Thursday, August 30, 2007

Kotkin on infrastructure investments

The Wall Street Journal opinion page has been featuring Joel Kotkin more frequently lately, the most recent one being on infrastructure underinvestment in American cities, as politicians overfocus on "sexier" investments like stadiums and convention centers (seven-day nonsubscriber link, WSJ permalink, Kotkin site permalink). Some excerpts, including the Houston ones:
Two years ago, as floodwaters overcame the tired defenses of New Orleans, American cities got a wake-up call about the dangers of inadequate infrastructure. But most urban leaders went back to sleep. Since then the occasional disaster, such as the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis, has been followed by tut-tutting. But if history is a guide, the rhetoric will be followed by another tap of the snooze button.

Rather than deal with the expensive and difficult task of retrofitting the sinews of commerce and communication -- bridges, tunnels, roads, rail lines, ports, sewers, and drainage systems -- America's urban powers focus on the ephemeral and the glitzy. They emphasize not brick and mortar, but sports stadia, convention centers, arts palaces, dubiously effective new light-rail lines, hotels and condo projects.

Instead of returning, many evacuees -- including teachers, businesspeople, health-service workers and the working poor -- appear likely to stay in Atlanta, Houston, or Dallas, where there are prospects for middle-class job-seekers and their families. These cities, particularly the Texas ones, have made significant investments in new roads, airports and waterways.

Lack of broad opportunities was the most-often cited reason by evacuees in Houston for not returning to the place they all consider home. "[Houston] is a place where people go to get ahead," says Crystal Walker, a native of New Orleans and a former student at predominantly African-American Southern University. "New Orleans -- it will always be my first love -- but there are better opportunities here for my kids."

The ultimate question here is that of priorities. Yes, artists and cultural institutions have always been hallmarks of great cities. But underpinning that efflorescence since the earliest times has been critical commitments to such mundane things as water systems, canals, dikes and protective walls -- the economic infrastructure that supports the rest.


Although detested by many of today's leading urbanists, the highway system allowed firms and individuals to spread more efficiently into the suburban periphery and into rural areas, creating the modern, dispersed multipolar metropolis. By some estimates, it has also returned more than six dollars in increased productivity for each dollar invested. According to one federal study, it has brought an estimated $1 trillion in producer cost reductions.


Nevertheless, few politicians seem interested in a coherent "back to basics" infrastructure investment strategy, except as a potential opportunity for pork-barrel spending. Until they are, we can look forward to more natural disasters, bridge collapses, subway malfunctions and power shortages. What happened in New Orleans two years ago could become not the exception, but the emblem of a troubled American future.

Even in a digital economy, physical infrastructure still counts for a lot - and seems to be something Houston and Texas excel at with the port, airports, highways, and a strong electrical grid (remember the California blackouts?).

Have a great holiday weekend.

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At 10:45 PM, August 30, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Have you seen "The Smartest Guys in the Room" about Enron? Or read the book? Most of the California blackouts were man-made - they show the Enron guys joking on the phone about when to cause the next blackout / price-spike. I'd highly recommend it if you haven't seen it.

At 8:09 AM, August 31, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What does Enron have to do with this post by Tory?

The issue is the problem of local, state, and federal government's lack of concern to fund important infrastructure.

P.S. The california blackouts can all be blamed on the state of california itself. The state stopped the expansion and construction of new power plants all over the state in the name of the environment and left the state vulnerable to buying power from other utilities. They brought in onto themselves. Actually, maybe your post does pertain to Tory's. California's lack of investment in power generation caused their problems.

At 10:10 AM, August 31, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the fundamental infrastructures like roads, airports, seaports, drainage, water and electrical systems don't work what is the point of spending money on other things. The Houston area better guard its basic infrastructures or the economy will stop working and poverty will build up. I do consider park space to be an important thing though. We should still buy land for parks.

At 5:44 PM, September 02, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Hmm, Tory mentioned the electrical grid, which is why I brought up "The Smartest Guys in the Room", which explains why those power failures happened.

Interesting article in the Globe today about subway system investment (speaking of infrastructure). China alone is in the process of constructing 36 systems around the country. The one in Shanghai alone will have over 500 miles of track and carry 12 million passengers per day by 2020. So for all those saying subway systems are "quaint things of the past", think again. The booming Chinese economy plans on having plenty of rail, as they are already having problems with too many cars on the roads.

At 9:02 PM, September 02, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

China: yes, authoritarian societies throughout history, including the old communist bloc, are big on stacking the masses in giant, grim apartment towers and forcing them to use transit, while those in authority have drivers to take them everywhere.

At 9:09 PM, September 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the point of Michael's post was that in a country where the government seems to be planning the most efficient possible methods of growth, subways are a big part of the plan. I don't recommend that we adopt coercive government planning like China has, but it is interesting to note that subways are not the "obsolete," nineteenth-century legacy you make them out to be.

At 9:51 PM, September 02, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I've always said that in a certain type of city with extremely high density and only one or two major concentrated job districts/downtown(s), subways can work fine - although they are astronomically expensive. Houston is clearly not that kind of city.

At 10:52 PM, September 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No one's arguing for subways in Houston. But transit continues to be viable around the world, in old cities and in the new ones being built overnight in China.

At 8:04 AM, September 03, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

No Enron, still electricity problems in CA:

My understanding was that the fundamental physical shortage of kW was already there - Enron just took advantage of it to make big $$$.

At 10:36 PM, September 04, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


I disagree that subway (and other rail) do not work for Houston. Houston has 3 main job centers - downtown, galleria / greenway area, and med center. Surely Shanghai has at least that many job centers, as does any major city of 20 million plus. But I would also argue more for commuter rail and a much-enhanced light-rail as well. And my point about China has nothing to do with their system of government - but their choice of transit for the future. If it is because rail is most efficient and cost-effective, then that seems to fly in the face of all the conservative arguments against rail. The key difference seems to be that the Chinese are factoring in things like pollution with their "costs", whereas right-wing America does not.

Enron did more than just exploit California's existing deficiencies. If you watch the movie, they have several scenes where Enron guys call CA plant operators and tell them to take their plants offline (for no reason whatsoever). CA may have other problems as well, but the stuff that happened in 2002 or whatever was vastly exagerrated by a corrupt corporation (and politicians).


At 10:48 PM, September 04, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Galleria and Greenway are separate job centers. Westchase, Greenspoint, and the Energy Corridor are all very large as well (roughly the size of Greenway, but Westchase and the EC are growing much faster than all other Houston job centers). Galleria/Uptown job towers are very spread out, and not easy to serve with transit. Downtown is still the largest, but still has less than 7% of area jobs, vs. much higher levels in commuter rail cities like NYC and Chicago.

> The key difference seems to be that the Chinese are factoring in things like pollution with their "costs", whereas right-wing America does not.

You're kidding, right? Have you seen all the media pieces on the incredible pollution levels in China?

China has everything to do with their system of government, which essentially dictates where people will live. If you can force everyone to live in high-density apartment towers, rail transit can work quite well. But everyone there who acquires any wealth aims for a car and to live in a private home (plenty of stories on that too). It's the global aspiration, and the world is getting wealthier at a very rapid clip...

At 11:22 AM, September 05, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


So, for our job centers, like other cities, you have bus routes that fan out off of commuter rail / light rail / subway at places like Uptown, Energy Corridor, etc. This really isn't that hard!

China is concerned about pollution, according to the article, as well as other things I have read about their reputation for the Beijing Olympics. They are not in great shape right now with their pollution levels, but they understand that they need to improve (unlike us, apparently).

Again, this development is in 36 cities in China alone - not just Shanghai / Beijing. And this is happening all over the world as well - a completely new subway being developed in Amsterdam for instance - there is a wikipedia entry somewhere outlining thousands of systems in development or already constructed. You seem to be living in a dream world where rail development is not happening and is a thing of the past, or does not make sense for our future. Whereas, if you check the paper, or pay attention to what is going on, rail development is clearly on the uptick world-wide. The future is not just a future of "increasing wealth", but also of "increasing population". The two put together require more than just cars / highways to move our "increasing population" around, as China clearly shows.

I agree with you, in a completely hypothetical world where you do not have population growth, cars are great! But Houston is growing too rapidly for this naive approach.


At 1:54 PM, September 05, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> So, for our job centers, like other cities, you have bus routes that fan out off of commuter rail / light rail / subway at places like Uptown, Energy Corridor, etc. This really isn't that hard!

As I've said before, it's easy to show a map where everything's connected. But making total trip times with all the transfers competitive is almost impossible. One-way commutes rapidly balloon into an hour, which people simply won't tolerate. Which is why I advocate point-to-point express buses in a managed lane network: affordable, flexible, and the fastest end-to-end trip times.

I've never said anything about rail not happening, or not being appropriate in some cities. In high-density cities, or ones with more centralized and controlling governments that can dictate land-use patterns, they can work. China has a billion+ people concentrated in a relatively small area. They completely dictate land-use. Most of the population can't afford a car. And they have dirt-cheap labor to build rail. Voila, it makes sense. None of these apply in Houston, or in most of the USA.

> The future is not just a future of "increasing wealth", but also of "increasing population".

Actually, we're forecast to level out and start declining globally sometime in the next few decades. Europe, Russia, and Japan are already on the decline, and China isn't too far behind (because of the one-child policy). Houston is certainly growing, but nothing that can't be handled with existing development patterns + an affordable managed-lane network with express transit.

At 3:19 PM, September 05, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Hmm, sure some cities are declining, and Europe is declining, but in general, not true. Migration patterns from countryside to city still more than offset this in urban areas, plus, we are still expected to grow by 100 million people in raw numbers in North America in the next 100 years, with most of this growth in urban centers:

And of course these figures could change - but bottom line is we are growing from 6 billion to 9.8 billion people in the next 150 years. Even cities in North America will be growing and becoming more dense, like Houston. Indeed, Houston is growing much faster than many other North American cities.

Another post with population increases broken down by country:

At 3:56 PM, September 05, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

My forecast for Houston growth patterns would be similar to what we've seen in past: job center growth along and at the intersections of major spoke and loop freeways (inc. the new Grand Parkway), most residential growth in the suburbs, some densification and growth in the core, which will be served fine by the planned LRT/BRT network. Job centers in the core will grow very little, and they're already well served by the HOV network. Little or no role, need, or cost-effectiveness for commuter rail.

At 7:06 PM, September 05, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just heard on the news... Rates Going Up On The Toll Road! That shouldn't surprise anyone, since the toll revenues cover, among other things, employee pay. After all, they are probably entitled to a raise like the rest of us. But here's the gist of this post: Do we really need toll booths?
I would like for someone, who has the capability and desire, to find out how much of the tolls pay for salaries and how much goes for actual maintenance. I would think, since employee pay and benefits are the overwhelming operating expense of any organization, that most of the monies go to operating expense as opposed to maintenance. (Are you with me here?) It would seem the sensible thing to do would be do away with the expense of operating the toll booths (lighting, a/c, heat, etc.) and the employees who operate them, their supervisors, and the overpaid department heads. The upkeep could be absorbed into the city/county/and/or state budget. The result: 1) unrestricted travel on the beltway and other toll roads and, 2) accessibility to those who cannot otherwise afford the daily fares for use of a public roadway.

At 9:18 PM, September 05, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The overwhelming majority of the toll fares go to pay the bonds that funded the original construction.

At 2:04 PM, September 06, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


I disagree that subway (and other rail) do not work for Houston. Houston has 3 main job centers - downtown, galleria / greenway area, and med center.

First of all, you really think SUBWAYS could be a good idea for Houston? If you would even vaugely entertain that notion, it's more evidence of your inability understand that massive capital costs of rail.

Secondly, I completely agree with Tory here. Houston has more than three major job centers. Greenway Plaza is too far away from the Galleria to be a part of that job center. Moreover, there are other major job centers -- Greenspoint, the Woodlands, and Clear Lake (with NASA) to name a few. Finally, the fact remains that most jobs in Houston don't center around any of the job centers at all -- they're spread around in smaller office complexes around the city. There simply isn't the level of centralization you find in, say, New York.

So, for our job centers, like other cities, you have bus routes that fan out off of commuter rail / light rail / subway at places like Uptown, Energy Corridor, etc. This really isn't that hard!

Again, Tory's right. You can't have a massively spread-out transit system that allows for quick commuting times. Add even one transfer to the mix, and it becomes incredibly inconvenient. Wanting this stuff to work isn't enough; it has to be practical.

At 3:17 PM, September 06, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


Yes, I think subways or elevated rail would be better for inside loop 610 / galleria area than what is currently being constructed, with commuter rail offshoots down 45 / I-10, 288, 59, and 290. I never argued that it was not tremendously expensive, just that it would be worth the cost in the long run. Actually, elevated rail is probably much less expensive than subways.

Why do I favor this? Well, metropolitan areas of comparable size to Houston have subways and / or commuter rail - Boston, San Fran - to name a couple. They are still a couple million people larger than Houston at present, but by 2030 the population figures should be much closer. Chicago has elevated rail, which I would also be in favor of and which was proposed in Houston in the early 1980's but shot down (I believe) by the then anti-rail mayor.

This conversation is really moot since subways / elevated are not really on the table. But, hypothetically speaking, if you think that central Houston (meaning inside loop 610 with focuses on the southern and western portions) may one day grow to a comparable size / density of a Boston, Chicago, San Fran, (as I do, based on our 20% growth rates right now), then clearly we deserve a better (and more expensive) solution than at-grade light-rail. I believe you are already seeing evidence of this with the new condo towers in the Galleria, construction efforts in med center, office towers about to go up downtown, etc. This does not mean we do not have growth at the periphery as well, but these areas are appropriately served by less expensive commuter rail or bus.


At 6:05 AM, September 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While downtown, TMC and the Galleria are employment centers, How many people actually live there vs the total population of Houston? not many. for a good system, it needs to save people time. When people need to get in their cars to access the system, most likely they will remain in their cars til their ultimate destination.

At 9:53 AM, September 07, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


Why do I favor this? Well, metropolitan areas of comparable size to Houston have subways and / or commuter rail - Boston, San Fran - to name a couple.

You're honestly comparing Boston and Francisco to Houston? Are you serious? I'm sorry, mike, but it's like you don't even care what the facts are.

You know as well as I do that the issue isn't population, but the layout of the city and population density. Houston is incredibly spread out with a low population density, one that has not been increasing considerably over time.

Moreover, San Francisco's transit system has been extremely expensive and transports less than 15% of commuters. If those are the anemic results you get in a fairly dense, extremely liberal urban area like San Francisco, what would you expect to happen with the low-density, automobile-loving city that is Houston?

[I]f you think that central Houston (meaning inside loop 610 with focuses on the southern and western portions) may one day grow to a comparable size / density of a Boston, Chicago, San Fran, (as I do, based on our 20% growth rates right now), then clearly we deserve a better (and more expensive) solution than at-grade light-rail.

It's by hardly apparent that density inside the loop will ever reach the levels of Boston, but even if they did, subways or elevated rail wouldn't be cost effective. The only American city where heavy rail of that kind has actually proven cost effective is probably New York, and perhaps parts of Chicago.

In any case, Boston and virtually every other city has been losing out to the automobile as a percentage of commuters, yet you now propose massive new investments for a speculative future demand. If you look at the numbers, it's pretty clear that transit isn't going to see a major uptick anytime soon, no matter how much money is wasted on it.

At 1:01 PM, September 07, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Yes, inside loop 610 is pretty dense, and that level is constantly increasing. When people say Houston has a low density, that is because Houston city limits are the size of what in other cities would be considered the entire metropolitan area, including several other cities and suburbs.

Lee, I know the population figures are lower than they need to be to justify a subway system. However, I think elevated rail should have been given more serious consideration in Houston.

Owen, if we could take even 15% of the cars (and buses) off the streets in the inner loop in Houston, I think that would be a major accomplishment.

And BTW, rail is cost effective in DC, Philly, NY, Boston, Chicago as well as many other cities around the globe.

You and Tory both seem to argue that "people love cars", therefore we should not build rail. Well, that's a lousy argument. I believe that the role of the federal and local government is also to encourage smart, efficient development - not just in liberal cities, but in all cities. People can still use cars or SUVs if they really want to, but there should be a cost for doing so. After all, there is a cost to our sprawl - both in maintenance costs for our roadways, subdivisions, and pollution.

Also, I think if elevated rail ever had been or is on the ballot in the future, it will be approved even in "conservative" Houston, because as much as people "love cars", they also understand that investment in infrastructure requires a multi-faceted approach.

At 1:11 PM, September 07, 2007, Blogger ian said...

"yet you now propose massive new investments for a speculative future demand."

Ha, like that's never happened for other modes of transportation before. Ever.


At 6:37 PM, September 07, 2007, Blogger Chris K said...

Independent of all other variables, it is way too hot here to be voluntarily waiting for buses and/or walking to rail/subway stations.

At 6:56 PM, September 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A quick look at the population density map confirms that SW Houston is significantly more dense than inside the loop. So if anything we'd be talking about the Bellaire Blvd. subway or the Gessner St. El...


At 7:43 PM, September 07, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


Yes, inside loop 610 is pretty dense, and that level is constantly increasing.

It's not very dense at all. We're not talking about an area where the majority of homes are very small, or most people live in condos and apartments. It's still mostly single-family homes with fair-sized yards. If you think it's "fairly dense," you're thinking of someplace else.

Density is increasing, but nobody knows for how long. If you add historic preservation into the mix (which is expanding), many neighborhoods will never densify. Furthermore, it's unclear whether the trend will level out or not -- and in any event, the rate of densification is not so high that we're going to be Manhattan or Chicago in thirty years.

Owen, if we could take even 15% of the cars (and buses) off the streets in the inner loop in Houston, I think that would be a major accomplishment.

At a cost of several billion? Again, you don't seem to mind the cost of all of this. Minimal impacts, like going from 5% transit usage to just shy of 15%, is supposedly worth major disruptions in transportation and billions upon billions of dollars, even though there isn't even the likelihood of success (if you think you can simply build heavy rail transit and make Houston in San Francisco, I still say you're dreaming).

Besides, there's a cheaper way of doing this. Instead of building massively expensive rail, you could invest more in buses, add more lines, and make them much cheaper. That's the most cost-effective to increase transit usage. Otherwise, we'll probably go down the road Dallas has, which isn't pretty.

And BTW, rail is cost effective in DC, Philly, NY, Boston, Chicago as well as many other cities around the globe.

No, it isn't. You keep saying this, and you cite a few dubious articles from LightRailNow, but the balance of the evidence shows that rail is cost-ineffective almost everywhere in the US. That you'd cite DC is particularly amusing, since DC transit actually has a lower share of commuters than it did when there was a bus-only system -- and it managed that despite being massively subsidized by the federal government. Now *that's* failure for you.

You and Tory both seem to argue that "people love cars", therefore we should not build rail. Well, that's a lousy argument.

It's perfectly valid argument. If cars are better, quicker transportation and roads are cheaper for the government to provide on a per-commuter basis, then you're not going to be able to cram people onto transit vehicles like sardines. People generally demand personalized transportation; anything less will be longer, less comfortable, and infinitely less convenient.

The problem becomes worse when you insist on rail, which by its nature attempts to consolidate multiple bus lines into a single rail line, thus making it less likely that a person can simply walk to transit and have a direct line to a station near his or her destination.

You're trying to sell communal showers to somebody who has already has a jacuzzi tub. This is why transit boosters so often aren't focused on making transit better, but making driving more difficult.

Also, I think if elevated rail ever had been or is on the ballot in the future, it will be approved even in "conservative" Houston, because as much as people "love cars", they also understand that investment in infrastructure requires a multi-faceted approach.

Doubt it. Heavy rail has lost multiple times on the ballot. The proposals weren't elevated rail, but then they didn't need to be (they were talking about using old commerical rail right of ways, I believe). Put a multi-billion dollar debacle like that on the ballot, and it'll go down in flames.

At 7:46 PM, September 07, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


Ha, like that's never happened for other modes of transportation before. Ever.

True, but here the speculation is completely unfounded. Houston's population density would have to skyrocket at a massive, unprecedented rate to justify rail expenditures now.

At 7:49 PM, September 07, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


Independent of all other variables, it is way too hot here to be voluntarily waiting for buses and/or walking to rail/subway stations.

Give this man a medal!

Houston is extremely hot, and effective transit requires that you have extreme density and a willingness to walk moderate distances. In Houston's heat, that's a much harder sell than the northeast.

Furthermore, Houston was laid out for the automobile, unlike northeastern cities. It's unlikely our development patterns or our density will ever mimick theirs. More likely, Houston will become more like decentralized Los Angeles, which is actually quite dense, but laid out such that transit has been a total failure (highway management has also been a failure, but mostly because they keep canceling freeway projects).

At 10:01 PM, September 07, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


At 9:04 AM, September 08, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> You're trying to sell communal showers to somebody who has already has a jacuzzi tub.

Great analogy, Owen. It's always nice to start the morning with a good laugh... :-)

At 11:56 AM, September 08, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


Wow - it's amazing how differently the old-guard sees these issues, but, to your points:

1) Houston's heat makes it difficult for rail / bus commuters:

Understood, but people in the Northeast have to deal with walking outside to subway stations in freezing temperatures. This is not a reason not to have a transit project.

2) The voters:

Last time voters were given a choice on rail in Houston, they approved adding 70+ miles of rail. So, even in you and Tory's "conservative Houston", we have seen the politicians and voters go from opposing rail in the 70's and 80's to voting for it. Again, this voting pattern is pretty consistent across the country / world. Your side happens to be on the wrong side of history.

3) The cost:

Let us not forget that I-10 and 290 expansions are costing several billion dollars apiece. These prices will only continue to increase in the future as right-of-way costs for 30 lane highways etc. grow. Or, as in Boston or Austin, we have to start building our highways up in double-decker fashion or under ground. What would 2 lanes of commuter rail have cost? If you want to complain about costs in the federal and local government, sorry - but costs for transit and core infrastructure development is not the place you are going to get any sympathy from me.

4) Houston's layout is too disperse

Same old same old argument from you. This is not about serving 100% of the community or entirely replacing cars. This is about providing more infrastructure in our dense corridors. And possibly commuter rail (if we were smart).

5) Buses

Buses rely on the same roadways as cars and do not provide for the same capacity / efficiency levels of rail as your population increases.

6) Jacuzzi tubs

You say I am attempting to "downgrade" what people already have. Nice try - but I have the voters and history on my side, and you don't. People understand that "A LandRover for everyone", while nice in theory, is not a transportation plan.


At 12:13 PM, September 08, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


I couldn't get to your H-GAC link. But this report shows population densities in Houston over 5,000 people per square mile in huge swaths of Harris County:

It also shows most population growth (2 million of 3 million) and job growth occurring inside Harris County - with over 10,000 jobs / square mile in a few pretty concentrated corridors. But - in general - you are correct - our mass-transit approach should not be confined to inside loop 610, but also to other areas of west Houston as population / job forecasts warrant.


At 1:20 PM, September 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is it:

It's just census data, but it breaks down into more detail above 5000 persons psm than the other HCAG map you linked to.

I didn't mean to suggest that I think we need rail on Bellaire. Instead, I was pointing out that the most dense parts of Houston never seem to factor in these kinds of discussions. If we're talking "infrastructure", as opposed to "amenity", that's a little odd.


At 3:11 PM, September 08, 2007, Blogger Chris K said...

In order for rail construction to be justified, you need

A)A sufficient consumer demand for rail and
B)Predictable macro scale economic benefits

As to A),
For people to start demanding rail enough to begin to justify the expenditure, rail will need to promise them an equivalent or superior amount of utility in comparison to existing infrastructure.

As to B),
It of course makes no sense to build something if it is a net drag on the Houston economy -- it ought to create more value than it consumes.

Why I am skeptical about A):

As a consumer of transportation, rail offers me little benefit unless it can take me everywhere I need to go, such that I no longer have to pay for my car, its depreciation, its insurance, etc. I do not demand rail between the Galleria and Downtown, for example, because I would need to drive in order to get to either hub in the first place, making me inclined to just drive the entire way if I need to get to the other. As my time is valuable to me, I would rather not walk to/wait for/endure the stops of a bus getting to and from the rail hubs, so it is simply not an option. Rail without high interconnectivity=waste.

Why I am skeptical about B):

In order to make economic sense, the addition of rail would need to 1. Increase the ability of the Houston worker to make money, 2. His subsequent propensity to spend it, and 3. Make Houston more attractive to potential investors. While rail may increase 1. and 2. along its corridors, this comes at the expense of non-connected regions of the city, who must also chip in funds despite their lack of access. So by simply robbing Peter to pay Paul, no new value is created, its just moved around. Again, large scale productivity benefits will only arise once interconnectivity is very high. As to 3., the sight of a sleek new rail line may indeed make Houston more attractive to new companies and families that want a safe, clean, efficient, aesthetically pleasing environment. But if attracting these parties is really the deep and underlying goal of a rail project, we would be so much smarter to use these funds towards education, the tide that actually DOES raise all ships.

In sum, if you build rail, build it everywhere to gain the benefits of high connectivity, and if you have enough money to do that, you should have spent it on education anyway.

At 3:30 PM, September 08, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'll mention again that riding transit+walking in the cold is not the same as in the heat. In the first, you bundle up. What do you do in the second? We haven't invented the "A/C jacket" yet. Then there are the frequent torrential rainstorms, which have a very different impact on pedestrians than the drizzle of London or most other transit-oriented cities in more temperate climes (like whether an umbrella actually works or not).

As far as the voters, there are limits to their expertise and the decisions they're qualified to make. Maybe picking political leaders (and there's certainly debate about their skills there), but would you want them to vote on our national defense strategy? Or our environmental regulation regime? No - too complex. We expect our elected politicians to delegate these things to qualified people. Transportation strategy is the same.

But The Onion summed up voter support for transit best:

Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others

At 4:29 PM, September 08, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


Thanks for the link. I think the goal would be to expand to areas such as those you mention, but the central rail grid needs to be built before you have connections to other parts of the city (including airports). I do agree that discussions should be based on areas that actually need rail, not on building an "amenity".

Chris K,

Agree with a lot of your analysis - including that rail is seen as a positive in terms of quality of life. However, perhaps you are setting the bar a bit too high when you say that rail would "need to take you everywhere" to be justified. This will quite simply never happen in Houston - unless you live in the city close to a line. If you live in the suburbs - your best bet will still be to take a car to a park and ride. But you will still save on gas money, time, etc. It can also save you money on parking / cab fare if your destination is downtown, a ballgame, or airports.

However, I don't view rail as "robbing Peter to pay Paul". I would support a network that serves all major communities and suburbs, much like our highway grid. However, this takes a while to build - decades. In the end, you would end up with the highly interconnected system that you want - unfortunately you might be 6 feet under by the time it is built. But it took us a long time to build / fully utilize our highways as well.

So, the question is, do you support investing in efforts that you may never see that much direct benefit from, but perhaps your kids or grandkids will? I know you probably want the system built yesterday, but that just doesn't happen with any major transit project (highway networks included).

I also do not view rail as an "either-or" with education or bus service or other things that people are discussing on this board. We have enough money to support worthy efforts in many different areas. We are wasting money on far less worthwhile things as a nation, and at the state and local levels. Arguably we are spending something in the trillions for an unsuccessful oil-related war in the Middle East, for starters.


At 4:35 PM, September 08, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


My point about voters, is that voters rarely have a chance to directly express their preferred form of transit. Mostly, we just have to accept what has been given to us. But, when voters do get to express a preference, they support rail initiatives. So, even if Houstonians "love their cars", they also love rail. So, do you care what people think, or not?

Also, as to the "heat" argument - I agree that it would probably be miserable to walk to a station in July - and ridership would dip at those times. But Houston has perfectly tolerable weather for about 8 months a year, which is pretty good. Better than the 5-6 months of non-freezing weather in NYC.


At 8:11 PM, September 08, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Voters want everything, and they want it for free. Or for somebody other than them to pay. Is that helpful information? Not so much, I think.

At 1:21 PM, September 09, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


So why don't we shut down our public education, highway systems, military, federal government, local governments, ports, space exploration, etc, while we are at it? Heck, I hate anything that is funded by public monies! Let's step back to the stone age!

Face it - whether it is votes that we have on record, or studies by people like Klineberg from Rice, Houstonians are willing to pay much more for quality of life issues, and recognize the dangers of things like ozone pollution and sprawl, than you and your libertarian friends might think.


At 5:17 PM, September 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think Tory's point is that people will happily say "more please!" to everything on your list - until they have to decide what they actually want to pay for. I think Bob Lanier proved that Houstonians prefer police and city street maintenance to the kind of comprehensive heavy rail system you seem to be talking about, regardless of what they tell pollsters about a single issue in isolation.


At 6:50 PM, September 09, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

JT pretty much nailed it. Voters are notoriously bad at making tradeoffs.

Consider for a minute what they really voted for (by only 51%, I'll point out). We spend a half-penny sales tax on transit, generally for the poorest 5-10% of the population. The vast majority of voters never ride that transit. Metro comes to them and says "no new taxes - but we'll divert some money to a nifty rail system that the middle and upper middle class will consider riding." It won't necessarily improve mobility for our poorest population. Actually, it will make it harder for them, as new transfers are created, trip times get longer, and bus routes are cut back. But, hey, it's pretty cool. Did the voters make the right choice? The moral choice?

A comparable situation: What if govt offered to take some of the tax money going to food for the poor, and offered voters the chance to divert some of it towards some nice subsidized restaurants for the more well off parts of society? And the voters, said "sure, I'll take some of that." Is that ok?

Overall, I came out a mild supporter of the planned network, for reasons stated here:
but after thinking about it in the above context, I feel less comfortable with that support.

At 6:53 PM, September 09, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Here's a shorter version of the link that will work:

At 8:58 PM, September 10, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


Good points - and previous post from 2005.

However, my understanding is that Klineberg's studies do ask not only what you value, but attach a cost to gather how much you value it. Granted, this is an imperfect science. Also, while a vote of 51%-49% may not seem like much to the casual observer, I think it speaks a lot to those that like to dig into the numbers, patterns, etc (politicians, researchers, planners, etc).

If you looked at things from the 1930's on, for instance, I think you would see the tide has shifted from rail / transit approaches, to cars / highways, and now is arguably shifting back to more transit as the economics / politics of commuting changes.


At 9:26 PM, September 10, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Here's a couple excerpts from the Houston area survey. Note that this by no means proves my point - but does lend it some support (especially some areas where you can see the changing attitudes in the Houston area). Also, the survey might be interesting to some of your readers:

Main site:

At 9:29 PM, September 10, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Doh! What is wrong with blogspot and long urls?

Anyway, here is the section on transit - there are sections about mass transit, rail, etc, that show quite dramatic shifts from the early 1980's, as well as views to support your arguments (most would still drive to work):

At 10:32 PM, September 10, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks for the links. I generally follow the survey pretty closely. Definitely good stuff. But transit surveys suffer from what I call the "fantasy problem": people visualize the perfect system that stops near their house very frequently, and goes directly at full speed to their employer. Inevitably, when faced with the real tradeoffs of using transit, many fewer choose it - although, of course, as the Onion pointed out, most still wish and hope others will choose it to free up the streets for them (another transit support factor in the surveys).

A similar story: restaurants for years have found strong support in customer surveys for offering healthier options, but sales are usually disappointing and entrees often discontinued - another disconnect between what we wish and the real-world choices we make.

At 10:34 PM, September 10, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading Michael's comments is terribly educational for me. I sometimes forget that there are so many people who have no concept of the idea of cost/benefit analysis.

At 10:07 AM, September 11, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


Nice try - but rail supporters understand what cost/benefit analysis is. However, a cost/benefit analysis depends on what the perceived / measured costs and benefits are. For instance, is pollution just an externality that we do not factor into the cost of our highway system? I say that such a measurement hides the true cost to society of a poor transit choice. At any rate, like I've argued before, light-rail has passed federal muster on the cost / benefit side, which is why we are building so much of it. All I'm arguing is that elevated rail and commuter rail may also make sense.
For instance, in the case of commuter rail, we may be able to re-use existing tracks in some cases, lessening the cost.


At 10:24 AM, September 11, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


The important point about the surveys is not necessarily the answers in any given year, but also the trends. Mass transit is "very important" to our system to only 47 percent in 1991, and now 63 percent in 2006. That is called a "sea-change" in politics.

As for restaurants, I became a McDonald's shareholder when I tried their new salads, and more than doubled my money! So maybe not the best analogy for me.



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