Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bridge to Opportunity

The Chronicle story on the planned 'Tolerance Bridge' for pedestrians over Buffalo Bayou near Montrose mentioned that the Mayor asked the Houston Arts Alliance to come up with a better name. It says they're taking suggestions through Jan 31st, but my email keeps bouncing back when I use their contact page. So I'm going to submit the idea here, and hope some of my readers can forward it to the right person.

Since Mayor White has often referred to Houston as a "City of Opportunity" which attracts diverse residents from all over the world, and my own blog has advocated "Open City of Opportunity" for our identity, my suggestion is "Bridge to Opportunity" (I think that sounds a little better than "Opportunity Bridge"). Of course, paths to opportunity are rarely straightforward, which fits well with the twist in the design.

Also playing off the impossible-looking twist in the bridge could be this famous quote somewhere on the bridge:
"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." -Thomas Edison

All sorts of other potential inspirational quotes for the bridge can be found here.

Let me know what you think and feel free to make your own name suggestions in the comments.


A Pragmatic Approach to Houston’s Future (part 2 of 2)

Continuing from part 1 earlier this week (both parts also posted here, along with other essays). Don't forget to watch Houston Have Your Say on the Future of Houston on PBS Channel 8 tonight at 7pm.

So, given that set of realities, what’s the right answer for accommodating Houston’s growth?
  • MaX Lanes: A comprehensive network of high-speed managed freeway lanes similar to the new lanes on the Katy Freeway. They should include converted HOV lanes and congestion pricing. They could be called Managed eXpress Lanes – or MaX Lanes – that move the maximum number of people and vehicles at maximum speed.
  • Park-and-ride commuter options from every neighborhood to every job center using those lanes. This includes buses and vanpools, both public and private with a flat Metro subsidy per passenger mile. Private operators would compete on schedule, routes, service, timeliness, and amenities like wireless Internet. They whisk commuters nonstop at 65mph directly to their job center and then circulate to get them right to their building. No transfers, no waits, and no walking in our unpredictable weather. Parking lots that are underutilized M-F during business hours – like malls and churches - could become park-and-ride lots.
  • Cash-out parking. To further incentivize transit ridership and reduce cars on the freeways, employers should be required to offer cash-out parking: if an employee is not using a parking space, they should receive the cash value of the spot the employer does not have to provide for them.
  • We do need a small, core light rail network to allow these transit commuters to get around during the day for meetings, errands, and lunch (update 3/8/20: Uber and Lyft solved this problem) – although certainly many of the planned lines could be delayed in order to pay for expanded commuter transit options now, which would have a far better cost-benefit ratio in the short-term.
  • Density near rail stops. Where we do build light rail, we should encourage density near the stops to minimize car trips on our congested street grid. This should be accomplished not through heavy-handed regulation – which is more likely to create dead zones than the desired development - but by offering TIRZ incentives to associations of land owners that voluntarily agree to dense design and build standards in their deed restrictions.
  • Free-market land use. Houston should embrace, extend, and improve our free market approach to land regulation based on voluntary deed restrictions instead of heavy-handed – and often corrupt – zoning. This approach allows supply to match demand and keeps housing affordable for all.
In a recent study of Houston with noted urban scholar Joel Kotkin – titled “Opportunity Urbanism” – we discovered an amazing fact: when looking at cost-of-living adjusted median wages in major metro areas, Houston has the highest standard of living in the U.S. and probably the world. Clearly, we’re doing something very right here, and, with continuous tweaks and improvements, we should keep doing it as we move into our very bright future. Kiplinger recently ranked Houston the #1 city in the country to live, work, and play. Clearly, we’re doing something very right here, and, with continuous tweaks and improvements, we should keep doing it as we move into our very bright future.

Update: Here's the liveblog of the event.

Update 2: Here's the video.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

A Pragmatic Approach to Houston’s Future (part 1 of 2)

Local PBS has asked me to participate in a panel exploring Houston's future - specifically regarding traffic, livability, and regional growth (more here, including a participant list). The panel will be broadcast live at 7pm Thursday evening on local channel 8 PBS. They asked me to write an essay for their web site in advance of the event, and I want to also post it here for posterity. Since it's sort of long, I'll break it into two parts. The content mirrors much of what I said at the Emerging Green Builders event last week. Part one:

Don’t panic. That would be my first advice to Houston. All through its relatively short history, people have agonized in the face of tremendous growth from one to two to four and now six million people in the metro area. We’ve adjusted quite well – thank you – consistently ranking near the top in economic, job, and population growth. Clearly we’re doing something very right to attract and keep all these people. That’s not to say we haven’t had growing pains, but “continuous improvement” should be our guiding philosophy, not “radical change.” When it comes to new strategies, here are some realities we need to recognize:
  • Growth is good. Studies of cities show that a doubling of population is accompanied by more than a doubling of creative and economic output. The larger the population of a metro, the greater the innovation and wealth creation per person.
  • People want space. Sprawl is not evil. Throughout history, even going back to the medieval nobles and their country estates, people have always desired more personal space as they have grown more affluent. Make this space unavailable by forcing density through regulation or inadequate transportation, as in Europe or Japan, and not only does housing become unaffordable, but fertility rates will drop below replacement levels as families shrink. If they can’t increase the size of their home, they will shrink the size of their household, which creates a financially destabilizing demographic implosion.
  • Density has limited appeal. As young people push marriage later, we have a new twenty-something stage of life where people want to live in a dense, vibrant, urban core. But, inevitably, as they marry and start families, space, cost, and school concerns draw them to the suburbs. Houston should absolutely offer good urban lifestyle options to those who desire it, but it will always be a relatively small part of our population.
  • People cannot be forced into the dense core or on long commuter transit rides against their will. If people can’t access nice, affordable homes and good schools within a reasonable commute, employers will move out to suburbs, leading people to move even further out, expanding sprawl, and draining the core’s tax base.
  • Houston has a pedestrian-hostile tropical climate five months of the year. While northern transit-based cities benefit from a personal warming technology – the coat – the only personal cooling technology that exists for southern cities is an air-conditioned vehicle.
  • Cities that are hostile to the car will stagnate. The car is now a permanent part of our culture. Busy lifestyles require its comfort, speed, and convenience – but the propulsion technology will change to be greener and more energy efficient. This represents the future for the vast majority – not dense, transit-oriented living.
  • Planned density almost always fails. Planners try to protect low-density areas and designate high-density ones, but, inevitably, NIMBYs protest and shoot down the high-density development if there is a regulatory mechanism for them to do so – like a zoning board they can influence. Recent data shows that Houston’s free market approach builds one-third more density per capita than Portland’s highly prescriptive, planned approach. And a recent ULI advisory panel was emphatic in recommending that Houston not adopt zoning.
  • Commuter rail rarely works in a post-WW2 car-based city. Old cities in Europe and America were built with dense cores for the primary mobility mode of the time: walking. Rail allowed people to move to the suburbs and still commute to the single dense core of jobs (like Manhattan or downtown Chicago). Newer, mostly post-WW2, car-based, Sunbelt cities like Houston have decentralized jobs spread over many different centers, like downtown, uptown, the medical center, Greenway Plaza, the Energy Corridor, Westchase, Greenspoint, Clear Lake, and more. Less than 7% of our jobs are downtown. Trying to connect commuters to these job centers with rail would not only be astronomically expensive, but would lead to impractically long commute times with multiple transfers and long walks for people to reach their final destination buildings.
Long-time readers of this blog will recognize these points from earlier posts that cover them with more detail and nuance than I had room for here (like, for example, selective commuter rail that might work). My apologies for the necessary simplifications.

Part two on Thursday night will cover my recommended strategies.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Houston's SXSW, Metro rail update, and more

Just want to pass along a few smaller misc items tonight:
Houston, like Dallas, held up while many other cities were showing the strains of an economic slowdown. But job growth and the brisk business of oil and gas exploration have come to an abrupt halt.
Vacant or unfinished shopping centers dot the highways. Among the 8.4 million square feet of office space under construction or recently completed in the metropolitan area, 80 percent has not been leased. As a result, the vacancy rate is 11 percent and rising.
“I see a wave of troubled assets coming out of Texas in the near future,” said Dan Fasulo, managing director of Real Capital Analytics, a real estate research firm.
Thanks to those who attended my event last night with EGB. The room was full, the Q&A was engaging, and the feedback was very positive.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Speaking at open event this Wed evening

Just going to pass along this announcement about my speaking at the Emerging Green Builders event this Wednesday evening. It's free and all are welcome - just RSVP here so they know how many to expect. Hope to see you there!

The Emerging Green Builders are hosting an event to discuss “Strategies for Making Houston More Sustainable” on Wednesday January 21st 6-8pm here at Kirksey; 6909 Portwest Houston, TX 77057. The event will consist of a short presentation and a question, comment, and answer session. Topics include but are not limited to the light rail, transit based development, commuter rail, costs of congestion, mixed-use, mobility strategies, new urbanism, planning, politics, quality of place, smart growth, sprawl, toll roads, tourism, and zoning. So come and see old friends, make new ones, have a bite to eat, a sip to drink on us. This is the first event in our 2009 season.

Tory Gattis writes the popular Houston Strategies blog on a wide range of topics including transportation, transit, quality of life, city identity, and development and land regulations, and has also published numerous Houston Chronicle Op-Eds on these topics. He also co-authored the Opportunity Urbanism study with noted urbanist Joel Kotkin and others, creating a city philosophy around upward social mobility for all citizens as an alternative to the popular smart growth, new urbanism, and creative class movements.

Also, The Gulf Coast Green Design Competition will be announced; the challenge will focus on strategies for making Houston more sustainable.

For more information about the Emerging Green Builders, a segment of the USGBC Houston, please go to our website.

To RSVP for the event, please go to our calendar page.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Mayor White's last State of the City address (and what he should do next)

Mayor White delivered his final State of the City address at a packed GHP luncheon today (he's term-limited out this year). I can't say there was any breaking news (here's the Chronicle story), but it was a fine speech. He argued that, even with the economic crisis, Houston today is in good shape, with, among other things:
  • 380,000 new jobs in the last 5 years, the most of any metro in the nation and actually more than 47 states(!)
  • Lower crime
  • More parks, libraries, and health clinics than ever before
  • Declining electricity usage (-6%) in the face of tremendous growth from improved efficiency
  • Good city management
  • New housing in formerly run-down neighborhoods
Here are some other points from his speech that caught my attention:
  • He said we need to start a civic conversation on how we're going to weather the fiscal austerity ahead.
  • Our most important infrastructure is our people network as a community that works together.
  • He (and I) believe Houston has a unique sense of community in this country (for a city of our size).
  • "Teamwork over turf."
  • There are a whole lot of new projects for 2009, including zoo upgrades, Children's Museum expansion, a regional amateur sports complex, public art, historical building restorations, and more.
  • A big goal this year of diverting 20% of our solid waste to yard waste recycling.
  • "In Texas we believe in empowerment rather than entitlement, but people still need to help each other."
  • He called for a gracious welcoming back of W to Texas and prayers of success for Obama.
Near the end, he joked about the prolific profanity noted in Houston's early history and his keeping up the tradition with those idle Ike relief trucks. That one got a good laugh from the crowd.

He's been a great mayor and let's hope his final year is another good one.

I spent some time thinking about this: If I could ask him to focus on one big project in his last year, what would it be? The biggest problems - education, traffic, crime, economic development, etc. - can take years to make an impact. So what could he do in one year that would leave a great positive legacy for the city? I think this, with some energy policy sessions added to energy technology. Maybe keynote speeches from the new Secretary of Energy, or even President Obama himself? Energy is one of his top priorities: conservation, sustainability, independence, carbon reduction, etc. How great would that be for an inaugural event that redefines Houston's global identity for the 21st century?

What would you ask him to do in his final year? Comments are welcome.

Update: got some nice backing from Carrie Feibel over at the Chronicle Politics blog and I'm talking with the Partnership to see about expanding this event. Now just need buy-in from the Mayor...

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Keep Houston Houston

It's late tonight, and I've been wanting to pass this along for a while: a really insightful little blog post on what makes Houston great, and a proposal for a new slogan: Keep Houston Houston. Great stuff. Enjoy:
At any rate, we’ve all seen “keep Austin weird” and many of us are also aware of “keep Georgetown normal” and countless other variants. Houston has a unique quality all its own which I happen to prefer, but what to call it? What is that uniqueness about Houston that we all know but don’t put into words? It’s not weird. It’s not the money; yeah, we’ve got Bentleys and Lambos here, but we’re a lot more laid back about it then people in LA or the Big D. So what is it? Kotkin would tell us that it’s a low cost of living coupled with a pro-business environment and no zoning code which enables an unmatched upward mobility that mints millionaires daily and gives the poor a decent shot at attaining a comfortable middle-class existence. Which is great from an economic standpoint, but how does that explain the giant armadillo?
Houston is a special place, a dynamic place, a vibrant place, boisterous, unrestrained, “hustle town,” a city where fortunes are made and lost in a day. And it’s worth keeping it that way. We need an activist slogan that fits on a bumper sticker, something that you can slap on your Mitsubishi alongside “give peace a chance” or “gun control means using both hands” or “just say no to sex with pro-lifers.” Something that connotes that Houston is unique and it’s worth preserving that uniqueness.
...let’s keep Houston like Houston. Because there’s a lot of changes happening in this city right now, a lot of really *good* changes. Attractive architecture, interesting development projects, massive infrastructure improvements covering everything from twenty-lane freeways to complex light rail networks. And there’s a lot of good changes to push for, like preserving our most historic buildings, adding and improving the park system, increasing roadway capacity, building a coherent network of bike trails, expanding the capacity of the freight rail network, and installing a train between Galveston and College Station. But in the debates over adding these things, it’s all too easy to frame the current state of things in a negative light, as if Houston isn’t already a positive place. For those who love the city this is an annoyance, but it is also a danger; for if we get too into trashing Houston, we could very easily forget all the benefits we enjoy.

The fact is, this place is quite livable even without a commuter rail system or an un-gridlocked 290. Adding those things will make it better, and will “fix” problems in a very narrowly-defined sense, but they won’t “fix” the city, because the city is already just fine. Houston is awesome. And it’s important to ask, whenever we start talking about making changes: “will this make Houston more like Houston? Or will this outcome move Houston towards a second-rate Dallas or a third-rate Portland or a fifth-rate New York?” You can’t really argue with infrastructure improvements, but some of the other changes up in the air - like the push from the architects who want to try out their new “form-based codes” on cities un-marred by traditional land-use zoning - could seriously hamper Houston’s ability to become even more like Houston. And for those of us who love such un-PC pursuits as getting fat off cheap mexican food, driving fuel inefficient cars, or just building a sleek ultramodern house on a street full of cloyingly-cute arts and crafts bungalows, this is a dire possibility, because there aren’t a lot of places left for us to go. So, by any means necessary, let’s keep Houston Houston. And when someone who’s selling us a “good” idea starts trashing the city in which we live, let’s take a long step back and look at that person’s motivations and the effect of their ideas on the aspects of this city which we all enjoy today.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Do Houstonians really drive more vs. other cities?

Demographia has published a short white paper debunking the myth that Houstonians drive more than people in other cities based on flawed 2006 FHWA stats. Those stats show we drive 36 vehicle miles per capita per day, the most in the nation among major cities (table 1, page 3).
In fact, this data is incorrect. The FHWA 2006 data indicates that the Houston urban area has a population of 2,801,000. According to the United States Bureau of the Census, the population of the Houston urban area was 4,353,000 in 2006. It is true that the FHWA and Census geographical definitions vary, however, the land area of the FHWA urban area (1,476 square miles) is greater than the land area of the Census urban area (1,296 square miles). It is statistically impossible for a Houston urban area with a larger land area to have less population than a Houston urban area with a smaller land area.

Actually Houston’s driving is about average: If the urban area population is corrected to agree with the Bureau of the Census data, per capita driving in the Houston area is slightly below the national average for large urban areas. Houston would rank 19th out of 38 urban areas, with daily per capita driving of 23.2 miles, compared to the national average of 23.9 miles. Houston’s daily driving is only slightly more than urban areas with large rail systems, such as Boston (22.9), Washington (22.3) and San Francisco (22.0) (Table 2 and Slide 1).
They go on to point out that TXDoT data shows Houstonians drive meaningfully less (15+%) than the other big Texas cities Austin, San Antonio, and DFW - even with their larger rail network - then further theorize:
...Houston’s more market oriented land use system would provide a better transportation match between homes and destinations. Houston’s driving data is consistent with this interpretation. Without zoning in the city and the unincorporated suburban areas, Houston does not have the planning barriers that so often lengthen travel times from homes to work and other destinations.
Hear, hear!

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Why Does Hollywood Hate the Suburbs?

The Wall Street Journal had a recent in-depth piece on Hollywood's and the "liberal intelligentsia's" long abhorrence for the suburbs. The whole thing is an interesting read, but here are the excerpts that jumped out at me:
There were two overarching reasons for condemning the suburbs, during the '50s and early '60s, as the most rotten locale in civilized life: class and money. Most of the people leaving the cities for the suburbs in the 1950s were tradespeople, modest businessmen, teachers and the like. They were, in other words, members of the middle-class, the impassioned rejection of which has been the chief rite de passage of the modern American artist and intellectual. With the growth of suburban towns, the liberal American intellectual now had a concrete geography to house his acute sense of outrage.

Yet if the suburbs were becoming the headquarters of the American middle-class, they were also becoming associated with the enviable characteristics of upward mobility: a decent salary, home ownership, access to superior public education and services.
One of the most glaring ironies of American life is that, a quarter-century later, the cities have metamorphosed into the suburbs -- sans trees and grass. The cities' fabled diversity has devolved into global chain stores and the electrolyte-enhanced water bottle and the branded baseball cap have become the accessories of a universal comfort and conformity. In a social and cultural sea change, the cities' rented apartments, once the guarantor of diversity and fluid, exciting movement, have been converted into exclusive co-ops and condominiums. Yet as the cities have become a new type of suburb, suburb-phobia has become an ever more acceptable cultural attitude. The suburban person is considered too meek, too asphalt-challenged to inherit the earth. In the urban centers, on the other hand, desperate ambition makes bad manners respectable, and the chic of perverse taste covers up Philistine cluelessness. The decent, suburban person is regarded as contemptible because he has not learned to reach beyond his talents and pick life's pockets.
Which only means that life's complexity and surprise follow you everywhere, even over the city-line, across the river and into the suburban trees. You wonder why the creators of the film "Revolutionary Road" are blind to such an obvious fact of human existence. But, then, Hollywood is the most illusion-soaked, soul-hardened and materialistic suburb in the world.
Me, I think the city/suburbs fight is simply another proxy for the old Democrat/Republican, Liberal/Conservative, Left/Right, Blue State/Red State divides - and we know which side Hollywood is on.

Thanks to everybody who sent this to me. If you're interested, HAIF has a very long debate thread on it here.

Update: Andrew Dansby's article on the same topic in the Houston Chronicle Zest section.


Thursday, January 01, 2009

2008 Highlights

It's time for the Fall 4Q08 quarterly highlights post, which in this case sums up all the highlights from 2008. 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, and I'm looking forward to an even better 2009.

From Summer 3Q08:

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).