Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The reality of transit

A couple of recent articles on transit help to put it in context. It's important to move beyond the "transit is the holy grail" vs. "transit is worthless" debate. The first article is a New York Times profile of transit in LA and the incredible difficulty getting traction there despite enormous investments. LA is probably the most important city in the country for Houston to be watching for "lessons learned" because they are also a sprawling, car-based, suburban metro that has more than double our population and density, and they are way ahead of us on transit investments. Why would we not learn from their mistakes? People look to New York for a transit model, but more realistic for us would be to watch a city like LA try to make itself more "New York-like" and see where and how they succeed and fail.

It may come as a surprise that the Los Angeles area has one of the most extensive public transit systems in the country, with 73 miles of subway and light rail, 500 miles of commuter train lines and 2,670 buses covering 18,500 stops. The problem is that people live and work in pockets spread over an area larger than Rhode Island, and that going long distances on mass transit can mean long waits and frequent transfers that send public-transit newcomers rushing back to their cars.

A bunch of light rail, subway, commuter rail lines and now express buses added in the last 15 years has yielded mixed results, leaving officials scratching their heads over what more to do.


One recent night, Richard Close, president of the politically active Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, warmly greeted Mayor Villaraigosa at a meeting of the group, listened to the mayor's standard exhortation to take public transit and then hours later in an interview declared his devotion to his car. ...

But, he added, "A large percentage of Los Angeles can't use public transit because we are so decentralized. Mass transit is part of the puzzle, but freeways and streets are the main method of transit, has been and probably always will be."

Transportation analysts by and large are not optimistic that the various mass transit proposals will bring anything more than isolated relief. Too often, the experts said, Los Angeles has bowed to political considerations rather than pursuing what works best for the money.

Unpopular but proven solutions like "congestion pricing"— assessing tolls for freeway use at the busiest times to make car travel more expensive — and pre-empting traffic signals for buses do not have the cachet, or provide the perks for the powerful construction industry and trade unions, that come with rail construction and freeway alterations, the analysts said.

"It often comes down to what is politically attractive," said Brian Taylor, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. "And that is often, 'Let's spend more on transit.' It is less invasive than adding highways, and you don't get the objection from environmentalists."

Nearly 7 percent of commuters in Los Angeles County — and closer to 5 percent if surrounding counties are included — use public transit to get to work, a number that stayed flat from 1990 to 2000, according to the census, despite the investment of some $8 billion in new transit lines. (In the New York metropolitan area, 25 percent of residents take public transit to work.)

Moving on to the second item, Reason's Out of Control blog does an excellent job with some excerpts that explain the relative magnitudes of transit and car travel and their growth rates - noting that even tiny percentage growth in car travel swamps out much larger percentage growth in transit - and brings potential expectations for transit down to earth.
A simple simulation model shows that if both types of travel start with their 2000 absolute levels, and transit usage increases 5.36 percent per year (its highest recent annual rate of gain) and highway travel gains only 1 percent per year, then the share of transit in total ground passenger miles would not reach 5 percent until 2036. Even if highway driving did not rise at all while transit did, transit would not reach 5 percent of all ground passenger miles until 2029. If transit usage rises at its actual compound annual growth rate from 1995 to 2000 (3.74 percent) and highway travel rises at its similar rate (2.27 percent), transit would not reach a 5 percent share until the next century.
One lesson? If you ever hear someone promising congestion relief from transit, ignore them. Moving the trips-needle around in the 2-5% range isn't going to do anything noticeable to traffic congestion. Now, transit alternatives to traffic congestion are perfectly legitimate, but the question is "do they provide a noticeable improvement/value-proposition (speed, convenience, cost) over driving? (or existing transit options)" If not, what's the point? Why would we expect them to attract riders? Too many people believe "well, it doesn't make sense for me and I'm not going to ride it, but everybody else will, which will leave the streets and freeways open for me." Needless to say, this logic is completely incorrect, not to mention financially dangerous to taxpayers. Only when people have a realistic understanding of what transit can - and cannot - reasonably achieve will we make the right choices.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Houston #2 in admired companies

Fortune recently came out with their Most Admired Companies rankings, and Houston scored very well, with half of all Texas' 30 admired companies. Texas was the third highest state behind CA with 39 and NY with 36. The Texas rankings have an incredible concentration in Houston and DFW. Houston had 15 (inc. one in The Woodlands) to the Metroplex's 12 (only 5 of which are actually in the city of Dallas), with only 3 others in the rest of Texas. Actually, the web site list only shows two others (SBC/AT&T in San Antonio and Pilgrim's Pride in Pittsburgh, TX), because somehow they left Dell off the Texas list, even though it's #8 in their overall Top 20. I thought it was strange there wasn't a single admired company from Austin, and then I remembered Dell and realized they made a mistake.

In another bit of confusion, Southwest Airlines was ranked as the third highest company overall - and the highest airline - but hometown Continental came in first in the "Airline Industry" subcategory just ahead of SWA.

From what I can tell by browsing through their state lists, the city of Houston has the second most in the nation behind New York City.

The value? Well, other than just the city pride at having a lot of respected companies, you might also assume they're more attractive to talented employees, and help lure that talent to Houston. And it goes without saying that talent is certainly one of the most critical competitive advantages for a city in a global economy.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Partial-day telecommuting to relieve rush hour congestion

LM Sixel recently had a column in the Chronicle profiling the Mayor's effort to get more Houston employers to offer compressed workweeks and/or telecommuting to help ease our rush hour traffic congestion (Kuffner chimed in to support 9/80 schedules). While I wholeheartedly support both of these options, I can see how they might seem like a radical step to conservative employers who feel a whole lot more comfortable with faces in the office. This got me thinking about an "intermediate" option that might be easier for employers to swallow, yet could still offer traffic relief.

These stats I came across in a recent article are key:

Unlike a decade ago, U.S. workers are bombarded with e-mail, computer messages, cell phone calls, voice mails and the like, research showed.

The average time spent on a computer at work was almost 16 hours a week last year, compared with 9.5 hours a decade ago, according to the Day-Timer research released this week.

Workers typically get 46 e-mails a day, nearly half of which are unsolicited, it said.

16 hours a week is over 3 hours a day of email and other computer work. There is absolutely no reason this work needs to be done at an office, especially considering that most employers offer employees remote access to their networks and email.

What Houston needs is to shift more of the traffic load to off-peak hours, like after 8:30am and before 4pm. If employers allowed an hour+ of "computer time" to be done from home each morning and each afternoon or evening (2+ hours total every day), we might see a whole lot more de-peaking of rush hour congestion as people come in later and leave earlier. It's also a less radical and more comfortable step for employers (not to mention employees), who still get office "face time" every day. And employers can directly measure remote logins and traffic through their email servers to to confirm real work is happening during these hours. As they build comfort with partial-day telecommuting, they can continue moving towards more full-day telecommuting options.

Everybody wins: Houston gets less congestion, employees get more flexibility and less time stuck in traffic, and employers get a happier and more productive work force. To get help promoting it, Mayor White might recruit Time Warner RoadRunner and AT&T/SBC, who stand to benefit nicely from selling additional home broadband connections around the city.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Anger politics

I usually try to stay out of partisan politics on Houston Strategies, but this Wall Street Journal op-ed (subscription required) really resonated with me recently. I think politics in Houston tends to be a bit more civil than average, but this disturbing trend of "extreme rage politics" is even starting to pop up here from time to time on issues like rail and freeways (among others). Consider this my personal plea that we not follow national trends and redouble our efforts to preserve a respectful and civil political climate in Houston (as well as Texas as a whole, but that may be too much to ask the way this governor's race is shaping up).

Extreme Makeover

February 14, 2006; Page A22

The Republican National Committee chairman publicly criticized Sen. Hillary Clinton after a series of intemperate remarks on her part, saying she "seems to have a lot of anger." While it made the news, this was hardly an earth-shattering observation. The criticism was also ironic, given that anger has become a standard tool for both parties. In fact, overheated political rhetoric has become so ordinary that most of us don't even take it seriously.

But we should. When one party's chairman calls the other party "criminal" (as one actually did recently, and the other might before this page goes to press), he is hoping to pull people to the fringe where they will be reliable voters. There is some evidence that this tactic is working: The percentage of people willing to say they are "extremely liberal" or "extremely conservative" is higher than it has been in over 30 years. And the data tell us that the people with these strong views often display a disturbing lack of compassion and ethics in their personal relations. As such, angry politics may be spilling over into our broader culture.To begin with, there is abundant evidence that extreme political opinions lead to the personal demonization of fellow citizens. Consider, for example, how those on the far left and far right respond when asked for a zero-to-100 score of their feelings toward people with whom they disagree politically. Political scientists find that scores below 20 on these so-called "feeling thermometers" are very unusual -- except on the political fringes. Indeed, according to the 2004 National Election Study, one in five "extremely liberal" people gave conservatives a score of zero, a temperature you or I might reserve for Osama bin Laden. The same percentage of "extremely conservative" people gave liberals a zero.

Ironically, these angry folks tend to feel that they are more compassionate than others -- while their personal actions tell a different story. Take people on the far left. According to the General Social Surveys in 2002 and 2004, those who say they're "extremely liberal" are 20 percentage points more likely than moderates to say they feel concern for less fortunate people. But this doesn't appear to translate well to a deep concern for any individual: This group is also 20 points less likely than moderates to say they'd "endure all things for the one I love." To some, this might support the stereotype that the far left loves humanity -- but only in large groups.

Like extreme liberals, extreme conservatives are more compassionate in theory than in practice: They are slightly more likely than centrists to say they "feel protective of people who are taken advantage of." Unless, it seems, they are the ones taking advantage: It turns out they are substantially less likely than moderates to act honestly in small ways, such as returning change mistakenly given them by a cashier.

It may or may not be that extreme politics is by itself what makes a person angry and uncompassionate; but it certainly cannot be improving the situation. After all, the partisan political machine today is geared toward the destruction of opponents -- to convince us that the other side is not just misguided, but evil. Mounting evidence that adherence to extreme political attitudes correlates with a fundamental lack of compassion is not encouraging for the future of our civic culture, as long as rage is used as a political device.

For our political leaders, a bit of anger management would be in the public interest.

Mr. Brooks is a professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Public Affairs.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

New Urbanism and the value of mobility

John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee and current president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, spoke tonight to the Rice Design Alliance at the MFA. He mainly narrated a set of slides of good and bad urban form. If I had to sum up in a very coarse way:
  • Good: narrow streets with parking, sidewalks, mixed-use residential over retail in multi-story buildings right up against the street
  • Bad: freeways, large parking lots and setbacks, single-use zoning, high parking requirements, wide roads
I was pleasantly surprised by his views on school choice (good, because it helps keep upper-middle class families in the city) and Wal-Mart (good, because it helps families on tight budgets). But overall, I find New Urbanism a little muddled. It works great at the neighborhood level (or the small commercial district within a larger neighborhood of single-family homes), but when it becomes dogma for larger metro regions, I think it breaks down - specifically the anti-freeway and anti-suburban sentiment.

I think New Urbanism needs to realize it is a great paradigm at the neighborhood level, but that those neighborhoods need to be linked together with a freeway and arterial network across a larger region if you want an integrated and cohesive metro economy. The pedestrian and the car operate at totally different scales (3mph vs. 30-60mph), and therefore the right form factors for each are different. You don't build a city around just the pedestrian or just the car, but for both. Getting militant about one over the other makes about as much sense as asking "should our country be built around the car or the airplane?" Well, the answer is both: the car for shorter distances, and the airplane for longer ones - and that means interstates and airports. The same logic applies at the scale of a city/metro-region: you need freeways for longer distances, arterials for medium distances, and narrow streets with sidewalks for very short distances (i.e. the pedestrian district/neighborhood). New Urbanism makes the very valid point that we've sort of forgotten about that last category over the last few decades - and we're now rediscovering it - but that doesn't invalidate the other two scales any more than they invalidated the pedestrian scale.

The value of mobility gets lost in a lot of the rhetoric. Mobility is generally defined as the ability to get from point A to an arbitrary point B in minimal time, but the real-world definition for cities is "I'm willing to travel up to X mins for Y activity - what are my options?" That might be 30 mins for work, 15 mins for a restaurant, or an hour for a museum, concert, or sporting event. Mobility means more job opportunities for citizens and potential employees for employers (which translates into upward career mobility and higher productivity as skills better match jobs). Mobility means me or my spouse can take that new job without uprooting my family and moving, which makes for stronger communities and stronger families. Mobility means retail shops and restaurants can draw on a larger pool of customers, therefore supporting more eclectic diversity. Mobility means more access to affordable housing within a reasonable commute. Mobility means I'm more likely to volunteer at a charity or nonprofit, or attend classes at a local college to work part-time towards a degree.

To quote one of my Chronicle editorials from a while back:

"Mobility investments are crucial enablers of quality of life, not detractors. Mobility is the lifeblood of our city. When it deteriorates and going places becomes just too much of a hassle, the loss is subtle but significant: the lunch with a friend not taken, the handshake business deal not made, the romantic dinner forgone, the family outing canceled, the volunteer or charity event missed, or that great little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that slowly dies because customers can’t get to it. Real quality of life is when people can make connections to other people – the true essence of any city. Great cities – world-class cities – are not a closed collection of isolated islands. They are open cities. Connected cities."

The bottom line is that citizen mobility = urban vibrancy. New Urbanists need to focus on building great neighborhoods and let traffic engineers decide the right way to knit those neighborhoods together into a great city.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

On-time flights, VC for Houston, and other misc items

A few minor miscellaneous items to roll into one post:
  • Bush IAH ranked second in the nation for on-time departures in 2005: 85%. A nice amenity for our city that should be attractive to businesses.
  • Bush IAH ranked a very respectable fifth in the nation for on-time arrivals in 2005: 81.5%. Certainly beats the heck out of the bottom-dwelling NY airports, where a third of flights are late.
  • Venture capital investments moved up in Houston in 2005 to $163 million, vs. $108m in 2004. Lots of energy and life sciences deals. Unfortunately, we're still well behind Austin and Dallas, which are both over $400m for the year, but we're definitely in the "up-and-coming" category.
  • An ego link. Tom Kirkendall has nice things to say about me and not-so-nice things to say about the Las Vegas monorail, which seems to be hemorrhaging money. My thoughts are in his comments.
  • A pretty comprehensive study disputes the sprawl-obesity link. (thanks to Len Gilroy at Reason for the tip)
  • AP and Drudge have picked up on the story of Chief Hurtt proposing security cameras for Houston.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Houston's image and the NBA All-Star Game

As usual, it's a "good news, bad news" story.

The Good
  • TNT's aerial shots of the Toyota Center and downtown looked great. Everything was well lit, and darkness hid the less attractive aspects of the city.
  • TNT's "rocket-basket, meteor-ball, space, constellations" theme was a little cheesy, but it sure beats cowboys or oil rigs for our image. Gave the impression our city is run like the bridge of the Enterprise on Star Trek.
  • The pre-game show actually included the trivia question "What was the first word spoken on the moon?" The answer, as all natives know, is "Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed." Of course, Charles Barkley, Kevin Smith, and Magic Johnson had no idea, and Charles actually mocked it once he heard the answer: "Well there's a useful piece of information to know..." (sarcasm).
  • The Houston Symphony was a great choice for music introducing the players. They projected a more sophisticated image for the city (than, say, country music or rap), and they played a combination of cool space-themed music (like "2001") and more modern stuff (I'm pretty sure that was a symphony version of an Eminem song).
  • Destiny's Child did the best rendition of the national anthem I've ever heard. Note to all future sports event programmers: the anthem is much better from a trio than solo.
  • Bush 41 made an appearance.
  • The Rockets had two starters on the Western team: Yao and T-Mac.
  • T-Mac was the high scorer for the West.
The Bad
  • The West just barely lost 122-120, so local-hero T-Mac didn't make MVP. (LeBron James got it) It's too bad, because it sounds like he needed the perk-up too.
  • After a great January, our weather really sucked for all the guests over the weekend. 40s, overcast, and rainy. Blah.
  • I'm disappointed we didn't do more to handle the traffic around the Galleria (day 1, day 2). I'm sure it left a bad impression on the guests, who probably now think our traffic is as bad as LA (it's not by a longshot). In retrospect, it might have been wise to encourage those retailers to delay their Presidents Day sales for a week.
  • Bill Simmons of ESPN, is, as always, unhappy. (Thanks to John Sterling for the tip)
I'll reprint Bill's stuff here in case the link is unstable, with a few of my highlights and comments:

The Phil Connors Award for "City that I can't seem to escape"
In the past four years, I made four separate trips to Houston and spent a total of 24 days here. And you know why I did it? For you, the reader. I covered the Galleryfurniture.com Bowl, the Super Bowl, baseball's All-Star Game, and now, the NBA All-Star Game. And you know what? That's too much freaking time to spend in Houston. My editors just bleeped me, I don't care. Maybe Houston doesn't suck any more or less than 20 other major cities, and maybe the people are friendly and likable, but the fact remains, you would never come here for any reason, other than these three:

(1) For work.
(2) To gain weight. (a backhanded compliment to our restaurants?)
(3) To get shot.

You just wouldn't. And yet, dating back to the Super Bowl XXXVIII in February 2004, three of the last eight major sporting events were held in Houston. Does this make any sense? (yes, if you have a relatively wealthy city that builds three new stadiums in six years) There are 30 to 35 American cities that could host the Super Bowl and/or either of the All-Star Games ... and yet Houston pulled off the Ultimate Pro Sports Trifecta in a 24-month span, despite the fact that it's a sprawling city with traffic and safety problems (the three intangibles you always want to avoid for major sporting events). Here's what really frightens me: I have spent so much time here, I actually know my way around. Can I have this information removed from my brain? Is there a pill I can take?

Anyway, I have the following announcement to make: I am never, ever, ever setting foot in Houston again. I don't care if the Red Sox play the Astros in the World Series. I don't care if the Celtics play the Rockets in the NBA Finals. I don't care if my daughter gets engaged to an astronaut and has to have a quickie wedding in Houston hours before he gets launched to Saturn. I'm never coming back to Houston. Twenty-four days were enough. No offense.

Well, at least he threw in the "no offense" conclusion to soften things. I can understand where he's coming from. We're simply not a tourist town. I've had trouble keeping out-of-town guests entertained for 3 or 4 days, much less 24. And for what we do have, you really need a knowledgeable native to show you around (maybe the GHCVB needs to provide these volunteers to major journalists?). There is no "French Quarter" or "South Beach" where you can just go and it's all right there.

That said, I think the "sprawling city with traffic and safety problems" comment is unfair when it comes to hosting sporting events. The stadiums and major hotels are not that far apart - certainly no worse than most other major cities. The traffic is generally not bad outside of weekday rush hours (although the previously mentioned Galleria breakdown makes the comment justified for this trip). And our safety is about average for most major cities, even with the post-Katrina spike, and certainly not a problem in the major stadium and hotel districts.

The "never returning" comment is just being sensationalist. He's counting on nobody remembering it when he's here for the Final Four in 2011.

Well, at least he liked the arena:
The Sheryl Crow Award for "Person, place or arena that could look good or not good depending on the light"
To the Toyota Center, which had many pluses (tons of food options, very spacious, cool scoreboard, stylish lighting for the games, center bars, spacious food areas for the club seat holders) and two major downsides:

(1) It's in Houston.

(2) Walking around the generic concourse feels just like walking around an airport terminal. You keep waiting for someone to say over a loudspeaker, "There's been a gate change, the flight to Austin will now be out of Gate 42B."

(My overall grade: B-plus. Second-best NBA arena that I've seen, other than the Staples Center, only the food options are vastly superior.)

Beyond the stadium, I think that B+ seems like a fair grade overall for Houston's hosting of the 2006 NBA All-Star Game.

If you have info on how the event was perceived relative to Houston - especially links to articles by outsiders - by all means please post them in the comments. Thanks.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Managed competition for Houston city services?

The internationally-read Economist magazine recently noted that unions are getting traction in Houston. They also seem to be making inroads in city government. While I sympathize with people's desires to increase their compensation and benefits, doing it through monopoly power seems like a bad idea (I've never understood why it's bad for a company (i.e. "capital") to abuse monopoly power to increase profits but good for labor to do the same thing). It distorts what should be a simple supply-and-demand market of jobs and labor: the organization offers a job at a market pay rate, and you can choose to take it or look elsewhere. It seems to me that - if you want to be paid more for your services - you need to develop your skills and/or education so that your labor is worth more (like via community college nights-and-weekend classes, or studying to get a license in a trade). And the long-term effects of strong unionization on industries, states, and countries is sobering - just look at airlines, autos, Michigan (and most of the rest of the Midwest), and France. Do we really want Houston and Texas on that slippery slope? Like it or not, investment capital flows globally wherever it wants (stimulating economic growth), and it typically doesn't want to go where union monopolies drive up costs (not to mention the drain on taxpayers). That's why, for instance, foreign automakers build their U.S. factories in the right-to-work South.

Keeping that in mind, I came across this post from Otis White's Urban Notebook on the concept of managed competition by local governments providing services (no permalink). It seems like a great way to accomplish two objectives at once: better and cheaper city services in a structure that is far less fertile for unionization. I know Mayor White is a Democrat - which tends to be a pro-union party - but he has to realize this system would be far healthier for Houston in the long-run. How about giving it a try?

San Diego Shakeup - Competing over Potholes

San Diego has a new mayor, Jerry Sanders, and (at last!) a plan for getting the city government out of the worst financial hole in its history. As you might expect, there’s a lot of castor oil in Sanders’ plan. But there’s a spoonful of sugar, too: a way of delivering services that, if it works in San Diego, could be coming to a city near you.


Now, about the management changes: Sanders wants to bring “managed competition” to San Diego. What’s that? It’s the management system Stephen Goldsmith pioneered when he was mayor of Indianapolis in the 1990s. (Goldsmith wrote about his experiences in a book titled “The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America.” You can find an outline of his ideas, from a 2001 New York Times op-ed piece, by clicking here.

As mayor, Goldsmith championed two ideas, privatization and competition. Privatization alone didn’t work, Goldsmith wrote, because private monopolies weren’t that much more efficient than public ones. So simply turning the water department over to a private company wouldn’t accomplish much. But if you could carve up the city into zones and let a number of providers (including city workers themselves) compete to haul garbage, tow abandoned cars, fix potholes and so on, wonderful and surprising things happened, Goldsmith found. Services improved, work processes were streamlined, productivity soared and costs declined dramatically.

Amazingly, city workers often turned out to be the high-quality, low-cost providers, once they were allowed to compete. “The problem,” Goldsmith wrote in his book, “is that [municipal employees] have been trapped in a system that punishes initiative, ignores efficiency and rewards big spenders.” A system ... well, like San Diego city government.

Goldsmith has spent the last few years preaching his ideas from a teaching position at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government with limited success. (Managed competition has been used in Charlotte and Durham, N.C., and a few other places.) But with San Diego in such desperate straits — and a mayor elected to shake things up — the time may have come for a test of the managed competition system in a big city. And if it works in San Diego, look for hundreds of other places to try it.

Footnote: And who doesn’t like managed competition? Not surprisingly, labor unions. One union consultant interviewed by the Union-Tribune called managed competition “insane” and added that it was likely little more than “a gravy train for contractors and campaign contributors.”

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Winning acceptance for Richmond rail

Update: Chronicle story (see comments).

Continuing our story from last week, yours truly was public speaker #31 out of 47 at the standing-room-only Metro board meeting today packed with anti-Richmond-railers (I was the last speaker on the rail topic). That's 30 people ahead of me, each with 3 minutes to speak, in a room that felt like it was 80+ degrees. Do the math. Fun, fun, fun.

Opinions for and against Richmond rail were raised, with most objections from small businesses along Richmond. There are a few objections I did not address during my speaking time that I wanted to cover here:
  • To those objecting about blocked crossings creating north-south traffic congestion: the Westpark routing has the same issue, so this is not an argument for Westpark over Richmond.
  • The assertion that the majority of Greenway Plaza workers come from the far suburbs rather than inside the Loop: true, but the light rail allows them to take the bus/van/carpool for the commute and still get around during the day for errands, lunch, and business meetings.
  • That there are inadequate east-west alternatives for the lanes lost on Richmond: Do 10+ lanes of 59, plus 6 feeder lanes, a couple hundred yards south of Richmond, not count? Also, if Westpark right-of-way doesn't get used for rail, it then becomes an option to expand Westpark Road.
OK, moving on to what I said. I mainly echoed Councilwoman Pam Holm's desire to see a good process studying all options, keeping in mind the long-term best interests of the city. If, after a fair evaluation, Richmond becomes the choice, I recommended Metro take two actions to alleviate the suffering of small businesses and residents along the route during construction:
  1. Appoint a full-time internal Metro advocate with real power that continuously listens to those along the line and quickly resolves problems during construction and with contractors.
  2. Fund a "Support Richmond Businesses" advertising and signage campaign. I think we saw the heart of our city after Katrina, and we are capable of coming together to support those making a sacrifice for the greater good of the city. If the businesses get the right publicity, citizens will go out of their way to support them. A specific option: maybe Metro could sponsor a daily "Rail construction business of the day" feature in the Chronicle with a half-page profile and advertisement. Another option: temporary signs along the north-south arteries that cross the route promoting the businesses along it. Note to Metro: hire a top-notch PR firm to work out the best program to really drive customer traffic to these businesses.
After I spoke, two Metro board members expressed support for these recommendations and seeking creative ways to support businesses during the hassles of construction.

The bottom line is that Metro is facing a backlash after many businesses suffered and folded along the Main St. line during construction. Metro claims to have learned lessons from that experience, and they need to prove it with this line. If the same problems happen again, the political opposition will get so rancorous that I would venture to say no future lines will get built in this city.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Mayor White on what makes Houston special

Mayor White gave an amazingly thoughtful lecture to the Rice Design Alliance at the MFA this evening. His topic was what distinguishes Houston from other cities, and the resulting challenges. He laid out four primary differentiators:
  1. An Open and Diverse City. Friendly and welcoming, with people from all over the world. He used the word "open" over and over and over, which readers of my blog know is a pet theme of mine in Houston's identity.
  2. A Growing City of Opportunity. He noted the interdependence of the first two characteristics: if you aren't growing, then you tend to start seeing newcomers and neighbors as potential competitors for limited jobs and opportunity, and you stop being open and welcoming to them. He also rejected the false assertion that growth is incompatible with quality-of-life.
  3. Affordability. In a very flattering part of the speech, he spoke extensively about an analysis I did a couple years back showing that Houston has the highest discretionary incomes in the country (median income minus a standardized cost-of-living), and what that means for our citizens in terms of supporting quality of life, nonprofits, economic advancement, and city amenities.
  4. Our Political Culture. Minimal corruption vs. most other big cities. Easy construction permitting (vs. hoops, hurdles, bribes, and connections). Clean, open, transparent government. Working together to solve the public pension crisis. Political cooperation in general to get things done.
He then articulated two challenges:
  1. The hard work it takes to create a sense of unified community out of our diversity. Avoiding us vs. them thinking, ethnic tensions, and wedge issues that divide us. He pointed out that HISD is the largest urban school district in the country that hasn't had to have the Mayor take it over due to performance failure, because we've avoided the school board political meltdowns common in other cities. He also noted how Katrina helped solidify our cohesive identity as a city.
  2. How growth outruns planning, infrastructure, and quality-of-life. He thinks a lot of progress is being made in this area.
And a few miscellaneous points he made near the end:
  • The nature of our city leads to a wide diversity in the built environment. Accept it. If you don't like it, move to a city without diversity.
  • No neighborhood seems to want light rail or BRT on its street. They all want it a few blocks away.
  • We're in a global competition with other cities based on educated brains.
  • He's opposed to traditional zoning planning, and basically endorsed letting the market figure out where stuff belongs. He does like some standards though on things like signs and setbacks.
  • A little tongue-in-cheek dig that got a chuckle from the audience: "Urban planners think they know how everybody should live."
  • He seems to be comfortable with term limits, warning that long-term politicians get used to power and complacent. They stop really listening to the public with humility, and start to think they "know it all." He thinks the key to long-term strategic and tactical continuity in a city's development is based on embedding it broadly in our institutions and citizens, not through the authoritarian hand of a single political czar (like Mayor Riley in Charleston and Mayor Daley in Chicago).
That about taps out my notes. It was a wonderfully engaging speech - even without any visuals/slides - told with some good humor. We're really lucky to have him as our Mayor. Just ask Dallas.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The New Carpooling

A feature in the Wall Street Journal from a couple weeks ago:

Carpooling, for most people, loses its appeal sometime after the fifth grade. For many adults the thought of making obligatory chitchat with a neighbor, the safety risks of hooking up with a stranger, and the general annoyance of being hostage to someone else's schedule wipe out any advantage of getting a free lift.

But rising gas prices and new services and incentives are making carpooling easier, more efficient and less of a long-term commitment. As a result of the proliferating options, carpooling is up sharply in a number of major cities including Seattle, Miami and Chicago.

Transportation agencies, nonprofits and start-ups across the country are offering immediate online lists of potential carpoolers, whether for one-time trips to locations like ski resorts or train stations or for daily commutes. Some Web sites even provide incentives like prepaid gas cards, store gift certificates, reserved parking spaces or taxi vouchers for rides home.


The average driver spends about $2,800 annually at current gas prices to fuel a typical passenger car, compared with about $2,280 a year ago, according to AAA. By cutting down the number of days and miles someone drives, carpooling could save consumers hundreds of dollars a year. Most carpoolers generally take turns driving and split gas costs. Vanpools, meanwhile, usually include a monthly fee that consumers pay for a seat on the van.

While many state and local governments have long looked to ride-sharing as a means to reduce congestion and improve air quality by getting more single-occupant vehicles off the road, previous matching services like 1-800-numbers posted along the road or online request forms on older Web sites failed to catch on among consumers. Both of these methods could mean waits of a few days to two weeks or longer for matches.

In contrast, the new online matching services bring up results instantly. Some, like a new service offered in Indianapolis, match users based on where they live, work and their work hours and also bring up available vanpools in the area.


Until now, carpooling has never widely caught on, in part because of the difficulty in finding suitable fellow riders and drivers. About 10% of workers ages 16 and over in the U.S. carpooled to work in 2004, whether in a car, truck or van, compared with nearly 78% who drove alone and about 11% who carpooled in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

But given the growing demand, the services are expanding geographically. NuRide.com, a Web site owned by NuRide Inc. of Herndon, Va., that rewards ride sharers with points that can be redeemed for gift certificates from stores such as Brookstone and Old Navy, expanded earlier this year to the Hampton Roads, Va., metro area. The Houston-Galveston Area Council now offers NuRide.com for its region, and the site also began serving Connecticut and New York last year in partnership with local transportation departments.


The sites also recognize some people are wary of carpooling with strangers. To address such concerns, NuRide limits membership to those with an official email address from a major organization like an employer or school, has members rate each other, and lets users block certain people from match lists.

Most sites also recruit users by encouraging employers to promote the services as employee benefits. This typically costs employers nothing, so many people are likely to match up with co-workers.

A sidebar has specifics on the NuRide program, which is offered in Houston:
Rewards ride sharers with a system similar to frequent flier miles. Users earn 100 points for each ride longer than five miles. Each point is valued at approximiately a penny and rewards include $25 gift cards.
Houston also has a very active vanpool program.

My own idea for an incentive option? Give them a free lottery ticket for every day they participate in a carpool or vanpool (or even for every ride, so two per day). It essentially costs the government nothing, yet has real value in the minds of most riders and every ride increases your odds of winning.

These programs are a great way to get better utilization out of our extensive HOV network, and are actually very complimentary to the developing light rail/BRT network in the core, which makes it easier for those commuters to run errands or go out to lunch or business meetings when they don't have access to a car.

I don't know the program details, but I suspect what we need more of are suburban carpool and vanpool meeting points in an easily searchable web-site database: retail or other establishments (churches?) that have unused parking during business days where everybody can meet and park for the day. The benefit for retailers would be extra morning and evening customers at places that sell coffee, breakfast foods, dry cleaning, groceries, take-out, movie rentals, etc. Definitely a win-win relationship.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Mobility solution for seniors

A neat program profiled in the Christian Science Monitor where elderly who no longer feel like they can drive safely can donate their car in exchange for 24/7 on-demand rides.
With 78 million baby boomers nearing retirement, local and state leaders are scrambling to devise transportation alternatives for seniors. The goal? Get them off the road when they no longer should drive, yet keep them integrated in their communities.

Programs across the country offer seniors incentives to give up their keys. Perhaps the most effective is the ITN model (Independent Transportation Network), which, because of its flexibility and availability to all income levels, is quickly expanding nationwide.

The service, which began in Portland in 1995, provided more than 15,200 rides there last year with four cars, operated by 50 volunteers and six paid part-time drivers. Seniors can trade in their cars to the program and use the money to pay for rides, which average about $8. Family and friends can add to their accounts by donating time as volunteers, or by donating cars or cash. The service is available 24/7.

Katherine Freund, who founded the program as an outgrowth of her graduate school project, says the key is that it uses no taxpayer money. Even if society wants all seniors to be entitled to transportation, she says, there is not enough money to meet that goal. That is how she came up with the model of a car trade-in.

"I thought, 'here is all this equity depreciating in driveways from coast to coast,' " she says.

Pretty clever concept, and certainly seems to be a good fit for a car-based city like Houston.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Violent crime rise not just a Houston problem

The NY Times had an interesting article today detailing the rise in violent crime across many major cities, not just Houston - cities like Boston, Philly, San Francisco, Kansas City, and Phoenix (don't miss the comparative graph). It seems the primary cause is extremely difficult for police to counter: people are simply escalating arguments very rapidly until they shoot someone.

And while such crime in the 1990's was characterized by battles over gangs and drug turf, the police say the current rise in homicides has been set off by something more bewildering: petty disputes that hardly seem the stuff of fistfights, much less gunfire or stabbings.

Suspects tell the police they killed someone who "disrespected" them or a family member, or someone who was "mean mugging" them, which the police loosely translate as giving a dirty look. And more weapons are on the streets, giving people a way to act on their anger.

Police Chief Nannette H. Hegerty of Milwaukee calls it "the rage thing."

"We're seeing a very angry population, and they don't go to fists anymore, they go right to guns," she said. "A police department can have an effect on drugs or gangs. But two people arguing in a home, how does the police department go in and stop that?"


While arguments have always made up a large number of homicides, the police say the trigger point now comes faster.

"Traditionally, you could see the beef growing and maybe hitting the volatile point," said Daniel Coleman, the commander of the homicide unit in Boston. "Now we see these things, they're flashes, they're very unpredictable. Even five years ago, in what started as a fight or dispute, maybe you'd have a knife shown. Now it's an automatic default to a firearm."

And the paragraph on Houston:
In Houston, where homicides rose 24 percent last year, disputes were by far the largest category, 113 out of 336 killings. Officials were alarmed by the increase in murders well before Hurricane Katrina swelled the city's population by 150,000 people in September; the police say 18 homicides were related to evacuees.
Getting to the root psychology:
Chief Corwin of Kansas City said that in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, people had explained it as a "lack of hope." "If I don't have skills, I don't have training, my socioeconomic situation looks desperate, do I really have hope?" he said. "I think that ties into the anger. If the only thing I have is my respect, that's what I carry on the street. If someone disrespects me, they've done the ultimate to me."
And the small piece of good news for law-abiding citizens:
"It's hard for people to look at it in depth and understand that they're not likely to be a victim if they get along with their family members and neighbors and don't live a high-risk lifestyle," said Darrel Stephens, the police chief in Charlotte.
Bottom line: HPD might be able to curtail some of the recent spike due to NOLA gangs, but there is another component that will be much harder - if not impossible - to alleviate.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Why rail on Richmond?

Continuing from yesterday's post:
Christof makes the compelling case. Be sure to zoom in on his maps by clicking on them. The detail is fantastic.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Political pressure to prevent Metro from considering Richmond LRT route

I wanted to pass along this email from Robin Holzer at the Citizens Transportation Coalition. I don't always agree with Robin or the CTC on every issue, but I think they make a strong case here. Long-time readers of this blog know my views on light rail are mixed, but my firm belief is that - if it is going to happen - to make sure it's done right with the highest probability of success and the lowest risk of failure, aka "white elephant" status. A Richmond routing must be actively considered in any study of an east-west line, simply because it links up many more useful destinations than a Westpark routing: the University of St. Thomas, the Menil, Rothko Chapel, Greenway Plaza, and the Galleria just to name a few - not to mention numerous apartment complexes.

Last night, Joe Riley, the mayor of Charleston, SC since 1975, made a very inspiring lecture to the Rice Design Alliance. He has truly worked miracles in reviving that city, and it's clear that he did it by being very tough and relatively uncompromising. He pushed hard, made people uncomfortable, and generated quite a bit of resistance at each step along the way - but he persevered and really triumphed there to national accolades. He asserts that he always had Charleston's long-term best interests at heart in every decision he made, vs. opposition that generally had short-term agendas. A Richmond route is definitely in Houston's long-term best interest, and a fight needs to be waged to make sure it's actively considered - by the Mayor, the administration, Metro, and anybody else who really cares about the city's long-term health, not just short-term business disruptions. I think with a little leadership and backbone, this fight is winnable - and the result will be something we can be proud of for our children, grandchildren, and future generations of Houstonians.

Fri update: Robin posts on her blog.

On to the letter.

Dear friend of METRO:

As you know, METRO is poised to begin the public planning process for the Universities east-west rail line, and they plan to assess both Westpark and Richmond for rail viability. I believe you support both METRO and this federally-required process. However, METROs rail planning process is again in political jeopardy.

There are a handful of small business owners along Richmond who fear that rail on their street may destroy them (Houston Strategies' suggested peace offering: give them free advertising on Metro's web site, buses and stops during construction). They have been organizing since last summer and they are working at all costs to stop this project politically. They are calling themselves Richmond Area Residents and Businesses for Rail. Armed with significant misinformation, they have gathered more than a hundred letters of fear from Richmond business owners. They have attracted the support of state representative Martha Wong, and have now also engaged the support of US Representative John Culberson, as is apparent in the following letter:

      January 25, 2006

      To Whom It May Concern:

      I am writing to add my support for the Richmond Area Residents and Businesses for Rail, and urge that the Houston METRO Board of Directors oppose extending light rail down Richmond Avenue or Westheimer. My office has received a large number of complaints from concerned neighbors who oppose the construction of a light rail line down Richmond and I share their concern. The rail line would damage the neighbors quality of life, diminish their property values, create a safety hazard in residential areas, destroy beautiful trees and landscaping, and eliminate desperately needed traffic lanes.

      I am confident METROs new leadership will listen to the communities affected by these rail plans. It is clear that the overwhelming majority of business owners and residents along the Richmond corridor do not want rail to be built there, and they should not have it forced upon them. I urge the METRO Board to respect the wishes of the people who have invested so much in their homes and businesses along Richmond, and build the rail line where it already has ample right of way along the Westpark Corridor.

      I pledged to honor the results of the 2003 referendum, and I will continue helping METRO work with the FTA to secure Houstons fair share of transit funding. Protecting the quality of life we have worked so hard to build is one of my top priorities, and I want to add my strong objection to those of so many others who do not want this rail line built down Richmond or Westheimer. Our Mayor Bill White and the METRO Board have said repeatedly that they will protect neighborhoods and listen and be responsive to neighborhood concerns. Moving this unwelcome rail line is a great place to start. Thank you for your thoughtful consideration.

      John A. Culberson

      Member of Congress

Houstonians deserve the best transit system METRO can build, which means looking at all possible choices of where to put rail. Politicians must not prematurely determine a route based on their needs.

Rep. Wong is scheduled to appear at the Thu Feb 16 METRO board meeting at 1:00 pm with many of her supporters. I expect her to present the above letter of opposition from Rep. Culberson, demand that METRO take Richmond off the table now, and call for a new referendum.

It is time for everyone who supports more transit for Houston to speak up. We must keep all options on the table and we cannot allow a political process to take one off prematurely. We must make clear that METRO must be allowed to complete their planning process and fairly evaluate all of the alternatives. I urge you to do the following:

· Sign up to address the METRO board by calling Rose Gonzales no later than Monday (713) 739-4842
· If you cannot attend Thursday, then prepare a statement of support for METRO and forward a copy to me
· Contact Mayor Whites office at (713) 247-2200 and express your support for METROs process

If you have any questions or suggestions, please let me know.

Thanks and best regards,

Robin Holzer

Citizens Transportation Coalition

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Affluence Seeks Space

Just wanted to pass along this interesting graph with more evidence from several major cities that, as their wealth increased, their density decreased dramatically. This ties back to my earlier hypothesis (based on Europe and Japan) that, if a city can't provide that desired private space or access to it (via mobility), or if the space is unaffordable, then family household sizes are likely to shrink dramatically as economic development occurs and wealth increases, leading to a demographic implosion.

As an aside, it also gives me a better appreciation for some of the drivers behind the French Revolution: 100,000 people packed like sardines into each square-mile has got to be a powder keg ready to explode.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Wall Street Journal on Houston after Enron

In our continuing efforts to pass along how the world is perceiving Houston, here's a Wall Street Journal profile of Houston as the Enron trial gets underway (the whole thing, since it's on a subscription-only site).
Enron's Houston Trial Opens Wounds

Extensive Media Coverage Reveals Conflicted Feelings About City's Former Heroes


Houstonians like to say their city has "moved on" from the days when the Enron Corp. debacle threatened to crush the city's spirit, but exhaustive local coverage of Enron executives' trial is moving the scandal right back into their face.

Local media outlets are devoting Super Bowl-level coverage to the trial of Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. The Houston Chronicle dedicated six pages, with only one advertisement, on Sunday to previewing the trial. The coverage was launched with a page-one headline screaming, "JUDGMENT DAY FOR ENRON."

Houston television and radio stations also are running multiple stories and carving out big blocks of space on their Web sites for parsing the Enron trial with news features, analysis, editorials and blogs by reporters and commentators.

"The circus is officially under way," said Kevin Whited, a Houston energy analyst who writes about local politics and media on bloghouston.net.

The media attention reflects Houston's still-conflicted feelings about Enron and its former executives, once heroes of the community, and now symbols of a humiliating reversal of fortune. At the time of Enron's collapse in 2001, the Houston Chronicle and other media were viewed as slow in picking up the story. Since then, as corporate scandals have erupted across the country, the city has bristled at suggestions in the national press that Enron was emblematic of the Houston business culture.

"The city, unfortunately, gets tied up in the trial in a way the white collar criminals in New York didn't get associated with the city of New York," said Garth Jowett, a communications professor at the University of Houston who specializes in propaganda and popular culture. He noted that when Wall Street figures went to prison for various offenses, "It wasn't a New York thing in the same way Enron became a Houston thing."

Charles Savino, executive vice president of the Greater Houston Partnership, an economic development group, said the Enron impact on Houston was overblown. Though near 6,000 people lost their jobs, the city's economy still employs roughly two million and has created 55,000 jobs in the last year.

Even news editors at local media outlets agree that there is little lingering impact from the Enron scandal in Houston. For a town built up around oilfield wildcatters, boom and bust is nothing new, said Keith Connors, executive news director at KHOU-TV in Houston, owned by Belo Corp. "It's not like other people haven't made a million and lost a million before," he said.

But the importance of the Enron story to Houston was driven home to him when he attended a theater showing of the Enron movie that premiered last spring. Whenever Mr. Lay or Mr. Skilling appeared on the screen, members of the audience leaped up to yell and curse at the men's images. "That told me there's still a lot of deep hurt," said Mr. Connors. "While Houston has moved on, people still want to see that justice is done."

Monday, February 06, 2006

Houston scores good - but not great - on expansions and relocations

From the Houston Business Journal. Houston ranks 19th on the 50 hottest cities for corporate expansions and relocations. It's not a bad ranking, but unfortunately it's substantially below our major competitors for top-tier city status: #2 Phoenix, #3 Atlanta, and #4 Dallas. Texas did better than any other state, with 5 metros on the list. The surprising Nashville has been #1 for two years in a row. Looking at the top 10, the two most common factors seem to be sunbelt cities in right-to-work/nonunion states. I think right weather is definitely a factor: not too hot, not too cold. Phoenix is an exception, but it has the geographical benefit of being the closest alternative if you want out of California. I think Houston gets penalized for the summer heat and humidity, plus possibly our overall negative perception/image that we're all familiar with.

You can also detect a preference for more mid-sized cities in the "sweet spot" previously discussed here.

Here are the official criteria:
Expansion Management surveyed more than 80 prominent site consultants to find out which cities their clients find most attractive for relocation or expansion. Factors they considered include business climate, workforce quality, operating costs, incentive programs, and the ease of working with local political and economic development officials.
The bottom line is that the GHP has its work cut out for it on the 10-year strategic plan if it wants to increase Houston's attractiveness and keep up with Phoenix, Atlanta, Dallas, and others. I hope they can get more detailed data on where we fell short, or maybe even do their own survey of the 80 site consultants mentioned. My own guess is that we're on the right track to improve the right things, but it's a matter of execution and getting the word out - something the GHP $30 million marketing campaign might really help.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

More on New Urbanism

Continuing on last week's theme of mixed-use pedestrian districts is this "big picture" article on New Urbanism in America. It focuses on Atlantic Station in Atlanta, but also covers bigger trends and some other developments, such as The Woodlands:
Some of these developments have been highly successful. For instance, The Woodlands, situated to the north of Houston, is a master-planned community on 280,000 acres, with a man-made canal, along which there are homes, office buildings, a Marriott (MAR) hotel, an outdoor theater, and the town library. The single-family detached homes have been selling for $350,000. Condos right in the city center, initially priced at around $250,000, are now selling for $400,000. "Even the Marriott on the Waterway is one of the highest-occupancy hotels in Houston," says D'Alesandro of General Growth, the lead developer of the project.
It also covers some of the risks and downsides:

Despite some success stories, it isn't necessarily a proven model. Given the huge expenditures, some developers may not recoup their investment. It's still early, and many of these townships are under construction. "It's certainly not for the faint of heart. It's not like rents are going up in proportion of construction costs, which are rising at 20% per year, along with land costs," says McEwen of Poag & McEwen. Access to lending is also tough. Historically, banks have developed expertise in only one of the disciplines and are reluctant to branch out.

In addition, once the buildings and city blocks are built, developers have found that not all of their renters get along. Residential, retail, and office users compete for parking. Retailers complain about support columns that are essential in a multistory building, but interfere with their open-store formats. Loft residents complain about noise from delivery trucks for restaurants and grocery stores.

What's more disconcerting is that these towns give the impression of having less character, with an eerie sense of monotony, as the same pattern of storefronts, townhomes, and condos multiply across America. In a sense, their uniformity mirrors the very suburbs they escape.

Consider Seaside, one of the first towns using principles of the new urbanism: Built in Florida two decades ago, Seaside was ridiculed for its perfection in the satirical movie The Truman Show. General Growth's D'Allesandro counters that many of the towns stick to historical architectural styles of the area -- Mission style in California, for example, or Classic European brick in New England.

The New Urbanism paradox: new and novel, yet monotonous and conservative at the same time.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A model for Houston's intermodal center

More great stuff from Christof, and a heck of a lot cheaper. Read the whole thing (this means you, Metro) (go here for earlier discussion).

Houston's potential for mixed-use pedestrian districts

Maurice Cox, University of Virginia architecture professor and former mayor of Charlottesville VA, spoke the Rice Design Alliance last night. I have to say it was a pretty fascinating lecture. He seems to have been a major force transforming Charlottesville over the last decade to create some pretty vibrant mixed-use districts - including around UVA, downtown, and a mile-long corridor in between the two - earning it awards as one of the highest quality-of-life cities in the country. For those who haven't been to Charlottesville, it's the Austin of Virginia, in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson's famous home, Monticello (a highly recommended tour if you get the chance).

A short primer for those not immersed in the urban planning community: the vibrant, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented district is the current holy grail of urban planning. There is a segment of the population that feels alienated by the suburban form of single-family houses and having to drive everywhere, especially to strip-center shopping. They want "street life" a la New York or San Francisco, a feeling of identity and community within a walkable neighborhood. To get that pedestrian-friendly European feel, cars and parking must be minimized and tucked away from the district. If you do that, most stores/restaurants die from lack of business, so you need potential customers within walking distance both day and night - thus the need for high-density mixed-use: employees at offices during the day, and residents at home at night, usually in multi-story buildings above the retail. This also gets more utilization out of what parking there is: commuters during the day, residents at night. Often, the high-density mixed-use still doesn't provide enough customers to maintain vibrancy, so transit is needed to bring in more people without their cars - usually some form of light rail or subways.

There are some trends that are making these types of districts more and more popular. Certainly the rise of the white-collar knowledge economy is one. Another is that people are marrying and having children later and later, so there's this relatively new and wealthy population of twenty and thirty-something professional singles and couples that find these districts more attractive than a ho-hum apartment or house. No matter what you see in those friendly conceptual sketch drawings developers, architects, and planners love to put out, they're not very popular with families, who value lots of private space much more than public space. And despite any of Dr. Cox's "democratic" descriptions, the reality is that these districts are overwhelmingly popular among the generally-white, educated, professional, childless, upper-middle class - and not nearly as much among other demographics (except for homeless panhandlers).

Developing these districts is a massively complex, time-consuming, and expensive undertaking requiring substantial heavy-handed government intervention: zoning codes, aesthetics/design review and approval boards, affordability requirements for developers, public/private parking garages, and fixed-route transit investments that are far more expensive than buses. But at the end of the day, there's no argument: you can get some very appealing neighborhoods (speaking as a white, educated, upper-middle class "empty nest" professional ;-).

Where people seem to go off the rails is thinking there is "one right way" to build a city. I actually think you can easily have both types of development in a city, and they can be very compatible. The scales are radically different. These pedestrian districts are tightly focused in very small areas, maybe a mile of a certain corridor. Car-oriented suburban areas range over miles and miles. Houston can remain a freeway-centric and mostly suburban city and easily support dozens of these small districts/neighborhoods. West U, Bellaire, Sugar Land and The Woodlands already have "town centers" under development. In Houston, several areas have the potential if they want to go this direction: the Rice Village, Downtown, Midtown, the Museum District, Montrose, lower Westheimer, and parts of Uptown and The Heights - with Downtown probably the furthest along.

I believe there are some committees under the City of Houston Dept of Planning working on codes to help accelerate this type of development, mainly near LRT/BRT transit stops. There are two main stumbling blocks I see.

The first is potential developer opposition, mainly based on the very real "slippery slope" risk: create strong government controls in certain districts, and soon every neighborhood will demand them and we'll lose all the wonderful benefits and flexibility of being an unzoned city. It will take a lot of work to keep these districts and controls under a very tight leash. Explicitly tying them to rail transit stops helps minimize this risk. I also understand that the emphasis in the proposed codes right now is on developer incentives rather than requirements or prohibitions, which seems like an approach more compatible with Houston's history and culture.

The second major stumbling block is simply Houston's weather, which is very pedestrian-hostile at least five months of the year: heat, humidity, and unpredictable and drenching thunderstorms. People point to the cold up north, but cold and heat are not equivalent: you can bundle up for the cold, but there is no such option for dealing with stifling heat. Other major cities don't face quite the same combination of heat and humidity as we have: Miami has ocean breezes; Phoenix, Dallas, Austin, and Atlanta are all inland and drier (so sweat actually cools you down) and they cool off faster at night. Still, New Orleans and what's been accomplished here downtown show that it is possible to have active pedestrian areas with hot, humid weather - albeit mostly at night. Daytime pedestrian vibrancy in the summer is much harder to find across pretty much all of the southern and southwestern U.S., with the exception of narrow strips of coastal towns that get ocean breezes like Charleston, Savannah, Miami, and Galveston. That's why Houston's two most vibrant pedestrian "districts" are The Galleria and the downtown tunnel system.

The bottom line? We can and should try to develop these districts in slow, incremental steps - because there are people who want to live in them, and Houston should strive to offer neighborhoods for every taste - but we shouldn't fool ourselves that successful models in Portland and Charlottesville mean they can be just as successful here.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

New comparative international housing affordability stats

Recently released. Houston ranks as the 21st most affordable housing market in the U.S., with the median house only 2.9 times the median income. I find it odd that Atlanta, DFW, and Austin all came in slightly ahead of us at a multiple of 2.8. Digging a little deeper, it looks like their housing is more expensive, but they have somewhat higher median household incomes so they get a slightly better multiple. They have the Houston median house at $145,100, and the median household income at $50,400.

But the differences between those cities is a quibble vs. the most unaffordable multiples: LA 11.2, San Diego 10.8, Honolulu 10.6, SF 9.3, Miami 8.8, and NY 7.9. Most major cities in the UK, Ireland, Australia, NZ, and Canada are pretty pricey too. Ireland and the UK are particularly scary once you look at their per sq.ft. figures, as their average houses are less than half our size. I'm not too surprised, as The Economist has been talking about an international housing bubble for some time.

Their conclusion:
Housing Affordability: The Policy Imperative

In summary, the unprecedented housing affordability crisis could represent a threat to prosperous economies. Research indicates that the crisis may be, in large part, a consequence (negative externality) of the excessive land use regulation that has been adopted in many markets. Severe land use regulations have generally been adopted without any understanding of their ultimate impacts on housing affordability. Indeed, these effects have often not been considered at all. Where housing affordability concerns have been raised, the typical response has been denial rather than informed and objective analysis.

Nonetheless, a considerable body of evidence indicates that the housing affordability crisis is not result of natural market force. The principal cause seems to be excessive land use regulation that strangles housing markets and drives prices upward at rates far higher than can be attributed to economic trends. Economics teaches that scarcity tends to raise prices, a principle that applies to virtually all products and services, including houses and land.

The loss of affordability is so immense that policies such as affordability quotas, first home buyer grants, workforce housing or tax relief programs cannot possibly make a material difference, despite their rhetorical attractiveness in some circles.
Economist Raven Saks of the US Federal Reserve Board has published research indicating the potential for economic loss in excessively regulated markets. The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University summarized the research as showing that metropolitan areas "… with stringent development regulations generate less employment growth than expected given their
industrial bases."