Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Tropical Texas image strategy

Both Neil Peirce in the Chronicle this morning and the NY Times (overview) are extolling the virtues of Chicago's "green" strategy for renewal.
During the last decade, the city's performance, measured in virtually every conventional category of civic well-being, has been off the charts, local boosters say. Chicago attracted more than 100,000 new residents, added tens of thousands of downtown jobs, prompted a high-rise housing boom, reduced poverty rates, built thousands of affordable homes, spurred a $9-billion-a-year visitor and convention industry, and transformed itself into one of the most beautiful cities in America.
I know Mayor White has announced similar initiatives for Houston, both on the environmental side and a new downtown park very similar to Chicago's Millenium Park. I'm not saying we want to just do a "me too" strategy, but Chicago is similar to Houston in many ways, and so a program that substantially boosts their image is something we should look at. Never be too proud to adopt what works.

Our big advantage is that we don't freeze solid for several months every year, which can be kinda hard on plant life. We live in a lush environment where just about everything grows, and maybe we should play that up (with due credit to David Crossley's "Garden City" vision). The snappy phrase I've been turning over in my head is "Tropical Texas". Everybody loves the tropics. Visions of swaying palm trees on a white sand beach with clear blue water. It's a great brand upgrade from "hot, humid, sweaty, and mosquito-infested", similar to the impressive image boost swamps got when they became "wetlands" - they went from something you wanted to drain to something to preserve. I think we can similarly turn our weather liability into an asset.

The phrase could be an umbrella theme for projects ranging from the Buffalo Bayou Project to the Willow Waterhole to Trees for Houston to the Botanic Garden to the bayou linear parks plan to highway beautification to tourism. But the real payoff would be inspiring thousands of landowners around town - especially commercial ones on major thoroughfares - to install attractive tropical landscaping, which would go a long way towards alleviating Houston's "ugly" image. It's the kind of campaign where the mayor's bully pulpit could actually make a real difference.

To be clear, I don't see "Tropical Texas" as Houston's core identity, but a helpful adjunct to help people get beyond the usual negative stereotypes. I've talked about an identity/brand for Houston many times before on this blog (most links here), and I think it's a bigger concept than "Tropical Texas" - but it's still a good rallying theme that could target a specific flaw in our image: ugly concrete sprawl + oppressive heat and humidity. Certainly not the whole answer, but it could go a long way. How about it, Mr. Mayor?

UPDATE 1/22/18: Minnesota is embracing "The North" for its branding, why can't Houston embrace "Tropical Texas"?
"A growing movement in Minnesota aims to break free of its Midwest roots and embrace its bone-chilling winters with a new identity: the North. 
Seeking to conjure up images of competitive winter sports, icy lakes and snuggling in front of a toasty fire, these northern evangelists are ready for their moment in the sun when Super Bowl LII comes to Minneapolis on Feb. 4."

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Houston and Texas entrepreneurial hotbeds

The Kauffman Foundation, a prominent nonprofit that promotes entrepreneurship, recently released their report on entrepreneurship rates across the states and the top 15 metros - and it contains some very good news for Texas and Houston. First, the big picture:
Immigrants far outpaced native-born Americans in entrepreneurial activity last year while African Americans were the only major ethnic or racial group to experience a year-to-year increase in the rate of entrepreneurship, according to a national assessment of entrepreneurial activity by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

The rate of entrepreneurial activity for immigrants in 2005 was 0.35 percent compared to 0.28 percent for native-born Americans, according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. In other words, approximately 350 out of 100,000 immigrants started a business per month in 2005 compared to 280 out of 100,000 native-born Americans. These rates represent approximately 85,000 immigrants creating new businesses per month and 379,000 native-born individuals creating new businesses per month.
Moving on to Texas:
Among the most populous states, Texas has a relatively high rate of entrepreneurial activity (350 per 100,000 adults) and is ranked fourteenth for entrepreneurial activity in the United States. California's rate of entrepreneurial activity is just above the median at 320 per 100,000 adults. New York and Florida both have rates of entrepreneurial activity that are ranked just below the median at 280 per 100,000 adults.
(Elsewhere in the report, they seem to have a misprint of Texas at 480 per 100,000, but all the tables say 350)

The 13 states ranked ahead of Texas are much smaller. As a matter of fact, all 13 are smaller in population than metro Houston. Houston itself came out very well:
Analysis of the fifteen largest MSAs in the United States reveals that Atlanta (430 per 100,000 adults), Riverside (430 per 100,000 adults), San Francisco (420 per 100,000 adults), and Houston (400 per 100,000 adults) had the highest rates of entrepreneurial activity. Detroit (160 per 100,000 adults), Philadelphia (180 per 100,000 adults), Boston (190 per 100,000 adults), and Seattle (190 per 100,000 adults) had the lowest rates of entrepreneurial activity.
Boston and Seattle less than half our rate? It just goes to show the substantial difference between tech startups and everyday small business entrepreneurship. DFW came in at a surprisingly anemic 260, well below the state average of 350. I can see Houston's boost from a high immigrant population and a lack of zoning, but I have a hard time explaining why DFW would be so much lower. Theories welcome in the comments.

On a related note, Paul Graham, who writes amazingly insightful essays on technology among other topics, recently released one titled "How to be Silicon Valley." It's his thoughts on what it takes to be a tech startup hotbed.
I think you only need two kinds of people to create a technology hub: rich people and nerds. They're the limiting reagents in the reaction that produces startups, because they're the only ones present when startups get started. Everyone else will move.
The rich people are for venture capital, of course. And Houston has plenty of rich people (although much weaker on formal VC). But we're a little weaker on the young college nerds - Rice is too small, and UH is still trying to get to Tier 1 status. Austin and Seattle seemed to do just fine without that many rich people (at least when they started), and Chicago hasn't done all that well with plenty of rich people and nerds (Northwestern, U.Chicago), so the theory's got some weaknesses.

He goes on to discuss the elements needed in several sections:
  • not bureaucrats (government programs)
  • not buildings (tech office parks)
  • top universities (purchasable for a mere half-billion)
  • personality (attractive to the creative class)
  • nerds (how they're a distinct subset of the creative class)
  • youth (inc. tolerance/liberalism and an "intact center"/core)
  • time for it all to ferment
A few other interesting excerpts:
To spawn startups, your university has to be in a town that has attractions other than the university. It has to be a place where investors want to live, and students want to stay after they graduate.
(On NYC) It's the kind of place where your mind may be excited, but your body knows it's having a bad time. People don't so much enjoy living there as endure it for the sake of the excitement. And if you like certain kinds of excitement, New York is incomparable. It's a hub of glamour, a magnet for all the shorter half-life isotopes of style and fame.

Nerds don't care about glamour, so to them the appeal of New York is a mystery. People who like New York will pay a fortune for a small, dark, noisy apartment in order to live in a town where the cool people are really cool. A nerd looks at that deal and sees only: pay a fortune for a small, dark, noisy apartment.

Nerds will pay a premium to live in a town where the smart people are really smart, but you don't have to pay as much for that. It's supply and demand: glamour is popular, so you have to pay a lot for it.

Most nerds like quieter pleasures. They like cafes instead of clubs; used bookshops instead of fashionable clothing shops; hiking instead of dancing; sunlight instead of tall buildings. A nerd's idea of paradise is Berkeley or Boulder.
To attract the young, a town must have an intact center. In most American cities the center has been abandoned, and the growth, if any, is in the suburbs. Most American cities have been turned inside out. But none of the startup hubs has: not San Francisco, or Boston, or Seattle. They all have intact centers. My guess is that no city with a dead center could be turned into a startup hub. Young people don't want to live in the suburbs.
Again, while the writing is excellent, I think the theory's got a few weaknesses. He lives near Cambridge himself, and it clearly colors his views, including an over-buy-in on the simplistic view of ideal creative class living. The reality is that the core tech hubs are all in suburban office parks outside Austin's core, in Silicon Valley outside SF, in Redmond outside Seattle, and Route 128 outside Boston. Clearly there's a synergy between their core and their 'burbs, but it's easy to overemphasize the "cool core".

I think Houston's on the right track with all the variables he describes (inc. #7 on creative class), although bio/nano tech will be our cluster/hub if it happens rather than hardware/software. There's just too much critical mass from the Texas Medical Center plus supporting research at Rice and UH. If we keep increasing local venture capital, allow our core to redevelop (esp. along the light rail lines), and get UH to Tier 1 status, our odds look pretty darn good.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Land use regs, TX vs. CA immigration, congestion reduction, and a compelling philosophy of toll roads

It's time again to clear out the small stuff stack with a miscellaneous set of items for your weekend perusal. If you only read one, make it the last one.
  • Reason's blog on how smart growth laws backfired in Maryland and actually promoted sprawl.
  • More Reason on the growing acceptance of High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes.
  • A very short post by Virginia Postrel on why immigrants are better for Texas than California (which is probably why we seem to be more comfortable with immigration here than in Cali).
  • Bob Poole at Reason on the new transportation mindset that gets beyond the "congestion paradigm" that "we can't build our way out." He talks about Georgia, Washington, and, of course, Texas:
"I'm pleased to say, however, that this Congestion Paradigm is beginning to crack. The revolution began in Texas soon after the turn of the century, when Dell Computer announced that it would no longer expand its operations in Austin (its headquarters) because traffic congestion there had become intolerable. This proved to be a wake-up call, leading the Governor's Business Council to research the issue and draft the Texas Metropolitan Mobility Plan. This revolutionary document declared that MPO plans should set aggressive targets for reducing congestion well below today's levels. And they should develop realistic estimates of what it would cost to accomplish that, as a guide to finding the resources to do the job (which is what led to the current preference for tolling in Texas). Projects would be selected by crunching the numbers to determine which ones delivered the greatest reduction in congestion per dollar spent. Thus, there was no bias against transit projects, if they could deliver cost-effective congestion reduction. But most of the evidence suggested that what was needed was large-scale additions of highway capacity."
  • A San Francisco Chronicle op-ed on the high price of land-use planning out there.
"These restrictions included urban-growth boundaries, purchases of regional parks and open spaces and various limits on building permits. These regulations created artificial land shortages that drove housing prices to extreme levels. Today, residents of Houston, Texas, can buy a brand-new four-bedroom, two-and-one-half bath home on a quarter-acre lot for less than $160,000. That same house would cost you more than five times as much in Marin or Contra Costa counties, seven times as much in Alameda County, and eight to nine times as much in Santa Clara, San Mateo, or San Francisco counties."
  • Finally, with my apologies to Erik: an excellent speech by Mike Krusee, chairman of the Texas state house transportation committee, laying out the logical philosophy for toll roads over the gas tax. It'll make you proud to be a Texan. It's concise too, so no excerpts here - please consider reading the whole thing.
Hope you enjoy your Memorial Day weekend, and don't forget to take a short moment to remember the spirit of the holiday. See you next week.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

When will expensive gas impact living patterns?

Continuing an earlier theme on how high gas prices might affect cities is this piece by Otis White debunking the myth that we're anywhere near high enough prices to change peoples' fundamental behavior (see bold highlight below).

On personal note, I am proud to say our household has joined the realm of transit riders (well, sort of). My wife recently took a job with SAIC/NASA in Clear Lake working on the new Crew Exploration Vehicle, and was not fond of the commute from Meyerland/Bellaire. Not just the 1.5 hour round-trip time and stress, but $9+/day in gas, plus much higher car depreciation expenses (60m/day). Metro buses could work, but require a substantial time-draining transfer downtown that almost double the commute time - and the final leg from the Bay Area Park&Ride to JSC is problematic. Any type of potentially planned commuter rail system would be even worse. But she found the perfectly scheduled 15-seat express vanpool from the West Loop Park&Ride (SW corner of 610) to her exact building at JSC, with a couple quick stops for other NASA contractors along the way from I45 to the campus - all for about $3/workday (less than half of Metro's cost). How's that for a great bargain? It just reinforces that the future of effective commuter transit in multi-nodal Houston is not heavy commuter rail, but a comprehensive managed express (MaX) lane network used by a wide range of very fast, point-to-point bus, van, and carpool options.

On to the Otis White piece, which I continue to post in their entirety until he gets permalinks.

Will Gas Prices Drive People Back to Town?
Don’t Hold Your Breath

Questions: How expensive must gasoline get for people to respond in ways that are meaningful to cities and suburbs? And how long will it take for these things to happen? Answers: Very expensive and a long time.

Oh, some are responding already, taking public transit to work instead of driving. And sales of SUVs, which had been in slow decline in recent years, are now in freefall. But the meaningful changes — exurbanites moving closer to work, people changing jobs to be closer to home, a big and lasting upswing in telecommuting, suburban cities ponying up for commuter rail, dramatic changes in residential development — are years away and dollars more per gallon. And if the price of gas levels off or declines, these changes won’t happen at all.

Why? Because for all the hoo-ha about gasoline crossing the $3 per gallon threshold, it’s still a bargain by historical standards. The peak price was reached in March 1981, when (adjusted for today’s prices) gas cost an average $3.18 a gallon. But even that’s a bit deceptive. Personal income is up in the last 25 years ago. As a result, the Wall Street Journal reported recently, gasoline now makes up just 3 percent of personal spending, down from 5 percent in 1981.

And even if gasoline reached or went beyond 5 percent of personal consumption, it might not provoke a stampede to city townhouses and condos. For one thing, urban housing prices have spiraled out of sight in the past two decades. Unless cities do something about making housing more affordable, many middle-class families can’t afford to move closer to cities. For another, except for their horrible and now more expensive commutes, families in the exurbs are mostly happy there. They’ll make many sacrifices before giving up their homes and children’s schools and soccer teams to move closer. Finally, there’s the experience of the 1980s, when the price of gasoline declined. Why panic because gas is suddenly expensive? Chances are, it’ll decline, most people think.

But surely there’s a point at which gasoline does become so expensive that it causes widespread changes in living patterns. What is it? No one is sure, the Journal reported, but it’s likely to be much, much higher than today’s $3 a gallon. Given the decline of gas spending as a percentage of consumer purchases, one oil economist told the newspaper, “It takes a very big price increase to have a big impact today.”

One measure of that impact is what economists call “price elasticity,” which measures how much the demand for products is affected by price. Turns out, the price of gasoline is very inelastic, meaning that price increases don’t much affect demand. (If a product were perfectly elastic, for every 1 percent price increase, demand would decline 1 percent.) How inelastic is gasoline? Some economists figure it at 0.1, which means that prices would have to increase 10 percent to cause a 1 percent decrease in demand.

Footnote: So if gas in the U.S. is still a bargain by historical standards, where is it expensive? If you’ve driven in Europe, you know. Motorists in Amsterdam pay nearly $6.50 for a standard U.S. gallon of gas. In London they pay about $5.80 a gallon. In Tokyo, about $4.25. On the other hand, gas sells for under $1 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and 12 cents a gallon in Caracas, Venezuela.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Impact of tax caps on the housing supply

An article in the NY Times a couple weeks back focused on California having the 11 least affordable places to live in the nation. No news there. But what caught my eye was their trace of one of the root causes for the housing crunch out there:
Another quintessentially California issue is Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that slashed property taxes by more than 50 percent and ignited a national property tax revolution.

The measure, which was supposed to facilitate home buying, has backfired to some extent; local governments prefer that land be used for retailing rather than housing because they collect more from sales taxes than from property taxes.

"Proposition 13 is a big stop sign saying 'no housing needed,' " said Peter Dreier, professor of public policy at Occidental College in Los Angeles and an author of "Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century" (University Press of Kansas, 2001). "Every municipality is engaged in a bidding war for retail — they're battling for Wal-Mart, to keep the libraries open."

It is unlikely that will change, Professor Dreier and others say, calling Proposition 13 "the third rail of government — it's untouchable."
Otis White expands on the problem in a footnote to his post on extreme commutes:
These miserable commutes are, of course, the result of communities that refuse to allow housing to be built at prices that people of moderate means can afford. The tragedy is that such housing could be built without subsidies in almost any American city or suburb by allowing developers to increase densities. But local governments, under pressure from neighborhood associations, refuse to allow such housing to be built, and carpenters, office workers and construction consultants are forced into these terrible treks to afford a place to live.
So you can see that there's already a natural pressure to restrict housing supply even without property tax caps, but that the caps exacerbate the problem even further. It's one those second-order consequences people don't consider when there's a call to cap property taxes. Houston has a growth cap in place now that seems reasonable (assuming inflation doesn't spike up too much), but I think we should be very wary of tightening it any further at a local or a state level.

More on property tax cap risks here, here, here, here, here, and here (a blatant case of overlinking, but there are a lot of risks).

The housing affordability map doesn't come through to Blogger very well, but you can see a larger version here.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Commuter rail realities vs. citizen stated preferences

One of the things I find frustrating about public debates on transit and mobility are simplistic polls that superficially ask people what they want, when, in most cases, they're really asking people what they think they want without really having any idea about the reality of what they're supporting. It's the "grass is greener on the other side" syndrome: I know the flaws in my current reality, but the alternative you're asking me to support is an ideal, flaw-free vision I have no experience with - so it sounds good to me! Such is the state of polls supporting commuter rail in Houston and other cities where people are frustrated with traffic congestion, but have no personal experience with commuter rail transit.

To illustrate from the reverse perspective, imagine living in NJ or Long Island in the late 1940s, and all you've ever known is commuter rail with its share of unpleasantness: waiting in bad weather, trains that don't run on time, crowded, with plenty of stops and slow overall speeds, that drop you off far from where you actually want to go, to walk again in that same bad weather you started with. Then one day, a pollster comes up to you and asks "Would you like an express freeway to wisk you directly to your job in climate-controlled comfort?" Doesn't that sound pretty good? You'd be all over it, because you don't really grasp the downsides, since they've never been reality for you: wreaks, traffic congestion, the inability to do anything productive while driving (like reading on the train), and car, insurance, gas, and parking costs and hassles.

In that spirit, I really enjoyed reading this article in the Wall Street Journal about car commuters in Chicago suddenly forced onto commuter rail by road construction, because it articulates the nitty-gritty daily realities of the choices, something I think we could all use a lot more exposure to before we make these big decisions as a city. Now, if we could only compare commuter rail support polls before and after having people read this article...

Strangers on the Train: Highway Work Forces Chicagoans Off Road

Commuters Bemoan the Loss Of Quality Time in Cars; Ms. Dennis Lugs In a Cake
by Ilan Brat, WSJ 4/21/06

Ann Schue used to cherish the time she spent alone in her 2003 Ford Expedition during her 90-minute morning commute to her job at the University of Chicago. Nestled in heated leather seats, she planned her day while listening to the news.

Not anymore. Massive construction work on one of Chicago's main highways has forced her to trade the peace of her sport-utility vehicle for the clatter and crowds of a double-decker commuter train.

"This was a very, very big step for me," says Ms. Schue, 42 years old, who had never been on a train in her life before she recently started taking the Metra rail service. "I'm still very...," she says, choking up, then pausing to compose herself. "I miss my car."

Chicago is the rare Midwestern city with pervasive mass transit, including buses, elevated trains and regional commuter rail. But it's also typically Midwestern in that many residents so love their vehicles that they'd rather sit in traffic burning up $2.99-a-gallon gasoline than go near a bus stop or train platform.

The "Dan Ryan Dig" is changing that. Three weeks ago, two years of reconstruction began on the Dan Ryan Expressway, already the busiest road in Illinois and one of the busiest in the country. Each day on average, a total of more than 300,000 vehicles cram the 12-mile stretch of Interstates 90 and 94 that slides southward past downtown Chicago and veers toward northwest Indiana.

The Dan Ryan, which opened in 1962, was named after a late president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Workers are adding a lane to the expressway and redoing exit and entrance ramps to make them safer. With the work cutting the road's capacity by half, traffic at times has slowed from a crawl to a virtual standstill. Rush-hour travel times have increased by up to 30% on some days, says the Shadow Traffic news service, part of Westwood One Inc.

On Wednesday, a lunchtime fender bender blocked a lane for just 10 minutes or so -- and backed up traffic for five miles.

Other U.S. reconstruction projects have been larger when measured in monetary terms -- the largest was Boston's $15 billion "Big Dig," which replaced an elevated highway through downtown with a tunnel. The $600 million Dan Ryan project is one of the largest when measured by traffic disruption, traffic experts say.

In Chicago, thousands of commuters who have long endured jams on the highway have abandoned their cars and trucks for mass transit. Metra counted 2,000 new riders in the first week of reconstruction, up from the normal 35,000 people a day. The Chicago Transit Authority, which runs city buses and the elevated light-rail system known as the "El," has seen rush-hour ridership jump more than 20% on some train lines, a spokeswoman says.

The change for many of the new riders is wrenching. David Pettiford, 25, used to drive his Dodge Durango SUV 20 miles from his home in the south suburbs to his job at a truck-brokerage firm on Chicago's north side. Work on the Dan Ryan added up to 20 minutes to his usual one-hour commute. His wife made him switch to the Metra, which takes about an hour, because she was "sick of me complaining about the commute" and gas prices. "I would rather drive," he says.

Despite traffic and other hassles of driving to work, many car commuters consider their trip a guilty pleasure. "You don't drink, you don't smoke, you don't do crack. [Driving] was my enjoyment for a little while" each day, says Frank Pierson, 52, who works at a bank in downtown Chicago.

Even though he lives just five blocks from an El stop, he had been driving to work and paying $18 a day to park. Facing the prospect of daily gridlock, he ditched his car. He likes to sit in a single seat toward the back of his train car because "nobody sits on top of you." One recent morning, two men walked past his seat peddling aromatic oils and candies. In a car, Mr. Pierson says, "you can roll the window up.

"Taking the train is "a nightmare," says Mary Dennis, 49, a senior consultant with a mortgage bank in downtown Chicago. For about 20 years, she had been driving the 36 miles from her home in Schererville in northwest Indiana. The trip took about 45 minutes. But the Dan Ryan work stretched it to an hour, and gas prices kept climbing, so now she drives half an hour to Hammond, Ind., then rides a 40-minute South Shore train to a Chicago stop that's a 20-minute walk from her office.

She says she feels cramped on the train and has to dodge drips from Chicago station ceilings when it rains. She's not looking forward to Chicago's blazing summer heat in stuffy cars or waiting on the open platforms during the city's fierce winters. At first, she wore sneakers on the commute and switched to pumps at work. But now she wears black, thick-soled "old lady shoes." She has also traded her heavy briefcase for a cloth bag because she no longer has a back seat for storage.

Worst of all, as her office's "birthday lady" this year, Ms. Dennis must bring a cake whenever one of her 12 co-workers celebrates a birthday. One day she lugged a three-layer cake on the train and, by the time she reached her office, it was "almost as horizontal as it was vertical," she says. "But at least it tasted good."

Some South Shore regulars like Jack Sloan aren't so happy about the influx. He says the new commuters seem glued to cellphones, yammering as loudly as they would in the privacy of their cars. He wishes someone would put up "wallpaper or something" to block cellular signals. "You don't need to give your life story for everyone to hear," he says.

Stacy Long and three friends have been meeting on the 5:10 p.m. train to Indiana and sitting in the same seats for two years. Now their seats are rarely available. Ms. Long, at more than 6 feet 4, prefers a seat reserved for the elderly or handicapped when no one in those categories is using it. The other day, though, someone else had grabbed it before her.

"Now I have to sit all scrunched up," Ms. Long griped, her knees pressed against the seat in front of her. She also has had to start leaving her house 15 minutes earlier in the morning to find a parking spot at the train station. "That is not cool," she says.

Ms. Schue is still adapting to her commute from Homer Glen, Ill., to the University of Chicago, where she's an animal-health technician. Her first day on the train, she brought a big backpack filled with books "and just all kinds of crap," she says. Now she totes a small bag with "just the basics: Reader's Digest, wallet, lunch."

The switch to the train has even affected her weekends. She's been driving to a shopping mall 34 miles from her house instead of one six miles away. "I don't even know why," she says. "I just went just to go." And she's counting the days until the Dan Ryan work is done. Told that some drivers think congestion on the road isn't as bad as some had predicted, she says, "Really? Can I go back?"

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Mayor White on Houston WiFi

The great thing about waiting a day to post on an event is that I can leverage what everybody else has written rather than have to write it myself - and just add in a dash of my own insights where appropriate. With that in mind, Dwight Silverman and Charles Kuffner give a pretty well-rounded overview of CoH CIO Richard Lewis and Mayor White's Monday night conference call on wireless internet coverage for the city. And if you want every scrap of detail, both of them have links to many of the other bloggers who have posted on it.

I raised concerns about being locked into one vendor that gets a monopoly on the public infrastructure (mainly light poles). They will let multiple retail ISPs use their network, but at the end of the day, one company controls the wholesale price. God help us if it's AT&T/SBC or Time Warner Road Runner, who are allowed to bid for a reason I can't quite understand (they have a very strong incentive to not undercut their existing DSL/cable pricing). To be fair, a vendor needs to recover the captial cost of 18,000+ base stations, and they pretty much need a monopoly to do it. The contract is for 10 years, with options for two 5-year extensions, and the expectation of a "technology refresh" every 5 years - so we won't get locked in to any archaic technologies for too long. They talked about an emphasis on "flexible scalability". I'd prefer to see a shorter monopoly/exclusivity period, and then allow 2 or 3 competitors on the poles.

A few other points:
  • They have clauses that allow cooperation with other political entities, inc. Metro or smaller cities if they want to be on the network.
  • 5% of the land area of the city is reserved for free wifi, probably parks, libraries, and maybe tourist/convention areas.
  • The city now spends $600K/year on communications that will become free under the new network. That's a pretty nice savings.
  • Many more traffic signals will be able to get timed/coordinated with this network, which is a BIG win for mobility in the city.
Overall, I think it's a pretty good plan. Clearly, a lot of thought has gone into it, and I think Mayor White is genuinely trying to do the right thing for the city long-term rather than just score short-term political points. The mayor issued a call for citizen support, which should be interpreted as "AT&T/SBC and Time Warner are doing everything in their power to kill this, so please tell your friends and put counter-pressure on your elected representatives," - i.e. politicians can only be bought if voters don't care. Tell 'em you care, and they might just do the right thing.

If you have more questions, the Mayor will have an open online chat at 6:30pm Wed 5/17. Details at www.HighTechTexan.com.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Announcement + WiFi & Kotkin

Life has been getting very, very busy lately - especially my software startup - so as of today Houston Strategies is downscaling a bit from 5 posts/week to 3 posts/week, generally Sun, Tues, and Thurs nights (or MWF mornings). Tomorrow, I'll have more on an interesting blogger/media conference call with Mayor White about wireless Internet access for Houston. He will be having an open-access online chat on the same topic Wednesday at 6:30pm for anybody who's interested. See www.HighTechTexan.com for more details.

And one more item. I'm sure I'm breaking some limit of too many Kotkin links in one week (and it's only Monday), but here's one more from the Wall Street Journal on the reality of the urban renaissance.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Kotkin on energy boomtowns and suburbia vs. the gas crunch

A couple Kotkin op-eds of interest today. The first from the LA Times talks about the new energy-driven boomtowns:
Three kinds of boomtowns have emerged in the last decade. The dot-com era created brainy, culturally savvy, "hip" cities such as Boston, San Francisco, Berlin, Montreal and Sydney. But they turned into very expensive places in which to do business and for the middle class to live.

Low-cost cities became the new boomtowns after the bubble economy burst in 2000. Business and tech firms headed to Phoenix, Reno and Fort Myers, Fla., and other no-nonsense, middlebrow places.

Now, the prospect of persistently high energy prices has fueled the latest wave of boomtowns, Rodney Dangerfield-like places that are finally getting respect — Calgary, Canada; Nagoya, Japan; Perth, Australia; Casper, Wyo., and Midland, Texas.
Houston may be the big city with the most to gain from continued high energy prices. Over the last decade, it relied largely on the huge Texas Medical Center, growing economic diversity, immigrant businesses and low housing costs to keep its economy running at close to the national norm. Energy's contribution to Houston's economy dropped from 82% in the 1970s to less than half today. But with local energy firms returning to the oil fields, job growth this year may exceed 3%, roughly twice the national average, according to Houston Federal Reserve economist Bill Gilmer.
In light of the historical growth patterns of the energy industry, it would be foolish to identify these cities as long-term boomtowns. As any Houston real estate developer or wildcatter can tell you, energy-based growth can slacken, sometimes quite suddenly.

Yet, whether in Japan, Australia or North America, the cities that flourish will be those that stick to the basics — producing goods and services for the global market, providing opportunities for middle-class citizens and a favorable environment for local businesses.

This may be less appealing to some than the hipster mantra of the late 1990s, but it also is something infinitely more sustainable.
His second is from the San Francisco Chronicle:
Suburbia will survive a gas crunch
It thrived in the 1970s, will adapt to latest spike
Perhaps the best way to test the thesis of higher energy prices constricting suburbia is to look at the experience of the 1970s. In that decade, Americans faced an even steeper price rise than that anticipated by almost anyone today. Worse, we were hopelessly unprepared for it, and far more jobs, particularly high-paying ones, were located in the urban core.

So what happened? People reacted, but not by jumping on mass transit in big numbers. In fact, transit use continued to decline from 6.4 percent of commuters to 5.3 percent between 1970 and 1980.

Nor did people move en masse to traditional older cities. In fact, the 1970s proved to be the only decade in the 20th century that overall urban population declined. Suburbanization proceeded apace, with jobs and people heading out to the hinterlands.

The energy-stricken '70s, notes Michael Carliner, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders, produced no discernible clamor for smaller houses or urban spaces. Driving, even by long-haul commuters, did not change much, although people did shift to more efficient, often foreign-made, cars.

Given this past experience, it's logical to expect more of the same this time. Higher gas prices will lead to fewer monster SUVs and more efficient cars, whether hybrid models or simply smaller, lighter versions of conventional cars. Home builders also may get smarter, as they did in the 1970s, using better insulation, double-paned windows and more efficient appliances, something that Carliner suggests might actually make new homes more attractive to buyers.

One compelling piece of evidence that we won't lose our reliance on automobiles: Even with a 23.7 percent increase in gas prices between 2004 and 2005, vehicle miles, according to the U.S. government, basically remained unchanged while gas consumption grew slightly.

Another thing that is unlikely to change is the trend toward urban decentralization. The evidence over the past two years shows a growing number of people moving from the largest cities to middle-sized and smaller communities.

Ultimately, higher energy prices cannot overcome the realities created by the car-oriented declustered environment in which we now live and work. As Paul Larrousse, director of the National Transit Institute, admits, the option for effective transit use has faded as the nation, and its jobs, have "spread out."

Then there is the little, often neglected fact about what most people like. In California, according to a 2002 Public Policy Institute Survey, well over 80 percent of adults prefer a single-family house. Most surveys find that what people want is privacy, space and, if they can get it, a walkable community closer to work.

In most cases, they will give up walkability for privacy, and even give up shorter commutes for privacy, space and good schools. Most people do not see dense urban living as a preferable option, no matter how much hip theorists, architects and planners think they should. Devotees of urban density, as planner William Fulton has suggested, live "a niche life" attractive to no more than 15 percent of the population.

It is not reasonable to expect people to give up their dream of a house in a low- or moderate-density area. This trend is somewhat universal; dreams of a "Latino based" urbanism -- engendered by the fact that poorer Latinos live in dense, transit-oriented areas -- are the product more of academic daydreams than a matter of Latino preferences. The powerful desire among immigrants to own a home, in fact, has done as much as anything to boost the U.S. single-family housing market.

Nor is this simply an American aberration. Wherever people have enough money to buy a suburban house, they will do so. This is true even at far higher energy prices than we can anticipate over the immediate future. Gas in Western Europe, for example, runs around $6 a gallon, yet virtually every major city there is experiencing rapid sprawl and increasing car use, albeit in largely more energy-efficient models.
It goes on to talk about the rapid rise of telecommuting - 15% per year - and how that is likely to accelerate with rising gas prices rather than a large-scale consolidation to a dense urban core or mass transit. I tend to agree: rising gas prices plus ubiquitous broadband, wireless, and Internet collaboration tools have telecommuting at a "tipping point" that could have a massive impact on work and society in the next few years. As they say, "may we live in interesting times."

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Density, vibrancy, and opportunity zones

Last week I tried taking Jane Jacobs' four tenants of vibrancy and applying them to the car-based city, describing the concept of the mobility/draw zone. It can be roughly summarized in this excerpt:
So the four tenets of vibrancy transformed for the car-based city get reduced to two:
  1. Loose zoning/permitting constraints to enable both a wide diversity of businesses as well as population density where there is consumer demand (apartments, condos, townhomes)
  2. Maximized mobility with a well-designed, high-capacity arterial and freeway network
These two principles maximize the population within the largest possible mobility/draw zone, which gives vibrancy its best chance of reaching critical mass and flourishing.
The next day, I promised these two topics (among others) in a future post. This is that post.
  • Rename "mobility/draw-zones" to "opportunity zones", since they represent the opportunity region for a consumer, explorer, job seeker, or business owner - and the larger it is and the more people it has, the larger the opportunity and the resulting vibrancy.
  • How Manhattan and Houston have very similar opportunity zones despite dramatic differences in urban form, and have the potential for similar levels of vibrancy in some respects.
Density is a big focus of debate in today’s urban planning. Again, if your assumed mobility mode is 3mph walking, or walking plus mass transit, you need a lot of people in a small area to create vibrancy within the mobility zone. In Jacob’s world, mobility is basically fixed and density is variable. In the car-based world, density is relatively fixed (well below Jacob’s standard of >100 dwellings/acre because of the need to accommodate cars and parking plus the majority desire for single-family residential living or mid-density apartments), but mobility is variable depending on the road network and traffic congestion – which can substantially affect the size of the mobility zone. Since what really counts is the population within the 10-20 minute mobility zone – as a proxy for easily accessible diversity and vibrancy – lets take a look at some estimated mobility zones in Manhattan and Houston:

(this is my first attempt at pasting tables into Blogger, so I hope they come out reasonably in your browser)

Population Sq miles Pop/sq.Mile
Manhattan 1,487,536 22.6 65,820
Houston 2,000,000 570 3,509

15 min off-peak trip in 5 min intervals, speed in mph 1st 5m 2nd 5m 3rd 5m Dist (mi) Area (pi*r^2) Population in zone
Manhattan scenarios

All walking 3 3 3 0.75 1.8 116,255
Walk/wait + subway + walk 3 30 3 3.00 28.3 1,860,078
Walk/wait + taxi* 3 12 12 2.25 15.9 1,046,294
All taxi* 12 12 12 3.00 28.3 1,860,078
Houston scenarios

Arterial drive 30 30 30 7.50 176.6 619,737
Artery, freeway, artery 30 65 30 10.42 340.7 1,195,480
Artery, then all freeway 30 65 65 13.33 558.2 1,958,674

* Average Manhattan taxi covers 1.9 miles in 10 minutes, ~12 mph (source)
(note that some Manhattan scenarios actually show a mobility zone population larger than the actual population of Manhattan, due to the circular nature of the model vs. Manhattan’s actual long, thin-island geography – but it still serves its illustrative purpose)

Several interesting observations come out of this table:
  • A car-based city with a strong freeway network has the potential to match the vibrancy and diversity of a high-density city like Manhattan.
    • This is not to say that Houston and New York are equivalent. This is an analysis of the diversity available in a typical, everyday 15-minute trip. Special occasion trips (museums, sporting events, concerts, theater, etc.) have a much higher acceptable commute time, and therefore draw on a larger area. New York is a much older and larger city that can draw on a regional metro population of 21 million, substantially more than Houston’s 5 million.
  • The classic “monotony of the suburban edge cities” phenomenon is explained by looking at the all-arterial drive scenario, which is common on the fringes. The fringes also drop population density rapidly as they get farther out, further reducing the mobility zone population and therefore diversity/vibrancy (ex: the mobility zone of interest for suburban Sugar Land in southwest Houston is to the north and east, not south or west).
  • Los Angeles was the first large-scale car-based city, and it is often not held in high regard. Why? LA has many arterials with overloaded, slow freeways and no frontage roads (although they do have higher density to somewhat make up for it). That drives LA towards the “all-arterial” scenario, or the middle scenario at best. Houston has a strong frontage-road network with substantial retail, office, and other commercial services – the car-based city equivalent of “vibrant street retail.” Even commercial/retail space not on the frontage roads is often within a couple minutes of a frontage road. This allows Houston to make the third scenario a relatively common one, with it’s attendant high access to diversity within the mobility zone.
  • Jacobs describes a “density dead zone” of greater than 12 dwellings per acre but less than 100 dwellings per acre – too dense to be suburban but too sparse to be really urban. These areas almost never achieve vibrancy or diversity. Arterial-driven car-based cities with weak freeway networks seem to be the car-based equivalent of this “dead zone” with low density and relatively low-to-moderate mobility.
Comments welcome and encouraged.

UPDATE 4/4/12: This has been reposted over at Urbanophile.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Dallas wrestles with its future

Several interesting pieces on Dallas recently, with obvious parallels to Houston. They're really very similar cities in many ways. Below is Otis White's writeup on density issues in Dallas (in full as usual - no permalinks). Although our city has similarities to Dallas, a few key differences keep us from having to grapple with the same issues they describe:
  1. We don't have the straightjacket of zoning, so development can easily and dynamically flex with demand
  2. That lack of zoning means we always have an adequate supply of multi-family housing
  3. We still have annexation options for growth
The Dallas Morning News has op-eds on their "Forward Dallas" plan and how a zoning thicket tangles it up (thanks to Erik for the pointers).
Right now, Dallas is the Dillard's of zoning, with dozens of narrow categories containing hundreds of specific conditions and criteria that require an act of divination or a team of lawyers to figure out. The code has produced confusion, frustration and costly delays, leading to the creation of nearly 800 planned development districts, otherwise known as zoning by exception. While some PDDs are excellent, most are conventional, repetitious and, if the zoning ordinance were streamlined, completely unnecessary.
For the most part, however, Forward Dallas identifies the city's most critical land-use issues: more area plans and fewer planned development districts, an updated parking ordinance, and a simpler, more transparent development process. Collectively, these changes will help make Dallas more livable, attractive and accessible.
Even though they seem to be pointed in many of the right directions, the devil is in the details. Zoning changes can easily lead to homeowner and business riots. Broad visions are easy to get agreement around - specific changes rally opponents, which politicians are usually all to happy to pander to by throwing sand in the gears if it adds to their vote tally in the next election (ok, maybe that's a bit too harshly cynical - but it has been known to happen from time to time). I think Dallas has a very long, very painful road ahead. For the nth time, I find myself very, very grateful we avoided the zoning quagmire in Houston.

Growing Pains - Dallas Does Density, by Otis White

Cities change faster — much faster, in fact — than our mental images of them. What this means is that leaders are constantly having to accept things that they’ve long resisted. An example of how painful this realization and acceptance process can be is the Dallas city council’s struggles with multi-family housing.

For years, the council has made its wishes clear: It doesn’t want more apartments and condos; it prefers single-family housing. Reason: Home ownership rates are higher with detached housing, and renters sometimes bring problems, from poverty to higher rates of crime. By insisting on single-family housing, then, council members are trying to encourage a more peaceful and prosperous city.

But you can see the problem: As big and sprawling as it is, Dallas isn’t getting any bigger geographically. As population grows in the Dallas area, then, the council has to choose: Does it wish to continue adding residents, or is it willing to accept a much smaller portion of the region’s population? And if it wants to continue growing, how can it so without adding another square inch of land?

Actually, the answer is clear: It has to accept greater density, which means condos and apartments. But this is difficult for council members who’ve been adamant about single-family housing over the years. This bubbled up recently in a discussion about a new comprehensive plan, which looked at development patterns over the next 25 years and, not surprisingly, saw a lot more multi-family housing ahead. “We’re not a suburb; we’re the urban center of this region,” the city development director told the council. “This is about competition. The region is growing. The question is, how much growth will Dallas capture?”

Just how great a shift is ahead was clear from the plan’s housing forecasts, which were published in the Dallas Morning News. In 2000, 54 percent of the housing units in Dallas were multi-family; by 2030, the plan predicts, it will be 62 percent. In 2000, 57 percent of housing units were occupied by their owners; by 2030, a majority will be occupied by renters.

These numbers did not go down well with one council member in particular. “This isn’t an ’if you build it, they will come’ city,” Angela Hunt said. “Townhouses are not really our culture right now.” But, the development director pointed out, in 25 years Dallas will be a far different place. By then, people who choose to live there will be doing so because of its urban character. They won’t come expecting the suburbs.

At least one other council member had no problem with this notion. “If you live up north, inside the LBJ Freeway, anything that gets redone is going to be high density,” Bill Blaydes said. “You want to talk suburban? Go to McKinney and Allen.”

Footnote: There will, of course, be some single-family construction in Dallas in the next quarter century, but it will be mostly in struggling South Dallas, which still has undeveloped land, or will involve teardowns. Both will be controversial, since the single-family construction is likely to encourage gentrification in largely minority neighborhoods, and the teardowns will bring McMansions.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Thoughts on the news... and an appeal

A lot of interesting items in the Chronicle today. The downtown park plan is pretty cool, even if it is a tad derivative of Chicago's Millenium Park. There are additional links there to the graphic map and a conceptual photo gallery. I predict it will completely reinvigorate the east side of downtown, with many residential towers within a few years - just as it's done for Chicago. Take a look here to see how many blocks are available for development nearby. Eastside downtown workers can say goodbye to their surface parking lots.

Next is the article on alarmed Heights residents scared of dense development. Can somebody explain to me why the houses to the right are scary? Many neighborhoods would kill for this kind of nice, context-sensitive, upscale development. I think they have much more character than the usual Houston townhome developments. Splitting the lots also keeps housing affordable, which keeps the neighborhood's cool, funky character. If they lot sizes get locked big, they'll have to get covered with expensive McMansions, the whole neighborhood will gentrify, and people will be even more unhappy. Somebody should also point these residents to Glaeser's study showing that they'll also be giving up a lot of home value by eliminating the extra development option from their land.

Third is the news we're probably going after the 2016 Olympics. Sigh. I'll stick by my predictions/handicapping from before - San Francisco will win. And I'll repeat my opinion on bidding:

Am I being disloyal to Houston? No, just realistic. And as I've posted before, an Olympics would be a big drain on the money and energy of our city that could go into more important long-term problems. I just hope we don't waste too much energy being a straw man for the USOC to get more out of San Francisco. If, by some miracle, we do win it, I will certainly be a major supporter and booster - and I think we will do a great job just like the Super Bowl. It's kinda like light rail: once it's a done-deal sunk cost, we might as well get everything possible out of it...

One nice side-effect is that the Astrodome will be part of the bid, keeping it from the demolition ball for a few more years until a good new use is decided (assuming the convention center hotel idea doesn't actually fly).

Finally, a personal appeal. If you have a little time, please go the Houston Travel Survey by TAMU and TXDoT and fill it out (Chronicle article). Tell your friends, too. Tell them it is critically important for Houston to have a comprehensive network of congestion-priced toll/managed lanes to maintain jobs in the core and keep it healthy and vibrant. It is inevitable that a large portion of our metro growth will be in the far suburban job centers like The Woodlands and Sugar Land, but we can avoid core stagnation with a high-speed option that prevents existing employers from getting fed up by traffic congestion and moving out. And let them know the network needs to reach all the major job centers, not just downtown - and that means covering the loops too. More on "MaX Lanes" can be found here - Managed eXpress lanes that move the maximum number of vehicles at maximum speed. Your vote counts. Thanks.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Houston gets dual #3 rankings

Houston came in a very strong third in the nation not once but twice in the last week.

First, Site Selection magazine ranked Houston third for new economic development projects in 2005 with 214, behind Chicago (389) and DFW (309). They also ranked Texas #1 among states with 12 top metros. In addition, they recognized the Greater Houston Partnership as one of the top economic development groups in the nation.
The mass exodus of Houston residents fleeing the path of Hurricane Rita last fall was the exact opposite behavior of corporate America in 2005. With 214 large-scale corporate facility projects last year, the Houston-Baytown-Sugar Land metro area was third in the country, behind only Chicago and Dallas.
What makes the Houston area so attractive to companies? Besides its 5.3 million people and work force of more than 2.6 million, Houston has a reputation as a fast-growing technology center. Some 21 Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in Houston, and 51 of the world's 100 largest non-U.S. corporations have non-retail operations in Houston.

The Port of Houston is the world's sixth largest and routinely ranks first in the nation in volume of foreign tonnage and second in the nation in total tonnage.

Houston has more than 300,000 students enrolled in more than 60 colleges, universities and technical schools throughout the area. The median age of Houston workers is 33, compared to the national median age of 36.
Our second ranking comes from Forbes, where we are the third-best city for business and careers behind Albuquerque and Raleigh, NC. Here's the write-up they give us in their Top 10 list:

Population: 5,257,000
Job Growth: 0.8%
Income Growth: 2.2%
Big Employers: Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Administaff, Continental Airlines, Halliburton.

The nation's third-largest metro area is riding high on the fumes of the energy boom. Employment jumped 2.6% last year, while household income rose 5.1%. Houston's business costs are 11% lower than the national average and well below any other area with more than 3 million people.

Nation's third-largest metro area? I'm sure a whole lot of big shots in Chicago are fuming at that misprint. Forbes claims that they used new, redefined MSA definitions from 2003, which does rank us the fourth-largest in their tables - a nice match to being the fourth-largest city. It looks like a lot of metros got trimmed down dramatically in the new definitions (many were split in two), which pushes us ahead of Philly, Dallas, Miami, and DC. You can see the pare-downs here in the middle column.

Their table also notes that we have the lowest cost of doing business among the 25 largest metros. You can browse their ranking maps here.

Also check out our subcategory rankings. All those rankings seem reasonable to me except cost of living (114) and culture & leisure (41). How is our cost of doing business so low, but cost of living so high? Unfortunately, they don't provide ranking lists in these categories to see who scores better. The footnote for culture & leisure is "Index based on museums, theaters, golf courses, sports teams and other activities." Is somebody going to tell me there are 40 metros in the U.S. that score better than us on that? Give me a break.

I've heard predictions of over 3.4% job growth in Houston for 2006, driven by the energy boom, which could be enough to boost us into the #1 spot next year. Of course, by now, most of you know the downside of boom times: more traffic congestion. Add that to $3+ gas, and maybe more people will give HOV Metro/vanpooling/carpooling another look?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Vanishing downtown office towers

Just a quick pass-along tonight from Otis White's Urban Notebook (still without permalinks). I think this is a trend that will probably hit Houston soon: conversions of downtown office buildings to condos. There has been a rise of residential housing in downtown Houston, but as far as I know, we haven't yet converted a major office tower. But the vacancy rate is stubbornly high downtown - over 20% - and the real office-space action is much farther west in the Energy Corridor and Westchase. I think it's just a matter of time until we see a few conversions of the older, less desirable office towers - which could actually end up a healthy thing for downtown. I don't think we have to worry about ending up with an anemic downtown like Philly or St. Louis. It will have a healthy number of jobs for quite some time, more than any other employment center in Houston, at least according to HGAC projections.

Vanishing Office Towers
Are Downtowns Becoming Irrelevant?

One of the keenest observers of urban development around is Philadelphia Inquirer economics columnist Andrew Cassel. He asked a simple question recently about his city’s downtown: As center-city Philadelphia develops as a residential area, what’s happening to it as a business district? His answer: It’s fading fast. This isn’t just a Philadelphia story, though. It’s what’s happening with downtowns everywhere.

It’s ironic, Cassel writes, because in the 1970s and 1980s, we worried about downtowns becoming 9-to-5 places that bustled in the daytime but emptied out at night. After all, who’d want to live downtown? “Talk about having it exactly backward,” he says. “It turns out there are loads of people who want to live in or near center city — all kinds, from students and twentysomethings to empty nesters and retirees.” But, he continues, “even as the city grows more attractive as a place to live, it continues its long decline as a place to work.”

Look at the numbers. There’s about as much occupied office space in downtown Philadelphia today as in 1990, he writes, but suburban office development has mushroomed. Result: Downtown’s share of the region’s office market has shrunk from 41 percent to 27 percent. (It’s not just office space. Philadelphia has lost 9,300 professional and office jobs since 2000, even as the suburbs gained nearly 18,000.)

Downtown Philly has seen a fair amount of office construction since 1990, so how can it have no more office space than it did 16 years ago? Answer: A lot of office buildings have been converted to housing. He gives an example: the 57-story Two Liberty Place tower, half of which is being converted to condos. “Imagine: A 1989 postmodern glass-and-steel tower, a symbol of the city’s economic renaissance when it was built — and until recently among the classiest of Class A office addresses — is now obsolete and must be recycled,” he writes.

Cassel blames Philadelphia’s crushing employment taxes for the city’s decline as a business location, and he’s no doubt right that they’ve hastened the exodus. But the same trend can be found in other places. Across America, downtowns are becoming more appealing places to live and less appealing ones to work.

Take St. Louis, where office vacancies have dropped significantly in recent years. Booming economy? Hardly. It’s all those conversions of downtown office towers into condos, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported recently. Real estate researchers think about 1.3 million square feet of office space has been taken off the market in recent years as condo conversions or teardowns. “It’s simply supply and demand at work here,” said one developer, whose company is converting a 1920s downtown tower to condos. “There’s more demand for housing than there is for office, but there’s less supply of housing.”

So should we be concerned about the decline of downtowns as business districts? Yes. The influx of residents is a positive thing for downtowns, but we need real work to go on there. Otherwise, downtowns could become little versions of Venice: inspiring to look at, delightful to explore but otherwise irrelevant to the world of commerce.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Another NYT critique of Jane Jacobs + future preview

Yet another change of plan. The NYC vs. Houston mobility/draw-zone comparison scheduled for today will be shifted to next week. Instead, we'll close out Jane Jacobs week here at Houston Strategies with a critique by the architecture critic at the NY Times titled "Outgrowing Jane Jacobs and Her New York." I recommend the audio slide show too if you have the time.
It is a loss for those who value urban life. But her death may also give us permission to move on, to let go of the obsessive belief that Ms. Jacobs held the answer to every evil that faces the contemporary city.
But the problems of the 20th-century city were vast and complicated. Ms. Jacobs had few answers for suburban sprawl or the nation's dependence on cars, which remains critical to the development of American cities. She could not see that the same freeway that isolated her beloved, working-class North End from downtown Boston also protected it from gentrification. And she never understood cities like Los Angeles, whose beauty stems from the heroic scale of its freeways and its strange interweaving of man-made and natural environments.
Perhaps her legacy has been most damaged by those who continue to treat "Death and Life" as sacred text rather than as what it was: a heroic cri de coeur. Of those, the New Urbanists are the most guilty; in many cases, they reduced her vision of corner shops and busy streets to a superficial town formula that creates the illusion of urban diversity, but masks a stifling uniformity at its core.

This is true in large-scale projects as diverse as Battery Park City or Celebration, Fla., where narrow streets and parks were supposed to create an immediate sense of community. As it turns out, what the New Urbanists could not reproduce was the most critical aspect of Ms. Jacobs's vision, the intimate neighborhood that is built — brick by brick, family by family — over a century.

For those who could not see it, the hollowness of this urban planning strategy was finally exposed in New Orleans, where planners were tarting up historic districts for tourists, even as deeper social problems were being ignored and its infrastructure was crumbling.

The answer to such superficiality is not to resurrect the spirit of Robert Moses. But in retrospect his vision, however flawed, represented an America that still believed a healthy government would provide the infrastructure — roads, parks, bridges — that binds us into a nation. Ms. Jacobs, at her best, was fighting to preserve the more delicate bonds that tie us to a community. A city, to survive and flourish, needs both perspectives.

The lesson we should take from Ms. Jacobs was her ability to look at the city with her eyes wide open, without rigid prejudices. Maybe we should see where that lesson leads next.

Hear, hear!

In future posts starting next week, I'd like to explore the following topics building on the last two days' posts - Opportunity Cities vs. Pleasantvilles and mobility/draw-zones for vibrancy:
  • Rename "mobility/draw-zones" to "opportunity zones", since they represent the opportunity region for a consumer, explorer, job seeker, or business owner - and the larger it is and the more people it has, the larger the opportunity and the resulting vibrancy.
  • How Manhattan and Houston have very similar opportunity zones despite dramatic differences in urban form, and have the potential for similar levels of vibrancy in some respects.
  • How adding discretionary income to the concept of opportunity zones creates a better metric for the potential vibrancy of an area. Money left over after the cost-of-living basics like groceries, utilities, transportation, health care, and (especially) housing is money that is available for spending locally to increase vibrancy.
  • How that "vibrancy metric" of opportunity zones plus discretionary income can be thought of as "opportunity dollars" for enhancing social mobility for the poor and middle class. Those dollars fund small business creation and growth/hiring, higher education, charitable giving, and support for restaurants, arts and entertainment amenities.
  • Positive feedback loops that increase those opportunity dollars and social mobility: increased transportation mobility improves person-job fit which increases productivity which increases incomes; and increased spending on local amenities increases their number and scale, which improves city attractiveness, which attracts higher paying jobs which feed back into that spending.
  • How these concepts can be in alignment with the smart growth goal of increasing density, as increased population density increases the opportunity dollar density within the mobility/opportunity zone, increasing vibrancy and social mobility.
  • What cities can influence to increase opportunity dollars, vibrancy, and social mobility: increase transportation mobility, jobs, population, density, education, salaries, or affordability; decrease housing, grocery, transportation, utilities, health care, taxes, and other basic costs of living by, for example, increasing mobility to affordable housing, increasing the housing supply, and loosening commerical space restrictions/regulations to increase competition.
I've personally only scratched the surface exploring these topics, so I'm hoping for a lot of insightful thoughts and discussion from many of you in the comments.

I hope you enjoyed Jane Jacobs week here at Houston Strategies. She was a pioneering thinker of vibrant opportunity urbanism and someone we can definitely learn a lot from as well as build on as we try to develop better cities ("embrace and transcend", to use a favorite phrase of mine). Have a great weekend, and I'll see you next week.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Applying Jane Jacobs' 4 tenets of vibrant neighborhoods to car-based cities

The tenets were mentioned in the first two posts in this series, but here they are again in short form:
  1. Mixed primary uses that create traffic/vibrancy throughout the day
  2. Short blocks to make neighborhoods more walkable
  3. Mixed age and overhead buildings to enable a diversity of businesses
  4. Population density
To put them in context, it's important to understand that Ms. Jacobs formed these tenets while observing her Greenwich Village NYC neighborhood (and similar ones) during the 1950s (the book came out in 1961). It was an urban world in the midst of a major transitional upheaval, as the car moved from a luxury to a standard household item for the middle classes. Cities at the time had been built around walking and mass transit, and accommodating the car was traumatic: too narrow streets, not enough parking, and freeways plowing through neighborhoods. Today, the vast majority of us live in an urban/suburban landscape built around the car - with accommodations for parking and major arterials and freeways - which makes the tenets seem almost quaint and disconnected from our modern world.

The problem as I see it is that these four principles have hardened into dogma in the urban planning community without really understanding the meaning and philosophy behind them. To some extent, I even think Jane Jacobs herself suffered from this too-narrow understanding of her own insight. Let's see if we can get to the true essence of these principles, and then talk about how they might apply to modern car-based cities.

The goal is a very subjective concept called "vibrancy." What is vibrancy? To put it simply, vibrancy means a buzz of people interacting and transacting in win-win exchanges - both economic and social. Vibrancy was very visible in Jane's world: people on the street and sidewalks, jostling and bumping as they went about their daily businesses, often in street-level retail establishments just off the sidewalk. In the car-based world, that vibrancy is more hidden. Sure, you can see the cars (sometimes way, way too many cars in congested traffic), but you don't really see the people or the interactions as they hide inside the cars, strip centers, and office buildings. They're there, but we don't "feel" them as much as we do in a classic Jane Jacobs walkable neighborhood.

Vibrancy starts with a very simple decision: is there some interesting or necessary activity that draws me out of my home? Work? Shopping? Socializing? Whether I'm in a walk-up apartment in New York or a house in the suburbs, the question is the same. More options increases the likelihood of drawing me out. And I have to weigh-up those interesting options against the barriers to going out, particularly mobility: how much time, effort, and money is required to go do this activity? A good, cheap restaurant is an easy choice when it's right down the street, but a harder one in heavy traffic with unpredictable parking or with some long walks and subway rides in possibly unpleasant weather. There's always leftovers in the fridge and something on TV, the mortal enemies of "vibrancy".

The flip-side perspective is that of the business owner: what kind of reasonable customer base will I be able to draw on? The more barriers between me and them, the less likely they are to patronize my business. What is my "draw zone"? The more people - and the more money - in that draw zone, the better my prospects. That means a larger diversity of businesses can be supported.

Looked at through these lenses, Ms. Jacobs' four tenets make instant sense. If you assume walking as the primary mobility mode, distance becomes a major barrier to vibrancy. Taxis are expensive - not to mention a major pain to flag down, even in NYC - and transit is generally a hassle, slow, and loses time in waiting and transfers. Thus we need as many interesting activities and options as possible within as short a distance as possible to get vibrancy. Mixed-use and mixed-cost buildings increase the variety of options within that short distance - and more options increases the likelihood that one or more of them will be attractive enough to draw you out on a given day, evening, or weekend. Short blocks make walking routes more direct, and put more options within the same travel-time range. And density provides the raw fuel of consumers to keep all those interesting street shops economically viable. The more eclectic a business, the larger the draw zone - in size and population - it needs to stay viable: convenience stores and dry cleaners are easy - offbeat bookstores and sushi restaurants are harder to support. The mobility zones are so limited in this world, that the only way a neighborhood reaches critical mass for vibrancy is to stack as many people as possible right on top of the businesses: mixed-use and density.

In the car-based world, distance becomes far less of an impediment. Speed determines the "mobility/draw zone" - fast arterials and freeways with minimal congestion. Short blocks and mixed-use become somewhat irrelevant because the pertinent geography now spreads over miles instead of blocks. Mixed age/cost buildings are still important, but over a much larger area. Harsh zoning and permitting can limit commercial space availability, increasing scarcity and prices and driving out lower value uses, thus limiting commercial diversity (see yesterday's post on Opportunity City vs. Pleasantville). Density still matters somewhat, but far less than before. Generally speaking, in Jane's world, mobility is relatively fixed and slow (walking, transit), but density is variable - therefore the key to vibrancy is to pump up density. In the car-based city, density tends to stay in a reasonably narrow and low range because of the need to accommodate cars and parking - plus consumer preferences for stand-alone homes - but mobility is variable: average trip speed is very dependent on the availability of high-capacity, smoothly-running arterials and freeways. I would go so far as to call the freeway the "short block" of the car-based city because of its similar relative improvement to the size of the mobility/draw zone.

So the four tenets of vibrancy transformed for the car-based city get reduced to two:
  1. Loose zoning/permitting constraints to enable both a wide diversity of businesses as well as population density where there is consumer demand (apartments, condos, townhomes)
  2. Maximized mobility with a well-designed, high-capacity arterial and freeway network
These two principles maximize the population within the largest possible mobility/draw zone, which gives vibrancy its best chance of reaching critical mass and flourishing.

All of this is not to say that car-based cities like Houston don't need mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods - but they're not required for us to be a vibrant city/metro. A "nice-to-have" amenity, if you will. What's going on in downtown, uptown, midtown, and The Village (among others) are good, healthy developments - and I think Jane would approve - but they're not the end-all/be-all of vibrancy.

Tomorrow, we'll go into more depth on density vs. mobility by comparing Manhattan and Houston trip scenarios, and what that means for vibrancy, "suburban monotony", frontage/feeder roads, and Jane Jacobs' "dead zones".

UPDATE 3/28/12: This has been reposted over at Urbanophile.