Thursday, August 31, 2006

More challenges to urbanism in Houston

Continuing the discussion this week on developing urbanism in Houston, the NY Times has a preview of the conflicts we can expect to see here as the city tries to encourage densification in the transit corridors:
But a new front has opened in the battle against sprawl: cities. From Austin, Tex., to Palo Alto, Calif., from Washington, D.C., to Denver, clashes are unfolding between residents of older, low-density neighborhoods and alliances of planners, politicians and real estate companies that see those neighborhoods as prime locations for higher-density mixed-use projects.
Opponents call it “vertical sprawl” — and argue that it brings many of the same problems to communities as traditional sprawl.
...create significant traffic and parking problems, require an extra school’s worth of classrooms, and cast shadows over nearby residential neighborhoods.

While the debate over vertical sprawl can differ from the suburban kind in the particulars — building height, for example, is often a key issue — the general issues are remarkably consistent: traffic, parking and the cost of supporting new projects with schools, water and other municipal services
Opponents, however, question the promised benefits of development, arguing that high-density infill projects are too often tilted toward affluent buyers, which forces lower-income families out to the suburbs and negates many of the hoped-for reductions in horizontal sprawl. And they tend to see smart growth itself as a stalking horse for developers who merely want to attract government subsidies and the all-important tool of eminent domain.

“They use this specious argument about smart growth to dump their density in urban cores,” Ms. Smith said. “We want to protect these places from being taken over by infill and driving out working-class people.”

To clarify my argument from the last post: I'm a live and let live kind of guy, and would love to see urban and suburban neighborhoods coexist. But that article on urbanism I mentioned before (no link) made me question that feasibility, because it pretty strongly argued against offering a suburban option if you want urbanism to thrive. A lot of the street retail in typical urbanism is based on the premise that most nearby residents don't have access to a car and big box retail, or, if they do, there are a lot of hassles to getting that car out and going anywhere (mainly parking, especially giving up that street space near your apartment you spent half an hour driving around trying to find last time you took the car out). Assuming developers aren't going to let that happen in Houston (they'll have to offer convenient garage parking if they want anybody to live in their development), you undermine one of the core customer foundations of urban street retail. People are simply going to drive once or twice a week to Target and the grocery store, and that wipes out what would be a dozen+ street retail shops in typical urban neighborhood. The only way the street retail can thrive is with the now-popular "town center" concept a la Sugar Land and The Woodlands: essentially an outdoor mall with garage or backside parking that happens to have some residential on top. There aren't enough residents to create pedestrian vibrancy or support the stores themselves - they have to piggyback off the mall effect drawing in driving, suburban customers from a multi-mile radius. Given that most of central Houston's retail districts are pretty well defined, I think we have to build urbanism in those locations rather than think we can build it from scratch around any arbitrary transit corridor/stop.

If you look at the national urbanism phenomenon in traditionally non-urban cities, you'll see evidence backing this theory. The "urbanism in a sea of suburbanism" has two primary examples: downtowns, where commuting workers provide the pedestrian vibrancy during the day to support the street retail, and new "town center" developments, where the shopping-mall-draw effect provides the pedestrian vibrancy. In both cases, any residential is piggy-backing on the existing destination environment, which has to happen first. The residents do not provide enough critical mass on their own to support the street retail in their urban neighborhood.

On another note: some people are calling for a relaxation of Houston's minimum parking requirements to ease urban development, but that creates spillover street parking in the neighborhoods, and you'll see revolts a la what the Times article above is talking about. Even so, I tend to think developers want their own parking anyway, because few people in Houston are willing to live in a place where they'll have to hunt for street parking every time they come home. We can try to hide it in a backside garage, but eliminating it altogether is probably not feasible.

Side note: If you have a little listening time, check out Monday's NPR Talk of the Nation with Joel Kotkin and a couple Katrina evacuees now living in Houston. They have some really nice things to say about our town. You can also read Joel's Sunday LA Times op-ed on Katrina evacuees in Houston here, with some discussion of the increased opportunities in Houston vs. their previous life in New Orleans.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Challenges to urbanism in Houston

Continuing from my last post, today I want to talk about challenges to the development of urbanism in Houston, where urbanism is defined as high-density, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use neighborhoods similar to most European cities. Most of these thoughts were inspired by an Urban Land March 2006 article David Crossley sent me titled "What Constitutes True Urbanism?" (ULI membership required). As skeptical as I am of European models, the article paints a pretty compelling vision of the perfect urban community. But as I dig through the article, I find indicators of why this will be so difficult in Houston. The problem is that many of their key tips to successful urbanism involve preventing most people from doing what they would prefer to be doing, starting with driving cars.
  • A long section on "balanced transportation planning", which talks about making the city better for walking, biking, and transit, but also spends a lot of time talking about creating an environment pretty hostile to cars.
  • "Automobile use is reduced only if better alternatives exist. Public transit needs to be more convenient, faster, less expensive, and comfortable. Routes should be extensive, providing reasonable walking distance to a stop (ideally 200 yards); service must be frequent (every seven to ten minutes); and access to destination points must be better than by car. A public transit system can only work where there is an appropriately compact built urban fabric." This borders on pure fantasy. I'm not even sure much of NYC, London, or Paris meets this standard.
  • "Regional Planning to Maintain the City’s Vitality... According to this collaborative regional planning approach, cities agree to:
  • focus new development within existing urban boundaries;
  • establish land use guidelines for the location of new housing close to jobs, schools, shopping, and services;
  • prevent shopping malls and bigbox retail from locating outside city limits where they would destroy the cities’ economy and generate automobile traffic;
  • roll over highway subsidies to develop regional transit systems"
In other words, if you don't give people the option of cars, parking, highways, suburban homes, big box stores, and shopping malls, well, then, they'll heartily embrace the urbanist lifestyle. Since that's essentially impossible in Houston, the only hope for urbanism here is that there is a demographic out there that prefers it and is willing to pay for it, as opposed to being forced into it. This is where the European model breaks down. Europe already had the critical mass of density and urbanism before the car came to the middle class, and since they didn't have room for very many cars in their cities, they went about perfecting the art of quality urbanism. They really didn't have a choice. Houston and most other newer American cities have the exact opposite situation: built around the car, with plenty of space for parking, and not near enough critical-mass density for urbanism.

The analogy that comes to mind for people and urbanism is water concentrated in a mountain lake: it's very nice and pretty to look at, but if a channel gets carved out, the water's natural preference is to flow out into the open spaces of the valley below, and getting it back into the lake is an uphill battle, to say the least.

Let's talk about the much-maligned big box stores for a minute. Places like Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, Circuit City, Home Depot, and Lowe's - but you might also consider our huge grocery stores (including Central Market and Whole Foods) and places like Spec's in Midtown. Now compare them to mixed-use street retail. You almost have to imagine each department inside one of these big box stores as a stand-alone street retail store, but with less selection, higher prices, and you have to walk, bike, or transit home with your heavy purchases instead of just tossing them in the trunk of your car (the prices have to be much higher, because they can't move nearly the same volume or inventory turnover in a street store as they can with a big box that draws customers from miles away). I think that's pretty unappealing to the vast majority of people, and big box stores aren't leaving Houston anytime soon.

You'll notice a lot of street retail in European cities and places like New York are focused on these basics that we get at big box stores in the rest of America. That means that none of that type of street retail will be viable in whatever pedestrian districts Houston tries to develop. People living in those districts are not going to go without owning a car, and that car will be used for trips to the big boxes. So what exactly is left to go in these pedestrian storefronts we want to build? Well, there are small specialty stores, but they need to draw customers from far and wide to survive, so they tend to locate in malls or "lifestyle centers" (i.e. outdoor malls). Your typical transit-oriented neighborhood is probably not going to work for them, unless the TOD is built around an existing retail development like the Rice Village. The other option for these storefronts are restaurants, but if those restaurants have to rely mostly on neighborhood foot traffic, they're probably going to have to lean towards the lowest common denominator to draw enough customers: delis, fast food, pizza, etc. Think about the options in our downtown tunnel system. Nobody parks downtown to go into the tunnels and eat. Just like more specialized stores, more specialized/exotic restaurants will need to draw on more customers than local foot traffic.

My point here is that for a classical urbanist TOD to thrive in Houston, it has to not only be a dense residential neighborhood, but it has to be a destination for other Houstonians in cars in order to support any reasonable amount of street retail and restaurants. Think Mockingbird Station in Dallas or the Rice Village in Houston. That is possible, with well-done street and garage parking, but you have to ask yourself, how many of these destination TODs can we support? Maybe downtown, uptown, and, if we're lucky, midtown? Maybe some visionary development on the old Astroworld site, or in Hardy Yards? The Rice Village and Highland Village have potential, but neither of them will be along a transit line. The idea that dense mixed-use TOD will spring up around dozens of transit stops seems mighty unrealistic. Apartment complexes, quite possibly, but true mixed-use pedestrian-oriented districts with street retail? Unlikely. And if ordinances require it, those stops will simply be dead zones.

Even in popular destination districts, there's the problem that density always costs more per sq.foot, especially with the parking garage. A lot of people are going to decide it's a lot cheaper and easier to live in a normal apartment, townhome, or house and drive to the pedestrian district when they want to hang out, rather than the hassles and costs of living in the district itself (street noise, parking, etc.) Hopefully there will be a lot of young professionals with plenty of disposable income that think the coolness/lifestyle/social factor is worth the tradeoff. But any sort of politically correct effort to draw families and/or a mixture of income levels seems dubious, and efforts to put these sorts of requirements on developments will make them even more economically tenuous and less likely to get built.

The bottom line is that Houston needs to be realistic about urbanism's potential here. Any broadly sweeping development plan/ordinances aimed uniformly at the transit corridors are likely to flop and discredit the entire urbanist concept in Houston (an outcome that would be applauded by some). A better approach would be to cherry pick the stops/neighborhoods with the most potential (i.e. the ones that are already popular destinations, like downtown, uptown, and maybe east midtown), and craft a custom set of development ordinances for them, while letting the free market do its will around the other stops/neighborhoods, even if that doesn't yield classical urbanism. Something getting developed is better than a dead zone because regulations stymie what the market is willing to build. The new apartments and townhomes of Midtown are a good example, and probably wouldn't have been built if mixed-use street retail were required. Master-planned developments like Hardy Yards, Astroworld, or maybe a future redevelopment of Northline Mall can take care of themselves without supporting ordinances (or they can get the variances they need without too much trouble). By concentrating the urbanist development into a handful of districts that are already drawing lots of people that can support street retail, their chance of success is much, much higher.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Urban corridor planning in Houston

I attended the City of Houston urban corridors planning event yesterday at the GRB (Chronicle story). They want to collect public input on how development should occur along the expanding Metro LRT/BRT network in the core. Using the great analogy of DNA, they want to shape development ordinances/codes that will create the right kind of development near rail stops, like dense pedestrian-oriented mixed-use street retail with residential above it. They opened with a pretty compelling Powerpoint presentation that I'm hoping will appear on their site sometime soon.

The most interesting statistic to me was the growth forecast for non-office workers either telecommuting or living out of a laptop: from 15% now to 40% by 2012. That's a radical change for the next 6 years, and could have pretty dire consequences for office vacancies but good implications for rush hour traffic relief. On the other side, they had a couple stats that irked me:
  1. The STPP stat about high spending in Houston on transportation, which I've pointed out before is misleading because that spending is voluntary. Because of our low cost of living, people choose to drive expensive trucks and SUVs in Houston, when they could just as easily choose used Honda Civics if they wanted to slash their transportation spending.
  2. Just because only 22% of households are two parent families with children, doesn't translate to 78% of the population being something else. That confuses households and population. The minimum household size for that 22% is three, and it is probably 4-5 on average, whereas the average household size for the other 78% is probably between one and two. That makes the two groups about equal on a population basis.
The rest of the event involved marking up maps in small groups and coming up with lists of priorities, which will get aggregated by their consultants and released in a report. My four comment card points were as follows:
  1. If you want pedestrian to have a chance in Houston's heat and rain, you better have lots of shade and awnings.
  2. Street retail in Houston can't compete against more convenient strip centers unless it's concentrated in pedestrian district with easy backside parking (the residents above the shops are nowhere near enough to support the shops themselves).
  3. Standards, guidelines, and incentives - not zoning. Let the free market work.
  4. Don't be anti-car. The car is the lifeblood of this city, and all of this development will fail miserably if they think they can get away with being hostile to the car, especially with parking. Sure, you can have a narrow "traffic calmed" pedestrian street with some mixed-use street retail, but it better have good freeway and arterial access nearby along with plenty of convenient parking if it wants to thrive. See Mockingbird Station in Dallas as an example. We need to think of this project as nurturing some small-scale pedestrian neighborhoods within a larger car-based city/regional fabric.
I'm not too worried about #2 and #4, because developers will almost certainly insist on it in anything they build. Lessons have been learned from the dead street retail across from Farrago in Midtown.

This event and an article on urbanism David Crossley sent me (sorry, no link) got me thinking about the challenges urbanism will face in Houston. I had planned on including those thoughts in this post, but it's already getting too long, so they'll have to wait for Tuesday night.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Reason's Bob Poole on land use and transportation

It's been a long day and getting to be a late night, so just a quick pass-along tonight. From the July Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter, with my comments afterward.

Land Use and Transportation: Are U.S. Cities Different?

What is it about America that makes European-type mass transit so difficult to do here? Is it just pig-headedness that people won’t use it and continue to drive alone, despite serious congestion? Or is there something fundamentally different that makes transit much less suitable in U.S. metro areas?

That’s the question posed by urban economist Alain Bertaud, a European who now lives and works in this country, loves urban life, and uses mass transit. I recently came across his remarkable paper “Clearing the Air in Atlanta: Transit and Smart Growth or Conventional Economics?” published in the Journal of Urban Economics in 2003 (No. 54) and available at While it uses Atlanta as a case in point, its assessment is largely applicable to most U.S. metro areas, especially those outside the Northeast.

In response to high levels of congestion and air pollution, Bertaud recounts, Atlanta’s MPO developed new long-range transportation plans focused on reducing VMT via a twin-pronged strategy of large-scale investment in transit and fostering land-use changes to encourage transit-oriented development. Bertaud takes a careful look at how much these policies might be able to accomplish. His conclusion is that Atlanta’s spatial structure is such that “it is a geometrical impossibility for Atlanta to increase its density to reach the threshold level which would allow an effective operation of transit.”

To fully appreciate Bertaud’s paper, you must download it and peruse the graphs and charts. Several compare the densities of U.S. cities with those of overseas cities like Marseilles, London, Paris, Rio, and Barcelona where transit is a significant fraction of urban trip-making. In particular, his graphs show how concentrated (in both population and jobs) are the central business districts of transit-oriented cities abroad, compared with typical American ones. I was especially amazed by his chart showing the built-up areas of Atlanta and Barcelona at the same scale; with comparable populations in 1990 (2.5 to 2.8 million), Atlanta covers 4,280 sq. km.—compared with just 162 sq. km. for Barcelona. To provide the same level of metro accessibility in Atlanta as exists in Barcelona would require Atlanta to add 3,400 km. of metro line and 2,800 more stations.

He also looks into what happened to Atlanta’s population and jobs growth during the decade of the 1990s. The vast majority of both occurred far from the “central business district”, mostly within a belt between 30 and 45 km. from downtown. The actual CBD lost 10,000 jobs during that decade.

Bertaud then looks at the potential of two hypothetical densification strategies, crunching some numbers to see what it would take to bring the Atlanta metro area to the density threshold levels necessary to make transit accessible to significant numbers of people. The first estimates the amount of built-up area needed to achieve a density of 30 persons per hectare, a threshold level cited in several studies. Given projected population growth over 20 years, the built-up areas could be no more than 1,555 sq. km.—two-thirds less than exists today. Since that is a non-starter, he then calculates what would happen if planners banned any further expansion of the existing built-up area, forcing all growth to be “in-fill.” After 20 years, that would produce a density of only 11 persons per hectare, less than half the current density of Los Angeles and only one-third of the threshold level. Hence, he concludes, while New Urbanist neighborhoods may be nice things, such designs “will have no measurable impact on the spatial structure of Atlanta and therefore no impact on pollution and congestion.”

What should work, instead, is charging for highway use, combined with flexible mini-bus service. Transit would be recognized as a niche market for the transit dependent—a very different vision from today’s focus on moving heaven and hell to attract “choice riders.” Technology would solve the air pollution problem, via stringent tailpipe emission standards, fleet turnover, and the increasing use of alternative propulsion.

Tory comments: Atlanta and Houston are essentially equivalent for the purposes of this note. I agree with most of this - the no measurable impact on spatial structure, pollution, or congestion, and the last paragraph solutions - but he does overlook one thing: that density can build up in concentrated areas near transit stops ("transit-oriented development") rather than spread over the metro. While the overall metro is essentially unaffectable, a lot of people who do want to live the New Urbanist lifestyle could live along transit lines and walk or use transit for many of their trips. There's a big question how many people want to live that way, but there clearly is unmet demand in most cities today, and we should make efforts to offer it to those who want it. But it is good to get past the fantasy that most American cities can ever fully emulate the European model (and, as a matter of fact, many European cities are moving away from their own model and building ever-larger car-based suburbs).

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Rice ranks high in university surveys

Buried in today's front page story on UT-Austin's newly crowned status as the nation's #1 party school is some really heartening news for Rice and Houston, based on a survey by Princeton Review.

Meanwhile, Houston's Rice University was taking full credit for its ranking: No. 1 in the nation for best quality of life. The designation is based on students' opinions of campus beauty, safety, location and their overall happiness and dealings with the administration.

"Between those two rankings, I'll take ours," said Rice President David Leebron.

The ranking is a coup for Houston, a sprawling urban behemoth whose heat, humidity, traffic and aversion to zoning have consistently landed it at the bottom of quality-of-life surveys measuring everything from fitness to ease of driving around town.

Rice students have long enjoyed the campus' elegant architecture, its proximity to Hermann Park and the museum district, what Leebron calls an "idyllic oasis in the center of the nation's fourth largest city."

But he said university officials have been working harder to acquaint students with the rest of Houston, even taking hundreds of students to the opera and the symphony.

"Very few universities can offer the quality of life that being in a city the size of Houston offers with a campus that has almost as many trees as students," Leebron said.

The private school's intimate setting, with an undergraduate population of just 2,900, helped it achieve other top rankings: No. 3 for best overall undergraduate academic experience and No. 1 for interaction between students of different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Those are some powerhouse rankings that will help Rice attract the more nationally-diverse student body they're aiming for, as well has help keep up the quality of admits as they grow the student body over the next few years. Rice also made the most recent Newsweek list of "America's 25 New Elite 'Ivies'":
Rice University , Houston, Texas
Although Rice is located just three miles from downtown Houston, the 300-acre campus is pastoral. The private university's nine residential colleges were inspired by Oxford and give students an opportunity to belong to a more intimate group. Each college has a "faculty master" selected by students, other masters and the president. The emphasis on student-faculty interaction is echoed in the classroom, where the median class size is 15. Many students like the fact that Rice has Division I sports, including a top baseball team. About 40 percent of students double-major, often pairing economics with engineering or political science. Overlap schools: Stanford, Harvard, MIT and Duke.
I've noted before Rice's great web site promoting Houston. The new president, David Leebron, came from Columbia University, and just as Columbia leverages its NYC location for all it's worth in recruiting and educating students, he wants to take the same strategy with Rice and Houston. The extra benefit for Houston is not only recruiting great students and faculty to Rice, but if they have a deeper experience with the city of Houston while they're here, they're more likely to stay after they graduate and contribute to Houston's talent base.

Update: A Chronicle archives article on Rice's program of getting students involved in city service projects. More ties to Houston means a higher likelihood of staying after graduation.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The 6m tipping point, city uniqueness, and density vs. children

The international edition of Newsweek had an interesting section recently on world cities, with an emphasis on "second cities" - up and comers vs. the traditional big names like NYC, London, Paris, and Tokyo. A few excerpts caught my attention:
Today it's easier for Second Cities to build self-sustaining economies, independent of megacities, as firms and workers look to avoid the problems of major urban centers. "Economically, after a city reaches a certain size, its productivity starts to fall," notes Mario Pezzini, head of the regional-competitiveness division of the OECD in Paris. He puts the tipping point at about 6 million people, after which real estate costs, travel times, and the occasional chaos (witness the recent Paris riots) "create a situation in which the center of the city may be a great place, but only for the rich, and the outlying areas become harder to live and work in."
Metro Houston is around 5.3 million, so we're getting pretty close to this hypothetical tipping point. But our real estate has not shot up like the east/west coast cities, nor have our travel times gotten all that much longer than national averages, although I've gotten the impression the latest oil boom is starting to have a negative effect on congestion. I think our multi-nodal job centers and mega-freeway network may allow us to push our own tipping point farther out. His six million number is based on classical heavy-rail-to-downtown cities with relatively limited freeways. If we implement a true congestion-priced freeway lane network with distributed point-to-point express transit and car/vanpools, we'll be trying a pretty new and unique urban form that may not have the same tipping point dynamics as historically older cities. Continuing:
All this means, of course, that second cities won't stay small. Indeed, some countries are actively promoting their growth. China's Go West campaign encourages investment in smaller inland cities. Italy is trying to create tourist hubs of towns close to each other with different yet complementary cultural activities. "The worst-case scenario is that we end up with some national version of New Jersey—an inefficient sprawl with no center," says Frey of Brookings. Already, one has to wonder if all the marketing pressure for Second Cities to pay for iconic buildings or to re-create mock versions of New York's SoHo is a productive use of capital. If one of the biggest drawing cards for Second Cities is unique local flavor, why ape the best-known megacities? Devolution of policymaking power is leaving many lesser cities more free than ever to shape their destinies. To Vegas, Toulouse and company: this is your era. Don't blow it.
A great lesson for Houston: blaze our own path, and don't worry too much about matching the current big guys.

Later in the section, Joel Kotkin has this excerpt on the link between density and a falloff in children, supporting my belief that "rising affluence seeks personal space", and if you use government policy to prevent them from growing the house, they'll shrink their household to achieve the same ends.
Such patterns of enlightened suburban development could be applied around the world. Many nations still get it wrong, building anonymous tracts 30 to 50 kilometers from the closest jobs or town center, mainly as bedroom communities for a big city. A leading example of enforced centralization is Seoul, where the average density of more than 14,000 people per square kilometer is three times London's, five times L.A.'s and 10 times that of growing U.S. cities like Houston or Phoenix.

Greater Seoul, in short, is almost hostile to human life, a widening ocean of high-rises with a shrinking number of traditional Korean houses. Suh Yong-bu, a Korean expert in business demographics, notes that high housing prices and cramped spaces have helped send Korea's birthrate into free-fall, down 30 percent since 1993; much the same problem is felt in other ultra dense urban societies like Japan and China. "The same patterns can be found throughout Asia," notes demographer Phil Longman, author of the "The Empty Cradle," a study of world population trends. "Once everyone is forced into a small city place, there's literally no room left for kids."

Thanks to Howell for the tip and the link.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Oil-barrel airfares, Kotkin suburbs, risky Houston, cheap airfares, HOT lane popularity, transit vs cars

The miscellaneous box has filled again, so here are a bunch of interesting short items.
  • JetBlue ties Hobby-NYC/JFK one-way ticket prices to the daily cost of a barrel of oil. Clever. You can read an chat thread about it here, along with some commentary on Houston.
  • Joel Kotkin on the triumph of the suburbs in the August issue of The Next American City. Houston excerpts:
Nearly every major region of the U.S. in this sense is undergoing suburbanization, even if the downtown is growing. In Houston, for example, there has been much talk about a downtown housing surge. But the entire inner ring of the city - which extends well beyond the central core - accounted for barely six percent of new units; the vast majority of the growth took place in the region’s far-flung suburban areas.
At the same time, the increasing decentralization of economic activity may spur the development of ever more self-sufficient “suburban villages.” We can see this model emerging in new communities such as Valencia, California, or the Woodlands, outside Houston, which have developed their own successful town centers complete with thriving cultural and religious establishments.

And his conclusion:
The real issue is not so much how to prevent suburban growth, but how to make it more humane and capable of accommodating an increasingly diverse population. One key solution might lie in the growth of telecommuting, which could allow more suburbanites to work close to or at home. Already 20 million people work part-time or full-time from their residences. ...

In this sense, we need to look at current suburbia not as a finished product, but something beginning to evolve from its Deadwood phase. During this evolution, our ancient sense of the city still has much to teach the suburbs, notably about the need for community, identity, the creation of “sacred space,” and a closer relation between workplace and home life. Of course, the emerging suburbs won’t be able to duplicate the forms of our great historical cities, but they will borrow from them as new public spaces are built and a sense of civic identity is established. In this, the suburbs can carry something of cities-past in their substance as they contribute to a new chapter in urban history, one that we today can play a role in forging.

  • Houston has been ranked as the eighth-riskiest city for natural disasters, behind Miami, New Orleans, and most of California's west coast. I have to say, personally, I'll take a hurricane over an earthquake any day. It's all about a few days warning vs. none.
  • Houston airfares, while not falling because of escalating fuel costs, have gone up the fifth slowest in the nation, only 3.9% over the course of a year. I'm sure this is helped by the strong competition between Continental at IAH and Southwest at Hobby.
  • High-Occupancy Toll lanes, or HOT lanes, that are congestion-priced to keep speeds high, are proving popular with the public. Even the poor support them by a 3-to-1 margin, because it's nice to have the "gridlock insurance" option when speed is important (for an appointment, for instance). I think we can expect to see many more of these lanes in Houston in coming years. The sooner, the better.
  • This is an excerpt from a post about the article, "The war against the car will never succeed". Unfortunately, I've misplaced the link to the post, but have one for the article. The excerpt:
    Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente suggests that "TTC" ---
    the initials of the Toronto Transit Commission --- really means
    "take the car." In a July 22 column, she notes that ridership has
    fallen substantially and that it takes longer to travel by
    transit than car. Moreover, she sees through the usual "we ought
    to be like Paris" blather, noting that most people in Paris live
    in the suburbs and get around by car.

    She concludes the column with a particularly effective paragraph:

    If we really wanted to tackle smog and congestion, we wouldn't be
    fantasizing about massive new investments in public transit. We'd
    be investing in transportation infrastructure, less polluting
    fuels, more intelligent roads and vehicles with sensors to
    control traffic flows, peak-time user fees and more flexible
    forms of public and private transport, such as group taxis. But
    you won't find the planners talking about these things because,
    to do so, they would have to concede defeat to the unwholesome
    lure of the automobile -- to say nothing of the overwhelming
    preference of the public. And that would be very, very wicked.
Well put. Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

McKinsey on zoning

Since we're already off the usual posting schedule this week, I'm going to do another short pass-along tonight and a normal post tomorrow. This is a short McKinsey Quarterly note on improving citizen welfare that references the deleterious effects of zoning. For those who aren't familiar with McKinsey, they are a prestigous management consulting firm that works with top companies all over the world. They also have an institute that studies government policy globally.

Putting consumers first

The most effective way for countries to improve the economic welfare of their citizens, a McKinsey study shows, is to increase the productivity of their companies, primarily by encouraging competition. Consumers benefit because when more productive companies gain market share, less productive ones must close their doors or become more efficient. Either way, consumers get better goods at lower prices. India's government, for instance, abandoned many limits on foreign investment in the country's automotive industry during the early 1990s. Prices fell, demand for cars exploded, and output nearly quadrupled.

(The graph doesn't seem to import into Blogger well. See it here.)

Yet in many poor nations, government policies—such as zoning laws, investment regulations, tariffs, and tax codes—continue to limit competition. For more on how policy makers can remove barriers to economic progress, read "The power of productivity."
As I've said before (here, here, and here), Houston is lucky to have avoided the zoning tax.

Monday, August 14, 2006

AP: Katrina victims blamed for Houston crime

A quick pass-along of one of the top stories on Yahoo, an AP story on Katrina evacuees and the rise in Houston crime.

"I don't think Texas really knows what they got," Martin said (Louisiana bounty hunter frequently traveling to Texas).

Katrina sent a lot of bad guys to Texas, as Houston is finding out.

Houston took in 150,000 evacuees — the most of any U.S. city — after Katrina struck on Aug. 29. Houston police believe the evacuees are partly responsible for a nearly 17.5 percent increase in homicides so far this year over the same period in 2005.

About 21 percent of Houston's 232 homicides through July 25 involved an evacuee as either a suspect or a victim, according to police, who attribute much of the bloodshed to fighting among rival New Orleans gang members.


Judge Robert Eckels, chief executive of Harris County, which includes Houston, said Katrina evacuees arrested in the Houston have cost the county's criminal justice system more than $18 million.

Quite a few other quotes in there too, including Eckels. Tough talk, but no matter how you spin it, it's expensive in dollars, victims, fear, and image.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

NY Times covers River Oaks & Alabama theaters

Here it is. A few choice excerpts:
Fighting the Wrecking Ball to Save Houston Landmarks

This fast-spreading metropolis of see-through skyscrapers, clogged freeways and antipathy to zoning has long worn its boomtown history lightly, freely consigning cherished landmarks to the wrecking ball.

Though only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have more people, and it covers more acreage than Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit combined, Houston has one of the nation’s weakest urban preservation statutes. Any owner wishing to demolish a landmark must only give notice to the city and allow 90 days for discussion. After that it can be torn down.

But with a rallying cry of Alamo-like fervor — “Remember the Shamrock Hotel!” — many Houstonians are now drawing a rare line in the sand in defense of some particularly beloved architectural treasures threatened with demolition.

The sites at risk include Houston’s two oldest movie theaters, the River Oaks and the Alabama, both dating from 1939, and the 1937 Art Moderne River Oaks shopping center, which is the oldest in Texas and the second-oldest in the nation.
Unlike Galveston, San Antonio, Dallas and other Texas cities, Houston has a long history of zealous defense of property rights, opposing government’s efforts to limit what owners can do. City voters last rejected zoning in a referendum in 1993.

But in 1995 the city passed its first preservationist ordinance, offering property tax exemptions to owners who restore historic structures. It also provided for a 90-day waiting period before demolition. The program, while voluntary, has proved successful, said Randy Pace, Houston’s historic preservation officer. In almost all cases, he said, owners can be talked out of demolition. “We still lose 10 to 15 percent,” he said.
My previously posted thoughts on this topic are here. In a recent discussion, my friend John made a surprisingly strong case for allowing demolition: Netflix, on-demand video, and home theaters are killing art-house theaters anyway (I personally only go to theaters for big special-effects movies), and Amazon and Borders have effectively negated Bookstop's reason for being. I would agree with the first argument if Landmark wanted to shut down the theater, but this is a Weingarten decision. And I'd like to see somebody make a strong case to Barnes & Noble to expand and rename the Bookstop rather than kill it and build new somewhere nearby. If B&N could add enough space to compete with Borders on selection, I think the cool character of their interior would tip the loyalty of local book buyers to them over Borders.

(Thanks to Packy for the link.)

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Nissan LA vs. Nashville, and what it means for Houston

The LA Times recently had an interesting piece on the workers at Nissan's North American headquarters and their decision to either move to Nashville with HQ or quit and stay in LA.
With so many workers opting to relocate to Tennessee, the message may be that California's charms aren't what they used to be.
"I wanted to move. I was frustrated with L.A. It's too crowded, there's not enough greenery. It was overwhelming. There's so much stress there. I wanted to get out,"
Whatever workers' reasons for going, Nissan's 42% employee retention rate sends a message to businesses in California: The Golden State's charms aren't what they used to be.

"There is a bit of that attitude, especially at the state level, that California is just so great that no one would ever want to leave — that its natural features, creative services and the quality of its higher education system are so good they're enough to get the job done," said Greg Whitney, vice president of business development for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Nissan's experience argues against that conceit, he said. Typically, a company moving its headquarters 2,000 miles, especially from a major urban center to a smaller, more rural region, is fortunate to hang on to 25% to 30% of its workforce.

These days, though, California's schools are no longer among the nation's best, its infrastructure is deteriorating from a lack of funds for upkeep, and an ever-increasing population is crowding its cities and jamming its highways.

Companies usually decide to move for one reason — to save money — whereas employees have individual, often complex reasons, Whitney said.

"But the world is becoming more homogenized," he said, "and the fact that Starbucks are everywhere helps make moving a lot easier these days."
California employees who chose to make the move are relocating to an area that has an international airport and 19 colleges, including Vanderbilt University. It is within 700 miles of 60% of the U.S. population and is closer to Nissan operations in Canada and Mexico than is the Gardena site.

"This whole Nashville area is about where Atlanta was 20 years ago, so people moving here now are getting in on the front end of a big boom," said Grant Hammond, a broker and relocation specialist with Cindy Jasper's HummerHomes Realtors in Franklin.

For single mother Johnston and her three daughters, ages 11 to 17, the move was a chance to start a new life in vastly improved surroundings.

In Torrance, her family was squeezed into a 1,064-square-foot home she rented from her mother, who has moved to Tennessee as well.

In Franklin, the family was able to trade up to a 4,000-square-foot, two-story, all-brick home with five bedrooms, four bathrooms and a quarter-acre lot. Instead of power lines and neighbors' fences, the views are of tree-covered hillsides.

And at $449,000, Johnston said, the house cost $217,000 less than what her mom received for selling the Torrance place.

What made the case for Hedrick, the product manager, was turning off Interstate 65 and onto the Cool Springs offramp "and realizing that you could really be anywhere USA."

"There's a great, big regional shopping mall, and most of the stores and restaurants are the same ones we see in California," he said. "Yet a few miles away you're in downtown and there's lots of local color too."

Hedrick said several visits during the winter also helped him and life partner Kevin Rogers make the decision to move to Franklin — as it turns out, to the same development as Johnston — from the Fairfax Avenue area of Los Angeles.

"We're giving up dim sum and first-run independent films, 24-hour grocery stores. There'll be no more morning coffee at the Newsroom with Robert Downey Jr. sitting at the next table, and we'll miss sunset walks along the strand in Manhattan Beach," Hedrick said.

"But we're going to a place with spectacular scenery, rivers that don't have concrete banks, much more affordable housing, a lot less traffic and pretty close proximity to a lot of major cities, like Atlanta and Chicago, that are just a few hours away by car or an hour by plane."

Hedrick said he and Rogers — who quit his job as a scheduler and planner for a small manufacturer — were a little apprehensive about moving because of Tennessee's location in the heart of the so-called Bible Belt.

"But we have been there a lot now, and we've found the people to be — I know it sounds trite — but, well, just really friendly."
Virginia Postrel gives her opinion here, expanding on the point about the world becoming homogenized, where even small towns have access to all sorts of chains and amenities.
When big cities no longer have a monopoly on amenities and niche retailing, whether because of chains or the Internet, they have to worry about quality of life issues they've previously ignored. Los Angeles discourages new housing and road construction, while the rest of the Sunbelt generally encourages both. People will move. The weather is great in L.A., but Nashville and Dallas aren't Buffalo.
We're probably not quite as scenic as Nashville, but I think a lot of the points could also apply to Houston, including the friendly people. While the run-up in housing prices on the coasts has been a boon to the homeowners, I think it's cut off wide swaths of the U.S. from consideration by expanding or relocating companies. You almost never hear of a company moving to a place where it will be significantly more expensive for their employees. I believe our continuing affordability along with some great revitalization in the last few years (like downtown) have made Houston substantially more competitive in attracting new jobs, especially those energy holdouts like Citgo from Tulsa. The Port expansion seems to be pulling in its share too. And companies that may have feared leaving the coast in the past because too many employees might not come along, might reconsider with the Nissan example and the powerful carrot they can now dangle to employees: cash out half your home equity and get a bigger, nicer place in the new location with the other half. Nissan might just be the beginning of a very large, growing wave...

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Houston heating up

No, I'm not talking about global warming or lamenting our usual summer heat and humidity. A trio of recent Wall Street Journal articles all point to the rising heat generated by Houston's economy (sorry, but all the links require a subscription). The first ranks Houston the 11th most inventive city in the country with 1,071 patents in 2005, more than San Francisco, Seattle, or New York. California is clearly king, with 8 of the top 10 cities, but Texas comes in a reasonable second with Austin, Houston, and Plano (telecom corridor) in the top 20.

The second has Houston as the only major city in America bucking the national housing slowdown with a decline in housing inventory of 3% over the last year, vs. increases and softer sales in other cities (table).
"Among the strongest markets overall are Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Seattle. All three areas are benefiting from robust job markets, and modest home prices are drawing investors and new residents to Texas."
Finally, there's this page one story from last week:
Bubbling Crude
As Oil Prices Rise, Investors
Pour Into Risky Energy Plays
Hedge Funds, Private Equity
Steer Billions to Startups;
Bulls Cite Feverish Demand.
Exotic Loans, New Managers

Here in Houston, the boom's U.S. epicenter, veterans of major oil companies and their bankers are abandoning longtime employers for startups. Eric Mullins, a former investment banker at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in Houston, recently persuaded some big endowments and pension funds to sponsor his career change -- to the tune of $450 million. Now Mr. Mullins, 44, hunts for oil and gas assets as co-head of Lime Rock Resources; the other co-head has an exploration background.

The fevered pitch reminds some of the Silicon Valley boom a few years back. "Energy's about as hot right now as tech was in 2000," says Ben Dell, an energy analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

Bullish investors say this isn't another dot-com bubble. The energy industry is built on hard assets. Tight supplies and voracious demand from emerging economies such as China point to the need for more investment, they say.

Jeffrey Currie, head of commodity research at Goldman Sachs in London, says participants are taking more risk now because the energy industry long underinvested in new capacity and supplies have grown extremely tight. "We believe it could take more than a decade to resolve these supply problems before commodity prices can retreat on a more persistent basis," Mr. Currie argued in a recent piece. "Do not expect this investment phase to end soon."

One popular trend: management teams with virtually no assets other than big and costly ideas.

Joseph Bryant, a former top executive with BP PLC and Unocal Corp., is creating an elite team of deep-water oil explorers to hunt the last frontiers of the Gulf of Mexico and other hard-to-reach environs. Searching such virgin territory is mainly the province of big oil companies. Before Mr. Bryant's Houston startup, Cobalt International Energy, drills for his first drop, he must acquire seismic data and state-of-the-art software to research the ocean floor, purchase exploration rights and lease floating rigs that cost as much as $500,000 a day -- all for naught if he hits dry holes.

Yet Mr. Bryant had his pick of sponsors. "It wasn't a question of whether we could get money, but which to take," he says.

Others already have made millions. The Platinum IPO's underwriters were paid about $7 million. Mr. Kostiner and other organizers got 20% of Platinum's stock. After nearing $9 this spring, the combined value of each Platinum share and warrant is now about $8.04. Today, Mr. Kostiner's grant of Platinum stock is worth $6.4 million. He hasn't drawn a salary yet, but the company says he will make market rates as chief executive.

He has picked out a house to buy in Houston and recently got his 2-year-old daughter a pink cowboy hat.

It's all good. Well, except maybe for the increased traffic... and the pink cowboy hats.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Lemons to Lemonade: Salvaging the Metro Universities line

I've been doing a little thinking and research on the most recent developments with the planned Richmond/Westpark Universities light rail line, and there might be an option here that could please enough people to work (or at least not anger them enough to block or sue) as well as create a workable line with sufficient ridership. The saga has had a few twists in the last week, with Culbertson announcing his opposition to a Richmond alignment (and he has the power to block federal funding on the Transportation committee), and a new Clutterbuck/Culbertson proposal that has quickly been opposed by Councilwoman Ada Edwards due to high numbers of private property/home takings. A link to the full-size map of the Clutterbuck proposal can be found in the right-side column of the Chronicle article here. It would involve running it along the north side of 59 from Dunlavy to Edloe, with the loss of 50-75 homes and making a mess of the 59 feeder. I also can't see how it could possibly get on Edloe from the feeder to cross over 59.

Because it hits a lot more jobs and residents, I've generally been supportive of a Richmond alignment if enough traffic lanes could be preserved, and was hopeful that it would work out with a bypass of Afton Oaks. At this point, with Culberson's opposition, a substantial alignment along Richmond looks unrealistic. Another part of me has been supportive of the Westpark alignment, because the transportation nerd in me hates to see perfectly good right-of-way go unused. Is there a way we can run it on Westpark but still get most of the ridership a Richmond alignment would have? I think we can.

If you look at this older analysis map by Christof (full-size link, or click on the image), you can see that the real critical nexus is Greenway Plaza centered at Edloe and Richmond. It's important to remember that it doesn't matter where the route line goes - all that matters are the actual stops. If your building is next to the line without a stop, you have all the hassles with none of the benefits. Metro has been talking about elevating the line to crossover 59 from Richmond to Westpark - an expensive proposition. An alternative, if it ran along Westpark with a stop at Edloe, would be an air-conditioned pedestrian skybridge with moving walkways that would deposit people right at Norfolk/City Club and Edloe between Lakewood Church/Compaq Center and the Renaissance Hotel and Greenway Plaza Food Court. I used to work there, and there are a lot of nice underground walkways that connect up all of those buildings. A pedestrian skybridge should be substantially less expensive than something that has to support the train itself. I think it could fit parallel and just to the east of Edloe. Using Christof's quarter mile walking circles from the intersection of City Club and Edloe, it doesn't capture quite as much as a couple stops along Richmond, but it gets the substantial majority. You can view a Google satellite map here.

(Alternative update: an in-and-out rail spur over the Edloe bridge to near City Club/Norfolk, similar to the Main St. line near UHD where the trains can stop and switch tracks in the return direction)

Taking the line east along Westpark from there, a stop at Kirby is also within walking distance of most of the Kirby office buildings south of Richmond (note the red dots on the map), not to mention tourist-and-local favorite Goode Co. BBQ. That may sound trivial, but I noted on a recent trip to Denver that they hype their historic Buckhorn Exchange restaurant has a light rail stop. A stop at Greenbriar would be within walking distance of many apartments, office buildings, and retail towards Richmond (see satellite map).

The question is how far east on the Westpark corridor to go. The right-of-way eventually runs out, but it's also critical to serve The Menil Collection and the University of St. Thomas (it is the "Universities Line", you know) along Richmond. Metro has shown an alternative that goes up Greenbriar to Richmond, but Christof has pointed out the complexities and traffic nightmare of that option. If you look carefully at this Google satellite map, you can see there is actually enough Westpark corridor right-of-way all the way to Dunlavy. You can also see that Dunlavy has less residential along it than Hazard, Woodhead, or Mandell, meaning less opposition. The line could curve on a bridge over 59 and then run up Dunlavy to Richmond, getting it on Richmond at just the right point to serve the Menil and UST. The bridge would be tricky, but that's what engineers are for. If we really wanted to think a little bigger and out of the box, there was talk in the past of covering the 59 trench to create land. A small portion of that could be done here to double the size of Dunlavy Park as well as create the necessary space to curve the line up Dunlavy street. That extra land for the park could help soften any neighborhood opposition. There may even be enough room for an entire soccer field and an ever-popular dog park.

(update 8/9: drove part of the route tonight. There is definitely enough space on the south side of 59 as far east as Dunlavy, and I believe there is enough space on Dunlavy for two tracks and two narrow lanes while keeping the oak trees but losing street parking.)

So let's sum up the advantages of this routing:
  • Neutralizes most of the Richmond opposition
  • Neutralizes any lawsuit about the Westpark wording on the voter-approved ballot measure
  • Gets Culberson on board to get the needed federal funds (which also helps offset any slight ridership penalties for this routing)
  • Utilizes unused Westpark right-of-way
  • Preserves mobility, left turns, and median trees on most of Richmond
  • Substantially fewer construction hassles with Westpark than Richmond
  • Saves the cost of flying the rail line over 59 at Greenway Plaza (although, to be fair, that same money will go into the 59 crossing at Dunlavy)
  • Still connects the dense residential and jobs of Greenway Plaza with an air-conditioned moving-walkway skybridge (or an Edloe spur)
  • Still gets the office buildings on Kirby south of Richmond (and Goode BBQ)
  • Gets a lot of residential, office, and retail at Greenbriar and the Westpark RoW
  • Menil, UST, and Montrose office buildings connected
  • No crossing and traffic nightmare at Greenbriar/Shepherd and both 59 and Richmond
  • Doubles the size of Dunlavy Park (soccer field, dog park)
I think this could be the consensus solution we've all been struggling to find if people could just back off the rhetoric, politicking, and entrenched positions for a moment and give it some positive, thoughtful consideration. Well, one can always hope...

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Time to step up and improve Houston (landmarks, flextime)

I'm going to mix two topics today, because they're both something where you can actually have a short-term impact. The first is the much discussed redevelopment threat to the River Oaks Landmark Theater and the Alabama Bookstop (Kuff with many links and an update, Chronicle 1, Chronicle 2, Houstonist update). I've been meaning to write about this ever since the story broke, but am just now getting around to it, and I did not expect the story to explode as quickly as it has. I imagine most have you have heard, but for those who haven't, the short version is that Wiengarten Realty is looking to tear down the River Oaks Theater and many buildings nearby (including Marfreless), and replace them with some high-rise residential and new retail, including a 2-story Barnes & Noble. Since Barnes & Noble owns Bookstop, that, in turn, means it is threatened, because they'd be too close together. Clearly it would be a very sad day if Houston lost these two icons.

My sympathies tend to match Barry Klein and Councilman Michael Berry: we have to find a way to preserve landmarks like these without giving up Houston's great strength of constant renewal. There's a risk here of killing a fly with an elephant gun and the whole city paying a long-term price, if we end up with burdensome new permitting, review, and historical preservation ordinances. My problem with historical preservation ordinances is that they're a slippery slope: they start off protecting landmarks everybody can agree on, then get extended by activists over time until they're preserving stuff that nobody cares about and needs redevelopment, because if you dig deep enough, you can always create a story about the historical value of any building ("Frank Lloyd Wright once came to a dinner party here..."). Then developers give up on a city and it stagnates. So they key is to find balance. Tax incentives are good. Maybe some sort of petition requirement with a pretty high hurdle on signatures to force some sort of review and approval (speaking of petitions, you can sign one here to save these two landmarks).

I think Weingarten has to realize the enhanced value of their property when they keep these landmarks. People will pay a premium for history and a sense of place (Joel mentioned The Grove at Farmer's Market in LA as an example of popular redevelopment with preservation). Part of me thinks they're riding the publicity for as long as possible, then they will magnamously announce they're going to build around the landmarks, having generated a ton of positive feelings about the them and therefore a premium for whatever gets built nearby (esp. high-rise residential with walking access to either). I think of it like the fiasco of Coke Classic vs. New Coke: nobody cared about Coke Classic until New Coke threatened it, and then all of a sudden it became a national icon with a ton of brand loyalty. Everybody thinks of it as a big screw up by Coke, but was it really? I don't think they planned it, but they certainly came out of it with a lot more brand value than when they went in. We'll see how this one plays out, but I feel pretty confident everything will work out OK. People sometimes complain about the powerful insiders who make things happen in this city, but in this case, I think those River Oaks power people (like Carolyn Farb) will make sure they get the outcome people are clamoring for.

Moving on to our second topic: Sixel's column today on the power of flextime to reduce traffic congestion, and the Mayor's two-week experiment in late September to see how much it can really help. Mayor White is trying to get as many employers as possible to sign up for an experiment in flextime the last two weeks of September to see how much it can improve traffic flow.

And since 2,000 employees at Johnson Space Center started working flexible schedules this spring to avoid morning and evening drive times, the average travel time along NASA Parkway fell more than five minutes, according to a study by a group of engineers from the city, state and private firms.

These results are "mind-boggling," said White, who has been pitching the idea of flexible work schedules to CEOs around town as part of his efforts to ease traffic congestion.

"By diverting a relatively small amount of traffic, it has a huge impact on traffic," White said at a recent news conference to announce a bigger experiment, which has been coined Flex in the City.

"That's F-L-E-X," said White, who seemed slightly embarrassed that it sounded a bit like Sex and the City.

White is asking employers around Houston to participate in a two-week experiment in September to get even more cars off the roads. Between Sept. 18 and 29, he's asking companies to allow employees whose jobs permit some flexibility to work a compressed workweek, work from home or begin or end their days outside rush hours.

So far, more than 30 companies have signed up, said Kathleen Kelley, director of the Flexible Workplace Initiative for the city of Houston. She is shooting for 10,000 people participating. The volunteers so far include large law firms, hospitals in the Texas Medical Center, real estate companies, nonprofits and accounting firms.

Houston TranStar will test the speeds during peak times to determine whether cars are traveling any faster on major thoroughfares during that time.


Instead of taking an average of 22.7 minutes to travel NASA Parkway from I-45 to Texas 146, it now takes the cars during peak rush hour only 17.5 minutes, according to the study by the Texas Transportation Institute, Texas Department of Transportation, city of Houston, Brown and Gay Engineers and S&B Infrastructure.

Over the course of a year, that saving of five minutes each way works out to 43 fewer hours spent waiting for the car in front of you to move.

More details on the program are available here, including a list of benefits for employers:
My plea along similar lines has been for partial-day telecommuting: if the average employee is now spending three hours a day on email and other computer work, why not let them do that from home in the morning and/or evening and commute at off-peak hours? If that goes well, more employers might eventually allow full-day telecommuting some days of the week, which would have even more dramatic traffic, environmental, and energy-savings benefits.

So lobby your employer to sign up, and pass this along to your social network around town. If we can get enough employers to sign up, the positive impact on Houston could tremendous.