Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Hou vs. NOLA, Google maps adds Hou street views, homebuyer prefs, CA vs. TX housing cost drivers, commuter rail, transit safety, and more

I'm heading to Orange County, CA for my brother's wedding until Monday, so no posts for a few days. In the meantime, here is a long post of misc smaller items with a lot of links to keep you busy for a while:
  • Google maps has added parts of Houston to it's new street views service. Go there, go to Houston, and then click the Street View button to see the roads in blue that have them. Pretty cool. Surprisingly, it even has some pretty good chunks of Galveston, although not much of the seawall, for some odd reason. Google obviously thinks highly of Houston, since we're one of the first 9 cities to get street views, before Chicago, Seattle, Boston, DC, Austin, or Dallas.
  • A fascinating in-depth story from New Orleans comparing themselves to Houston in the energy business: "What's Houston got that N.O. doesn't? Plenty"
"Houston has 501 public companies and 915 public and private energy firms. The New Orleans region has just 11 public companies, and the local energy sector comprises 45 public and private firms, according to an analysis by the energy-focused investment firm Howard Weil. That mass of companies makes it difficult for an oil and gas company to do business anywhere but Houston.
"We make it about New Orleans, but it's not really about New Orleans. It's about Houston," said Jeff Parker, president of Howard Weil, which is based in New Orleans. "Houston is the Mecca of the oil business. It is strategically the most important city in the U.S., and probably around the world, as far as the energy business is concerned."
...Houston had an edge on New Orleans because it had a more business-friendly environment and a better public school system. "Houston was just a better market to operate and live," Bennett said.

...a combination of factors makes Houston the hub that it is.

"How do you define vibrant? You just feel it, you sense it," Bennett said.

In Houston, energy is "the thing," said Al Petrie, a New Orleans energy consultant. "It's the heart of the city." About half the city's 2.2 million jobs are related to the energy industry.

Many executives talk about the "deal flow" in Houston, where prospects are traded at lunch and customers are picked up during casual conversations. Briggs, of the oil and gas association, likens it to the financial activity and camaraderie of Wall Street.

...Houston continues to grow just because other companies are there, Bennett said.

"It's feeding on itself," he said. "It's kind of like a good college football team that is consistently good. As long as you have a good honest program, recruits just walk in the door. The same thing happens in Houston; it attracts the best talent."

  • An interesting stat on preferences in a Sydney op-ed about their overpriced housing from government development restrictions (thanks to Hugh for the link).
"Making more cheap land available on the fringes would also relieve the pressure for people to live in flats. Research by Patrick Troy of the Australian National University shows 85 per cent of people living in flats would rather live in freestanding homes. So they are denied the lifestyle that Australians have traditionally had, and which most of us ought still have an opportunity to enjoy."

Reinforces that the desire for high-density living is a niche lifestyle, and nowhere near a majority (as I've heard claimed from time to time). Note that that 85% is of people already living in flats, not of the entire population - so the true single-family home preference percentage would be much higher once you add in everyone already living in a detached home - and, conversely, the overall percentage of the population who want to live in dense flats is far less than 15%.
  • Randal O'Toole on why it costs so much more to build a house in California vs. Texas (specifically San Jose vs. Dallas). It's not just the land, but permitting, labor, and impact fees. Check it out for the break down.
  • Christof has an excellent post on when commuter rail makes sense, and when it doesn't (such as in Houston, for the most part). I do have one minor quibble: "Caltrain stands out. It’s been around for a long time, too, but it’s experienced dramatic ridership growth in recent years: 18,000 in 1985, 32,800 today." 2.8% annual growth over 22 years doesn't seem very dramatic to me, but quite modest, especially when compared to the overall growth in Silicon Valley since 1985. Remember, we're talking about a time span between the first and second golden ages of Steve Jobs and Apple here... and that's a very long time in tech years.
  • Christof also summarizes the draft environmental impact statement for Metro's proposed Universities light rail line.
  • One of the factors I don't discuss much in why people choose cars over transit is safety, specifically from crime. I've always thought the crime argument was a bit overblown, and that transit was perfectly safe. As a large, tall male, personal safety is not something I think about much. But then I come across this freakishly scary headline/stat on Drudge that makes me rethink my whole notion of transit safety, especially since my oldest stepdaughter is interning in New York this summer. In fact, she called me on one recent night a little shaken up, because a man had been shot in the face at her Brooklyn subway stop right before she arrived.
60% of riders say sexually harassed on NY City subways...
asked commuters how often someone sexually attacked or harassed them in the subway, and found frightening results. More than 60 percent of those who responded to the online study said they were sexually harassed and 10 percent said they'd been sexually assaulted."

"This whole notion of what happens underground stays underground is just not acceptable anymore," Stringer said. "Instead of fighting back, people have become afraid or believe that nothing can be done."

Rush hour was particularly perilous for harassment and attacks, according to Stringer's survey of more than 2,000 people. Almost all victims did not report the crime to police or Metropolitan Transportation Authority personnel.
  • A good blog post on the purpose of cities, which supports some of the themes in Opportunity Urbanism.
  • The Economist on rising problems in Phoenix, which I consider one of Houston's major high-growth competitor cities. It should serve as a warning to us not to take our eye off the basics of congestion relief, crime, and education.
  • In the category of "transit is better in theory for others than in reality for yourself" department, an amusing expose by the NY Times on billionaire Mayor Bloomberg's supposed transit commute to work:
He is public transportation’s loudest cheerleader, boasting that he takes the subway “virtually every day.” He has told residents who complain about overcrowded trains to “get real” and he constantly encourages New Yorkers to follow his environmentally friendly example.

But Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s commute is not your average straphanger’s ride.

On mornings that he takes the subway from home, Mr. Bloomberg is picked up at his Upper East Side town house by a pair of king-size Chevrolet Suburbans. The mayor is driven 22 blocks to the subway station at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue, where he can board an express train to City Hall. His drivers zip past his neighborhood station, a local subway stop a five-minute walk away.

That means Mr. Bloomberg — whose much-discussed subway rides have become an indelible component of his public image — spends a quarter of his ostensibly subterranean commute in an S.U.V.

Being driven to the 59th Street station shaves about a third off the mayor’s commuting time, based on a reporter’s test runs. It also saves him aggravations others cannot avoid, like taking the local and transferring to the express.

Mr. Bloomberg’s use of the subway to get to work appears to have declined over time. In January 2002, he reported taking the train all but one day of his first three weeks. Nowadays, it appears, the S.U.V. is his primary mode of transportation. Based on the reporters’ observations, the mayor took the subway to work about twice a week.
  • Some great stats on Houston's boom from the latest Greater Houston Partnership report:
"Among the nation’s 12 most populous Metropolitan Statistical Areas, the Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown MSA had the fastest job growth over the 12 months ending June ’07, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Houston’s 3.1 percent gain narrowly topped 2.9 percent in second-ranked Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington. Only three others of the remaining 10 grew faster than the nation’s 1.4 percent job growth." (and only barely above that)

"August Trivium — Ten years ago, in ’97, the value of building permits issued by the City of Houston in the entire year was $2.42 billion. This year, the value of building permits issued by the City of Houston in the first half of the year was $2.88 billion."
I think that wraps it up. Sorry for cramming so many items into one long post. Have a great weekend. I'll be back on Monday

Labels: , , , , , ,


At 9:21 PM, August 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't wait to see all of the new interesting Google Street View finds:

At 3:30 PM, August 09, 2007, Blogger Ian Rees said...

Cars are safer than transit, sure. A student in my program was carjacked and shot outside his residence on Tuesday... and neglecting the 40,000+ that die each year in auto accidents.

At 5:05 PM, August 09, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


I agree. Also, the study from Newsday was not a scientific sample. It was basically a self-selecting sample, which is naturally going to tend towards people that have experienced the issue in question. From the article:

"The survey was more anecdotal and less scientific, with respondents being people on his e-mail list and from women's advocacy groups."

On the point of safety, however, it is easier to sarin-gas a train than my car. I will give the conservatives the point on that.
But, terrorists could just blow up a bridge or block a few lanes of traffic and come out with AK-47's and blow I-10 to bits if they wanted to.

In any case, I do not think that issues like this should prevent transit from being used - sarin gas, harrasment, or otherwise. These are just more opportunities for technology to solve our problems - the article mentioned more cameras are being installed. And these problems seem easier to solve than the basic problem of drunk-driving, traffic accidents, etc, unless you have self-driving autos (which is also a cool problem to solve - but probably a ways off yet, and expensive).

At 10:01 PM, August 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Texas in a nutshell:

At 10:02 AM, August 10, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Transit invoves n enormous loss of personal privacy. You are packed into a train car with many other people, together with their elbows, umbrellas, backpacks, and their cold and flu symptoms. Riders spend their mornings and evenings standing up clutching a bar or poll for hours on their way to and from work. They are also at the mercy, from scheduling, to maintenance to security and communications of a government-run monopoly. There is a reason that our elites, be they political or business elites don't actually ride these transit systems in NYC, Chicago, etc. I don't understand why you are so quick to embrace this mode of transport as the future. You really should try to fully comprehend the full implications of this in terms of quality of life. At least come to NYC and ride a subway line at rush "hour" for a week.

At 10:23 AM, August 10, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


I agree that a subway or light-rail is not necessarily the ideal form of transit for an individual's personal comfort - but I do think it is practical, cheap, and efficient way of moving around millions of people. Yes, elites go around in SUVs or streth limos - because they are "above" what normal people have to do. Or you can be like Arnold and have a fleet of environmentally friendly Hummers. Normal people can either drive a Toyota or take a train. In Houston we have the luxury of a great highway system that is constantly being expanded, but rush hour still stinks.

Also, I don't think Houston's system will be nearly as crowded as what you see in NYC rush hour. You have something like 7 million riders per day there and a very extensive system. Houston will probably have somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 - 200,000 riders per day.


At 1:31 PM, August 10, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been to new york once. I road the LIRR in from about sixty miles out during rush hour. I actually thought it was rather pleasant. Definitely better than my experience driving in New York off rush hour.

At 10:48 PM, August 10, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Re: Houston v. NOLA.

Do you think that some of the difference between Houston and NOLA is that NOLA is land poor? I mean, Houston can simply grow as far as it wants, while New Orleans has pretty firm boundaries, with wetlands to the west, the Gulf of Mexico to the south and east, and Lake Pontchartrain to the north. This might have forced New Orleans to "peak" sooner than Houston, and thereafter decline because it couldn't grow the same way Houston could (at least not without much greater expense).

I've been living in New Orleans for the past few years, and that's been the characteristic here that's stuck out the most. Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, etc., have grown, but all of them had more room to grow.

Of course, New Orleans is also much older, which has lent it more to corruption, insular thinking, and urban decay much like northern strongholds (i.e. Philly and Detroit), although at least it's situated in a booming region, and other cities, like New York and Chicago, have managed to overcome the 'old city' factors. Do you think land poverty might be the most prevalent factor, or am I just imagining things?

At 11:39 AM, August 11, 2007, Blogger Ian Rees said...

I don't understand all the apologetics for cars. Resource scarcity is going to make them obsolete real quick, even if we manage to move to battery-operated cars (hydrogen is a joke.) We need to start thinking about rebuilding our cities primarily around walking, secondarily biking, and transit in a tertiary role for longer-distance mobility. I think Copenhagen is the best example, with other Asian and European cities also excellent models.

At 11:37 PM, August 12, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


If we're short on resources, where will we get the money and resources to "rebuild" all of our cities, including tearing up roads, building more rail, and demolishing all houses in the suburbs and building apartment towers in the downtowns?

At 9:12 AM, August 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ian your tertiary mode of transportation sounds great in theory but it would bankrupt us. There's not enough money to go around.

At 11:30 AM, August 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree, Denmark is way ahead of us. Like when they just finished building the Oresund bridge linking Malmo with Copenhagen, -- quite a huge highway project (albeit with some rail) for a country with about the population of Harris County.

Our international competitors are far more aware than most U.S. elites concerning the positive transformational effects that new roads can have.

By the way, did I mention that the Oresund is a toll bridge and that the entire complex is self-financing? Think about that next time you're biking in the rain with your week's worth of groceries balanced on the handle bars.

At 2:43 PM, August 13, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


Have you ever been to Denmark? Maybe then you would know what Ian is talking about. I biked around the entire city and it was quite easy. Here in Houston you would have to harbor a death wish to do the same.

Of course, Houston is a much different city than Copenhagen, and it would be very inefficient to try to model Houston on Copenhagen at this point.

But I think Houston could take steps towards better neighborhoods - with better support for trails, bike paths, sidewalks, pedestrian bridges, etc.

I also disagree that cars are going away. We will move to battery power or something - there are several companies already close to mass-producing these. That is good on the environmental front. But, it does not have any effect on reducing traffic congestion, which is the more difficult problem to solve than resource usage.


At 3:46 PM, August 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The point of my post is that even a place like Copenhagen understands that highways are an integral part of a transport network - and are expanding them , whatever U.S. elites think may be the future here and in Europe. I understand that Copenhagen is also building further highways west of the city, though I'm not certain of that (can't read Danish). Note that part of the justification for the construction of the Oresund Bridge is that it will enable people to move to low cost Malmo, Sweden and commute in to high-cost Copenhagen. In other words, the land use restrctions that make for cute bike-ability also leave the place too expensive for many people to raise a family.

In terms of having been to Copenhagen, no I haven't. I have lived in Europe and I found that most (I'll refrain from saying "all") people there own and use cars. Most visitors to Europe spend time in central cities, but most Europeans live in outlying suburbs. These suburbs don't look much different than anything you'd be used to seeing in the U.S. Copenhagen has about 500,000 people, the metro area has around 1.2 million. Perhaps it's true that there are a million plus bike commuters doing their thing over quaint cobblestone streets throughout Denmark's winters (and 18 hours of darkness), but I'm skeptical. I suppose the scene would look like that old footage of Beijing circa the 1980s. Anyway, that's not what I saw when I lived iin urban areas in Germany and Australia. I have no doubt that Copenhagen has a nice center city that is quite bikeable, but I doubt most people live in that center city or do most of their travel by walking and bike. I'd hate to be stuck on a bike through a Denmark January.

I have no problem encouraging bike use and facilitating that use in urban planning, but bike use comes under the rubric of recreation, not transportation. Bikes are of no use to a huge portion of the population (elderly, infirm, children, etc.), are useless in many weather conditions and cannot be relied upon to handle most of the errands and other travel people need to do on a daily basis.

At 7:35 PM, August 13, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Owen: sorry for the response delay - just got back in town. I agree that the lack of land was certainly a factor for NOLA. I don't know how it stacks up against the other negative factors though, which are considerable. One counter-argument would be the San Francisco example: very constrained land for the core city, but they still evolved into a major world metro with transportation connections over and under the water to expand the metro. Could NOLA have done something similar? Hard to say. I tend to doubt it, since it doesn't have the beauty and climate of the SF Bay, which acted as the magnet for growth and the $$$ to build the infrastructure to support that growth.

At 10:10 PM, August 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'd say there's no need to even introduce beauty into the equation -- San Franscisco is just far better situated. California has positively boomed over the past fifty-some-odd years. The south has also certainly done well, but it's been much more hit-and-miss, particularly in the middle south. Moreover, those cities in the south that have been successful are almost entirely low-density cities.

I know this is "Houston Strategies," but it would be interesting to hear some suggestions on how to improve the situation in New Orleans. It's still a sizeable metroplex, but it's been in a downturn since the 1960's. Does anybody know of any good turnaround stories that could be applied?

At 9:06 PM, August 14, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

To be honest, I think their best model may be Las Vegas: adult playground, but with more charm and history. Models like Houston, Dallas, or Atlanta are unrealistic, IMHO. The casino companies are all looking for growth - really let them go nuts in NOLA, with limited regulation and taxation, and I think they would inject a lot of capital and vitality.


Post a Comment

<< Home