Friday, June 22, 2007

Urban Corridors and learning from Dallas' transit mistake

Well, I'm finally back from a very successful conference for OpenTeams. Today's super busy with conference followups, so I'm just going to pass this blurb from Planetizen along on the importance of the Urban Corridors initiative in Houston to get the most value possible out of our investment in the core LRT/BRT network.
If the Denver Region does not use transit as a growth shaping tool and simply builds FasTracks I see no induced or growth benefit. By analogy this is what maybe happening in Dallas, and it might be a future for what could happen in Denver. You spend a few billion dollars and build a huge transit system, then you take a passive role in shaping growth around the system and the real estate market pretty much ignores you. That is essentially what has happened in Dallas, a few very nice TODs and higher land values near transit, but the growth of the Dallas Metroplex follows freeways much more than transit. You can also do lots of TOD planning and not act on the plans (Miami, Atlanta and Fairfax County in the 1980s and 90s) and get little or no benefit.
On another note, I need to apologize for the duplicate post email that went out to everyone on the email list last night. I updated the last post with a link to the Chronicle, who printed my Viewpoints letter yesterday, and when I hit Save instead of Publish, it saved it as a draft, removing it from the blog. Of course, when I fixed the mistake by republishing it, it resent the email to the Google Group. Again, sorry for the inbox clutter.

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At 5:43 PM, June 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I read the article published in Planetizen. Perhaps the key phrase of the entire essay reads, "There is lots of evidence that transit can redirect where and how growth occurs within a region in combination with supportive public policy." Translated, that means that land use needs to be rezoned or reshaped and that developers usually need to be bribed in one way or another order to build around the transit.

Development in urban areas throughout history has cluttered around the predominant form of transportation. In cities of the ancient world, those which had ports or harbors would see development at or around the harbor. In the 19th century, development would occur around rail tracks and train stations. Indeed some of the fiercest fighting which occurred in state and local politics during late 19th century America centered around trying to get the rail barons to build their lines so that they ran through your town or city and not go through some other town or city because where that rail line ran meant life or death to urban areas of that era. The power of railroads was so great that political pressures arose to the point where governmental agencies like the Texas Railroad Commission were created, ostensibly to rein the railroads in. That era was superseded by motorized transportation by the 1920's and development centered around it.

Another piece of this picture is that we have seen an immense rise in human living standards, income and wealth over the past 150 - 200 years. There have been drops in costs of production. We have also seen substantial drops per mile in time and money to transport goods and people around from one place to another, and we have also seen even bigger drops in the cost of communication - of acquiring and transmitting information. Innovations like the development of AC electrical power have allowed for the generation and distribution of energy over vast distances. These developments have created a situation where many (but by no means all) households and firms are not necessarily bound to having to be cluttered together, or in a specific place, in order to obtain the most gains they can reap from living in an urban area. This phenomena is referred to in the learned literature of urban studies as being footloose.

Of course we have by no means witnessed a complete death to location, location, location. For example, if you own a business that relies on a lot of cargo being delivered by freight rail, well it would seem that it would be in your best interest to locate your business at or near a freight rail line.

Still, what footloose firms and households mean for those who would promote TOD is that they are having to contend and compete with all other areas in the community, all of which have their own appeals. In Houston, the designated Urban Corridors will find themselves competing with Sugar Land, the Clear Lake area, the Woodlands, Katy, Jersey Village / 290, areas west of the Galleria, Pearland, Greenspoint, the list goes on and on. There are a huge number of options for developers, firms, and homeowners to choose from. Indeed I watched CM Peter Brown say on the Municipal Channel that only 11 percent of new development that has taken place over the past 5 years has been in Houston (I'm not sure if he meant that this was all of Houston or not), while the remaining 89 percent has taken place in outer areas.

With such competitive pressures in play, that usually leads to the bribery taking place for TOD to occur. Tax breaks are offered to developers, TIRZ arrangements or other tools are put in place, and so forth.

The author of the Planetizen article then goes on to describe the pheonomena that Americans continue to spread out in the face of rising gas prices, and that any gains in transit are being swamped by ongoing increases in motorized transportation use.

As to whether transit can contribute to a city growing more and not better, I would think that there are more powerful factors at work which would contribute to the growth of cities and urban areas. Factor payments and productivity gains resulting from specialization, agglomorating economies of scale, and innovation will lead to cities growing more.

I will leave this epistle with a link to an article that appeared on June 10, 2007 in USA Today describing how mixed use developments are popping up all over America with no mass transit. That brings up the issue of whether mass transit is a necessary or a sufficient condition for mixed use development to occur.

At 3:05 AM, June 24, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the reasons that I believe that Houston will make out better with its rail line than other cities, is the fact that we dont have zoning. People will be able to build whatever they believe is the most desired around the transit stations. As opposed to what the "planners" decide should be built.

At 5:17 PM, June 24, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

All good points, Neal. And I agree that cars/roads will continue to dominate transportation, and I'm opposed to govt subsidies for TOD. My thinking is, *if* we're going to spend billions on a core rail network , then we might as well try to maximize the value we get out of it by encouraging density at the stops, so those people who want to live that way take fewer trips by car. "Encourage" in this case doesn't mean subsidies, but it does mean changing our currently suburban-oriented development code in the immediate zones around the stops (setbacks, parking requirements, etc.).

Let's make sure we're not doing anything to prevent that kind of development, and then let the market do what it will.

At 2:54 PM, June 27, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your post ignores that fact that right now, public policy is very much "supportive" of low-density, auto-centered development. It is anything but a fair playing field. As Tory points out, the development codes are currently preventing urban development, and even in the neighborhood where urban development has its best chance (Midtown), the setup is still essentially suburban, with wide and fast streets, few parking meters, and poor sidewalks.

Expecting urban development to happen on its own in a city like this, where the public has not provided on-street parking or good sidewalks (or taken away develoment restrictions), would be like expecting suburban development to take off in a city where the public did not build freeways, did not widen any roads, and did not let developers put parking lots in front of their buildings. Clearly, some public intervention should take place.


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