Thursday, October 30, 2008

Houston gets some respect plus rankings, slogans, graffiti, McGowen, Dome

Passing along some smaller items:
  • There is a new web site around converting the Astrodome into a film studio. Check it out and sign the petition.
  • A vigorous debate on what to do with the McGowen super-block in Midtown: park or private development? Hat tip to HAIF and the Houston Press.
  • A Business Week has a story on the best cities to weather the recession, mainly those focused on government and health care. Surprise, surprise, the DC area comes out on top. But they do mention Houston:

    We had hoped to include energy in our analysis despite the recent decline in oil prices, because gasoline and natural gas prices are still relatively high, and energy-producing states such as Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming are benefiting. We weren't able to collect town-level data on energy jobs, but some of the places that came up on our list—such as Anchorage, Alaska; Baton Rouge, La.; and Lubbock, Tex., are located in energy centers. Baton Rouge and New Orleans have energy-related jobs, but the main strength of their economies is a post-Katrina construction boom.

    Flatness in Houston

    If energy were factored in, Houston might have shot up to the top of the ranking.

    "Texas is buffered, but it's not insulated," said Edward Friedman, an economist who covers Texas for Moody's (MCO). "It's definitely not going to keep on growing the way it is. While the rest of country is in significant decline, you'll have flatness in Houston."

  • Continuing the positive rankings, Houston also ranked #4 on the Forbes list of "Cities Where Your Nest Egg Goes Farthest":
No. 4 Houston, Texas's Best Place to Buy a Home is, not surprisingly, a great place to retire. With tax revenues flowing from the oil and alternative energy industries centered there and a bustling tech scene, retirees won't need to worry that they are settling into a place on the slide. Throw in affordable housing and sunny weather, and Houston is a great place to begin again.
"In the largest and most affluent cities—Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Houston—look for the decline of the newspaper to strengthen the lighter-than-air free upscale glossy monthlies."

I have seen a lot more of those around in recent years...
That's it for this week. Have a great Halloween weekend.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

The Opportunity City weathers all storms

Instead of posting here today, I'd like to redirect you to my first piece on the New Geography web site about Houston's recovery from Hurricane Ike and other "storms".

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

How Copenhagen is becoming like Houston

Just came across this article on urban development in Copenhagen, Denmark, and how many parallels there are to what we face in Houston, where a decentralized city makes transit increasingly impractical. Excerpts:

In all the 37 years I have been traveling to and living in Copenhagen, it has always struck me that despite one of the best public transportation systems of which I am aware (in terms of coverage, efficiency, ease of use and affordability), and despite the fact that cars are at least twice as expensive as here in the States (the sales tax on cars is 180%), and despite the fact that gasoline is three to four times as expensive as here, and despite the fact that city parking is difficult, non-existent or prohibitively expensive (and parking fines severe) – despite all of this – rush hour traffic congestion is awful (a constant source of grief and complaint), and the endless streams of cars seem to contain, as in so many cities with lesser alternatives, lone drivers.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The city development plan was designed as a hand with five fingers outstretched – the palm as city center and each of the five fingers as a corridor of residential, commercial and retail development (along rail lines, of course) [sound like Houston's freeways?]. This was smart growth before the term had been invented. It worked, but what was perhaps unforeseen was that development would also occur in areas in-between and beyond the five corridors. As a result, Copenhagen has become, like so many modern cities, a multi-centered urban metropolis [sound familiar?]. In order to function in this post-industrial economy and society, residents and workers need to travel freely and frequently to many different points around the metro area, at different times of the day, for different reasons, for different lengths of time, for different purposes. Because the existence of the five corridors has created a defacto hub-and-spoke system, it is difficult and prohibitively time-consuming to use public transit for such travel (and ungodly in winter). So of course Copenhagen has become as car-dependent as Los Angeles.

Another piece of this picture is that Danes, being a free and intelligent people, prefer suburban living in detached single-family residences over enforced residential density, and prefer owning and driving their own cars over taking public transportation (if given the choice!). So despite a very leftist political orientation among elites, media, academia, government and public policy professionals (including urban planners), and despite a highly socialized component to its otherwise free-market economy, the Danish capital’s suburban job, business and population growth has been outpacing its urban growth for decades.


This of course is a problem. People are not behaving according to our plans! According to the report "Urban Sprawl in Europe? The Ignored Challenge," released by the European Environment Agency (based in Copenhagen, by the way), sprawl is affecting almost all of Europe’s cities: "If this trend continues, the European urban area will double in just over a century. Sprawling cities demand more energy supply, require more transport infrastructure and consume larger amounts of land. This damages the natural environment and increases greenhouse gas emissions."

The report identifies the key problem as too much local control of urban development decisions, and calls for "urgent action by all responsible agencies and stakeholders to realize common objectives," or in other words, centralized planning and control. Among the report's conclusions is this little chill-inducing nugget:

"The EU has specific obligations and a mandate to act and take a lead role in developing the right frameworks for intervention at all levels, and to pave the way for local action. Policies at all levels including local, national and European need to have an urban dimension to tackle urban sprawl and help to redress the market failures that drive urban sprawl."

It's all pointless, of course: sprawl is ubiquitous, natural, desirable, beneficial, and preferable. As Edward Glaeser (Harvard, Brookings) and Matthew Kahn (UCLA) document in "Sprawl and Urban Growth" (National Bureau of Economic Research), transportation technologies dictate urban form, and in the 21st century the dominant transportation technology is the car. Hence, the urban form of the 21st century is sprawl, or city living based on the automobile. Isn’t this a bad thing? Quite the contrary, per Glaeser and Kahn: "Sprawl has been associated with significant improvements in quality of living, and the environmental impacts of sprawl have been offset by technological change."

Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History (2005), would agree. He calls sprawl a logical consequence of economic growth and the democratization of society, a pattern of development that has provided millions of people with the kinds of mobility, privacy and choice that were once the exclusive prerogatives of the rich and powerful. Add Bruegmann, Glaeser, Kahn, Cox and Utt to the growing component of anti-anti-sprawl policy analysts such as John Carlisle (Capital Research Center), Peter Gordon (USC School of Urban Planning), Peter Huber (Manhattan Institute), Mark Mills (Competitive Enterprise Institute), Steve Hayward (Pacific Research Institute), Anthony Downs (Brookings Institution), and Harry Richardson (Cascade Institute).

This decentralization is a key reason commuter rail is, for the most part, impractical in a city like Houston with only 7% of jobs downtown. Instead, a network of express lanes with high-speed point-to-point commuter bus and van services is a better model, connecting every part of the metro with every major job center.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Lessons for Metro

Sorry for not posting late last week. I was on a business trip to NYC for a conference and had extremely erratic internet access. Right before I left, I was disappointed to see that Metro is raising fares in the face of a worsening economy. While their logic of cost inflation is fair, and supported by the Chronicle, the fact remains that a scaled-back/delayed light rail plan such as I recently proposed would give them the budget room to hold the line on fares while radically increasing commuter services to meet the surge in demand. In 2003 Metro was facing a surplus, with plenty of money and little demand for commuter services, so it was decided to focus that surplus (and much more) towards expanding the core light rail network. In the new reality of expensive gas (albeit temporarily backing off with the recession) and a huge spike in demand for commuter service, that surplus would be better deployed holding (or even rescinding) fares while increasing P&R commuter services, including maybe a little commuter rail on freight tracks.

The NY Times had an good story recently on Rochester's transit system, with some interesting lessons I think Metro could learn from:
At a time when public transportation systems around the country are struggling with soaring fuel costs and pinched budgets, the bus system in Rochester has done something that few others would contemplate: This month, it lowered its single-ride fare.
But as economic hard times have reduced tax revenues and increased demand for government transit subsidies, its experiences may provide valuable lessons for larger cities that are planning fare increases, like New York, Minneapolis and Cleveland.

The Rochester system, which expects to run a surplus for the third year in a row, has been able to reduce its one-ride fare in part by eliminating some low-trafficked routes, avoiding debt and aggressively raising revenues from other sources. The fare fell to $1 from $1.25 on Sept. 1.

It has, for instance, reached agreements with the local public school district, colleges and private businesses to help subsidize its operations, warning in some cases that certain routes might be cut if ridership did not increase or a local business did not help cover the cost. In recent years, income from these agreements has equaled or exceeded the income from regular passenger fares.

All the while, ridership has increased by 7.4 percent over the last two years in an area where the population has remained stable. And while only about 1 out of 6 customers pays the single-ride fare (the majority use daily, weekly or monthly passes), the transit service expects further ridership gains now with the fare cut in place.
...the accomplishments in Rochester are notable. Efficiency has improved, with buses driving fewer miles, carrying more passengers and generating more revenue in fares. The transit agency has installed a satellite locator system in its buses to track whether they are on schedule. Next year, it will install electronic signs in some bus stops to tell riders when the next bus will arrive.
...the Rochester authority has no debt
...The authority has banked its surpluses and now has $19 million in cash reserves.
...The Rochester authority has also helped itself by working out subsidy agreements with local businesses and educational institutions.
Is it too much to ask for a little learning and adaptation by our public agencies? Take a poll. Better yet, take a vote. I'm sure the results would reflect the changed needs and desires of Houston's citizens: delay some light rail, more commuter services now, and stable or lower fares in the face of a looming recession.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Houston Best Performing Large City - Milken Institute

The Milken Institute recently released their 2008 list of Best Performing Cities, and Houston was the highest ranked very large metro at #16, up from #32 last year. By comparison, NYC was #85 (sure to fall hard next year after this meltdown), LA was #126, and Chicago was #160. Relevant excerpts:
Texas performed particularly well in the 2008 index, with six cities placing in the top twenty-five large metros (more than any other state). Thanks to its heavy concentration of oil and gas operations, Texas was a clear beneficiary of rising energy prices and renewed activity in the industry. Additionally, several Texas metros received a boost from continued strength in technology hardware and services. While the housing downturn has been severe in states such as Florida, California, Arizona, and Nevada, Texas has not experienced a similar decline.
Because America’s largest metropolitan areas are characterized by high density, with minimal room for expansion, we have broken out their performances separately. It isn’t reasonable to expect cities like Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago to grow at the same rate as Provo, Raleigh, or Austin. However, the big metro areas could learn something from the favorable business climates promoted by these fast-growing areas.

The best performer among the nation’s largest metros, with an overall ranking of 16th place, Houston–Sugar Land–Baytown, Texas, expanded its job base by a whopping 3.2 percent between March 2007 and March 2008, the second-largest increase in the nation. The one-year indicators for job and wage growth also showed robust gains, rising 3.0 and 4.0 percentage points faster, respectively, than the national average. Opportunities stemming from the energy industry, specifically with respect to oil exploration in the Gulf, have been a key engine of growth. Industries that support oil exploration have also been performing well. The heavy and civil engineering construction sector expanded by 5,700 jobs, while specialty trade contractors added another 7,800 workers in 2007.
Houston–Sugar Land–Baytown, has climbed up in the rankings, rising from 32nd to 16th place. Among the nine measures used to compile the overall index, Houston’s most recent job momentum performance (comparing March 2007 and March 2008) was most notable. The metro area expanded its job base by a whopping 3.2 percent, the second-largest increase in the nation.... In terms of high-tech, machinery manufacturing grew 5.0 percent between 2006 and 2007, generating 3,800 high-paying jobs. The presence of key players in the region (namely Exxon-Mobil, Shell, Chevron, and BP) will help sustain the industry’s growth.
While we're looking at a slowdown with a national recession and oil easing back in the sub-$100 range, I still think we'll be at the top of the big metros next year. In fact, when my wife started joking (?) recently about moving out of the country because of the financial meltdown, I pointed out we're probably in one of the best-positioned cities (and states) in the world to ride out a global slowdown or even recession. Here's to hoping it's a mild one, here and everywhere...

Hat tip to Josh for the heads up on the report.

One more announcement: in case you missed it in Rad Sallee's last Chronicle column today (best of luck, Rad), Texas Lyceum is having a public conference on state transportation issues at the Reliant Center on Wednesday, December 3rd. It looks like a pretty interesting agenda with a lineup of heavy hitter panelists, so I hope to see some of you there. Details and registration here.


Thursday, October 09, 2008

Economist Dr. Laffer: TX beats CA

I'm running pretty busy this week, so just a quick pass-along from the Texas Public Policy Foundation on California vs. Texas, reinforced by recent news California may need a federal bailout too.
Internationally renowned economist Dr. Arthur Laffer declared Texas the knockout winner of its economic rivalry with California and predicted a bright future for the Lone Star State due to its commitment to low taxes and limited government.

“The result of a head-to-head competition between Texas and California is an economic blowout,” Laffer said. “The economic environment in Texas has significant advantages over California. The implications of this competitive advantage are clear; Texas’ economic prospects are bright and the Texas economy will significantly outperform California’s.”

Laffer made his announcement at a luncheon in Austin sponsored by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Texas Association of Business, and the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute.

“Working with the legislature, we laid the foundation for today’s economic success by creating a reasonable regulatory climate, competitive job creation fund and one of the lowest tax burdens in the country,” said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who accepted the accolades and spoke at the luncheon. “Today we are reaping the benefits of these policies and are able to cut taxes while other states are cutting budgets.”

The Foundation also released a paper authored by Dr. Laffer, “Competitive States: Texas v. California – Economic Growth Prospects for the 21st Century.” The report contrasted Texas and California on six broad categories that have been proven to affect a state’s economic competitiveness: taxes on labor, taxes on capital, taxes on consumption, overall tax environment, regulatory environment, and government spending policies.

Laffer’s analysis declared Texas a decisive winner in five of the categories, with “taxes on consumption” scored as a tie.

“Texas’ current prosperity and California’s struggles are not a coincidence,” said Foundation president Brooke Rollins. “Businesses want to locate and people want to live where government doesn’t get in their way with excessive taxes and regulation. As long as these states continue on their current paths, businesses and people will continue to flee California for places like Texas.

The report is available for download from the Foundation’s website. Video of the luncheon, including the remarks by Dr. Laffer and Gov. Perry, will soon be available in the site’s multimedia section.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin, Texas.

Dr. Arthur Laffer is the founder and chairman of Laffer Associates, an economic research and consulting firm that provides global investment-research services to institutional asset managers, pension funds, financial institutions, and corporations. He is the creator of the “Laffer Curve,” an innovation that earned him the distinction as the “Father of Supply-Side Economics.” He was a member of President Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory Board for both of his terms.

Hat tip to David.

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Monday, October 06, 2008

Help get Houston playgrounds fixed after Ike

Just a quick pass-along from a nonprofit doing good work in Houston after Ike:

KaBOOM!, a national non-profit dedicated to bringing play back into the lives of children, is currently focused on the areas impacted by Hurricane Ike.

KaBOOM! is asking area residents to load pictures of damaged playgrounds onto the KaBOOM! Playspace Finder, so that they can match playgrounds in need with volunteers and resources to help repair them. If you know of a great place to play that needs attention share it with others.

KaBOOM! has received commitments from 24 Hour Fitness, Texon, The Home Depot, and Chrysler to build playgrounds in the Houston area. Watch videos of an all-volunteer, done-in-a-day KaBOOM! playground build. You can apply for a KaBOOM! playground build, learn about our work in areas affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, or attend a webinar to learn how to build a playground yourself.


Summer 3Q08 Highlights

It's time again for the quarterly highlights post. These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument.

Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly twice/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box in the right sidebar. An RSS feed link (Atom) (or RSS 2.0) is also available. As always, thanks for your readership.

From Spring 2Q08:

And from Winter 1Q08:

And don't forget the highlights from the first three years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging).


Thursday, October 02, 2008

A slogan for Houston, freeways, energy, rail, AC, subsidies, and more

Continuing the smaller misc items from earlier this week:
The comparison also reminds me of a parallel I noticed when honeymooning in Australia, when my wife and I visited its two rival cities, Sydney and Melbourne.

Sydney is like the Dallas of Australia: Glitzier and a little too obsessed with getting attention for my tastes. Melbourne is more like Houston: More down-to-earth and content in its superiority to the point of not being excessively concerned that the easily-distracted might sometimes miss it.

May Houston remain contentedly superior, but never complaisant! A big part of its secret has been that it is freer than most cities, including its government not dictating to land owners what to do with their property. That freedom is being threatened once again, and we'll need to fight back....

Hmmm! Awhile back, I saw a bumper sticker saying something like, "Keep Austin Weird". Perhaps as the zoning fight heats up, supporters of freedom in land use could similarly display our sentiments: "Keep Houston Free". I like that.
I love that! Sign me up to buy the first one...

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