Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Accessibility vs. mobility, zoning amok, Kunstler, NZ, and more

Some more smaller misc items for your weekend enjoyment:
  • Stories of zoning run amok, with amusing commentary.
  • The Austin Contrarian hilariously dismantles James Kunstler's anti-suburban arguments (really more rants), even better than when I did it a few years back.
  • A commentary on affordable housing in Houston by a New Zealander that ran in the Business Journals of Houston and 19 other cities. (Thanks for the link and list, Hugh and Josh) A couple excerpts:
"Houston’s great strength has been its ability to stop political and commercial elites from capturing control and denying Houstonians the ability to make their own decisions about how and where they wish to live and work. It is indeed “the people’s city.”

This did not happen by accident in Houston, but has been the result of a long tradition of sound governance ­underpinned by a political culture fostering constructive discussion and debate that consistently enhances competition and opportunity. In fact, Houston is now widely recognized, internationally, as the model “opportunity city.”

I was privileged to spend two weeks during May in Houston. The lasting impression I have is the refreshing openness, tolerance, optimism and commitment of the Houstonians I met from all walks of life, ­characteristics often lacking in other urban markets currently suffering housing stress.

Houstonians need to understand and appreciate the reality that your great city is indeed a global leader with respect to its political culture and urban governance. And, importantly, that this is being increasingly recognized both within the United States and internationally."

"The idea behind focusing on accessibility instead of mobility is that, if cities are designed so that people are close to shops and services, they won't need to drive as much or as far. The problem with that idea is that consumers rely on a competitive market in retail and services to promote innovation and keep costs low. Consumers who are captive of one or a limited number of stores end up paying higher prices, often for lower-quality goods. Moreover, even in a world with limited energy supplies, there is no guarantee that having local stores within walking distance of residential areas is the optimal pattern. Some experts in the retail industry suggest that higher energy prices will give an advantage to big-box supercenters where people can do all their shopping in one auto trip."
--Randal O'Toole, in "Roadmap to Gridlock," Cato Institute, May 27, 2008.

"Why won't workers cluster around their jobs as they did in the 18th and early 19th century? A number of very forceful reasons:

  • We are not wedded to a job for life any more. The average turn-around in jobs is measured in just a few years. It is expensive to move every time one changes jobs, uprooting one's family; and self-defeating as well if you may be moving back again soon.
  • About 70% of workers live in households with other workers. Whose job will they live next to?
  • Workers work in much smaller units today, so there is no big factory gate to live next to.

--Alan Pisarski, testimony regarding the future federal role in surface transportation, U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, June 25, 2008.

Have a great holiday weekend.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Harvard prof on Houston (again) and transport energy

I'm back in town, but I have a major project due Friday, so I'll just be passing along some smaller misc items split across this post and another later in the week:
  • An interesting graph and discussion of energy use by different modes of transport, including various transit and personal vehicle options. You might be surprised how competitive cars can be. Hat tip to Raymond.
  • Harvard urban economist Edward Glaeser had an interview in the Wall Street Journal recently with these quotes mentioning Houston (in addition to this piece in July).
"I think the relatively laissez-faire approach of Houston may be workable when you've got ungodly amounts of land you can use, but the more you squeeze in an area, the more policies you need -- and the great hope is those policies don't limit growth."

WSJ: What about looking to European cities, where more people walk and rely on mass transit, as a model for the U.S.?

MR. GLAESER: There's been a segment of urban developers who have been enthusiastic about the model in Europe for quite some time [because] it's much more environmentally sensitive. But there are bad aspects as well.

While there certainly seem to be some smart things done in Europe, it's a mistake to think they've got it right and we've got it wrong. There are many good things that came out of giving Americans the opportunity to live in big houses on the edge of urban areas.

If you think about the lifestyle of ordinary Americans living on the fringe of Houston or Dallas, for example, compared to what their lifestyle would be in an older European city -- living in a walk-up apartment there compared to a 2,500-square-foot house here they bought for $130,000 with a 24-minute commute -- it's extraordinary in the low-cost areas of this country what a $60,000 family income gets you.

There's a reason Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Phoenix are our four fastest-growing areas. They offer an astonishingly high standard of living for ordinary Americans.

New York City is a great place to be really rich and not a terrible place to be really poor, but it's a pretty hard place to live on $60,000 a year. You don't experience anywhere near the basic standard of living you would in Houston on the same income."

Finally, I'd like to end with a random thought of the day: My sympathies to people all over the world who have to learn English as a second language, where subtleties like "tastes awful" and "awfully tasty" mean two completely different things...

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Living in new urbanism

I'm staying at the Chautauqua Institution lakefront resort in western NY state this week, and thought I'd pass on some personal observations about living in a new urbanist community. Well, to be technical, it's old urbanism - it started in 1874 - but it absolutely fits many new urbanist ideals: beautiful, large (2-4 story), dense Victorian houses on very small plots of land (almost no yards), built right up against each other, with very narrow streets and almost no parking (pictures, maps). It's incredibly walkable and bikeable - in fact that's pretty much the only way to get around. Cars are only allowed in for loading and unloading, and then have to park in a giant parking lot outside the community across the highway. It's a pretty good-sized place - filling up with about 7,500 people every summer - so the streets have a lot of pedestrian vibrancy. It even has a classic town square in the center everybody can walk to with a fountain, library, bookstore, restaurants, convenience store and other retail.

While it is an idyllic place, what I can't figure out is how much this works just as a summer resort vs. "real life" applicability. It's only open during the summer and shuts down the other 8-9 months of the year during the brutal NY state winters. Each house is jammed with people. I'd say our 3-story Victorian is hosting 12+ couples in small bedrooms packed on the floors with shared bathrooms - far, far more people than if it were occupied by a normal family household (draining the needed pedestrian vibrancy and density to support shops and services). Lectures, classes, and other events happen around campus all day long, drawing people out to walk around more than they might normally. People are here on vacation, meaning they're not doing daily work commutes or running the errands of daily life - where the trek to the car in the far lot would be intolerable. And the weather is perfect up here in the summer, making the pedestrian experience wonderful. I imagine it would not be so wonderful the rest of the year.

All that said, it might work in the "real world" with narrower townhomes for smaller households set on top of garages, although the steady car traffic that would create would make the narrow streets much less pleasant for pedestrians or bikers. There's a danger issue too: with sightlines so limited by close-in houses up against the street, it's easy for a pedestrian or biker to come out of nowhere. Combine that with the steep hills and winter ice, and it's a dangerous mix. My father already ran his bike into a tree pretty hard, dodging a surprise pedestrian while coasting a downhill curve. Yes, in theory the narrow streets and sightlines should make everybody be more careful and go slower, but people are human, and safety is not always top-of-mind (especially with kids).

All this drives home for me why new urbanist projects that aren't apartments stacked on top of a town center mall are so difficult and so rare: there are just too many hard tradeoffs in a modern society built around the car. All this nostalgia we have is for old urban places built before cars were common - when walking and biking and transit were the only ways to get around. Any modern household today - even living in a TOD where they walk, bike, and use transit for some trips - will still own a car and use it often, and that's really hard to reconcile with the ideal new urbanist environment.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Rankings, urban corridors, managed lanes, and more

I'm in western NY state on vacation. Saw the awe-inspiring Niagara Falls and the depressing "red brick ruins" (old abandoned industrial sites) and housing of Buffalo. Now in Corning, NY to go to their famous glass museum, while staying at this amazing bed and breakfast. But get this: the B&B is not allowed to have any kind of sign, because of regulations in their residential area. This creates two problems: tourists wandering around trying to find the place based only on an address - and putting them in a bad mood to start their tourist experience of Corning - and locals who don't even know there's a place in their neighborhood they can put up friends and relatives. Government protection at its finest. Of course, everybody knows once you have a sign letting people know there's an upscale Frommer's 3-star B&B mansion filled with beautiful antiques and glass in your neighborhood, it's a clear sign of decline - soon to be followed by falling property values... sheesh.

Moving on to a few small misc items:
"For many on the left, there is an easy equation to promote energy independence and protect the environment: Less driving, more density, and more rail transit. Even noted economists like Greg Mankiw have supported a Pigovian gas tax to encourage precisely these three behaviors. The question not asked is whether these idealistic behaviors can even be achieved."

He thinks not.
  • Forbes just ranked Houston the top city for buying a home in the country (article). Texas Triangle cities were 4 of the top 6. Hat tip.

Houston, we don't have a housing problem.

The city's $152,500 median home sale price is up 6.6% from 2005. It boasts a low vacancy rate and an oil-rich economy. Throw in a bubbling entrepreneurial tech scene, and you've got four factors that put Houston on the top of our list of best places to buy a home.

1. Houston, Texas

Houston, we don't have a problem. Well known as an energy industry hub, this growing metro area recently made's Top 10 Up-And-Coming Tech Cities thanks to the Houston Technology Center and bubbling entrepreneurial tech scene. With home prices on the rise by 6.6% and vacant homes disappearing by 11.3% in the last two years, this is one area where buyers can feel safe jumping in.

  • In case you missed Shannon Buggs' column in the Chronicle, Houston was recently ranked the third-most charitable city in the country out of the top 30, behind Miami and San Diego. Some of the criteria:
  1. High percentage of budget spent on programs and services.
  2. Low percentage of budget spent on administrative fees.
  3. Low amount spent to raise a dollar in contributions.
Joel Kotkin and I heard similar things about Houston's charitable nature and strong nonprofit scene in an interview with the head of the local Red Cross a couple years ago.
  • And another Chronicle article in case you missed it on the urban corridors initiative to make the areas around light rail stops more pedestrian friendly.
Finally, the plan announced for the new Katy freeway managed lanes seems like recipe for chaos to me. Registered EZ-tags for carpools go free. What if your other rider doesn't make it that day, and you want to pay to use the lanes? In essence, if you sign up your EZ-tag as a carpool car, you can *never* use the lanes alone without breaking the law and getting a ticket. Better would be to charge all cars, and then refund it when somebody visually confirms you have 2 or 3 people in the vehicle. The verification booths are there - all they would have to do is press a button when they see enough people in the car, and the reader would not charge that car (or reverse the charges if they were charged at an earlier station).

Would love to hear your thoughts on the plan in the comments.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

What message is your city telling you?

Paul Graham wrote a great essay a while back called "Cities and Ambition" that I've been meaning to blog on for quite a while. His basic theme is that each city has its own subtle message it's sending you about what's important and how you should direct your ambition.

Here are some of his examples:
  • New York: "You should make more money."
  • Boston/Cambridge: "You should be smarter." (or at least better read)
  • Silicon Valley: "You should be more powerful." (i.e. change the world)
"Cambridge as a result feels like a town whose main industry is ideas, while New York's is finance and Silicon Valley's is startups."
  • SF/Berkeley: "You should live better." (more conscientious, more civilized, better 'quality of life')
  • LA: "You should be more beautiful and famous."
  • DC: "You should know more important people."
  • Paris: "You should do things with more style."
  • London: "You should be more aristocratic." (higher class - although he says this signal is weaker than it used to be)
Moving on to key excerpts:
How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you'd be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.
No matter how determined you are, it's hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It's not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do.
Because ambitions are to some extent incompatible and admiration is a zero-sum game, each city tends to focus on one type of ambition. The reason Cambridge is the intellectual capital is not just that there's a concentration of smart people there, but that there's nothing else people there care about more. Professors in New York and the Bay area are second class citizens—till they start hedge funds or startups respectively.
Eventually, he gets to his list:
So far the complete list of messages I've picked up from cities is: wealth, style, hipness, physical attractiveness, fame, political power, economic power, intelligence, social class, and quality of life.
He didn't mention any Texas cities, so, starting with that list, I thought I'd take my own shot:
  • Dallas: a tough one, but I think some combination of wealth, style, and social class. (see a discussion on Dallas here - hat tip to John)
  • Austin: an easy one, quality of life (i.e. "You should live better.")
  • Houston: so what about our little town of hard working engineers and entrepreneurs? The city of Canion, Cooley, DeBakey, and a gaggle of energy and real estate mavericks? Well, I think we can rule out style, hipness, physical attractiveness, fame, political power, intelligence, social class, and quality of life. Wealth, maybe a bit, but I think the primary one is economic power - "You should be a bigger player in business." (even the business of medicine) We don't seem to care too much whether you're an entrepreneur, developer, or top executive - just so long as you're a big shot. And if you're not a big shot, the message is to become one by whatever path necessary - whether on your own or through a large organization.
Maybe not the ideal message I'd choose (although not bad), but I think it's an accurate reflection of the culture of the city. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

UPDATE 4/3/15: Interesting conversation with a friend - maybe "industriousness" is a better ambition message for Houston rather than "economic power", because it's more inclusive of people working hard in all sorts of endeavors, including nonprofits.  Credit to Anne Snyder for the insight.
UPDATE 8/13/15: The growing iconic status of the "Be Someone" bridge graffiti downtown is the perfect exemplifier of our message.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Puncturing Rail Myths

Just wanted to pass along this excellent data-based analysis of rail myths and realities (hat tip to Barry). To be frank, it contradicts my own support of some LRT and some commuter rail, but it's really important we understand the limitations of rail, even if we still decide to pursue some of it anyway. Lots of great graphs too. An overview: (see the pdf for backup on each point)
  1. Myth 1: Rail transportation is inexpensive. Reality: Rail transport is several times more expensive, per passenger mile, than driving or flying.
  2. Myth 2: We’ve subsidized highways and airports for years; now it is time to subsidize alternatives. Reality: Since before 1975, subsidies to Amtrak and transit have been many times greater, per passenger mile, than subsidies to highways and air travel.
  3. Myth 3: High gas prices are leading millions to turn to public transportation. Reality: High prices may slightly reduce driving, but hardly any of that reduction is taken up by public transport.
  4. Myth 4: Giving people transportation choices similar to those in Europe will get people out of their cars. Reality: Despite high gas prices and huge subsidies to transit and intercity rail, Europeans drive almost as much as Americans.
  5. Myth 5: Mass transportation saves energy. Reality: Getting people to drive more fuel-efficient cars will save far more energy than building rail transit.
  6. Myth 6: Rail transport can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Reality: Diesel-powered transport emits as much greenhouse gases per passenger mile as driving, and electric power only reduces emissions if the electricity does not come from burning fossil fuels.
  7. Myth 7: Rail transport helps low-income people. Reality: Financial troubles with rail projects have forced many transit agencies to reduce bus service to low-income neighborhoods.
  8. Myth 8: Rail transport promotes economic development. Reality: Rail transport has not been a catalyst to economic development, but it has been a catalyst to subsidies to economic development.
Rail transit and intercity high-speed rail are expensive programs that require huge subsidies and provide little in the way of energy savings or other environmental or social benefits. Rail transit attracts few people out of their cars, and intercity high-speed rail mainly takes business from the airlines. The economic development benefits of rail transportation are also greatly exaggerated. Federal, state, or local officials who are truly interested in saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions should find more cost-effective solutions than new rail projects.
Number 7 is particularly worrisome here given the front-page Chronicle story this morning on extremely long Metro bus commutes to cover short distances, which generated a firestorm of comments (most recommended at bottom here). Do we have our priorities right on bus (both local and commuter express) vs. rail spending? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

One gas solution, rail to the airport, graphs, recycling, and more

As we enjoy the much-needed rain from a fortunately weak Edouard, I thought I'd pass along some of the smaller items that have built up:
  • An interesting graph from this story shows that Houston Harris County has had the least increase in Democratic voting over the last 30 years vs. every other major urban core county in the country. Relative to other core cities/counties, I think we've stayed more balanced and compromising between the two political parties (healthy, IMHO), in part because of non-partisan city elections. I suspect when a city/county tips to Democratic domination, the policies they enact (taxes? strong pubic unions? regulations?) drive Republicans out to adjacent cities/counties - something we still have happening to some extent with Montgomery and Ft. Bend Counties - and make the Democratic trend actually accelerate in the core. I'm curious to hear other theories in the comments.
  • More interesting graphs of population density vs. land area. Surprising fact: half the U.S. population lives on less than 1% of our total available land - about the size of Indiana.
  • An interesting story on Californians who got lured into Austin real estate investing only to get burned by a state that allows supply to meet demand and relies on property taxes instead of income taxes. Hat tip to Hugh.
  • The NY Times reviews Houston's inadequate recycling efforts (plus local coverage). We rank last among 30 major cities with a 2.6% rate. Mayor White has a yard waste recycling plan that should get us to 20+% by 2010, but that's still not too high. My wife and I fill 3 recycling bins full every 2 weeks (mostly Chron and WSJ newspapers), and our Meyerland neighborhood won an award for high participation - but unfortunately we're the exception to the rule. I'm personally OK with higher garbage fees for more or larger trash bins to encourage recycling, but I am concerned it would lead to more illegal trash dumping in the lower-income parts of town (it's already pretty bad in some of the eastside industrial areas). Although I liked the reference to Houston as the "libertarian heartland," we can, and should, do better. Don't miss the associated 4-minute video. Well done.
  • From the debate in Kansas City, good reasons why light rail to the airport - despite constant calls for it - doesn't really make sense (which is why Metro is wisely going with express buses instead).

"On that note, the Star writes over the weekend: "Sure, it sounds convenient, maybe even fast. It would even save you the cost of gas and parking. But would you be willing to drive a couple of miles to a rail station, then haul your bags onto a train that makes multiple stops and wouldn't travel any faster than your car? The odds say you wouldn't," the paper writes, citing data from U.S. airports where rail service is available. For example, the Star cites a survey data in writing that "only 15% of passengers at Washington's Reagan National Airport said they got there by rail," making it one of the top airports for rail usage. The flipside, however, is that figure means passengers arriving by personal car (34%) outweighed rail users by only about a 2-to-1 margin.

"The concept of tying rail into the airport is a very emotional one. People see it as a sign of a major league city," Mark Huffer, general manager of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, tells the Star. For Kansas City, Huffer is skeptical that a rail option would be used by anyone other than light-packing travelers who live very close to rail stations. The Star suggests that with the low-density nature and minimal traffic problems of the Kansas City area, rail may not be the best option. "Most of the people flying are coming from home," Kansas City Aviation Director Mark VanLoh tells the Star. "They're not coming from their offices in the city. It’s scattered."

Plus, Kansas City's horseshoe-shaped, three-terminal layout is not conducive to rail transit, the Star says. And without express service from downtown, rail service may not be faster than driving, once suburban stops are factored in. Even the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association doesn't appear eager to help push for an airport rail connection. "We have other issues that are far more compelling," association president Rick Hughes tells the Star. Even Kansas City's mayor favors express buses for the airport, saying that a rail option would be too expensive given the small number of users he expects would use it, according to the Star."

And the final item is my own suggestion to address the gas crisis: require all new cars to offer instantaneous, trip (car on to off), and average gas mileage displays. I really think a lot of people don't connect their driving behavior with their gas mileage (F350 cruising at 85mph, anyone?). People with Priuses often obsess over maximizing their mileage as displayed by the computer. What if people were doing that across our entire vehicle fleet? Smoother acceleration, less unnecessary braking, more reasonable cruising speeds. The fuel savings could be substantial, no matter what kind of vehicle people are driving. Almost trivially cheap for carmakers to add, and it's a lot less ham-fisted than higher CAFE standards or lower national speed limits.

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