Thursday, June 29, 2006

Transportation lessons from Houston, Part 2 of 2

Before getting to part 2, a short note on the Chronicle's article today about a Duke spinoff becoming Fortune 500 HQ #24 for Houston - the second most in the nation after NYC. Alas, it is not to be. Unfortunately, it will only replace Kinder Morgan Energy, which is going private. Fortune doesn't count private companies in the 500. We'll still have the economic benefits of them both being here, but the F500 headquarters count will remain unchanged. Now, if Exxon and Chevron would just move their headquarters here to join the bulk of their employees...

On to part 2, continuing from part 1.

Being smart with light rail

Houston has not completely avoided the light rail bandwagon. In 2004, it opened a $300-million 7.5-mile “Main St.” line that links downtown, Midtown, the Museum District, Hermann Park, Rice University, the Texas Medical Center, and the Reliant Park stadium and convention center complex.

Ridership has been high, although there is some dispute on how many of those are new transit riders. Many previously continuous bus routes now transfer riders to the rail and then require them to transfer again to a new bus. In fact, while rail ridership has been high, overall Metro transit ridership has dropped noticeably since the line opened and bus routes were changed to connect to it.

This has proven to be the biggest risk of building rail. Transit agencies, obsessed with proving that the large capital investment was worth it, try to push as many riders onto the train as possible by canceling competing bus service (even if it’s faster) and forcing transfers whenever possible. Overall trip times increase and transit ridership drops.

Where Houston has been smart with light rail is in keeping it focused on short-distance local trips and not trying to make it useful for long-distance commuter transit (where HOV express buses shine). For example, New York has subways for local transit, and heavy rail for commuters. Local transit just needs stops, while commuter transit usually needs large park-and-ride lots or garages. Most cities these days try to stretch one mode to perform both functions, and end up with a dysfunctional hybrid that doesn’t have enough stops to be useful for local trips, but has too many stops painfully slowing it down for commuter trips. Houston’s line has stops roughly every half-mile along its 7.5 mile length, making it great for local trips with short walks, but slowing it to 17 mph net speed.

This local focus makes Metro's new LRT/BRT network extremely complimentary to express bus and vanpool commuter transit by allowing people to get around the core easily during the day for meetings, errands, or lunches without their car, thus making the decision to ride commuter transit an easier one.

Metro has also made the smart decision to use more bus rapid transit (BRT) as it expands the core network from 7 to 30 miles over the next 7 years, cutting the cost per mile roughly in half and improving the chances of federal funding.

Summarizing Lessons Learned from Houston

  • Investing in freeways, tollways, and HOV does improve mobility. Yes, there is some “induced demand,” but congestion is reduced to fewer hours per day and more people get more access to affordable housing. Simply compare 6-lane I-5 in LA with 12-lane I-5 in Orange County to see the difference.
  • Improved mobility provides access to more affordable housing for middle class families.
  • Improved mobility also maximizes the potential customer base for entrepreneurial small businesses, increasing economic vibrancy.
  • Freeway frontage roads with convenient commercial businesses are a good idea. They are not always aesthetically attractive, but they do provide a noise and pollution buffer for residential areas and make it far more politically feasible to expand capacity in the future.
  • Stopping new highway construction does not stop sprawl. It simply shifts jobs from the core to the suburban periphery, leading to a deteriorating tax base in the older core city.
  • Remember that transit is not about fancy and expensive commuter trains - it's about cost-effectively getting people out of their cars by offering faster trips.
  • Evaluate transit agencies on boosting overall ridership and trip market share – not ridership on specific rail lines.
  • Aggressively develop a comprehensive network of congestion-priced toll lanes to support round-the-clock high-speed commuter service: buses, vans, carpools, and even single-occupant vehicles willing to pay.
  • Use the toll revenue to support construction of additional lane and transit capacity. Taxpayers will be more supportive if they think the revenues are supporting enhanced mobility rather than going into the general tax revenue fund.
  • Regional authorities (like counties) have a better “big picture” view to push needed mobility projects over the objections of NIMBY municipalities, and they need the power to do it. Houston has benefited from the regional view of dominant Harris County, which has the substantial majority of the population in the metro area.
  • Set up mechanisms and incentives for cooperation among major agencies.
That's it. Hope you enjoyed it. Comments welcome, but I may not be able to respond for a few days. I'm attending a wedding and vacationing in Denver with the wife and in-laws over the four-day Independence Day weekend, so the next post will be Wednesday July 5th. Have a great holiday weekend celebrating the 230th birthday of our nation.

(link to Followup post)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Transportation lessons from Houston, Part 1 of 2

This is something I wrote a few months ago for another purpose. It's meant to be a short profile of Houston transportation strategies, aimed at a national audience. It's a bit long, so I'm going to break it into two parts, with part 2 Thursday night.

On a somewhat related note, don't miss Christof's great suggestions for substantially improving the utility of the new Universities light rail line.

On to the transportation lessons from Houston:

Houston is a national model for mobility and congestion relief. The fourth-largest city in the nation, and at the top of most congestion rankings in the early 1980s, it actually reduced traffic congestion during the 1980’s and early 90’s according to Texas Transportation Institute statistics. While congestion has increased in nearly every major U.S. city since then, Houston’s aggressive mitigations have allowed it to increase congestion slower than 37 other cities during the last 20 years, despite being one of the fastest growing metro areas in the nation. What lessons can we learn from Houston’s approach to transportation?

First, Houston seems to understand the realities of being a dispersed, multi-polar, car-based city of the last 50 years, and how that affects transportation decisions differently from the older, denser, transit-based cities of the northeast – particularly when it comes to the applicability of fixed rail transit. Houston has over a dozen major job centers, six of which are larger than downtown San Diego or Miami. This makes any kind of efficient or speedy rail network almost impossible, as multiple transfers would be required and employment buildings tend be dispersed – even within the job centers – which would lead to long walks from the stations in pedestrian-hostile hot, humid, and rainy weather.

They understand that suburban sprawl is a reflection of how most people want to live, and that transportation decisions can’t stop it. All transportation can do is determine whether affordable housing is available within a reasonable commute, and whether employers choose to stay in the core or move out to the newer, cheaper, less-congested, ever-expanding suburbs.

Realizing this, Houston has been extremely aggressive in adding new freeway capacity. It has nine major radial freeways, three ring freeways (with a 180-mile fourth one on the way), and 16 major 4 or 5 level interchanges. Houston has almost twice as many freeway lanes per capita as Los Angeles. As state funding has become more limited in recent years, they have embraced toll roads to continue adding capacity.

The results? Houston has kept affordable housing within reach, with the lowest housing costs of any major city in America. While its job centers are dispersed, the vast majority have stayed within the core and the city limits, keeping up the commercial tax base and avoiding a Detroit scenario. Houston’s four inner-core job centers – Downtown, Uptown, Greenway Plaza, and the Texas Medical Center – combine to have more jobs than any other U.S. central business district outside of Manhattan.

To provide contrast, Portland - which essentially stopped freeway and HOV expansion and focused on light rail during the 1990s - had traffic congestion grow three times faster than Houston during that decade and has experienced a far sharper decrease in housing affordability, even with similar population growth rates of about 26% during the decade.


Rather than blindly following the models of other cities, Houston has been an ongoing innovator in transportation solutions. Houston was one of the earliest builders of frontage road lanes along the sides of freeways, which eased freeway entry and exit, supported substantial commercial development, and provided a noise and pollution buffer between freeways and residential areas. This buffer has minimized citizen opposition to freeway expansions. In fact, almost all major opposition to Houston freeway expansions over the years have been those occasional segments without commercial frontage roads.

Houston was an early pioneer in High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, and has built one of the largest networks in the nation with over 182 miles of safe barrier-separated lanes. During rush hour, each of these lanes carries the equivalent of four normal lanes of traffic. Houston has found these lanes far superior to rail for flexibility, cost, and speed.

“In a city like Houston, HOV lanes are very effective. It is the best way to get people out of their cars. It’s fast and serves a wide area at low cost.”

- Erik Slotboom, author of “Houston Freeways: A Historical and Visual Journey”

These lanes enable point-to-point express commuter bus and vanpool service at high-speed between many different residential areas and employment centers. By eliminating intermediate stops and transfers, trip times are reduced dramatically, which encourages greater use. And the buses can circulate at employment centers to get commuters closer to their final destination building.

When some HOV lanes got so popular that they had to move from two to a three-person requirement per vehicle, they became underutilized. To tap that unused capacity, Houston innovated with the Quickride program in 1998, allowing 2-person vehicles to pay a toll to use the lanes. This program is evolving towards a near-future of High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes across Houston, where congestion pricing will be used to keep the lanes free flowing. The Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro), which owns the HOV lanes, is converting its entire network to two-way HOT lanes to get better utilization and increase money available for transit at the same time.

The prototype project is the $2 billion reconstruction of I-10 in west Houston. When complete, it will have a 4-lane congestion-priced toll road down the middle, with up to 25% of capacity reserved for Metro buses (a Virtual Exclusive Busway – or VEB). The freeway is being built by the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDoT), but the toll lanes will be run by the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) in contractual partnership with Metro. Although it’s not always easy, Houston strives for cooperation between TXDoT, HCTRA, and Metro. The I-10 agreement was a cooperative breakthrough that is serving as a model for other projects across the city.

Finally, HCTRA has been an innovator itself with the nation’s first EZ-tag-only tolled freeway, the 20-mile Westpark Tollway, which opened in May 2004. The narrow right-of-way precluded normal toll collection plazas, so a 4-lane all-electronic tollway was squeezed into the available space. Camera enforcement with license plate snapshots has driven toll violations below 2%. HCTRA has also been noted for its cost effectiveness, building Westpark for only slightly more than $3 million per lane mile.

Coming Thursday night: Part 2 on being smart with light rail and summarized lessons.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Charities, hot industrial dev, global trade, CBD rank, selling toll roads, police flying eyes, White for World Mayor, IAH growth

Time yet again to clear out the miscellaneous small items queue:
  • Houston ranked third in the nation for the financial performance of its charities. My impression is that we have a strong business community that supports and serves local charities and brings that financial discipline with them.
  • Houston hot for industrial development. Excerpts:
Industry experts say the Bayou City has become a hot spot for industrial construction because of a growing demand for space that's being fueled by the strong economy and increased capacity at the Port of Houston.

Houston is also being cast as more of a distribution hub following last year's opening of a 4 million-square-foot distribution complex in Baytown by Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
"Everyone wants to be in Houston now," he says. "Houston is booming."
  • Profile of booming global trade in Houston.
  • Houston's downtown was recently ranked as the 8th-largest central business district in the nation with 153,400 jobs (about 9% of the metro total), behind NYC, Chicago, DC, SF, Boston, Philly, and Seattle, but ahead of LA, Atlanta, and Dallas (which actually came in behind Austin, if you can believe that). With the exception of Seattle, Houston is the largest of the car-based, post-WW2 cities - a development pattern that has typically not been kind to downtowns.
  • Kuff does a great job summarizing what's wrong with selling toll roads, which, fortunately, is no longer a risk in Harris County.
  • Interesting story on using unmanned aerial observation drones in LA for law enforcement. Definitely an idea worth considering for Houston's recent crime spike.
  • Don't forget to vote online for Mayor White for World Mayor 2006 (thanks to Metroblog for the story).
  • Finally, a Dallas Morning News story on Continental's booming operation at IAH, in marked contrast to pullbacks by most legacy carriers in their hubs. Excerpts:

Growth in passenger traffic soared 9 percent last year at Bush Intercontinental Airport, enough to make it the fourth-fastest growing airport in the world.

That surpasses hot Asian airports such as Singapore's.

What gives?

A big factor is Houston's surging oil-fired economy, which has stoked job growth and punched up travel demand.

Nearly 80,000 jobs will be added to the Houston region this year, according to the Greater Houston Partnership report in May. That's up two-thirds from a December estimate.

But much of the airport traffic hike lies with the strategy of its major carrier, Continental Airlines Inc. Houston's hometown airline has taken a markedly different approach from most of its peers by adding planes and beefing up international and domestic flying.


"It's fair to say that Houston's strong economy has helped us have confidence here," said Karen Zachary, who plans Continental's domestic system, from her office in the carrier's downtown headquarters.


"What Continental has done at Houston is just fantastic," said Alan Sbarra, an aviation consultant with Roach and Sbarra in San Francisco. "It's just a great hub for sending traffic to Latin America and, to a lesser extent, to South America."

Most of those planes have added flights on existing routes to add appeal to Continental's schedule, which is built to give business travelers lots of choices to visit a city and come back in the same day.


Continental has kept hot food on its flights both in business class and in coach, in part because it owns the food kitchens that cater the flights and also because it wants to differentiate its service from the competition.

We're a very, very lucky city to have such a strong, well-regarded airline growing its hub aggressively at a modern, uncongested airport. It's a huge asset to the city. We're threatening to pass American's hub at DFW for the title of second-largest hub in the country (after Delta/Atlanta) in terms of flights per day (currently 781). We already beat them on nonstop destinations (183 vs. 166), but they have about a 50% edge in total passenger traffic because they use more large aircraft vs. Continental Express' regional jets (plus the Wright restrictions on Love Field that drive traffic to DFW, vs. our unconstrained Hobby). Still, when it comes to overall service, we've got the edge.

Note to Continental: if I say more good things, can I get a first-class upgrade on my flight to Denver this weekend? ;-)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

What I learned about Harris County

In a spirit of "show and tell", here are some miscellaneous items I picked up at the MBA (half) Day at Harris County yesterday, where we heard from most of the major department heads in the county, plus County Commmissioner Steve Radack and Judge Eckels (last year was "MBA Day at the City of Houston").
  • Consistently over time, polls show the top 3 citizen concerns are public safety, education, and health.
  • Art Storey is very, very, very happy that they're not going to sell or lease the toll roads. He believes (and I agree), that they can be run more efficiently and with a better financial deal for the taxpayers by keeping them with HCTRA.
  • He also expects we'll have congestion pricing on some of the toll roads by the end of the year. Again, I'm very supportive.
  • He seems confident that they will come to a revenue share agreement with TXDoT for new HCTRA roads in TXDoT right-of-way.
  • Judge Eckels says the new Westpark Tollway has blown right through its ridership projections, and already has congestion problems. He believes Metro is moving away from rail in that corridor, and will be open to some new controlled/managed lanes in that extra right-of-way, possibly two-reversable lanes that would provide a total of four lanes of capacity in the rush-hour direction (vs. two in the other direction). Metro would of course use them for express buses. Eckels specifically mentioned the extra-long, articulated ones. I think it's a great idea, especially since they could easily link up with a new BRT/LRT station at 610 that could transfer people to Uptown and Greenway, two of the four largest job centers in Houston.
  • Moving on to the Port, which has over 150 facilities and is the world's 6th largest port overall, 2nd largest petrochemical complex (after Rotterdam in Europe), largest U.S. port in foreign tonnage and 2nd largest U.S. port in total tonnage. BTW, the reason for the tonnage qualifier is that we're barely in the top 10 for container shipping (LA-Long Beach is the gorilla there with Asian shipping), but we more than make up for it with petrochemicals.
  • Containers are expected to grow at the staggering rate of 16-23%/year for the next decade. Can you say "globalization"? Bayport will let them triple their container capacity, and they're already starting to plan for a new container port on Pelican Island by the Port of Galveston. The planned Panama Canal expansion, which goes up for vote later this year, is a big deal and a critical factor in the port's growth. Asian shippers really want to bypass the West Coast. Right now, 49% of our inbound containers come from Europe, and Charleston and Savannah are aggressively going after that traffic.
  • We have 756 at-grade railroad crossings in the region (county?), a number they want to dramatically reduce.
  • The Harris County Hospital District is the 3rd-largest public health district in the nation. We have 800K uninsured and 400K underinsured in Harris County (out of about 3.5 million people). They are significantly underfunded and looking for federal help (or even a local tax increase to bring us into parity with San Antonio and Dallas). Those guys have to make some really heart-wrenching decisions on a daily basis where to allocate very thin health resources.
  • David Lopez, district CEO, asserted that we would not have a health crisis in this country if not for the Big Four of smoking, drinking, obesity, and drug use.
  • 37,000 people a year get sentenced to community service in the county, and 9,400 are in jail.
  • Steve Radack believes the HPD pension system is in disarray. He didn't go into details, but he doesn't seem to believe Mayor White has fully solved the city pension funding crisis. He's also predicting a major crime wave this fall when the Katrina FEMA money runs out.
That seems to just about cover my very thin notes. Many other topics and departments were covered, but, as I said, I was maybe a tad too selective in my note-taking. Nothing above is earth-shaking news, but interesting stuff nonetheless. All in all, I have to say they gave the impression of a very tightly run ship, with talented people diligently doing excellent work. Certainly much better than the stereotype of bloated, inefficient government. I continue to stand by my earlier assertion that we've got a pretty good governance structure going in Houston and Harris County, and if it ain't broke, we shouldn't try to go and fix it (via a city-county consolidation, for instance).

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The problem of older suburbs

It's a very busy week, so a quick pass-along this morning. An interesting Alan Ehrenhalt column in Governing magazine on the deepening problems of inner-ring suburbs built in the 1950s and 60s, of which Houston has quite a few. The core problem: the houses are just too small relative to what most families are willing to live in these days, generally around 1,000 square feet. This story hit home because my own house in Meyerland is a tiny 2-bedroom from the 1950s that got expanded into a 4-bedroom in the 1970's with a two story addition in the back. There's no way we would have bought the house at its original size.
So house size turns out to be the primary driver of the middle-aged suburban syndrome. From it flow most of the other consequences: first, population decline, then loss of retail business, weakened public schools, even crime. Lucy and Phillips put it rather succinctly: “Everything is worn — houses, schools, streets and commercial districts. Many residents experience these conditions and leave. Many prospective residents anticipate them getting worse and they don’t buy.”
and some proposed, albeit weak, solutions:

Some of them are modest and simple, such as distributing guidebooks to show homeowners exactly what they need to do to turn a small house into a bigger one. Some local governments offer lists of contractors and lenders willing to take them on. Others have waived the standard permit fees for the house expansions they particularly want to encourage.

In the Kansas City area, the metropolitan regional council publishes what it calls the First Suburbs Coalition Idea Book, with design ideas for renovation of almost every common middle-aged suburban house, along with practical lending advice. Chicago has its “bungalow initiative,” through which small-house owners are given free permit assistance, discounts from vendors, as well as financing assistance.

None of these programs are guaranteed solutions for any middle-aged neighborhood that has begun to decline. But compared to resuscitating a school system or reviving a retail district, they hold out at least the prospect of tangible benefit at modest expense. One thing, at least, is certain: Very few American families who have options will be interested in buying Levittown-size houses in the coming decades. That leaves thousands of middle-aged suburbs with little choice but to redesign themselves if they are going to survive and prosper.

Houston has the "tear-down and replace with multiple townhomes" solution inside the Loop, but there are plenty of other areas where that's not gonna happen. Maybe Houston should consider some of these other ideas for neighborhood revitalization programs?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

WSJ on easing traffic congestion, including SafeClear

Today I came across an old Wall Street Journal article (subscription only) I saved from April which catalogs the various methods being used around the country to ease traffic congestion without adding physical capacity. I meant to blog on it then, but it got lost in the shuffle. I'm pleased to announce that Houston seems to be pursing almost all of these approaches in one form or another. I'll start with a couple excerpts, including one on Mayor White's Safe Clear program, then switch to bullet points to summarize the remaining items in the article.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute's 2005 Urban Mobility Report on 85 urban areas, commuters in 2003 spent an average of 47 hours of extra time in traffic delays -- on top of what their commute would have been at the speed limit -- up from 16 hours in 1982 and 40 hours in 1993.

And, in all the areas studied, regardless of population size, there was more severe congestion lasting a longer period of time and affecting more roads in 2003 than in 1982.

The report predicts that if things continue as they are, with growth in travel outpacing improvement in the transportation system, urban areas will jump to the next congestion-level classification by 2013. This means that midsize regions like Omaha's will have traffic problems that larger areas like Cleveland now have, and larger areas like Cleveland will have the traffic problems that very large areas like Los Angeles or New York have now.

Until recently, expanding highways and roads has been the traditional response to congestion. But in many areas of the world, such expansion isn't feasible anymore because of lack of funding, opposition from residents or simply lack of room.


Rubbing Out Rubbernecking

Accidents and stalled vehicles breed more congestion. They can block parts of roads as well as cause "gaper's block" or "rubbernecking," when people slow down to get a good look at what happened. By some estimates, for every minute an incident is on the road, traffic flow will take four minutes to recover.

But a number of transit agencies are starting to focus on "incident management," or getting crashes and stalled vehicles off roads and shoulders as quickly as possible. In Houston, tow trucks from 11 companies, contracted with the city, roam the freeways 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When they spot an incident, they call the city's traffic-management center, where a police officer locates the wreck or stalled vehicle on a freeway camera and authorizes the tow-truck driver to move it somewhere off the road, like the closest gas station.

The program, "SafeClear," which began as a pilot in 2004 and spread citywide in January 2005, shortens the time it takes to detect a disabled vehicle and clear it from the road, cutting delay times. Before SafeClear's inception, police officers had to be dispatched to the scene of an incident to authorize tows.

According to a one-year progress report released in January, SafeClear has contributed to a reduction of 730,000 hours in travel-time delays and a 10% drop in the number of collisions for 2005 compared with 2003 and 2004.

Summarizing the article's remaining suggestions:
  • "Rubbernecking screens" to hide accidents from passersby and reduce rubbernecking delays (unproven and in early evaluations)
  • "Steer It and Clear It" - move accidents without serious injuries to the shoulder
  • Adaptive traffic signals that change timing based on real-time conditions (LA: 12% delay time reduction)
  • Road<->car wireless communication standards
  • Congestion-priced high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes
  • Center-city tolls (like London, which reduced delays 30%)
  • Employer incentives like the "Best Workplaces for Commuters" program. "To qualify, companies must have 15% of their employees commuting to work by a method other than a single-occupant vehicle. Companies also must offer subsidized transit passes and van-pool vouchers, allow telecommuting, and provide methods for rides home during emergencies (cab vouchers, for instance)."
  • Ride-matching services to encourage carpooling
  • Real-time traffic information: 511 lines, web sites, camera feeds
  • Collecting speed information by measuring cell-phone travel times between towers
  • Changeable message signs
The only one that seems like it might be helpful that Houston is not doing (as far as I know) would be the cell-phone measurements, which could give speeds on all our arterials in addition to the freeways being measured with EZ-tags.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Guy Kawasaki on creating the next Silicon Valley

In what is evidently a completely random coincidence (at least according to Guy), ex-Apple tech/VC-luminary Guy Kawasaki has written his own blog post on what it takes to create the next Silicon Valley just a few days after fellow tech-blogger Paul Graham wrote on the same topic - which I commented on here and Joel Kotkin responded to in a 3-part series on the new Inc. blog (part 1, part 2, part 3). Here's a collection of random excerpts/points and my thoughts on Houston:
  • "Beautiful, but not gorgeous, surroundings." Although I myself find Houston (aka "Tropical Texas") moderately attractive, I think the consensus is that we don't measure up so well here. But wait...
  • "If a place is gorgeous, like Hawaii, then the distractions are sometimes too great. Some place in the middle is what’s ideal. At the very least, it would be good to have a lousy season so that the company can be extremely productive part of the year." I think this is mainly a nod to Microsoft in Seattle, where people have commented that the rain keeps the programmers indoors and focused. So, one lousy season - check for Houston. Can you guess which one?
  • Paraphrasing Guy: high-housing prices to discourage family formation (which discourages long hours and risk taking) and overcrowding to encourage envy, critical mass, and a desire to get rich and leave. These two are his most whacked-out criteria, and it seems like some kind of cause-effect logic error where he assumed those characteristics must be helpful because SF/SV and Boston have them, and they're tech hubs.
  • Absence of multi-nationals to suck up your talent. Definite problem for Houston: #2 city for Fortune 500 HQs, not to mention the majors with huge offices here but not their headquarters: Shell, Exxon, Chevron, BP, etc.
  • "If a region has to do nothing more than stick a pipe in the ground, throw a net in the ocean, clean beaches, or manage a natural seaport, it’s going to be tough to be the next Silicon Valley." A couple more knocks for Houston, although we don't physically stick pipes in the ground here anymore, nor is our port natural.
  • "Focus on educating engineers. The most important thing you can do is establish a world-class school of engineering. Engineering schools beget engineers. Engineers beget ideas. And ideas beget companies. End of discussion." Agreed. Rice is great but undersized (compared to Stanford or MIT), and I've heard good things about UH's engineering school, but I don't think we're there yet.
  • "You need to encourage smart, hungry, and aggressive people to immigrate from around the world. And to do that, you need good schools." Check on the former, partial-check on the latter.
  • "Here’s a dirty little secret: Silicon Valley is more a state of mind than a physical location" I think most people would agree that Houston has a somewhat similar entrepreneurial/wildcatter business culture - we just need to transfer it into the tech universe.
Most of his other observations are in a similar vein to Paul Graham's essay, and my response stays the same, including my general optimism for Houston's potential.

I'll wrap up with a couple of his most interesting quotes from the beginning... my knowledge, there has never been any “master plan” for the creation of Silicon Valley. What stands before you is an amalgamation of hard work, luck, greed, and serendipity but not planning. Indeed, Silicon Valley has probably worked because there was no plan. (Houston - check)
...and the end...
There’s one more thing you need to do: Aim higher than merely trying to re-create Silicon Valley. You should try to kick our butt instead. That’s true entrepreneurship.
Hear, hear!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Otis White on Houston's civilian traffic enforcers

A quick pass-along tonight from Otis White's Urban Notebook at Governing magazine on Mayor White's civilian traffic enforcer plan (still no permalinks, so full text). I think it sounds like a pretty good plan. When you think about the cost and training of full police officers, it makes sense to support them with lower cost time-replacements whenever possible, just like doctors maximize their time with an array of support staff like nurses and assistants. Can you imagine the waste of time and money if doctors did everything in their office themselves? They wouldn't be able to see half as many patients. It makes sense to have auxilaries do work like traffic enforcement to free up police officers to fight "real" crime - a clear necessity after today's front-page Chronicle story.

Policing Without Police
Putting More Blues on the Street

Start with the basics: Researchers have established that simply putting more cops on city streets brings down crime, so it’s hardly surprising that most cities would like to add police officers. But, of course, cops are expensive and budgets are tight. The answer for a growing number of places: some kind of civilian force.

The latest big city to consider such a force is Houston, where Mayor Bill White is looking at hiring 35 or more “civilian traffic enforcers” to direct traffic, clear wrecks and maybe handle some accident investigations. These civilians would not be armed or have arrest powers, and they’d be limited to traffic enforcement, Houston’s police chief said recently. Cost: about $2.5 million a year, when the force is up and running.

That’s expensive, working out to about $70,000 per employee, but it’s a bargain compared to sworn officers, who are paid more, equipped with a small arsenal of equipment and trained extensively. There doesn’t seem to be a commonly accepted rule of thumb for what it costs to train and equip a full-fledged officer, but one small department recently estimated its costs at $65,000, not counting salary or benefits. Hence, the interest in using civilians for things that don’t absolutely require a badge and a gun.

Houston isn’t the only place thinking along these lines. In cash-strapped San Diego, the city council is considering hiring civilians to handle administrative duties at police headquarters — things like human resources, technology management and even code compliance, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported recently.

So who doesn’t like this idea? Typically, it’s police unions, which want more highly paid members. In Houston, union leaders were cautious about Mayor White’s traffic-enforcers idea but not automatically opposed. “This mayor thinks outside the box, and that’s good in situations with budget shortages,” the head of the city’s police union told the Houston Chronicle. “But this seems pretty new and abrupt and makes you scratch your head a bit.”

Actually, such civilian forces are fairly common. In Seattle, civilian parking enforcement officers are sometimes used for traffic duties, and New York has long had a volunteer auxiliary force that patrols neighborhood streets in city-issued uniforms with radios, batons and handcuffs but no guns.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Chronicle kudos and a Chinatown change

I'd like to kick off the week with high praise for the Chronicle's editorial board for their op-ed on Saturday about yet another annoying and arbitrary bad ranking for Houston. They were not only thoughtfully critical (rather than passively resigned), but threw in a feisty zinger or two to boot.
HOUSTONIANS are used to surveys criticizing their weight or climate. Thanks to a thriving economy and welcoming culture, a lot of people consider living in Houston worth it. One doesn't have to be anti-Houston, however, to take seriously a new, mostly critical survey about Houston's environment.

Released this month by a nonprofit group called Sustainlane, the study ranks Houston 39th out of the 50 largest U.S. cities in "sustainability." That term, the group says, combines "environmental, economic and social issues."

Essentially, the study measures quality of life by assessing a city's environment. Houston's ranking reflected, among other things, poor air quality, poor water quality, lack of access to locally grown foods and residential sprawl.

(well excuse us for supporting much poorer non-local farmers in the developing world)


The researchers also indulge in a sneering, unscientific tone. In the category called "Healthy Living, " they sniff, "Who feels like going for a run when it's 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity?" Throughout the survey, they tend to dismiss cities unwise enough to lack mountains or ocean breezes. (zing!)

More seriously, they undervalued Houston's affordable housing relative to other cities', ethnic tolerance, abundant jobs — and even warmth (a plus in the eyes of many of Houston's South Asian, African and Latino entrepreneurs).
Now on to the second part of today's post, with credit to John Tolle for the insight. Near the GRB convention center, there are some signs that direct visitors to Chinatown. Unfortunately, our old Chinatown east of downtown has dwindled to a wisp as the real action has moved out Bellaire near Beltway 8. But the average visitor has no way of knowing that, and they end up with a very warped view of Houston. They leave their convention, follow the signs, and, frankly, end up thinking "Houston has the lamest Chinatown on the planet. So much for Houston's vibrant diversity claim."

The solution - and my request - is simple: change the signs from "Chinatown" to "Old Chinatown". By the simple act of adding "Old" to the sign, most people will understand that there must be a "new" one somewhere else. Maybe they'll cut us some slack and give us the benefit of the doubt - or, even better, they'll ask how to get to the "New Chinatown" and be duly impressed when they get out there. It's a small change that could make a big difference in visitors' impression of our city.

So, if you know anybody at the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, or anybody else with the power to change those signs, please pass this post along. Thanks.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Better science ed, Hou #1's, competitive govt, energy boom, Blue Bell, post-Katrina census

Again time to clean out some miscellaneous items that have accumulated. Quite a few this time - should provide a solid weekend worth of reading material.
  • The NY Times had a great piece on a revolution in college-level science education, with many changes that all schools should take a serious look at, especially in the Houston area. Unfortunately, it's disappeared into their pay archives, but the Amherst Times has picked up the story and reprinted it. Excerpt:
Science education in this country faces two serious problems. The first is that too few Americans perform at the highest level in science, compared with our competitors abroad. The second problem is that large numbers of aspiring science majors, perhaps as many as half, are turned off by unimaginative teaching and migrate to other disciplines before graduating.

The science establishment explains these defections as part of a natural "weeding out" — a view flatly rejected by U.M.B.C. and a few other campuses where administrators are getting top performance from students who would ordinarily have become demoralized and jumped ship.
The Meyerhoff model shows that a vibrant, well-structured science program can produce large numbers of students who excel and remain in the field. It has also debunked the myth that academic excellence and minority access are mutually exclusive goals.

The university community needs to absorb these lessons quickly, so the country can begin to train scientists in the numbers that it clearly needs. Without them, America is unlikely to preserve its privileged position in an increasingly competitive and science-based global economy.
  • Houston was recently ranked #1 in Texas for manufacturing, with twice as many plants as #2 Dallas and four-times as many as #3 San Antonio.
  • Houston has also been ranked #1 for "cleanest city", based on the hard data-gathering work of counting the number of cleaning services vendors in the Yellow Pages. We came out ahead of LA, Manhattan, and Chicago - in that order. We are clearly a city of immigrant entrepreneurs.
  • A nice Reason post pointing out that the government gets a 27-to-1 payoff from competitive sourcing studies, i.e. looking at ways private industry can perform public services. That's one heck of a return on investment. State and local governments should jump all over this trend.
  • Joel Kotkin has a new blog at Inc. magazine (mixed with other authors), and this interesting post on The New Energy BoomTowns - mentioning Houston and Texas of course.
"Texas--- including big energy cities like Houston and Dallas -- seems certain to begin benefiting, as it did in the 1970s, from a looming energy crisis. The rest of us can find lots of people to blame for this -- our own wastrel selves, the Bush Administration's disdain for conservation and alternative fuels as well as the largely Democratic opposition to domestic energy development."

"But whatever the cause, I’d look closely at opportunities down there in the coming years. Energy, plus low taxes and housing prices, could prove a powerful economic elixir. The Bush sun may be setting, but the Lone Star may only now be ready to shine."
Blue Bell ice cream, to be specific, which is made in out-of-the-way Brenham and which many people consider the best in the country. So many people think so that Blue Bell, though sold in only 16 states, mostly in the South, and sold for a premium price, ranks No. 3 in sales nationally, trailing only Dreyer's (known as Edy's in some areas) and Breyers, ahead of the more widely available Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's. The 100th anniversary of Blue Bell Creameries — "the little creamery in Brenham," as it folksily and misleadingly describes itself — will be celebrated in 2007.
But Blue Bell is not all hat and no cattle, as they say of some things and some people in Texas. With clean, vibrant flavors and a rich, luxuriant consistency achieved despite a butterfat content a little lower than some competitors, it hooks you from the first spoonful. Entirely and blessedly absent are the cloying sweetness, chalky texture and oily, gummy aftertaste that afflict many mass-manufactured ice creams.
  • Finally, an in-depth Brookings report exploring the new post-Rita/Katrina census numbers. I posted on this topic yesterday with links the NY Times and Chronicle stories, but this report digs quite a bit deeper. As you would expect, metro Houston took in the vast bulk, adding 130,603 from July 2005 until Jan 2006, bringing us to almost 5.3 million. That puts us very close to bumping off Miami-Ft.L for the sixth-largest U.S. metro-area behind NY, LA, Chicago, Philly, and DFW.
Have a great weekend. See ya next week.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

NYT on post-Katrina/Rita demographics, inc. Harris County

Quick news pass-along this morning. Here's the story. Don't miss the sidebar graphic map/table. Tom has the Houston excerpts, with some interesting data points. Chronicle also has the story today. A couple data excerpts:
Today's census report showed that Harris County — a major destination for Katrina evacuees — grew by about 92,000 residents after the storm. But local officials questioned that number. Locally generated figures suggest as many as 150,000 evacuees might reside in the county, about 90,000 of them in FEMA-funded housing.
Frank Michel, spokesman for Mayor Bill White, cited a survey of Katrina evacuees in Houston that showed about 50 percent want to remain in Houston, 25 percent want to return and 25 percent are undecided.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Astrodome and the 2016 Olympics

Below is an interesting Otis White post from his Urban Notebook blog at Governing magazine (still no permalinks) on the bidding for the 2016 Olympics now that London won 2012 (called it ;-). It includes the same skepticism on costs and benefits that I've expressed here before. I am curious though if the track and field stadium requirement, which he says is larger than even football stadiums, could be satisfied within the confines of the dual-field Astrodome, or if it would require a new stadium in Houston (unlikely - although may be possible at UH or with the MLS Dynamo franchise?).

Speaking of the Astrodome, I've had this little tidbit I've been meaning to pass along for a while. The May-June issue of The Futurist magazine has an interesting article titled "The World's Top Super Projects - The Best of the Big," (no link - pay archives only) with this entry in their list:
Houston's Astrodome: World's Top New Urban Infrastructure Form

Domed structures have rapidly become a dominant feature in today's urban environments. Houston's Astrodome has been ranked as the "top new urban form" in recent decades.

The pioneering Astrodome, built in the 1960s, provided proof of the practicality of an indoor stadium. It was followed in 1975 by the Superdome in New Orleans and the Silver Dome in Pontiac, Michigan. These venturesome projects launched a wave of dome construction at such U.S. cities as Syracuse, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, St. Petersburg, and Atlanta. It is becoming clear now that any city that wants to be a part of a top sports league had better start building.

Dome construction technology is also spreading beyond the sports field. Domes are planned for super shopping malls and activity centers. Futurists predict new domes will cover entire communities.
It is a great and historically important building, and I hope it gets a purposeful reuse someday (my thoughts here).

Moving on to Otis on the Olympics. You can read the Chronicle article on our bid here.

Warning: Hurdles Ahead
Why Cities Want the Olympics

You'd think, given New York's recent, painful experience, that the last thing any city would want to do is put itself through the marathon effort and expense of bidding for the Summer Olympic Games. But, of course, you'd be wrong. Cities are already gathering at the 2016 starting line.

Recap: So what happened to New York? Mayor Michael Bloomberg poured his heart and soul into winning the 2012 Games. He and his friends lined up corporate and political support, mapped venues, created jazzy presentations, wooed the International Olympics pooh-bahs and spent money lavishly. (In all, New York raised and spent $50 million on its Olympics bid.) New York took the high hurdles easily - winning the endorsement of the U.S. Olympic Committee and making it through the winnowing process, where the IOC reduces the international field to a handful of places - only to stumble on the eve of the IOC vote, which eventually went to London.

The stumble: New York's bid hinged on its plan for building a $2 billion stadium in Manhattan for the opening and closing ceremonies and track and field events. (The stadium would have been converted afterward to a stadium for the football Jets and an annex to the city's convention center.) But one obscure state politician vetoed the plan at the last minute, miffed that Mayor Bloomberg had taken his support for granted. By the time the IOC voted last summer, New York's bid was dead, its $50 million investment as worthless as Enron stock.

Lesson One: An Olympic bid is one vain politician away from disaster. Lesson Two: The likeliest place for the bid to come undone is over the showcase stadium. Even with brand new football and baseball stadiums, most cities don't have a facility big enough for Olympic-size track and field events, so they have to build one. And as everyone knows, the politics of building sports stadiums, especially in prominent locations, is as tough as any in big cities today. (The last U.S. city to host an Olympics, Atlanta in 1996, solved the problem by building its Olympic stadium next door to its aging baseball park. After the Olympics, it converted the giant facility into a new baseball park for the Braves, renamed it Turner Field, and tore down the old stadium.)

So who's crazy enough to go through this misery? Quite a few places, it seems: Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco are among those showing a serious interest. Why? Because, for all the expense and grief, the Olympics is seen as the ultimate urban showcase. As Mayor Richard Daley put it at a press conference announcing Chicago's effort, "The Olympics would provide a platform to show off our city to literally billions of people. There would be strong benefits for tourism and economic development as well as housing and other capital investments."

There's a side benefit. Like other high-stakes urban endeavors (think of a Super Bowl or national political convention), an Olympics creates a deadline that helps cities push through improvements that might have taken decades otherwise, if they were undertaken at all. In addition to building its stadium, Atlanta created a major downtown park, spruced up streets and developed a handful of other venues.

But not everybody is convinced that the effort is worth the expense. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bob Ford was quick to rain on his city's parade. He didn't think the city could create the political support and enthusiasm to make a serious bid. His advice to Philly's business and civic leaders: "Run away. As fast as our community-spirited legs can carry you. Get us out before another dollar is wasted."

Sunday, June 04, 2006

WSJ on New Urbanism

The Wall Street Journal recently had a front page story on New Urbanist downtowns, with a focus on Plano's Legacy Town Center. The bad news is that it's a subscription-only site, but the good news is that it's been reprinted in the Kansas City Star, and you can read it there. The Star version cuts off some of the last paragraphs, but I've included most of them in the excerpts below.

The article is a little cynical in tone, as you can probably tell from the title. It does reflect that New Urbanism has morphed from "a retro-revolution in urban form" to more of an upscale outdoor mall with some trendy lifestyle apartments and condos on top, placed at the center of large tracts of suburbia. Tightly-controlled novelty is winning out over messy authenticity. The article also recognizes the threat New Urbanism poses to the revival of "real" downtowns. Houston seems to be lucky in that regard: downtown is on a good trajectory and successfully co-existing with upscale New Urbanism in both The Woodlands and Sugar Land.

City Lite
Fake Towns Rise,
Offering Urban Life
Without the Grit

Mix of Office, Home and Play
Threatens the Real Thing;
But Where's the Grocery?
Mr. Pettit Dodges 'Riffraff'

Legacy Town Center is one of dozens of faux downtowns popping up across the country, from Kansas City to Washington, D.C., spurred by a demand for urban living scrubbed of the reality of city life. A careful mix of retail, residential and office space built with traditional materials such as stone and brick, Legacy looks like a city but has neither panhandlers nor potholes. Many residents rarely venture even to downtown Dallas, which has been trying to turn itself into place to live for almost a decade.

"There's too much riffraff down there," says Ron Pettit, a 36-year-old contractor, as he snacks on brie and grapes at a table outside Bishop Road's Main Street Bakery and Bistro.

Even though these faux downtowns contain tinges of suburbia, they're taking advantage of a growing backlash against the sprawl that rings Dallas and other U.S. cities. The reaction began in the 1980s with the rise of New Urbanism, a movement of architects and planners calling for a return to traditional towns where people work, shop, live and play.

Among the most prominent of those theorists was Andrés Duany, a leading figure behind Seaside, a planned pedestrian community on the Florida Panhandle that was the setting for the 1998 movie, "The Truman Show." Suburban growth, Mr. Duany argued, was unsustainable because it consumes land at a high rate while creating horrendous traffic.

In the 1990s, Americans started venturing back into cities that had emptied out in prior decades. Basking in the glow of falling crime rates and glamorized by television shows such as "Seinfeld" and "Friends," cities themselves began to woo residential and retail development.

For a developer, however, it's much easier to make a fake city than it is to work on real downtowns with their patchwork landholdings and planning restrictions. The developers of Legacy were able to carve up the land pretty much as they pleased. The result: more than 1,500 apartments and town houses, some 80 shops and restaurants, two mid-rise office towers and a Marriott Hotel.

The concept also attracted developers looking for alternatives to malls, a concept rapidly losing favor among shoppers. Only one mall has opened in 2006, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York City-based trade group. By contrast, more than 60 so-called lifestyle centers -- outdoor shopping areas with plazas, fountains and pedestrian streets -- are planned to open this year and next.

Houston has poured some $4 billion into downtown stadiums, roads and light rail in the past decade. But 27 miles to the north, the Woodlands Town Center has sold out of newly constructed lofts and replica brownstones in the midst of an affluent planned community.

"The question is whether this demand for urban-style living -- density, transportation alternatives, proximity to work -- is broad enough to accommodate the resurgence of traditional downtowns," says Bruce Katz, founder and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

For many, Legacy provides a sense of community that is lacking at typical suburban apartment complexes. The development is built around a three-acre park, complete with a man-made lake, a destination for runners and dog walkers. In the evening residents gather along Bishop Road, where jazz is piped through speakers beneath mature live oaks. Some live in town homes that sell for more than $400,000. Others are renting studio apartments for about $600 a month.

"It's perfect for someone who doesn't want to come home from work, sit on the couch and watch TV," said Mr. Pettit, the contractor.

On the recent Friday night, couples waited two deep to order Cabernet Sauvignon at $18 a glass at a wine bar called Crú. Up the street, the five-screen Angelika Film Center was showing John Malkovich in "Art School Confidential."

But the most striking thing about Legacy Town Center is what it doesn't have. Like a modern suburb, it has no nearby hardware store. It has no churches or libraries. Nor is Legacy home to many children. The closest public elementary school is three miles away.

Legacy has no public transportation, so almost everyone has a car. Residents who work at corporate headquarters less than a mile away often drive to work because outside of Legacy there are no sidewalks. Residents jump in their cars to run errands at Plano malls and shopping centers as if they lived in a local subdivision.

Jon Stewart, 43, who moved here from suburban Maryland two years ago, says he's happy with the amenities, with one exception: "The only thing lacking is a grocery store."

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Otis White on Houston's image problem

Continuing the theme of "Houston's image problem" from the last post is this recent blog post from Otis White's Urban Notebook on, well, Houston's image problem. I can't really tell if we're truly getting ganged up on, or just being overly sensitive to lame rankings the rest of the nation is pretty much ignoring (probably more towards the latter). Somehow these types of rankings seem to get more publicity and media attention than stuff like lowest major metro cost of living (esp. housing), best restaurant scene (eat out the most often per week on average, and at the lowest cost), top 5 fastest growing metros (attracting absolute numbers of newcomers), and one of the best urban school districts in the nation (do I sound bitter?).

Watch Where You Step!
Lost in a Fat, Hot, Polluted City

Poor Houston. In recent years, various publications, candidates and organizations have called it the fattest, hottest and most polluted big city in America. And now this: MapQuest, the online mapping company, says it’s the easiest place in America to get lost in.

At first, Houstonians were defensive about the criticism, but now they seem to have an offbeat pride in the low opinion of outsiders. In publishing the MapQuest story, the Houston Chronicle used this headline, “It’s Easy to Get Lost in Our Big, Fat, Hot, Polluted City.” A local ad agency has offered up a tongue-in-cheek slogan for the city: “Houston. It’s Worth It.” And one of the partners at the agency had a nice retort to the MapQuest finding. “Our first question in the office was, did that mean difficult to navigate with or without MapQuest?” he told the Chronicle.

Probably both. MapQuest commissioned a survey of residents in the 20 largest cities, asking how often they got lost in their own hometowns. Houston came out on top, with 54 percent saying they sometimes or often lost their way. (Other places where residents often wander aimlessly, in order: Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston and Dallas.)

Actually, there’s something to this hard-to-navigate criticism, the Chronicle said. Houston is a new city with no coherent street grid. Rather, it features hundreds of recent subdivisions built along winding roads because developers thought the twisting and turning gave them character. And where there is a grid, it’s confusing, the Chronicle agreed. In one part of town, it noted, “streets are numbered but without reason turn to letters. In downtown, street names change without clear definition. Gray and Alabama turn into West Gray and West Alabama. East Gray is nowhere to be found.”

Footnote: So why the piling-on of Houston? Hard to say. The city’s image took a nosedive in the 2000 presidential election when Al Gore used it to lambaste George W. Bush’s environmental record as governor. Gore took to calling it “America’s dirtiest city.” Then a magazine called Men’s Fitness declared Houston the fattest city around, and it’s been downhill ever since. How far down? Just recently, a survey found that Houston residents are the least likely to clean up after their dogs. The tidiest pet owners, the survey added, are in San Francisco.