Sunday, May 06, 2007

Items of interest from the 2007 Houston Area Survey

Last week I was able to attend Dr. Stephen Klineberg's GHP luncheon presentation on new findings from the 2007 Houston Area Survey. Both the presentation and a central findings document are available on his site if you want the full story, but here are some broad takeaways:
  • People feel great about the job opportunities here, but have concerns about health care, poverty, and inequality
  • People are willing to pay more for environmental improvements (although how much more for how much improvement is not clear)
  • Crime is a bigger issue than traffic or the economy
  • Unfortunately, tensions between racial groups have been on the rise since 2005, when Katrina and immigration became regular news items
Here are some stats that caught my eye:
  • 83% of residents said Houston is a "much better" or "slightly better" place to live than other U.S. metros (up from 78% in 2005). That's some pretty impressive pride and happiness in our city.
  • I like Dr. Klineberg's point that Houston has the most demographic balance between the four major ethnic groups (Anglo, Black, Hispanic, Asian) of any major U.S. city, and that we are 30-40 years ahead of the demographic trends in the rest of the country as a whole (i.e. it'll take that long until the U.S. demographics match what Houston has today).
But there are a couple of questions where I think the value of the survey breaks down:
  • The support for transit over roads as a solution to congestion, which has three problems:
  1. When asked the question, people visualize the perfect transit solution magically appearing for them, one that goes from right near their house right to their job zipping past all the traffic. Not realistic. Since most real transit routes tend to end up slower than driving, they don't actually get chosen much when it comes to real-life personal decisions.
  2. They visualize everybody else taking transit to free up the roads for them, like The Onion headline classic "98% of commuters support transit for others". We've just escalated from "not realistic" to "pure fantasy."
  3. They don't understand the cost-benefit tradeoffs involved, which usually favors roads when it comes to really moving the most people at the least cost. If you asked them instead, "Should public transportation dollars be spent in the most cost-effective way to move the most people for the least money?", then you'd get a pretty overwhelming consensus.
  • This question seems to have biased wording to me: "Need better land-use planning to guide development, or leave people free to build wherever they want?" Clearly designed to get people to choose the first one, with loaded words like "better" and "guide" - and the second one almost whispers "chaos" into your ear. Wanna bet we'd get a polar opposite response if we phrased the question, "Should you or the government control the development of your land?" Here's a more neutral wording replacement I would suggest: "Should land-use decisions be made by the free market or government planning?"
Still, overall a great source of information, trends, and history of attitudes in Houston. I highly recommend reading it in more detail if you get a chance.

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At 1:12 AM, May 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about this question - "Should Houston begin a system of land use planning and zoning as done in other major cities?"

As far as mass transit, I agree that some people have unrealistic expectations for mass transit, but there is a significant number of people who make their housing decisions based on access to transit, something that until recently wasn't even an option in Houston.

Finally, I think it is clear that people want a cleaner environment and I am happy to see that people are willing to begin to absorb some of the costs that our actions are doing to the earth.

At 3:24 AM, May 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come on Tory, let's not assume that people want transit over highways just because they're ignorant. I have a feeling that most of the respondents realize that the train or bus won't be coming to their front door. As to the idea that they want it, but they want somebody else to ride it, you could turn that around and say that most of the people who want more freeways want them to run next to/through somebody else's neighborhood, and not their own.

As to the planning question, I think that the phrase "free to build wherever they want" has pretty positive connotations. And the margin of difference - 70% in favor of planning vs. 22% in favor of total freedom - is pretty incredible, easily wide enough to override differences in wording.

At 6:50 AM, May 07, 2007, Blogger John said...

Here's a more neutral wording replacement I would suggest: "Should land-use decisions be made by the free market or government planning?"

That's neutral?

The actual wording of the question (which could have been improved by using a descriptive but neutral term like "more comprehensive" instead of "better" is still far superior to your suggestion, because it doesn't create a false dilemma the way yours does.

It's not either/or, and in fact currently land use decisions in Houston, like everywhere else, are made by a combination of market and community/government planning. The real question is where the balance should be.

as for the folks who want total market freedom, I just wonder if they want that for their neighbors if those neighbors select a use that degrades neighboring properties and the surrounding community.

At 7:11 AM, May 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At this point, what would zoning look like?

Would we simply lock in the existing type of development? If so, how does this help the city look better? I think this will squelch a lot of development and leave a lot of vacant houses vacant, and vacant lots vacant in the interests of "protecting" neighborhoods.

Would we institute our desired development pattern and hope that over time development would change the actual city into that plan?

For the proponents of zoning or land planning, how do suggest that we change the existing city to conform to a zoning plan? Are your zoning hopes only for undeveloped areas on the periphery? Please explain.

At 10:51 AM, May 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory suggested this question: "Should land-use decisions be made by the free market or government planning?"

As it is, of course, all those decisions are made in Houston by government planning. It's hard to imagine how a free market might work, since we've never had it. All we have is the one-size-fits-all, force-everybody-to-drive-to-distant-suburbs system dictated by our transportation policies.

At 11:27 AM, May 07, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I assume you're referring to the suburban-type development code, with things like parking requirements and setbacks. Good point. It is a very complex topic, and not one amenable to anything meaningful from a simple survey question.

At 12:01 PM, May 07, 2007, Blogger Wally said...

No offense intended and if I sound exasperated it's because I'm somewhat shocked but hasn't anyone considered the methodologies and the categories of questions of this survey before granting is any aura of accuracy. If you take a step or two back from the results to consider the categories of questions it becomes rather obvious that the categories and the questions are somewhat "purpose" driven and the purpose wasn't transit planning.

Then when you look at the answers it's pretty obvious that there was a serious participant skew. Seeing that and noting that the survey is conducted telephonically and noting the failure ratio of calls dialed to results received and it becomes pretty obvious that the vast majority of respondents to the survey make less than $50,000.00 a year. I mean, come on, considering the volume of junk calls on a land line when was the last time any of YOU answered the phone at home? Whenever I look at one of these surveys I always examine the background and in 99% of the cases determine that the survey's have no credibility whatsoever. This one definitly fits in that category.

At 6:06 PM, May 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, I wasn't just talking about the City of Houston sub-urban development code. I was talking more about using public funds to build roads for the purpose of developing cheap land in subdivisions with no jobs, schools, services, stores, or anything else. I was speaking of forcing people to drive for everything, and disallowing the use of public funds to produce urban places. You know, it's the same old thing: the government thinking they know how people ought to live and forcing that lifestyle on everybody. It's disgraceful, the degree of central planning, particularly at Harris County.

At 6:30 PM, May 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree with Mike's earlier comment. Let's acknowledge the survey for what it is - and not assume respondents are ignorant or do not understand cost vs. benefit. Economists could debate the cost vs. benefit of just about anything for years. And behind that cost are assumptions (what will the price of gas be, the population density be, cost of rail in the future, should environmental costs be included, how would they be calculated, etc), which could be debated for years. So, in the end, what you basically have to go on is an educated guess, and go from there. My educated guess is that Houston needs more rail options. And a more perfect rail solution might in fact be possible if our politicians would listen to voters who already approved expanded rail, instead of trying to kill it.

I think what this survey shows on rail is merely, like a lot of other things in politics, that the people are ahead of the politicians.

Also, as to Wally's comment about the accuracy / skew of the survey, I don't know as to this particular survey, but that does not seem to be a unique problem to this versus any other survey.

At 10:52 PM, May 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

lies, damned lies and statistics. Anyone can skew a survey to say pretty much what ever they want it to say. I dont think we should listen to surveys but rely on whatever first principles we think are best.

At 12:07 AM, May 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


So The Woodlands only started growing after they widened I-45 (after 2001)? The Katy area was practically empty before the widening of I-10 (west of S.H. 6) was finished last summer? I guess there're no traffic jams crossing the Brazos River at U.S. 59 every day, even on the weekends, that is, since they haven't built adequate access roads out there yet. People will come to these places soon, though, once the City of Houston builds the roads.

Also, Conroe is not booming (since I-45 is still in it's original early 1960s configuration and many local roads haven't been widened yet), and FM 1488 in Montgomery County is never crowded? I think once the City of Houston finishes widening FM 1488 from 2 lanes to 5 lanes, and all of those soon-to-be suburbanites are forcibly relocated there (to the neighborhoods near FM 1488 that don't yet exist), it will be a dark day for the City of Houston.

Also, there are no award-winning and top (elementary and high) schools in the state of Texas in Katy or The Woodlands (reason??)?

There are very few stores outside of the inner city? Is it very difficult for the forcibly relocated people to find the essential goods and services they need-especially in one place? (In reality, there isn't a single Wal-Mart in the loop, only two Targets inside the Loop and one at the Loop and decent grocery stores are harder to find).

With the dense street grid (a street every 350 ft. both N-S and E-W) in Midtown and east of Downtown, these areas have been booming for years. Thanks to City of Houston-built roads AND extensive bus routes and so many existing stores, and restaurants, and services (In reality, most places will still not even deliver a pizza here because of the zip code-even to $300,000 houses), these areas have long suffered from overcrowding.

Thanks for bringing up your points.

At 7:13 AM, May 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Anonymous.

In defense of Crossley,

While some might think this boils down to a chicken and egg argument, it doesn't.

People would never have moved to far flung suburban locations without the government building roads first, promising to build better roads, or people assuming that the government will build roads to accodomated any development at any location, regardless of any cost/benefit if there's a critical mass of votes.

I would be shocked if you could find any government in the Houston area (which isn't already built out like West U) that does not build roads that anticipate growth, not the other way around. The Beltway did this, the Grand Parkway did this, Hardy Tollroad did this, the Katy Freeway expansion to Brookshire does this. Western Harris county is laced with thoroughfares that go through the middle of nowhere to accomodate future development. A large part of the time roads are built before development gets there. Highway 6 from Missouri City to Alvin is 30 miles of 6 lanes through sparsely developed land. Highway 96 in League City originally traveled through 8 miles of nearly vacant land.

If I had the time I could show you thousands of miles of roads that travel to and through sparsely developed areas that were built by local governments to explicitly encourage growth where little growth existed before.

Road construction habits by local governments encourage sprawl by subsidizing commute times to surburban locations.

At 8:18 AM, May 08, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

A couple thoughts. One is that I've read a lot about Maryland's Smart Growth era, how they explicitly told everybody they would *not* expand the state road network, and they wanted to push development into existing areas. It pretty much completely failed, and they ended up with just as much rural development, and extremely overcrowded 2 lane roads.

Second is that there are always places that want growth, whether towns or counties. If one town or county refuses to accomodate it (in the form people want to buy), it will jump over to the next one that will. And then there's the risk employers will follow for the better schools and newer and cheaper housing for their employees, draining the core of their tax base.

At the end of the day, you can't force anything people don't want. All you can try to do is offer different options, and let them choose. Houston needs to offer better urban options, which I'm hopeful the urban corridors project will do.

At 9:16 AM, May 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


"If one town or county refuses to accomodate it (in the form people want to buy), it will jump over to the next one that will."

I agree with this statement. I have seen nothing that convinces me that cities aren't subsidizing roads, but the solution is vastly more complex than just saying "No" like Maryland. In my mind, there are a number of government policies and practices that point to the idea that sprawl is caused by intervention skewing preferences.

At 4:50 PM, May 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A pithy remark: There are actually three Targets within the loop. One being a SuperTarget on Main St and the other offering a little less than the food options.

A dream would be to have an urban Wal-Mart. They've done it before, and to me Houston would be a pretty easy place to try it again.

At 4:53 PM, May 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, check the article below by Michael Barone if you haven't already. A wonderful look at demographics yet easy to read.

At 6:56 PM, May 08, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yep - caught it this morning and planning on blogging on it. Thanks.

At 9:00 PM, May 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To those who say the survey is skewed based on who answers the phone, assuming for a moment that you're right, and that nobody who makes over $50,000 a year has enough civic interest to participate in a survey about their own city, don't you think that something can at least be learned from the changes in the percentages over time?

At 9:04 PM, May 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brian - in regard to your question about zoning - I have not made up my mind on whether I want zoning (though I generally play devil's advocate on this board), but I think those who do want it are not trying to create some perfectly laid out SimCity, but simply have some control over what gets built in their neighborhood. This city is, as Tory often says, very dynamic, and a given streetscape is liable to change drastically in a twenty year span.

At 7:21 AM, May 09, 2007, Blogger John said...

Regarding Maryland's "smart growth" (from someone who lived a lot of years in the DC area): it's hard to separate that policy from larger, region-wide factors.

The population growth and rise in housing costs there had a big impact on the individual housing decisions people made. Just across the river in Virginia, you saw the same increases in price and congestion, even with a Texas-like laissez-faire approach to development.

So in Maryland, yes, you got horrible congestion (though arguably not much worse than Virginia's), but smart growth did prevent Montgomery and Frederick counties in MD from the sprawl of Fairfax and Loudoun in Virginia, something that - congestion and all - has been largely supported by residents and envied by Virginians.

As of my departure (in 2004) you saw lots of the "Don't Fairfax Loudoun" bumper stickers, and lots of battles in the county government, over land use policies because a lot of people recognized that a lot of the county's heritage was about to be wiped out.

I can't tell you that smart growth is the right or wrong approach... but the idea that there is something not legitimate about a community deciding that it wants to preserve some of its history and open space in the face of regional market forces is just silly. Nobody forced anybody to choose to move to Frederick and fight their way down I-270 every day; there were always the other options, such as living closer in a smaller house, moving to a different suburb (including those in Virginia) and so on.

And it's pretty tough to argue that the policies in Maryland have hurt them; Montgomery, like the rest of the DC burbs, remains a huge economic success story.

At 8:11 AM, May 09, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> And it's pretty tough to argue that the policies in Maryland have hurt them; Montgomery, like the rest of the DC burbs, remains a huge economic success story.

Well, it certainly helps to have a federal govt with out of control spending. A benefit the rest of the nation doesn't get (except Virginia).

As far as preserving open space: if it's that important to them, they should pay for it with conservation easements, rather than trying to use harsh regs to prevent land owners from developing their property.

But the original point was that people didn't say "Oh, Maryland doesn't want me to live out here, and won't build more infrasturcutre. I guess I'll buy a high-density condo." They *still* built houses out there, even with active state opposition.

Market preferences are strong. Trying to say govt subsidies drive people to live in the 'burbs is not accurate, IMHO. In most cases, the people move first, then the govt rushes to catch up with infrastructure. Houston is blessed to have realistic leaders who recognize this pattern, and try to stay a step ahead of the growth with the infrastructure, because it makes everyone's lives easier.

At 12:25 PM, May 09, 2007, Blogger Wally said...

Re: Mike:
Yea, I think the changes in the percentages over time are probably a better reflection of the change in demographics in the region and the corelative change in the pool of repsondents. By "demographics" I'm not talking simply racial/ethnic, I'm talking life circumstance changes, such as migration patterns and technological changes. For example, most of the 18-30 group that I come into contact with don't even have a landline. In reality, I suspect that surveys as presently conducted are virtually useless in terms of finding out what people really think and have devolved into a tool for the agenda pusher to use to back up the agenda.

BTW, I didn't mean to imply that those making more than $50,000.00 aren't civic minded, what I intended to convey is that they don't answer the phone at all unless they recognize the caller i.d. Due to the volume of goof calls we've turned off the ringers and at the end of the day, run the answering machine tape to see if anyone left a message.


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