Monday, September 03, 2007

Whose "quality of place"?, transportation history, and Houston mixed-use

Three miscellaneous pass-alongs today:
  • A blog post comparing creative class rankings with domestic migration census data, finding an inverse relationship: a higher CC ranking tends to have lower, or reverse, migration. By far the most migration is to outer counties in any case - not central cores, with Portland being a prime example (80% outside the urban growth boundary). Conclusion:
"...the data shows that the overwhelming majority of movement within US metropolitan areas is away from locations architects and planners consider to have “quality of place.” For most people, it seems clear that “quality of place” means something quite different than what passes for the conventional wisdom."
The implication, IMHO, is that "quality of place" has to be combined with cost-of-living to get to real net value, and attract migrants and growth. To use a car analogy, the "sweet spot" for most buyers is neither high-end Mercedes nor low-end Yugo, but mid-level, high-value Toyota Camry or Honda Accord (or, in Texas' case, a Toyota Tundra truck). A lot of the Sunbelt cities fall in this category. Not just Houston, but DFW, Austin, Atlanta, Phoenix, Charlotte, and Raleigh-Durham. (See update/clarification below)
  • Neal has a very interesting post on the history of transportation costs and their steady decline, even in the 1700's. Even back then, the upper classes complained about the lower classes using more affordable transportation to join them in the country. His conclusion:
"300 years later, some people are still complaining that mankind's vastly increased mobility has resulted in the same urban ills. It seems that for some people, the more things change the more things stay the same. At the same time, one really does need to remember that one of the primary reasons why we build the cities we do today is because we can - due to the staggering drops of transportation costs in real terms. Otherwise we would still be living in huddled and cramped conditions."
  • A Chronicle article asks: Can Houston support all of the mixed-use projects under construction? Hard to say, but one thing is clear from this article: "mixed-use" does not mean "mixed-income." They're all aimed at the high end of the market. I don't blame them - that's the economics of new development and mixed-use - but let's not kid ourselves about the transit ridership from these places with this customer base. As a matter of fact, only one of them on the map is anywhere close to a planned GRT line - BLVD Place on Post Oak - and the anchor tenant for that one is a flagship Whole Foods, which is not exactly the ideal shopping trip for transit (how many grocery sacks can you carry on a train?). If we want future inner loop growth to make fewer car trips, let's hope the next round of developments are more transit-oriented and aimed at a more modest demographic.
Update: A clarification I received on the first item from a VIP reader:

"The discussion of changes in "domestic migration" is interesting, but seems to fall short of the total picture. Hopefully readers will understand that the core counties in the various CMSAs (the Census term for metropolitan regions) cited are not necessarily losing total population. Many, like Harris and Travis counties in Texas, have and are growing substantially due to natural increase (births minus deaths in the resident population) and positive net migration (from persons previously resident to the US (in the last census) and new immigrants from other countries. Nor does the analysis look at total growth in the various metropolitan areas, which is also strongly positive.

It would be wrong if the reader were to conclude that improvements in "quality of life" has reduced the economic vitality of either the heart of metropolitan areas (which is not supported by Census data) or that the growth in major metropolitan areas (whether in the central county or adjacent ones) is unrelated to improvements in "quality of life"."

I absolutely agree on the importance of quality of life. But affordability cannot be ignored. And I believe that some well-known cities that have focused exclusively on QoL and ignored affordability are experiencing reduced economic vitality and growth compared to more balanced cities (such as in the Sunbelt).

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At 11:12 PM, September 03, 2007, Blogger John said...

1. If you go to Florida's original writing about the "creative class," you'll find that one thing he stressed is that you have to look at regions, not small parts of them - and that successful places have both the "downtown" kinds of areas and the suburbs around them, which let people choose places that fit their styles of life as they move through different stages of life. So to say "people are moving to outer counties" kind of misses the point.

2. You're right about new developments tending to be marketed to higher incomes. But you know, grocery shops aren't as car-dependent as you think. Ask any of us who went to the store on foot for years. The neighborhood Whole Foods I used to walk to actually became a big neighborhood gathering place, with a very large portion of the affluent customers going there on foot.

At 11:57 AM, September 04, 2007, Blogger ian said...

I rather tire of hearing anti-sprawl advocates being labeled elitist/classist. It's not (always) true, and worse -- such a label is a harmful distraction from a very important discussion.

Anti-sprawlers aren't trying to preserve something for themselves to the exclusion of all those "below them" (as our analogous nobles presumably did). Instead, they've recognized that what we all cherish is endangered, and they're trying to save it for ALL of us. . .and for future generations. I don't see how that could possibly be misinterpreted as a selfish, exclusionary act!

Second, we have sound science today to help us analyze the consequences of our decisions. Those selfish, dirty nobles probably didn't worry much about any environmental or social degradations wrought by sprawling peons. . .but now we know that continuously adding tailpipe emissions to the air and disrupting delicate ecological systems by literally paving over them is probably not such a great idea. Even if you don't care one wit about the environment in and of itself, I think we can all agree that a healthy environment is at least beneficial for human life.

Neal's book sounds like a very interesting read, but I would be careful about how its lessons are applied to the modern world. . .


At 12:54 PM, September 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Be very careful about what you call sound science.

Sound science often gets overturn with more science showing it wasn't too sound before.

At 1:43 PM, September 04, 2007, Blogger ian said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2:09 PM, September 04, 2007, Blogger ian said...


We know what pollutants are emitted from automobile tailpipes. We know that those pollutants react with sunlight to form ground-level ozone. We know that ground-level ozone is bad for us. Even our completely backasswards EPA that is so reluctant to piss off industry admits that its former acceptable ozone standards -- which Houston can't even meet -- are way too high and should be far stricter.

What part of this isn't sound to you?

At 1:41 PM, September 05, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

then why are the dangerous ozone levels in the Houston region are very isolated to an area around the ship channel and other parts of east Houston.

Much of the sprawl for the city extend in all the other directions. The eastern portions of the city contribute much less in traffic.

I'm not arguing the chemistry. I'm arguing whether our cars are the main problem.

A major contributor to our ozone problem is something we have no control over and it is weather.

A quick comparison would be with the city of Austin. There weather generally disspates much of the ozone from being created.

At 8:34 AM, September 06, 2007, Blogger ian said...

Are you kidding? Austin is just on the brink of nonattainment -- and they have a miniscule population compared to Houston. Plus they don't have anywhere near the refinery pollutants that we do. Our automobiles aren't the only cause, but they are a significant contributer.

And ground level ozone is only one of many, many environmental problems created by sprawl! It'd be ridiculous to spend all day arguing just one!


At 3:15 PM, September 06, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there really any doubt that self-described anti-sprawl advocates are motivated by aesthetic and classist concerns? The elite upturned nose at suburban life has been beaten to death by Hollywood and other elites and yet the theme never gets tiresome for them. The internal contracdictions of the sentiment never seem to occur to these people. Living in a house, which provides room for actual personalization (really, even the exteriors of the houses in Levittown aren't the same once they're occupied -- check it out some time) and driving a car which allows for personal mobility and personalization (really, no two cars driven by their owners are ever alike, check out their vanity plates, bumper stickers, dashboard ornaments), shows CONFORMITY. Meanwhile, living in an apartment building, i.e., a square box like every other square box building, in an apartment, i.e., a box within the box, and riding a subway with 200 silent people scared to make eye contact somehow shows individuality and free expression. I admit that I'll just never understand that.


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