster than Cleveland itself in the last 50 years but much slower than their counterparts in Dallas. “In other words,” Rappaport wrote, “cities and their suburbs tended to grow or decline together.”

OK, class. So what does this mean? Answer: It’s a textbook argument for regionalism, for acting on the notion that what’s good for the city (or your fellow suburbs) is good for your community. Rappaport describes three kinds of cooperative arrangements in metro areas: Those that lower the average cost of services by spreading them over large groups (such as regional sewer systems); those that increase their benefits by serving larger areas (such as a transit system that takes you across an entire region rather than a single city); and those that build important amenities to serve an entire region. The first two are fairly common, he notes; the last one is rare.

Why? Because while the amenity (think of a major museum, football stadium or airport) may be regional in its impact, it’s always local in its location. And it’s hard for people to see the benefit to them of a stadium or performing arts center elsewhere. Result, Rappaport noted: “... Only a handful of special [taxing] districts exist to provide true metrowide funding of single-site local amenities.” But if Rappaport is right, more should because having a great art museum or botanical garden on the other side of the region benefits your community as much as the community it’s located in.

Footnote: The importance of such high-quality amenities is growing, Rappaport wrote. Reason: People are more affluent, more mobile and consequently more choosy about where they live. “Just as [rising] wealth fueled people’s desire to live in larger houses, it has also lured them to move to places with more amenities,” he said. “For example, recent research estimates that the average amount a person would be willing to pay to live in a place with the climate of San Francisco, instead of Chicago, increased more than fivefold from 1970 to 1990.” While Chicago (and, for that matter, suburban Schaumburg or Des Plaines) can’t do much about the weather, they can offer world-class museums, performing arts centers and baseball parks. And if they’re smart, they’ll do so together.
This is an area where Houston got kind of lucky from the simple fact that it is a very large city (from annexation) that is relatively centralized within very large Harris County. Harris County has been able to roughly act as the de facto regional government all these years, building amenities like stadiums, parks, and roads and spreading the cost over large areas. This is a little less true today with the rapid growth of Montgomery and Ft. Bend Counties, but Harris County is the undisputed 800-lb. gorilla of the region. This makes a lot of projects easier than more fragmented metros like DFW, Atlanta, and the SF Bay Area that are spread over multiple municipalities and counties.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Sprawl seems to be coded in our psyche

I apologize in advance, since I've already talked about this topic before (twice), but this book review in Slate of "Sprawl" has an excellent excerpt I had to pass along. I almost started to highlight specific sentences, but soon had more than half of the text highlighted, which is a sign to just drop the highlights and let the text stand on its own:

The point is not that London, any more than Barcelona or Paris, is a city in decline (although the demographics of European city centers have changed and are now home to wealthier and older inhabitants, just like some American cities). Central urban densities are dropping because household sizes are smaller and affluent people occupy more space. Like Americans, Europeans have opted for decentralization. To a great extent, this dispersal is driven by a desire for home-ownership. "Polls consistently confirm that most Europeans, like most Americans, and indeed most people worldwide, would prefer to live in single-family houses on their own piece of land rather than in apartment buildings," Bruegmann writes. So strong is this preference that certain European countries such as Ireland and the United Kingdom now have higher single-family house occupancy rates than the United States, while others, such as Holland, Belgium, and Norway, are comparable. Half of all French households now live in houses.

It appears that all cities—at least all cities in the industrialized Western world—have experienced a dispersal of population from the center to a lower-density periphery. In other words, sprawl is universal. Why is this significant? "Most American anti-sprawl reformers today believe that sprawl is a recent and peculiarly American phenomenon caused by specific technological innovations like the automobile and by government policies like single-use zoning or the mortgage-interest deduction on the federal income tax," Bruegmann writes. "It is important for them to believe this because if sprawl turned out to be a long-standing feature of urban development worldwide, it would suggest that stopping it involves something much more fundamental than correcting some poor American land-use policy."

What this iconoclastic little book demonstrates is that sprawl is not the anomalous result of American zoning laws, or mortgage interest tax deduction, or cheap gas, or subsidized highway construction, or cultural antipathy toward cities. Nor is it an aberration. Bruegmann shows that asking whether sprawl is "good" or "bad" is the wrong question. Sprawl is and always has been inherent to urbanization. It is driven less by the regulations of legislators, the actions of developers, and the theories of city planners, than by the decisions of millions of individuals—Adam Smith's "invisible hand." This makes altering it very complicated, indeed. There are scores of books offering "solutions" to sprawl. Their authors would do well to read this book. To find solutions—or, rather, better ways to manage sprawl, which is not the same thing—it helps to get the problem right.

Bottom line: affluence seeks space, and economic growth is always adding to affluence. These fundamental forces must be taken into account in urban policy to the same extent weight and gravity must be considered in designing and building any physical structure.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The half-mil home

Tom Kirkendall has a great post comparing what kind of home a half-million dollars will buy you in LA vs. The Woodlands, with pictures. He links to this story in LA Times, which has some just stunning data points in that price range: 724 sq. ft? One-bedroom? 80+ year old houses in need of substantial repair?

And guess what? $500K is the median home in LA now, vs. $145K in Houston.
The California Assn. of Realtors estimates that today only 13% of L.A. County households can afford a median-priced home.
Note that's LA county, not just the city or just the nice parts close to the ocean, but the entire county, which goes substantially inland and has around 10 million people in it. (that number sounds like some exaggerated round number - like "a gillion" - but, no, it's the real number)

So what the heck are the other 87% buying below the median price? Do they make houses smaller than 724 sq.ft. and one bedroom? Isn't that called a "garage"? I know people in Houston with more closet space than that. Or do neighborhoods with armed gangs roaming the streets get you into that nice "affordable" $300-400K range?


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Houston evacuation transportation

Today we have a guest post from Carroll Robinson at TSU. He sent it after yesterday's post on using cell phone signals to map traffic speeds in real-time, which he also mentions below. Seems like some good common-sense suggestions. Feedback is welcome in the comments.

Carroll G. Robinson, Esq.

Texas Southern University School of Public Affairs

Associate Dean of External Affairs and Assistant Professor

Testimony to the Texas Governor’s Task Force on

Evacuation Transportation and Logistics

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Hilton Americas Hotel, Houston, Texas

Chairman Little, members of the Task Force, my name is Carroll G. Robinson. I am a former city-wide elected member of the Houston City Council. During my service on the City Council, I served as Chairman of the City’s Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure (TTI) Committee and represented Houston on the Board of Directors of the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) and was a Vice Chair of H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council (TPC).

I am a former member of the Texas Transportation Institute’s (TTI) Advisory Board and was appointed to the Texas Department of Transportation’s (Tx-DOT) 2001 Work Group on Transportation Goals and Objectives by then Tx-DOT Chairman Johnny Johnson.

I am currently a member of the faculty and Associate Dean of External Affairs at Texas Southern University’s Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs (BJ-ML SOPA).

Earlier this year, at the invitation of Dr. Carol Lewis, Chair of the City of Houston’s Planning Commission and a member of this Task Force, I agreed to serve as a member of the Planning Commission’s Long Range Planning Committee.

I am here this morning however, as a concerned citizen who just so happens to have served in city government and has spent a fair amount of time thinking about and working on transportation issues in the Greater Houston Region.

Today, I would like to offer several ideas for the Task Force’s consideration.

First, even though it may be self-evident, the work of the Task Force should encompass more than just Hurricane evacuation. It should, and must, also include evacuation preparations and procedures to respond to a man-made disaster such as a threatened, or actual, nuclear, biological or chemical attack by terrorists or an accident at one or more of the chemical plants or refineries in our area.

Second, our region should develop a comprehensive GIS 3D Visualization Database of our current and planned physical facilities and infrastructure to actually visualize and help coordinate evacuations. The database should be combined with the use of GPS technology in vehicles such as On-Star combined with E-Z Tags, cell phone signals and Transtar’s cameras to track traffic in real-time during an evacuation to help reduce (or hopefully eliminate) traffic jams by being able to reroute traffic to under utilized alternative evacuation routes.

This system will help save lives. It should be developed and utilized with the highest concerns for safety and personal privacy.

Use of this type of system could be limited to a specific period of time before and after an emergency to address privacy concerns.

During an emergency, the system should be accessible from Transtar and the various satellite facilities wired to Transtar.

A GIS 3D Visualization Database of the existing physical facilities and infrastructure throughout the region (updated on a regular basis) would be an invaluable tool in helping to rebuild communities in the Houston region if they ever suffered significant physical destruction as a result of natural or man-made disaster. This type of database would also help local governments evaluate their tax revenue after a disaster.

Third, develop a voluntary Internet database of individuals throughout the region who will need transportation to be evacuated. The database should be accessible by computer or phone so that people can personally add and update information on where to pick them up. The database should be privacy protected and easily accessible like a college computer based registration system.

GIS technology should be used to organize the database so that it can be downloaded to GPS systems on public transit buses or to school buses so that they can be used to help pick up and transport, in an orderly and efficient manner, individuals who have acknowledged that they need transportation assistance to evacuate.

This system would also allow the public sector to partner with private companies with vehicles equipped with GPS systems to assist in transporting individuals who need transportation to evacuation. (Again, public safety would have to be a priority concern.)

Fourth, local transit systems, school districts and cities should enter into Mutual Aid Agreements to provide buses to those communities that need them to help transport residents out of harms way. If state or federal laws need to be changed to facilitate these agreements, they should be.

The state, cities and counties should request that FEMA and the federal government recognize expenses that are incurred under these Mutual Aid Agreements as reimbursable expenses.

Fifth, serious consideration should be given to increasing permanent gasoline/diesel fuel storage capacity along evacuation routes throughout the region. Depending on being able to truck in extra fuel on short notice may not always be possible. Ellington Field may be a good place to store extra fuel so that trucks would be moving with traffic if all lanes of I-45 are being used to move traffic north bound. Similar locations need to be identified along I-10 and Hwy 59.

Sixth, the definition of “essential” employees and determining when they will stay behind during an evacuation needs to be more clearly defined in both the public and private sectors. Also the identity and location of those individuals should be placed on an Internet database during an emergency so that they can be quickly accounted for during and after an evacuation.

Seventh, we need an on-going public education and awareness campaign on what we want the public to do, when we want them to do it, and how we want them to do it when they are called on to evacuate.

According to a Houston Chronicle/KHOU-TV Channel 11 poll in the aftermath of Rita, 70% of the people who evacuated did so out of fear while only 21% of those who evacuated were actually ordered to do so. (Kristen Mack, Rita Re-examined: How We Reacted, Houston Chronicle, October 6, 2005, pg. A1.)

Eighth, put the database of city and county jail inmates and individuals on parole and probation throughout the region on a secure Internet site accessible by law enforcement agencies so that it can be used to help locate these individuals in the aftermath of an evacuation. The database should be able to interface with FEMA’s database to cross-reference against FEMA applicants for emergency assistance. Public safety in the aftermath of a disaster must be maintained.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Tracking cell phones for traffic reports

If you can get past the privacy concerns, this is extremely cool technology.
These new traffic systems can monitor several hundred thousand cellphones at once. The phones need only be turned on, not in use. And sophisticated software now makes it possible to discern whether a signal is coming from, say, a moving car or a pedestrian.

State officials say the systems will monitor large clusters of phones, not individual phones, and the benefits could be substantial. By providing a constantly updated picture of traffic flow across thousands of miles of highways, they argue, cellphone tracking can help transportation agencies spot congestion and divert drivers by issuing alerts by radio or on electronic road signs.
"The potential is incredible," said Phil Tarnoff, director of the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology at the University of Maryland. He said the monitoring technology could possibly help reduce congestion in some areas by 50 percent.
They're not kidding. Imagine real-time synchronization of traffic lights, identifying and adjusting for bottlenecks on the fly. Imagine immediate calculation of the optimal route between any two points based on current - and projected - traffic conditions.

If the lights get timed better and people can quickly see alternate surface street routes that have similar travel times, we can take a load off the freeways. I think a lot of people in Houston just head to the freeway by default. Even if it's not necessarily that much faster in the case of shorter trips, people perceive that it's faster since they're not stopping and starting all the time - even if the surface street route is more direct. If a real-time system told them an equivalent surface street route with shorter distance but a similar total time, I think they'd take it.

How about this? Register a few of your most common destinations on a web site, then, when you get in the car, you call a number, tell an automated system where you're going (picking one of those pre-registered destinations), it calculates where you are and the optimal route based on current measured speeds (freeways, arterials, everything), then you put it on speakerphone and throw it in the passenger seat to give you verbal directions as you drive. Cell phone companies should be all over this just for the extra minutes you'll burn (and the minute plan upgrade you'll have to buy).

Even if this system costs tens of millions of dollars to install, it's a whole lot cheaper than adding any new capacity. The bang for the buck would be incredible.

Finally, how much do you think this would have helped during the Hurricane Rita evacuation?

Houston has long been an innovator in transportation with frontage roads, EZ-Tag-only toll roads, real-time freeway information, and HOV and HOT lanes. Let's hope we're one of the early innovators with this technology too.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Technology and incentives to increase carpooling

Came across this short article in the Houston Business Journal last week on the new H-GAC NuRide program.

In what the council is hailing as the nation's first incentive-based ride network, NuRide enables commuters to plan trips online and to collect rewards for riding together.

Other areas currently using the program include Washington, D.C.; New York; and Connecticut.

NuRide commuters pick the days and times that they would like to share a ride and sign-up online, similar to booking an airline ticket. The program then matches each rider with others traveling to the same destination -- allowing commuters to rideshare once a month or every day, depending on their schedule and needs.

As a safety measure, NuRide is set up through employers, which allows for verification of each rider's identity. A potential ride-sharer can learn about another NuRide participant by clicking on the NuRider's username to reveal where he works, his travel information and how other NuRiders have rated him.

Employees using the program are also awarded points that are redeemable for gift cards to retailers like Old Navy and T.G.I. Friday's. Local users have received $22,000 in rewards since the program's inception, according to H-GAC.

I actually had a web site idea similar to this back in the late '90s, but passed on it for better opportunities. It's a great idea. It addresses two of the biggest issues with carpooling: finding others with the same route, and vetting them for compatibility. And the incentives are a nice touch to go along with the pre-existing incentives of saving money and using faster HOV lanes.

The only thing it doesn't address is schedule inflexibility. I think the next useful step would be to help people create back-up options if they're running early or late in the morning or evening. "My usual route is this carpool, but I can go earlier on this Metro bus or later in this H-GAC vanpool if needed." Those options may end up slower or less direct, but at least they're usable options. Maybe include some cell phone text messaging interfaces to communicate as needed with those other car or vanpoolers if your schedule changes.

Longer-term, I expect to see new wireless technologies with real-time location information to really revolutionize transit and car/vanpool use by rapidly computing options between any two points. Throw in a competitive free market of private providers, and you might get something really interesting...

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Speeding up graduation from Texas public universities

The Chronicle recently ran an article about concerns by The University of Texas regents that graduation rates are too slow.
At five of the system's nine undergraduate campuses, less than 37 percent of full-time freshmen who started college in the fall of 1997 had received a bachelor's degree from the school within six years. The statewide six-year graduation rate is 52 percent, while the national rate is about 55 percent.
Board members were concerned with both the four- and six-year rates, saying people who take longer than four years to graduate leave less room on campus for new students. That means the universities either have to turn away applicants or construct new buildings at taxpayer expense.

Students who remain in college for a fifth or sixth year also have to spend more money while missing out on income they could be earning on the job, Huffines said.

Teresa Sullivan, executive vice chancellor for the UT System, said several uncontrollable factors contribute to low graduation rates. Some students, she said, have to work to support their spouses and children and can't take enough classes to graduate within six years. Others are delayed by illness or poor preparation for college course work.

But administrative problems get in the way too, she said, such as confusing or overly lengthy curriculums, poor retention and advising programs and restrictive policies concerning transfer credits.

Somebody needs to give these people a clue. Why don't they just ask the students why they take so long to graduate? I have two step-daughters at UT-Austin, and I can tell you from personal experience exactly what the problem is: not enough sections of courses kids need to graduate. UT lets the most senior kids register first, and then down the seniority rankings, until freshman register last. Many, many classes fill up all available sections fast, long before it gets down to even juniors sometimes, much less sophomores and freshman. So the kids are stuck biding their time, waiting until they have enough seniority to get into the classes they need. Combine that with long, sequential strings of prerequisites for many majors, and it's a recipe for six or more years to graduate. And God help you if, once you finally get into some substantive upper level classes, you decide you made the wrong choice and need to change majors. It's particularly frustrating for my youngest, who went in with dozens of AP credit hours, technically making her a sophomore after this semester, but she still registers as a freshman and can't get into the classes she wants and needs.

The administration needs to lean hard on the departments to offer enough sections to meet the demand for classes. Either that or revamp major course requirements to have fewer pre-reqs and more flexibility. Try this exercise: for each major, lay out a 4-year schedule of classes that leads to meeting the requirements and graduating. Then look at registration records and ask: can students at each of those seniority levels actually get into those classes for that year? I'm betting in many cases, the answer is "No." Fix that, and they'll go a long way towards fixing the graduation problem.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Misc items of the week: school choice and sprawl, transit savings, taxes, and affordable living space

Again, a collection of minor items that aren't big enough for their own posts.
  • An interesting argument (abstract) that school choice/vouchers could help reduce sprawl by making the core more attractive to more affluent families. Not your typical argument from the left. Of course we don't have full school choice vouchers in Houston, but HISD does offer quite a few choices with magnet and Vanguard programs, which might help explain why our core has stayed somewhat healthier than a lot of other cities.
  • An article (abstract) noting that high gas prices aren't pushing as many people to transit as you might expect, because most of the costs of owning a car are fixed (insurance, depreciation, etc.). Unless you can get rid of a car, the savings aren't really that much - and of course transit does cost some money, which eats into the savings. Doesn't cover the "transit car" strategy though: have an old, cheap used car to get to and from commuter transit rather than a more expensive, nicer car for full-length daily commutes.
  • Houston comes out pretty well in the CNN/Money rankings of state and local tax burden, ranking a low 46 out of 51 states + DC - about $4,612/6.1% of a $75K household, which is well below the $6,800/9.1% national average. Thanks to Erik for the link.
  • NY Times has a piece talking about the accelerating domestic migration out of California (and Boston, NY, DC) because of high housing and living costs. Houston is listed as one of the more popular destination cities. A running theme throughout the article: the quest for more space - both in the home and around the home. More evidence that density is a niche desire/lifestyle (albeit a growing one), not the average. We're like gas molecules, always trying to move further apart unless some external force puts us under pressure in a confined space (which seems generally unlikely as long as we remain a free society).
Have a great weekend, see ya next week.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A New View of Sprawl

I know I've commented on this topic before, but Alan Ehrenhalt's review in Governing magazine of Robert Bruegmann's new book "Sprawl: A Compact History" has a lot of great excerpts that are very relevant to Houston. The main point, which I've been making for years, is to stop fighting sprawl and focus on developing a vibrant urban core.
But while the icons that stand for sprawl may be subject to change, Bruegmann believes that the phenomenon itself derives from a fixed element of human nature: the desire to spread out and settle one's family in larger spaces as soon as this becomes feasible. In other words, the low-density residential development that most of us currently recognize as sprawl wasn't created by greedy developers, or incompetent urban planners, or misguided federal policy, or even by the emergence of an automobile culture. It reflects an easily documented historic tendency for people, given the financial and geographical chance, to choose lower densities over higher ones. Sprawl, Bruegmann says, "is the preferred settlement pattern everywhere in the world where there is a certain measure of affluence and where citizens have some choice in how they live."

But this is where Bruegmann throws us a fascinating curve. He doesn't hate cities at all: He's a passionate urbanist. He calls cities "the grandest and most marvelous work of mankind." He doesn'’t live in the suburbs but in a townhouse on Chicago's Near North Side. He just thinks that the prevailing obsession with sprawl and suburbia is a distraction from the important task of urban revival.

In fact, Bruegmann believes that sprawl has been good for downtowns and inner cities. When traditional downtown functions relocated to the suburbs (not just housing but manufacturing, warehousing and even some retail business), the opportunity arose to rebuild the urban center around a new functional core -— as a hub of entertainment and leisure and a residential magnet for singles, high-income couples and older people eager to sample a new form of urban life. "The stage was set," Bruegmann writes, "for a remarkable revival... While central cities have traded on their 'traditional' character, much of what is most attractive about them is the fact that so many of the things that once defined them have disappeared."
Bruegmann is correct: Sprawl is largely a force of history and geography and not primarily a consequence of any policy of government or any conspiracy by developers. Different policies might have altered the suburban landscape in modest ways over the past 50 years, but they couldn'’t have reversed them. What we can do, many decades after the fact, is work to ensure that real choices exist for those who want to fashion a new form of urban life in the new century. That means public support for central-city residential living, investment in modern public transportation, and sensible zoning that allows experiments and supports developers willing to take risks. If we do those things, I'm reasonably sure that the new generation of urban-dwellers will show up. They are already showing up. Bruegmann is right about that. And we don't need to expend as much energy as we currently expend denouncing sprawl and wishing it didn't exist. In his words, "there is room for both Houston and Portland in a country as large as the United States."

It's funny how Houston ends up the poster child for sprawl even though metros like Atlanta and DFW are far more sprawling. Atlanta has only two-thirds of Houston's density! I think it must be the lack of zoning and some of the less-attractive results of that that have locked "Houston=ugly sprawl" into most peoples' minds. But with our urban renaissance, low cost of living, and strong economy (esp. immigrant entrepreneurship), I think people are also very slowly starting to equate "Houston=vibrancy".

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Immigrant entrepreneurship in Paris vs. Houston

Joel Kotkin has an insightful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today on the riots in Paris. He starts by pointing out the economic stagnation of Europe, including this staggering statistic:
Since the '70s, America has created 57 million new jobs, compared with just four million in Europe (with most of those jobs in government)
He talks about the lack of jobs and opportunity for the young in Europe - especially immigrant youth - and how many European-born youth are immigrating to the US for better opportunities, especially highly-educated ones. Immigrants in Europe are provided for by the welfare state, but really given nothing else to do as they idle in their grim government-housing ghettos. That pent up frustration is being unleashed now in the riots.

He then goes on to talk about immigrant social mobility in the US, with some nice plugs for Houston.

The contrast with America's immigrants, including those from developing countries, could not be more dramatic, both in geographic and economic terms. The U.S. still faces great problems with a portion of blacks and American Indians. But for the most part immigrants, white and nonwhite, have been making considerable progress. Particularly telling, immigrant business ownership has been surging far faster than among native-born Americans. Ironically, some of the highest rates for ethnic entrepreneurship in the U.S. belong to Muslim immigrants, along with Russians, Indians, Israelis and Koreans.

Perhaps nothing confirms immigrant upward mobility more than the fact that the majority have joined the white middle class in the suburbs -- a geography properly associated here mostly with upward mobility. These newcomers and their businesses have carved out a powerful presence in suburban areas that now count among the nation's most diverse regions. Prime examples include what demographer Bill Frey calls "melting pot suburbs": the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles; Arlington County, Va.; Essex County, N.J.; and Fort Bend County in suburban Houston. The connection between this spreading geography and immigrant opportunity is not coincidental. Like other Americans, immigrants often dramatically improve their quality of life and economic prospects by moving out to less dense, faster growing areas. They can also take advantage of more business-friendly government. Perhaps the most extreme case is Houston, a low-cost, low-tax haven where immigrant entrepreneurship has exploded in recent decades. Much of this has taken place in the city itself. Looser regulations and a lack of zoning lower land and rental costs, providing opportunities to build businesses and acquire property.

It is almost inconceivable to see such flowerings of ethnic entrepreneurship in Continental Europe. Economic and regulatory policy plays a central role in stifling enterprise. Heavy-handed central planning tends to make property markets expensive and difficult to penetrate. Add to this an overall regulatory regime that makes it hard for small business to start or expand, and you have a recipe for economic stagnation and social turmoil. What would help France most now would be to stimulate economic growth and lessen onerous regulation. Most critically, this would also open up entrepreneurial and employment opportunity for those now suffering more of a nightmare of closed options than anything resembling a European dream.

It's been noted before that Houston doesn't have much history of rioting compared to many east and west coast cities. I've always theorized that it was just too darn hot here to riot: you grab your baseball bat and head out to the street, feel the blast of stifling hot humid air, and then turn around and decide you prefer to stay in the air conditioning. But maybe there's another reason: Houston's relatively high levels of economic opportunity and the belief that if you work hard you can get ahead (as noted in Dr. Klineberg's Houston Area Survey - Figure 4 on page 10). It just goes to show that you can't make people happy by just meeting their basic needs with welfare programs - they need purpose and an opportunity to get ahead.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The graffiti solution

There have been reports lately about the worsening graffiti problem in Houston. Private property owners are legally required to clean it up, but there doesn't seem to be much enforcement.

I think the secret to reducing graffiti is to undermine the motivation of the "tagger". They're trying to impress people and show off their tags. How can we demotivate them cost-effectively? Obviously, more enforcement and catching them is not very practical. The solution is to wipe out their tag immediately. As soon as it's discovered, by a citizen or police on patrol, it should be called into 311 and a 24-hour response team should be sent out to paint over it with some neutral color. Ideally, it shouldn't live more than a few hours before it's wiped out.

This should totally demoralize graffiti taggers. Why go to all that work when your "art" will become a gray blob by sunrise? Nothing to show off.

I don't really think the cost of this response team would be all that much. It could even be a single guy with a power painter, ideally with a cherry-picker truck like Centerpoint linemen to get to those difficult places. I think it should be run by Harris County just like the Motorist Assist Program. That way it will cover the whole county rather than just pushing taggers outside the city limits.

What I'm not sure about are the legal issues of painting private property. It's not really any extra work to clean up - it's just another layer of paint. Maybe the response team has to wait to get permission from the owner, but I think if they explain the strategy they could get pretty quick approval from most owners. A phone rep could even work to secure owner permission before dispatching the team to the site.

If anybody has heard about graffiti solutions that have worked in other cities, I'd love to hear them in the comments.

Update 2/1/06: The police seem to be looking into it.

Update 11/14/08: An innovative coating that prevents spray paint from sticking.

Update 7/22/09: A new City of Houston graffiti web site.

Update 1/8/15: Chronicle profile of the city's anti-graffiti vans.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Welcome new readers

If you're new to Houston Strategies from the Sunday Chronicle op-ed on commuter rail: Welcome!

I generally try to publish 5 times/week Sun-Thurs nights, so I hope you can make it back regularly. If you prefer to receive the posts via email, send an email to tgattis (at) and I'll add you to the list (that format is to confuse spam crawlers - you'll need to change it to a normal email address).

Houston Strategies started in March of this year, and you can quickly skim a short list of highlights from previous months here. Hope you find it interesting and I look forward to seeing your feedback in the comments.

Commuter rail is the wrong ride

My op-ed on commuter rail in Houston made the front of the Chronicle Sunday Outlook section today, but Chronicle web site links don't stay up very long, so I want to put a permanent copy here. The formatting will be better at the Chronicle, so you might want to read it over there if the link is still up. As always, comments are encouraged (see link at the end of this post).


Commuter rail is the wrong ride

It can't keep up with proven success of express bus


HARRIS County Commissioner Steve Radack has once again advocated for heavy commuter rail in Houston using existing freight rail tracks ("A WAY OUT / Ride rails to safety in disaster," Outlook, Oct. 23). This time, Radack noted commuter rail's potential usefulness in emergency evacuation situations.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority has preliminary plans for heavy commuter lines in the northwest corridor alongU.S. 290, the southwest corridor to Fort Bend County along U.S. 90-A, and the southeast corridor to Clear Lake and possibly beyond to Galveston, along I-45. Other corridors are under consideration, including I-45 North/Hardy Tollroad, Westpark and State Highway 288/Almeda.

I have heard support voiced all over the city for commuter rail on existing tracks. It seems like an easy, obvious, and relatively inexpensive solution to our traffic woes. But this is one situation where the citizens of Houston-area residents need a more complete understanding of what they will be getting and giving up before we proceeding down this path. Are we really, really sure this is what we want?

Heavy commuter rail has some appealing qualities. The cars are big and spacious, with comfortable seats and the ability room to walk around — maybe even buy food and drink on-board. They have dedicated right-of-way corridors with no traffic hassles. And of course they have tremendous capacity.

But I find that very few people in Houston understand how rail will fundamentally change their commute, particularly when it comes to door-to-door travel times. This is something Metro needs to be much more up-front about in its public information meetings.

Let's compare the typical HOV bus experience of today with the potential of commuter rail. Park & Ride lots can offer express bus service to multiple job centers, not just downtown (which has only 7 percent of area jobs). Express bus service offers incredible flexibility as jobs continue to disperse among multiple employment centers, a trend that is expected to accelerate according to the newest Houston-Galveston Area Council prediction models. They can jump in the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane and zip past traffic at 60 mph, going nonstop point-to-point to their destinations. They can circulate when they arrive at their employment center, getting people close to their final destination building. In the future, this service will get even better as Metro expands the HOV/HOT network and converts much of it to two-way service.

Now let's look at the commuter rail trip. The first thing you notice is that it's not as fast as you thought. Because of stops every couple of miles, it's only able to achieve a net speed of 30 mph to 40mph. OK, so it's a little slower, but it's more comfortable — so maybe the trade-off is worth it.

Until you get to your end station. If you're unfortunate enough to live in Fort Bend County and commute downtown, you're now looking at waiting for a transfer to the 17-mph light rail line, then a full 30 more minutes slogging up Fannin and Main streets to get downtown. Similar transfers and slow travel times face anybody going to job centers other than downtown: Uptown/Galleria, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza and Westchase.

But let's say you're one of the lucky commuter-rail patrons headed downtown. Most likely your trip would end at the newly planned intermodal transit center just north of UH Downtown and the bayou. You're still a pretty long walk from almost all downtown buildings. Time for another transfer to light rail, and then probably a multiple-block walk from one of its downtown stops.

Checking your watch, you note that what used to be a reasonable 30-minute express bus trip has become a 50-plus-minute trek of transfers and walks, with sluggish trains that stop frequently. You might even begin to notice, during these transfers and walks, that Houston inconveniently gets a tad warm and rainy five-plus months of the year.

None of this is news to older transit-based cities. Lower Manhattan is struggling to build and fill office space.

Why? Because most of the commuter trains arrive at Penn or Grand Central stations in Midtown, and nobody wants to make the additional subway transfer and slog to downtown.

After doing this a while, the novelty wears off and you decide that, well, trains are neat and all, but "I'll just go back to my plain old HOV express bus service and the shorter commute."

Surprise! That bus service no longer exists. Metro has canceled it, and rightly so. The transit agency has sunk hundreds of millions of dollars in capital investment into the commuter-rail lines. Metro is obliged to absolutely maximize ridership to justify that expense, and that means canceling any express bus service that might remotely compete with the trains.

The painful new reality is sinking in, but there's no going back once the money is in the ground.

At the end of the day, if we opt for commuter rail, we will have spent billions of dollars rerouting freight trains and developing these lines, only to discover that our new transit service, while stylish, is now less convenient than before we started.

The result? There won't be loud riots or protests, just the quiet sound of people voting with their feet as more and more employers choose to locate in far suburbs because the commutes will have simply gotten too difficult for their employees — slowly draining Houston's commercial tax base and vitality.

Maybe it's time we get past our New York-envy and develop a flexible, regional commuter transit system for our dispersed, multinodal city of the 21st century.

Gattis writes the Houston Strategies blog.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The dynamics of downtown Houston

Today we have a fascinating guest blog post from Steve with an insider's perspective on the dynamics of downtown Houston. As of "press time", I'm not sure whether Steve wants to remain semi-anonymous or not, so, Steve, if you would like to go public and get a little PR for yourself and/or your company, please feel free to put your info in the comments.

A major part of the vision for Downtown Houston, at least among most who are interested in seeing it become something more than it is today (and it’s come a long way in the last 10 years), is for it to become a residential neighborhood in addition to an office and entertainment center. There are two main reasons for this. (1) A larger residential population will help encourage and sustain the development of an active “street life” that includes street-level retail and well-used public spaces, including parks and public sidewalks. (2) Given that it will be probably be a number of years – perhaps many years – before there is support for conversion of the huge amount of underutilized land Downtown into office buildings, residential development would seem to be one way of ridding the area of the depressing surface parking lots or dilapidated structures. (If you count on those parking in one of those lots you might not find that idea to be a good one.)

Unfortunately, for various reasons, it looks like this objective is going to be much more difficult to achieve in the near term than initially thought. Three main factors combine to produce difficulty: (1) high land costs and stubborn landowners holding out for development of the next office tower, (2) high and rising construction costs, and (3) Houston’s astoundingly low housing price structure compared to other large, thriving metropolitan areas. There’s an additional factor which I’ll get to shortly.

Reason (1) is pretty self-explanatory. Even recent land transactions have indicated values in excess of $100 per square feet in areas near the central part of Downtown and next to the planned park in front of the Convention Center. Such land costs are prohibitive to most types of housing development, except high-rises. Values get lower as you approach the southern and eastern perimeter of Downtown but are still an issue.

Reason (2), construction costs, is probably the most damaging factor in the near term. Costs for items like cement and steel, obviously major components of taller structures, have risen dramatically in the last 18 months, with an extra bump after the hurricanes. Projects that might have been feasible two years ago aren’t any longer. There’s speculation that costs will eventually drop but no one really knows when or how much.

The third reason, housing prices, is the most ironic in some ways. You might sum up Houston’s big three attraction factors for employers and employees as a growing economy with a solid base in the energy and other industries, mild winters, and low real estate costs. So I doubt anyone would want to give up our cheap housing prices, they’re too critical for our economy. But this means that it’s really, really hard to get the prices needed to justify concrete-and-steel construction. It shouldn’t be a surprise that several proposed high-rise housing developments, in Downtown and elsewhere in Houston, have recently been canceled. Construction costs went up but buyers (most of these projects were condos because the rental market has been so weak and overbuilt here) wouldn’t pay the increased prices the developers needed. And why would you pay for a condo when you can go get one of the ubiquitous new townhomes, with up to twice the square footage, an attached garage, your own land (maybe with a tiny yard even), nobody living above you, lower monthly association fees, and a location within a few miles of Downtown (even literally a few blocks from Downtown), for AN EQUAL OR LOWER TOTAL PRICE? And with a lack of development regulations to restrict it, townhome and apartment supply will continue to explode, including into previously “no-go” areas like Third Ward and Near Northside, satisfying most of the demand for urban core residential locations. The townhome development shows there’s definitely substantial demand for living in the core, but there’s also a huge amount of developable or re-developable land in the core. (An aside: I went to Thelma’s BBQ today in the “East Downtown” area north of IH 45 and east of US 59, off Dowling. Its streets and infrastructure, and its public environment in general, are shockingly and appallingly decrepit. Yet, there they were, multiple groups of brand new and under construction townhomes, spurred I believe entirely by the private sector. Amazing.)

This brings me to the last factor, related to reason (3). It’s the idea of a “place premium.” It’s been shown that areas or developments with a walkable, lively, mixed-use environment obtain premiums on residential prices. Some areas also get a “hip” premium, especially among younger buyers or renters. Prices can literally change greatly with each block further away from the “zone” that you get. These types of places can generate successful dense housing markets, with prices that justify new construction, because people are willing to pay more to consume what they consider to be a quality public environment and close access to the “heart of the action,” trading off the size (but not quality) of their private environment. This can happen on a large scale, like in San Francisco. Or it can occur in very localized but intense places like Philadelphia’s Center City or, dare I say, the Uptown Dallas / Turtle Creek area in our neighbor to the north.

This has basically not happened in Houston, or more accurately, has happened over a very large area so the price gradient is much flatter and the effects less intense. The only area within the central city where new high-rise housing appears truly viable under current conditions is Uptown. That’s because you have wealthy homeowners from nearby Tanglewood and River Oaks who can trade their single family homes for luxury condos and remain “in their ‘hood” with all their favorite stores and restaurants but with a lower-hassle housing product. There’s also the sprinkling of international buyers who want their pad in Houston for their shopping and medical trips. Areas like Downtown and Midtown don’t have that surrounding base of luxury single family neighborhoods from which to draw, and they’re not shopping destinations. It’s questionable how truly deep that market is anyway – we’re talking the very top of the price/demand pyramid here. So, Downtown and Midtown will have to focus on wood-frame construction for the time being, meaning a maximum of four residential stories. Dense for Houston, perhaps, but less dense than many had hoped.

In Uptown Dallas, and apparently to some extent in Austin, a market has been created where wealthy or high-income young folks are buying or renting pretty high-priced high-rise units. I’m told they’re generally looking very specifically for condominiums and want a very central location in a very hip urban neighborhood – walkable retail etc. Houston has not created that type of neighborhood, yet, though they’re working on it in Sugar Land and The Woodlands. By and large, I don’t think Houstonians assign much value to the walking-distance environment. Partly this is because it’s incredibly easy to drive (and usually to park) in Houston. (Please don’t complain about our traffic, we’re much better off than most cities our size, especially in the urban core.) It’s also because we ignored our street and sidewalk environment and let it deteriorate so badly over so many years, its lack of value became ingrained in our local culture. So we think of being within two or three miles of Downtown as practically being in Downtown – it’s only a five minute drive, right? Finally, I have to wonder if the type of folks who live in Houston just have different tastes and sensibilities from Dallas and Austin (and Atlanta and Charlotte, and…). I mean, how many folks ever moved here seeking a high-density urban lifestyle? Maybe Dallas’ connection to the financial, advertising, and fashion industries skew its real estate tastes more than we might have thought.

I have more thoughts on what this means for the development of "walkable urbanity" in Houston, but I'll save those for another day.

All of these comments match pretty much exactly with my own experience and thoughts. As noted in the comments debate here, it seems like density is deeply intertwined with high housing costs, and that it's almost impossible to develop any significant high-density residental areas when quality, affordable lower density is available nearby.

Building on Steve's point, Houston's near-term best bet for density may not be downtown or Midtown, but a pedestrian/transit/taxi evolution of the Uptown/Galleria area into Houston's own version of Manhattan's wealthy "upper east side". The residential towers are already there and more are being built, they just need the pedestrian-friendly streetscape to go with them.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Trading public employee raises for productivity improvements

From Otis White's Urban Notebook at, which still doesn't have permalinks, so here's the whole thing:

Make Your Own Raises - The Productive Mayor

We don't endorse candidates, but there's a good reason for non-residents to wish another term for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He may show cities everywhere how to do the seemingly impossible: Raise city worker salaries, improve services and, in time, lower taxes.

Bloomberg's secret: productivity. In his negotiations with city workers during his first term, the mayor has made a simple, consistent demand: You can have the raises you create by doing your work faster, better and with less labor. "The mayor has always been very strong in saying that (city) workers should be paid more," one of Bloomberg's aides told the New York Times. "We just need to find ways to pay them more. Given the fiscal realities, the only way to do that is focus on productivity."

Example: Bloomberg recently agreed to a 17 percent raise for sanitation workers over the coming four years and three months, the handsomest raise New York has agreed to in years. But the union had to agree to use one-person trucks for some pickups and stretch out other routes so that crews hauled more garbage. "The trick of this contract," the head of the sanitation workers union told the Times, "was you had to generate your own wage increases."

Bloomberg has offered the same proposition to teachers, police officers and office workers: You can have the savings you create. (It is hoped that, in time, the taxpayers may enjoy some of these savings as well.) "Every deal that we have cut so far has had a productivity component with internal savings," another Bloomberg aide explained. "The message is clear from the mayor: If you're willing to come to the table and be flexible and creative and come up with some savings, you can get a terrific deal."

It helps, of course, that Bloomberg knows how to manage large, complex organizations. Before being elected mayor in 2001, he founded and managed a Fortune 500 corporation. As a result, this mayor came to office understanding the power of productivity: It allows companies to offer goods and services at lower prices, while paying higher salaries to employees and generating greater profits for shareholders.

But few other mayors grasp the power of productivity or are as determined in demanding it in labor negotiations. Many city officials start out requesting work changes but cave if the unions are willing to settle for lower raises. Not Bloomberg. He wants to give higher raises, but only if the unions help create them through labor savings.

Footnote: There are plenty of critics who think that, despite his emphasis on productivity, Bloomberg is settling for too little from the unions. And it's true that the contracts he has approved haven't always been paid entirely with savings. But the head of one city budget watchdog group remembers suggesting years ago that city raises should be financed with productivity savings. "People used to look at us like we're crazy for saying that," he told the Times. "Now it's accepted that that's how it's going to be."
Seems kind of obvious in retrospect, doesn't it? Surprising nobody's talked about it before now (at least nobody I'm aware of). Results might even be more impressive in a city like Houston with weaker unions. Anybody want to pass this on to Mayor White?

October highlights

Time again for the monthly ritual. Near the first of every month, I'll be adding a post highlighting key posts from the previous month(s), with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action. The main page will only show about a month's worth of entries, and I know most new readers won't go back into the monthly archives linked at the bottom of the right-side column, so here are the highlights:

September: A month dominated by posts on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, so not many long-term "keepers".
Highlights from previous months can be found here.

As always, thanks for your interest in Houston Strategies.