Monday, July 30, 2007

Private toll roads: take the money (and concrete) and run?

There's a big debate going on in Texas about private toll roads, especially for the Trans Texas Corridor. The legislature slapped a two year moratorium on them last session, although with enough loopholes to be pretty toothless. I've been very skeptical myself. Private companies have an inherently higher cost of capital (their bonds aren't tax free like municipal ones, and they need a profit margin), and 50+ year non-compete clauses scare me. Who knows what roads will need expansion over the next 50 years? Can you imagine what a mess Houston would be today if we were stuck with the roads - and capacities - planned in 1957? It seems better to have the flexibility of a public agency, like HCTRA or TXDoT, that can adapt its road network to changing growth demands, rather than being locked in to a bunch of multi-hundred-page private contracts (and people have noted to me that these companies hire higher-dollar lawyers than the government - not a good sign for the public toll/taxpayer).

But I've recently been thinking about an alternate view. A tremendous amount of private capital is sloshing around out there in private markets just itching to build infrastructure for a decent return. All of the private investment models assume status quo trends in growth and commuting. But what if we're going into a long-term mega-boom in gas prices as global demand outruns supply, as well as getting near the tipping point on telework technologies? (aka "why am I driving an hour a day to go from one computer screen to another?") That could radically reduce commuting and the tolls they might be able to charge. If we assume that is a likely future scenario (and I believe it is), then the best strategy for the state is to collect billions in road building and cash (they prepay for the concession) now while the market is hot, knowing that these investors are likely to lose their shirts over the long haul, but by then it will be too late - the roads will have been built, and they aren't going anywhere. Texas gets the infrastructure, and private investors eat the cost.

It's a very viable scenario. But it does require quite a leap of faith to think you're smarter than the market. And I'm usually a believer in the wisdom of crowds/markets. But in this particular case, I think the market is ignoring the potential impact of these changes (energy costs, telework) on their returns. Why? Mainly because of the short-term focus of our financial markets and money managers. They want their bonuses this year and next year. To be perfectly honest, they don't care too much if they buy some bonds for their clients that implode in 2012 or 2020 or whenever (that's someone else's problem). What matters is how those investments look in their portfolio today, and they look good based on past history (shades of Enron, anyone?).

So should Texas take the money and run? I'm not sure this completely turns me in favor of private toll roads. But maybe it brings me back to a more neutral stance, since I can see a happy outcome either way. It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out. Stay tuned...

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Reason on Why Mobility Matters to Personal Life (Part 2 of 2)

Continuing from Tuesday's part 1.

Moving on, the report punctures the "live close to work" myth.
Why don’t more gridlock-weary commuters simply move closer to work? The approach certainly works for some people, but it’s often more feasible in theory than in practice. It would be much easier for most of us to live closer to work if jobs and people were interchangeable. However, different jobs require different skill sets and skill levels. Different people have different talents and aspirations. If all jobs and people were identical, then more people would probably take jobs closer to home. But people don’t want just any job. They want the one that offers the best combination of pay, benefits, and hours. Jobseekers consider the workplace environment, chances for advancement, and highly personal factors like how fulfilling the job is. When it comes to proximity, finding the right job is somewhat like finding the right romantic partner: chances are neither one is right around the corner.
Dual-income families (a category that represents 70 percent of workers) have even more juggling to do. Chances are both jobs won’t be near each other. Moving closer to your job could mean moving farther away from your spouse’s job. And if the geographic puzzle could be solved, families would still have to contend with frequent moves. A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics study found that, on average, young baby boomers held nearly 11 different jobs between the ages of 18 and 40. Of
course, if both spouses work, the goal of living near work grows even more unrealistic. Families would scarcely have time to unpack before heading off to another new home.
Mobility and Fun.
Those who live in city centers in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere often enjoy having a cozy restaurant a few doors down. It can be very convenient and relaxing to leave the car in the garage and take a quick stroll to dinner. The same can be said for other entertainment destinations, like parks or theaters. But whether they want to be entertained or just unwind, people don’t just care about proximity. Variety matters too.

When we head out the door, much of the fun is seeing, tasting, and experiencing something new. We seek a change in scenery. We enjoy poking around some unexplored corner of our city. Funseekers in the liveliest neighborhoods may be a short walk from a half-dozen quality restaurants, but after they’ve experienced each of them a few times chances are they’ll want to add new options to the mix. Efficient public transport can expand our opportunity circles somewhat, but our entertainment options explode exponentially if we enjoy speedy auto travel.

When mobility improves, we enjoy more choices, not just in restaurants, but in all aspects of the culture boom.
Finally, the conclusion is so well written, I'm just going to excerpt it in its entirety.
We all endure congestion and we recognize how it pesters us on our way to and from work, so we may think we know it quite well. Few people like congestion, but few recognize the full extent of the problem. Recall Elizabeth Reed, the woman who would not travel more than five miles for a date. Although she was keenly aware of congestion’s impact on her dating options, she was slow to recognize how it restrained other aspects of her life. She had “gotten so used to not doing things.” Countless others of us have also gotten used to not doing things.

If we’re stuck in some particularly frustrating traffic jam, we might we erupt in anger. But most of the time we just surrender a little bit more because we assume that degraded mobility is the natural result of an increase in population and driving. Rarely do public officials seek to undo such feelings of surrender. Most planning agencies have decided they will not even attempt to reduce congestion—they aim only to reduce its growth. Yet if such a plan were applied to a different policy area, Americans would not stand for it. Imagine if our leaders told us that, in the future, our education system would get worse, that there’s nothing we can do about it, and that all they hope to do is make test scores fall more slowly.

The gradual deterioration of mobility has also lulled us into making subconscious accommodations to congestion. We slowly shrink our opportunity circles. We pare back the list of things we might do if it were easier to get around. More of us mentally cross out more of our potential lives. The widespread surrender dulls individual lives, and it also dulls entire cities. As opportunity circles shrink, dynamism filters out of the city. If it were infused with the energy and talent of all its denizens, a city could grow into a grand metropolis. Sadly, urban life isn’t as vibrant as it could be because too many neighborhoods function as their own little hamlets, increasingly isolated from other parts of the city.

But instead of allowing isolation and dullness to gain ground, what if we were to really ponder what we could do if our travels were speedy and predictable?

We could get to and from work, run our errands, and have more time to spend with our loved ones. We could stay home and relax or we could do just about anything—explore a new neighborhood, drop in on a friend, take in a concert, go to a new restaurant, the zoo, the park, the beach, the gym, and know that our journey would be swift.

Our culture booms with opportunity and choice, and sorting it all out is central to making the most of it. If we enjoy a high level of mobility, we can sort through many jobs and find just the right one. Likewise, mobility makes it easier to find just the right date, just the right restaurant, just the right anything. Ours is indeed a land of opportunity, but only if we can get to it.
Hope you enjoyed the series of excerpts. Overall, a really fantastic case for making substantial investments in congestion reduction and capacity increases.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Reason on Why Mobility Matters to Personal Life (Part 1 of 2)

I really like the new Reason Foundation report by Ted Balaker on "Why Mobility Matters to Personal Life" - a product of The Galvin Project to End Congestion. It makes a great case for investing aggressively in congestion reduction and added capacity, including some backing up our assertions in Opportunity Urbanism. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but I'm going to put my favorite excerpts here over the next couple of posts (and even those are too long - I liked it that much).

He starts with a discussion of opportunity circles, which are pretty much the exact same thing as my opportunity zones from Opportunity Urbanism.
The average person can walk about four miles per hour, but cars can easily travel on arterial streets at 30 miles per hour. It’s a substantial increase in speed, but the impact may be even greater than it seems. A person who walks for an hour has access to 50 square miles, but someone who drives at 30 miles per hour for 60 minutes has access to 2,827 square miles. In other words, the driver’s opportunity circle is more than 56 times as large as the walker’s. And when conditions permit, motorists may drive much faster on highways, thus expanding opportunity circles even more.
But what about opportunity circles for transit?
Other factors, from transfers from one bus or train to another to time spent walking to the transit stop, make a slow transit trip even slower. Even though transit commutes typically cover shorter distances, it takes the average American transit user about twice as long to get to work as the average car commuter. This holds true in some unexpected places. For many New Yorkers transit offers the fastest way to get to work, but, on average, transit commutes take much longer than auto commutes even in the New York metro area. Indeed New York’s transit commuters endure the longest commutes in the nation (52 minutes each way vs. 28 minutes for solo driving). Transit commuting takes much longer than driving in many other areas with celebrated transit systems (see table).
You can check out the table of about a half-dozen cities yourself on pg.3
Motorists enjoy additional advantages that push many people toward cars and away from transit. Travelers can reach relatively few destinations directly by transit, but motorists can go from (almost) anywhere to (almost) anywhere. Transit service frequency varies according to schedules, but motorists can travel whenever they like. Their travels are not as restrained by fatigue as are walkers and transit users who trek to and from transit stops. Simple conveniences, like trunk-space, make it easier to carry things and additional seating makes it easier to transport small children, the elderly, and handicapped. The enclosed space of a car can also spare travelers from the rain, snow, heat and humidity. And although driving brings its own risks, many people feel safer traveling at night or through unfamiliar areas within the confines of a car.
That's probably the best short summary I've ever seen on why people continue to overwhelmingly choose cars despite gigantic investments in transit.

He then documents our growing congestion problem:
The future looks bleaker still. Congestion in Los Angeles is legendary, but if officials continue to respond to the mobility crisis with a shrug, many more areas will succumb to LA-style gridlock. By 2030 11 additional urban areas (Chicago, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, Denver, Seattle, Las Vegas, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Baltimore, Portland) will suffer through traffic conditions as bad as or worse than present-day Los Angeles.
Thank you H-GAC, CoH, HCTRA, and TxDoT for keeping us off that list.

And the costs of that congestion?
Businesses think it wise to follow all these potential workers to the suburbs, even though a suburban environment is not inherently superior for many of them. Many businesses, families, and singles would love to stay in the city and draw on all the energy offered by agglomeration economies, but they are forced out by a variety of urban headaches, including degraded mobility.

Too many elected leaders find comfort in misleading tales of urban renaissance and too many assume that our great cities can thrive even as mobility degrades. But improving mobility is essential to ensuring our urban centers’ long-term survival, and if we ignore the mobility crisis our cities will wither.

Not only are talented and energetic people increasingly choosing suburbia over city life, but sluggish urban life is also draining some of the talent and energy that remain. As travel becomes more difficult, fewer interactions take place. Vibrant competition has traditionally ensured that city dwellers enjoy the best of the best, but when mobility degrades, a city functions less like a grand urban space and more like a collection of isolated communities. Instead of traversing several neighborhoods to patronize the best establishments, denizens are more apt to resign themselves to whatever’s nearby. First-rate establishments find it more difficult to attract customers and second-rate operations realize that, with less competition, they face less pressure to improve. Residents are often stuck with fewer choices, higher prices, and inferior service.

Downtown cultural institutions fret about traffic-weary would-be patrons steering clear of music, dance, and theater events.
Congestion also robs us of opportunities in more subtle ways. For example, it decreases our job opportunities. Instead of landing a more distant, but higher-paying and more fulfilling job, those living in the midst of gridlock are more likely to stick with the jobs they already have.
It also exacts a cost on our love lives.
All across the nation, Cupid’s arrow is getting stuck in traffic. Although Westchester County is geographically close to Manhattan, because travel is such a hassle, New York City singles often tag Westchesterites as “geographically undesirable.” Thousands of Atlanta-area subscribers will not date anyone who lives more than 10 miles away. Atlanta spans nearly 2,000 square miles, but immobility limits these love seekers to a tiny corner of the metropolitan area.

Washington, D.C. might be worst of all. According to, singles there are most likely to care about how far they travel for love. Elizabeth Reed refused to travel more than five miles for a date. “In D.C.,” she says, “five miles is the longest five miles you’ve ever traveled.”
Elizabeth mentally “strikes out certain nights to go into the city” and when asked how it would affect her life if congestion magically vanished, she pauses. It’s a surprisingly hard question because she’s “gotten so used to not doing things.”
Certainly, traffic is no excuse for living a dull life, but it’s clear that congestion does have a dulling effect.
We'll continue with part 2 on Thursday.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Moving freight, bus vs. rail, and congestion vs. productivity

Some good stuff in Bob Poole's newest Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter over at the Reason Foundation.

First, he covers the limitations of freight rail to reduce urban truck traffic congestion. He discusses rail shuttles to get containers from ports past congested urban areas like LA (and maybe Houston?) to more remote, lower cost areas where they can be transferred to trucks and distribution centers. But ultimately he thinks toll truckways are a more effective solution, both practically and financially.

Second, he looks at some new data on bus vs. rail based on new lines in LA. He finds BRT far more cost-effective than LRT, but then notes that express bus service, without the dedicated guideway, can be nearly as fast, and far more cost effective, than even BRT. Cost per boarding is $7.54 for LRT, $3.79 for BRT, and $2.17 for express bus. Metro has wisely switched much of the core network from LRT to BRT, but maybe they could get even more payoffs from additional express arterial routes?

But the most interesting paragraph is one that backs up my claim from way-back that expensive commuter rail displaces affordable express HOV buses in painful ways:
In Denver, the Rocky Mountain News reported (Dec. 6, 2006) that commuters are complaining bitterly about the impact of the new T-REX light rail line on bus service. The RTD eliminated nonstop express bus service from suburban park & ride lots to downtown and the Tech Center, so as not to compete with T-REX. But "many commuters have complained that the need to transfer from buses to trains to buses again has added from 20 minutes to an hour—or more on bad weather days—to their one-way travel times. Some are going back to driving or forming car pools."
Houston has a great HOV bus network (although it could be even better, with improved service to non-downtown job centers). Do we really want to replace it with slower commuter rail and more time-consuming transfers?

Finally, I enjoyed the section on traffic congestion's impact on urban productivity, which includes results from a new study. Bottom line: making the investments to reduce congestion can pay off in higher urban productivity, and therefore pay.

Graham's results comport with economic theory and intuition, supporting the proposition "that urban road traffic congestion plays a significant role in ‘constraining' the benefits of agglomeration, and consequently, that it may serve to reduce achievable levels of urban productivity." Moreover, his estimates that include the effects of travel time and travel speed tend to find congestion impacts about 30% higher than traditional measures that rely primarily on more narrow distance-based measures.

In short, falling travel speeds and lengthening travel times means that businesses experience faster "diminishing returns", reaching a point of zero (or negative) productivity growth faster than those with higher travel speeds and lower travel times. The most pronounced effects were on productivity in the manufacturing, construction, hotels & catering, and IT sectors. Banking, finance & insurance, business services, and public services, traditional "CBD businesses", did not appear to be impacted as negatively.

Notably, Graham observes in his conclusion that the constraining impacts of traffic congestion on urban productivity tend to reduce densities in the most urbanized locations, promoting decentralization or, in more colloquial terms, sprawl.

I.e. when people are car-based, it doesn't make sense to try to force them all into the same downtown job center. Decentralization is a natural result to reduce congestion and improve mobility.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Our boom, Houston's other mission control, a top-tier blog-savvy town, videos and more

Time again to cover the smaller miscellaneous items. Been coming across a lot of these lately.
  • Houston tops the residential construction rankings (thanks to Hugh for the link)
  • Why is Houston booming, you might ask? Well, the most recent issue of Fortune magazine contains a clue: 6 of the top 10 Global 500 are energy companies, all with their largest U.S. employment base in Houston. Three more of those top 10 make cars that use the fuel created by the other six. And where are all those cars going, burning that gas? You guessed it: #1 is Wal-Mart - which also happens to be one of the largest employers in Houston, and has one of its largest distribution centers at the Port of Houston.
  • A graphic in Business Week's cover story on global youth culture on the web shows Houston to be a top-tier blog-savvy town, ahead of cities like Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, Portland, and even cross-state rivals Dallas and Austin. As far as I can tell, it's all me (just kidding! ;-)
  • A blog post about high-rise bland "condo sprawl"
  • NYT story on personalized traffic alerts, with some specifics about Houston's other, lesser known, mission control:
"In pitching its reports, whether on radio or pager, to broadcasters and motorists alike, Westwood One emphasizes its process for checking and rechecking its findings. Its version of Mission Control is in Houston, in a gleaming skyscraper down the road from NASA’s. From a room crammed with flat-panel television and computer screens, four fact checkers continually scan databases for outdated information and browbeat affiliates around the country to update drivers."

One concluding note: Thanks to a generous invitation from Ron Woliver, I saw David Crossley make a very good presentation to the Rotary Club today on improving Houston's quality of life as we grow tremendously over the next 30 years. I'd say we agree on most of the types of things that would be good for Houston - I'm just more "encouragement, markets and facilitation" vs. a more activist government intervention. Oh, and we also differ a bit on transportation: I believe the aggressive expansion of our freeway network (as outlined in the 2035 plan) is a more practical mobility strategy than transit, which I think has realistic limits on ridership in a dispersed, decentralized city like Houston with very pedestrian-hostile weather much of the year.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Portland backlash against utopian visioning, transportation problems

I really don't mean to be a Portland-basher. It's actually a very nice town. But because it's held up as a model so often for its aggressive visioning, planning, and 'smart growth', I feel it's important to point out the downsides to move the discussion beyond, "Portland's nice - let's be like them." I've accumulated a few links on those downsides over the last couple months, and thought I'd go ahead and compile them into a post to pass along now.
  • Their lack of investment in transportation infrastructure - specifically roads - is starting to seriously catch up with them. Heading towards $1.7 billion a year in lost productivity and 16,000 fewer jobs by 2025.
  • Citizens are starting to backlash against some of the Utopian and heavy-handed visioning and planning by local government:

In Portland, Oregon, results of a survey about the mayor's long-term planning vision reveal that many in the city feel development is pricing out the poor, and that policies cater more to encouraging economic development than to resident's interests.

"The vision statements currently being drafted by the project — officially known as VisionPDX — are filled with such language, including numerous calls for a clean, green, diverse city where everyone is valued."

"But the project also has unearthed information that suggests many Portlanders are deeply worried the city is moving backward. Among other things, a significant number of the approximately 13,000 questionnaires collected last summer and fall reveal fears that Portland is becoming unaffordable."

"This is in part because of large-scale urban renewal projects approved by the City Council and carried out by the Portland Development Commission over the past decade."

But many are skeptical of the plan's utopian goals, and its lack of specific implementation strategies. ...

'People are very distrustful of government right now...'

The Portland Myths
  1. Investments in transit and land-use changes promoted by planning rules have significantly reduced auto use;
  2. Transit-oriented developments have proven commercially successful and have moved many people out of their cars;
  3. Rail transit has, in turn, stimulated billions of dollars of land-use developments;
  4. The urban-growth boundary and other planning rules have significantly reduced sprawl; and
  5. Portlanders love their plans.
Problems with Portland's Plans
  1. Increasingly unaffordable housing prices.
  2. Increased traffic congestion.
  3. Higher taxes or reduced urban services as tax revenues are diverted to rail transit and transit-oriented development.
  4. A reputation for having an unfriendly business environment, leading to higher unemployment.
Recommendations for Portland
  1. Portland-area voters should dissolve Metro, the regional planning agency, and return planning functions to local governments.
  2. The state legislature should repeal the land-use planning laws that are driving up housing prices and immobilizing the region’s transportation systems.
  3. As an intermediate step, the state should pass legislation requiring Metro or local governments to make enough land available for development at marketable densities to maintain a 20-year supply of land. Similar legislation is currently being considered
    by the California legislature.
  4. As suggested by University of Maryland public policy professor Robert Nelson, the state could also pass legislation giving groups of homeowners and landowners the ability to opt out of local land-use planning and zoning by creating a homeowners’ or landowners’ association that writes its own plans and protective covenants.
  5. The state should also create a regional tollroads authority that can sell bonds backed to tolls to build highways to meet the demand as measured by motorists’ willingness to pay tolls that are priced to minimize congestion.
  6. The region should halt construction of rail transit lines and other transportation projects that are not cost effective in relieving congestion.
  7. The legislature should eliminate or strictly limit the ability of local governments use tax-increment financing. At the very least, such financial support should be provided to developers only if an area is so blighted that no development would take place without initial financial support.
Hmmm... Do most of those recommendations sound like our local status quo? Maybe the grass isn't so much greener on the other side?

Finally, Randal O' Toole, the author of the Cato report, had the good humor to mock himself on his own blog: "Right-Wing Think Tank Releases Report on Portland" Very amusing.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

The many meanings Houston as an "Open City of Opportunity"

While I was at the Enterprise 2.0 Collaborative Technologies Conference in Boston last month, I got access to a white paper by Don Tapscott, a well-known author, speaker, and consultant on the "bigger picture" impacts of technology on business. His most recent book is Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, which I highly recommend. This paper is on Enterprise 2.0, which is how new Web 2.0 technologies are expected to impact large enterprises.

How does this relate to Houston, you might ask? Well, on page 8 it has a table on the many meanings of being "open," which I related to the "Open City of Opportunity" identity/brand that Mayor White, Joel Kotkin and I have been promoting for the city. The term really seems to sum up our friendliness, hospitality, entrepreneurial energy, minimal regulations (including no zoning), open-mindedness, diversity, social mobility, optimism, and charity. Reading the list, I was struck by how many of these really seem to describe the essence of Houston. See if you agree:

Being Open
Characteristic -> Vernacular Expression
  • Lack of restrictions -> “open market”, “open skies”, “open season”, “open shop”
  • Beginnings -> “opener”
  • Sincerity -> “open hearted”
  • Complexity -> “open ended”
  • Replenishment -> “open stock”
  • Expansiveness -> “open range”, “opening up”
  • Freedom -> “open society”
  • Access -> “open bar”
  • Sharing -> “open source”
  • Flexibility and agility -> “open to suggestion”
  • Engagement -> “open arms”
  • Listening -> “open ears”
  • Innovation -> “finding and opening”
  • Networking -> “open door policy”
  • Standards -> “open systems”
  • Candor, transparency -> “open book”
  • Possibilities -> “open for business”
Isn't that a great list? And what I love about it is not only that it does a great job describing Houston, but also creates a great aspiration for what it means to be a Houstonian. It clearly tells Houstonians what we want our community culture to be, in ways that "Bayou City", "Space City", and "Energy Capital" can't. That's what makes it a powerful identity for the city, and more than just another brand.


Monday, July 09, 2007

A Tale of Two Chronicle Op-eds

In yesterday's Sunday Outlook section, there were two op-eds relating back to the Kotkin Opportunity Urbanism project I was part of and op-ed I wrote. The first, on quality of life, was excellent. They clearly actually read our report, and I support pretty much everything they wrote. Houston does have a remarkable array of both public and private initiatives going on to improve quality of life, and they are having an impressive impact and deserve our support.

But the second op-ed, by the Chronicle editorial board, was a bit muddled (written by committee, perhaps?), and I feel the need to respond to several of its points. To be fair, some of those points are just passing along what Andres Duany said recently, so, obviously, in that case I'm responding to him rather than the editorial board. On to the excerpts and commentary:
He warns that the worst development danger is the monoculture housing subdivisions that mark the city's periphery. Building hundreds of houses with similar styles and prices that appeal to young parents inevitably causes blight when the style — not chosen to stand the test of time — goes out of fashion and the neighborhood's value declines as its residents age and grow resentful of their lot.
So, Houston clearly needs some "style police", eh? To make sure we don't accidentally build anything that might go out of fashion. Sounds like a great solution. All we need to do is set up an omniscient planning board with godlike powers to see into the future. Should be a snap. And we'll just tell all those "young parents" there are no new, affordable homes for them because, well, really, they'd be making a bad decision that will eventually make them "resentful of their lot" - and we want to protect them from that horrible decision to become homeowners. They really should just stick with their current apartment. Thanks, Duany. Can't believe we didn't see the obvious problem and solution before.

Another mistake was for Houstonians to build their neighborhoods distant from their jobs and their shopping needs. The result is low density but high congestion because nothing can be accomplished without a car.

Evidently, it's not just "young parents" that are morons, but almost all citizens of Houston (and most other cities, for that matter). They're unable to make the "correct" tradeoffs between housing values, school districts, and commute distance.

As a side note, from personal experience and what I've heard from others, shopping in unzoned/unplanned Houston is a far more convenient experience than in more planned cities that force retail into limited zones. Just yesterday a neighbor told me about his inlaws in a planned suburb of Pittsburgh with a 20 minute drive to the nearest grocery (!). In Meyerland, I am within 5 minutes of at least eight grocery stores to choose from.
The arrangement, Duany told a lecture audience at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is highly unfair to the 50 percent of Houstonians who are too young, too old or too poor to drive.
We have a free market. If the demand is there for alternatives, developers will build it (and have). Most of that 50% are kids, and they bike around their neighborhoods just fine. For others, I've noted tons of apartment and condo complexes next to retail centers for easy walking. It may not be classic "urban walkable mixed-use," but it works well for a lot of people. And for longer distances, we have a quite comprehensive Metro bus grid.
Better planning and design, which the market is beginning to offer in the central city, would at once reduce automobile use, congestion, human stress and the high cost of transportation, a minimum of about $9,000 per car per year.
This is incorrect. The $9,000 is a voluntary average, not a minimum. Details here. But I have no objection to a diverse set of living options both inside and outside the city.
Kotkin, however, seems to believe that cities should not invest in improved quality of life if the improvements don't attract talent and commerce. At a Greater Houston Partnership luncheon, Kotkin noted that no one would move to Kansas City because of its new performing arts hall.

Perhaps on this topic Kotkin's analysis misses the mark most widely. People do come to Houston to provide and enjoy its renowned performing arts. Even if they didn't, that would not constitute a reason to deny this city's residents their rich cultural life.
This is a confused misreading of Joel's speech and our report. What Joel objects to are cities ignoring the basics with crumbling infrastructure, failing schools, rising crime, etc. and spending public tax dollars on frivolous things trying to attract the "creative class" (like starchitect museums and performance centers). What he likes about Houston is that we focus tax dollars on providing strong basics (mobility, police, etc.), which enables a vibrant economy, which, in turn, supports and funds private nonprofit initiatives to improve quality of life, like privately-funded performing arts venues and even parks like Discovery Green. That doesn't mean there can't be public quality-of-life investments (stadiums, flood control parks, etc.), but there's a proper private-public balance which a lot of cities in America seem to have forgotten.

Joel and I's assertion is that quality of life investments flow from being a vibrant city of opportunity, a pattern duplicated by cities throughout history. But recently, too many cities have fallen into the trap of thinking the reverse is true: if they pour public tax dollars into "quality of life investments," the creative class, jobs, and economic vibrancy will flock to them - and that's simply not the case. Houston is getting it right: construct a strong foundation of opportunity, and quality-of-life improvements will build on top of it, just as Wulfe and Weekly articulated on Sunday.

Update: blogHouston's take.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Spring 2Q07 Highlights

Time for the quarterly highlights post. These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument.

Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly twice/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box in the right sidebar. An RSS feed link (Atom) is also available. As always, thanks for your readership.

From Winter 1Q07:

And don't forget the highlights from the first two years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging).


Thursday, July 05, 2007

What can Houston learn from LA's transit-oriented development failure? (+Tory rides transit!)

Tom managed to beat me to the LA Times front page story on the utter failure of dense transit-oriented development (TOD) there to get people out of their cars.
"Among the few academic studies of the subject, one that looked at buildings in the Los Angeles area showed that transit-based development successfully weaned relatively few residents from their cars. It also found that, over time, no more people in the buildings studied were taking transit 10 years after a project opened than when it was first built. ...

The reporting showed that only a small fraction of residents shunned their cars during morning rush hour. Most people said that even though they lived close to transit stations, the trains weren't convenient enough, taking too long to arrive at destinations and lacking stops near their workplaces. ...

The region's transit system is limited, experts say, because it was built on two assumptions that have since proved untrue: that most traffic was generated by commuting trips and that most people worked downtown.

Nowadays, people nationwide are driving so much to take their children to school, run errands and engage in other activities that these trips far outstrip commuting, according to federal transportation statistics. ...

Barring significant changes, this could mean that tens of thousands of residents will be clustered near train stations they only occasionally use. For most shopping, schools and jobs, they'll still get in their cars. ...

Two related studies, both conducted by UC Berkeley and Cal Poly Pomona, show that people who live near transit tend to use it more than people who don't. But the number is still minuscule compared with the number who drive.

Residents were more likely to use transit only if it took less time than driving, if they could walk to their destinations from the transit stop when they arrived, if they had flexible work hours and if they had limited access to a car."
Clearly, that set of criteria is going to really cut down the riders, especially in a city built around the car.

Tom also points to a USC urban economics professor that essentially says, "I told you so."

This backs up my assertions that TOD mixed-use is a fine lifestyle choice, but Houston should not kid itself that it will have any meaningful impact on transit usage or reduce the need for car and road infrastructure.

I recently had my own eye-opening experience with transit when I attended a tech conference in Boston. Coming in, I took a taxi from the airport to the Westin Waterfront right next to the new convention center, which is immediately after you come out of the tunnel from the airport. Total time: about 7 minutes to cover 3 miles. Very nice. $20, including tip and tolls. Not as nice.

Returning, I thought I'd try their new Silver Line, which had a stop not far from the hotel. Dragged my luggage about 5-10 mins to the stop. Spent a while figuring out their farecard machines (not at all clear), but only $2, which is very nice. Waited just a few minutes for the bus-rapid-transit to come up out of the subway tunnel. Very full bus, but it had a nice luggage rack with just enough space for my bag, and I was able to get the last available seat. The bus travelled a bit farther in its own right-of-way at street level, then retracted its connection to the overhead power wires to become a normal bus and go through the underwater tunnel to Boston airport. The whole way I was utterly amazed at the ability of the woman sitting across from me to stare into space and completely avoid eye contact with everybody - including me - on a totally full bus. I've heard that's a learned skill in transit towns. The bus had several stops at various airport terminals before getting to mine, and got so crowded with standing passengers it was nearly impossible to recover my bag and get off. Total bus time: 30 minutes to cover 3 miles! 45 minutes total travel time from when I walked out of the hotel. That's vs. a *seven* minute taxi ride. And I can't imagine what the travel time must have been for all the others on the bus connecting from all over the city - at least in the 1-2 hour range.

I think this is relatively normal for transit. Just read this story by a woman that took 2.5 hours on transit to an outlet mall in San Diego - when a car would be 20 minutes! And we wonder why more people don't ride transit in our time-crunched society. What do you think Metro's trip times to IAH and Hobby will be when the system gets built out? That's a heck of a lot more than 3 miles. That said, it was obviously a popular route. But I'll bet a lot of people on that bus were thinking, "Why didn't I just ask a friend to drive me?..."

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Thoughts on Brown and Crossley pieces

A couple different items I'd like to respond to today. The first, and largest, is Peter Brown's op-ed yesterday on what he calls the urbanists vs. suburbanists debate, but what I'd call the government-planning-and-control vs. free-market land-use debate. I did appreciate his somewhat concilatory tone of integrating both points of view, which is nice to hear. I like that a most of this debate has stayed pretty civil, which is not the case in a lot of debates I've seen on the net. Nonetheless, I do have some responding points.

He mentions the nice master-planned communities (MPCs) that surround Houston, and uses them to support stronger city planning. I've spoken with Joel Kotkin, Len Gilroy, and others about this topic, and the dividing line between good and bad land-use planning usually seems to be determined by whether it was done by private interests or government. Private interests know they have to meet market demands at the right price, or they will financially fail, so they plan and build exactly what people want and are willing to pay for. Government planners don't have this same constraint, so they can feel free to plan their ideal vision of the city, without regard to whether or not they're specifying what builders can afford to build or people want to buy - and that economic disconnect is what causes the problems. The things that do get built can definitely look nice, but overall it prevents a lot of building, development, innovation, vibrancy and opportunity.

Some of my other thoughts:
  • I have trouble reconciling the "unwanted gentrification" in one paragraph with the fleeing creative class in another. Are they gentrifying Houston, or leaving it?
  • His growth stats were a bit bizarre to me:
"...yet over the past five years, the city accounted for only 10.8 percent of the region's growth. This is insufficient to support a vibrant city. Nationwide, as a central city, we rank 10th in population growth among major cities, half that of the city of Dallas, a third that of Phoenix."

I ran a spreadsheet on the most recent Census stats from the top 25 cities (not metros). Since 2000, Houston has had the 3rd most absolute population growth (191K), just barely behind #2 Phoenix (192K) and #1 NYC (206K). On a percentage growth basis, we're #5 at 10% - and well ahead of Dallas, #11 on both rankings. The cities ahead of us, like Phoenix, have large swaths of undeveloped land (something the city of Houston doesn't have) that are essentially filling up with standard suburban development. Houston is doing amazingly well here - certainly more than sufficient to support an extremely vibrant city. More vibrant than at any other time in its history, IMHO.
  • "New public-private financial tools are necessary to facilitate pedestrian friendly, mixed-use, mixed-income development, with ample middle class housing choices. This should be a fundamental public policy." I honestly hope that's not a call for government subsidies for upscale mixed-use development. I know he says "mixed-income", but these projects are always upscale, with a smattering of "affordable" units thrown in for show. And, of course, once one developer is receiving subsidies, they all start asking for them. Let's please not open this Pandora's Box.
The second item I want to respond to is Jay Crossley's interesting piece on our concept of opportunity zones. I actually agree with much of it. My original piece mentioned density as one of the drivers of opportunity zones: "Growth, infill and density increase the number of people and jobs in a given opportunity zone." And transit should certainly be considered part of the mobility equation. The problem is, I think they're relatively small pieces. A study in LA found that giving cars to the transit-dependent increased the number jobs they could access by 59 times! Pretty much no matter what, even with some substantial density increases around transit, a half-hour in a car will access magnitudes more opportunity than a half-hour on transit. And a good freeway will open up far more opportunity zone to more people than a typical transit line. Livable centers and transit-oriented development are a fine idea for using cars for fewer trips, but lets not fall in to the illusion we can substitute transit-mobility and density for cars and freeways, and have anything like the same size and vibrancy of opportunity zones.

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