Thursday, February 26, 2009

A World's Fair for Houston? Bill Gates touts KIPP, and more

Wow. Just finished watching an amazing Rockets game where they completely dismantled Lebron James (the only shutout in his career for assists) and the Eastern conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers (holding them to their lowest score of the year). This team definitely has the potential to go all the way, even without McGrady. If you didn't see the recent NY Times magazine article on Shane Battier as the "No Stats All-Star", it's well worth reading, even if you're only a mild basketball fan (written by Michael Lewis, author of "Moneyball"). The Rockets and Shane are pioneering a whole new strategic and tactical approach to basketball based on deep quantitative analytics that is starting to yield amazing results.

Before I get to some smaller items, I'd like to put in a plug for the De Lange conference on "Transforming the Metropolis: Creating Sustainable and Humane Cities" at Rice next week (Mon-Wed). I'll be attending some of it, hoping to find some good content for the blog. Speakers include Joel Kotkin, Bob Bruegmann,and Mayor White on Monday. If you find the agenda interesting, it's quite cheap to attend ($35), as well as having webcast video.

On to some misc items:
  • Not sure how long this has been up, but here's the TXDoT Project Tracker if you want to know the status on any of their projects. Hat tip to Jessie.
  • Bill Gates of Microsoft fame talks about Houston's amazing KIPP charter schools at the most recent TED conference. Go 14 minutes into the video.
  • The Chronicle's Lisa Gray with 25 random things about Houston, and a followup piece, a dozen happy thoughts about Houston. I liked 'em. I think they're pretty observant. She took some flack for a little negativity in the first one, but I didn't think it was that bad. As these guys point out, even our negatives can reinforce our sense of identity.
  • Houston Cheap Eats blog. I loved the book and am looking forward to discovering new places via the blog.
  • The Wall Street Journal had a recent front-page story on the ups and downs of the World's Fair history and it's rocky relationship with the U.S. It talks a lot about Manuel Delgado from Houston who's trying to get us one. He and I met over lunch several years ago when he described the concept to me. From the article:
A marketing executive and Boy Scouts volunteer in Houston, he says hosting one of the international get-togethers would do wonders for America's image abroad.


In Houston, Mr. Delgado and his team of about a dozen people believe they know how to get people juiced for an expo in 2020. "We want really bizarre looking buildings," says the 39-year-old native of Venezuela, who moved to Houston in 1997. He says his epiphany about organizing an expo came from fond memories of working at the 1992 "Age of Discovery" Expo in Seville, Spain, and meeting people from around the world. America's expo amnesia has surprised him.

The Houston team is lobbying local politicians, whom they want in turn to press Washington for support. Mr. Delgado is also consulting local universities on urban-impact studies and investigating ways to tout Houston at the Shanghai expo.

"It's a very fine line between being considered a visionary and a wacko," says Mr. Delgado.


Back in Houston, Mr. Delgado acknowledges his looming challenges by noting that Americans sometimes say a tough task "needs an act of Congress" to get done. He adds: "This is the first time I've done anything that actually requires one."

I think it'd be pretty cool if it could avoid being scheduled during our summer. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Houston vs. how Americans want to live

David Brooks had an extremely insightful column last week in the NY Times on what Americans are looking for in their ideal living environment. I liked the opening in particular:

You may not know it to look at them, but urban planners are human and have dreams. One dream many share is that Americans will give up their love affair with suburban sprawl and will rediscover denser, more environmentally friendly, less auto-dependent ways of living.

Those dreams have been aroused over the past few months. The economic crisis has devastated the fast-growing developments on the far suburban fringe. Americans now taste the bitter fruit of their overconsumption.

The time has finally come, some writers are predicting, when Americans will finally repent. They’ll move back to the urban core. They will ride more bicycles, have smaller homes and tinier fridges and rediscover the joys of dense community — and maybe even superior beer.

America will, in short, finally begin to look a little more like Amsterdam.

Well, Amsterdam is a wonderful city, but Americans never seem to want to live there. And even now, in this moment of chastening pain, they don’t seem to want the Dutch option.

He then dissects the recent Pew study, noting that Americans are restless (most want to live elsewhere, especially to go West), that rural and suburban residents are happier with where they live than urbanites, and that cities are mostly attractive to the young, but far less so over the age of 35 (esp. NYC and LA). Continuing:

If you jumble together the five most popular American metro areas — Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Orlando and Tampa (how is Austin not on this list?) — you get an image of the American Dream circa 2009. These are places where you can imagine yourself with a stuffed garage — filled with skis, kayaks, soccer equipment, hiking boots and boating equipment. These are places you can imagine yourself leading an active outdoor lifestyle.

These are places (except for Orlando) where spectacular natural scenery is visible from medium-density residential neighborhoods, where the boundary between suburb and city is hard to detect. These are places with loose social structures and relative social equality, without the Ivy League status system of the Northeast or the star structure of L.A. These places are car-dependent and spread out, but they also have strong cultural identities and pedestrian meeting places. They offer at least the promise of friendlier neighborhoods, slower lifestyles and service-sector employment. They are neither traditional urban centers nor atomized suburban sprawl. They are not, except for Seattle, especially ideological, blue or red.

They offer the dream, so characteristic on this continent, of having it all: the machine and the garden. The wide-open space and the casual wardrobes.

I previously discussed this survey in this post, noting that Houston scored in the middle of the pack and that it has a clear bias towards high-tourism cities that people are likely to have visited. But I still think Pew and Mr. Brooks are on to something here.

Let's see how Houston measures up to these criteria:
  • Yes: skis (water), soccer equipment, boating equipment, loose social structures and relative social equality, car-dependent and spread out, strong cultural identities, friendlier neighborhoods, service-sector employment, not ideological
  • No: skis (snow), kayaks, hiking boots, spectacular natural scenery, pedestrian meeting places (does the Galleria count? Discovery Green?)
  • Mixed: active outdoor lifestyle, wide-open space, casual wardrobes, slower lifestyles (we're considered a pretty fast-paced place, but there's still a lot of the leisurely old South here too)
Not too bad.

I had a phone call with a friend today that moved from Houston to Phoenix for career and relationship reasons, and he's a big fan of Houston, but he positively gushed about the outdoor options in the mountains outside of Phoenix. Another friend of mine talked about the outdoor weekend focus of people in Austin. Not so much here. The outdoor lifestyle is only partially embraced here - mainly golf and boating. We just don't have inherently attractive topography or a summer climate you want to be outdoors in if air conditioning is an option. Neither we can do anything about.

But it does indicate we're on the right track with some of our quality-of-life initiatives: bayou parks and trails, more park space (including flood control), and encouraging and enabling mixed-use pedestrian-oriented developments where there is demand and near rail stops.

What are we missing? Well, I'd certainly vote for a more casual dress standard in our business community. Less of the suit-and-tie fest at Partnership events. We don't have to go all Hawaiian, but maybe Silicon Valley business casual is not a bad compromise standard (especially with our summers).

On the other hand, Xanax in the water supply seems unlikely, and I know of no technology yet for affordably constructing mountains. Maybe a future job for our nanotechnology pioneers and their first swarm of solar-powered self-replicating nanobots... ;-) then they can move on to the weather problem...

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

#1 in Everything, State of the County, MetroRail budgets

Judge Emmett gave a good State of the County address at a GHP luncheon today (Chronicle coverage, Examiner coverage). Some highlights:
  • The county is financially in good shape, certainly far better than most governments across the country
  • "71 percent of all new jobs created in the U.S. in recent years have been created in Texas." Wow. That stat just blows me away every time I see it.
  • Big plug for the port as a cornerstone of international trade, which is our future.
  • Plug for commuter rail in the Hempstead Corridor and along Route 3 to Galveston.
  • Plug for UH Tier 1 status.
  • His biggest worry sounds like the Harris County Hospital District, and figuring out how pubic and indigent health care is going to be handled and paid for (details here). I think he's right that it needs to get figured out, but it might make sense to wait until after whatever Obama does on health care.
  • Transtar did well did Hurricane Ike, but needs some expansion and improvements to do better.
  • Ended with a great story of heroic all-night efforts by tug boat crews during Ike to keep a large ship that came unmoored from crashing into the 610 Loop Ship Channel bridge, which could have brought the whole thing down. He thought their story kinda got lost in the noise during post-Ike recovery. They have been nominated for U.S. Homeland Security Certificates of Valor. "It highlights our greatest strength - private individuals withe a work ethic and a value system that will see us through good times or bad."
Afterward during the press conference, I asked him about congestion pricing on toll roads. It sounds like they might wait a while to open up the new Katy lanes to toll-payers (he implied lack of demand because the free lanes move so well), and even then it will be a fixed-schedule of prices rather than real-time congestion pricing, which does have the risk of congestion and slow speeds when there is extra demand due to weather or accidents. He doesn't think they're ready for real-time. He know of no talks between HCTRA and Metro on HOV-to-HOT lane conversions, where it would make obvious sense to use HCTRA's EZ-tag, billing, and enforcement systems.

Speaking of Metro, I just came across this Chronicle story today that Metro only got half the federal stimulus funds they expected. They asked for $410 million for the north and southeast rail lines, expected $180 million, but only got $92 million. Given that those two lines alone are estimated to cost over $1.2 billion, I'm curious what Metro's plan is to fill in the budget gap. Are they just keeping their fingers crossed for more federal money for these lines in future years?

Finally, the item that really jumped out at me at the luncheon was this page of Houston #1's they included in our packets. It's kind of mind-boggling when you read it. We've been ranked the best city for living, working, playing, earning a living, keeping your job, buying a home, recent college grads, fastest job growth, hottest labor market, lowest cost of living, largest IT service economy, top U.S. manufacturing city, best cancer hospital, highest population growth, and more. This one came out today calling us the healthiest housing market for 2009 (hat tip to Christina), and the Texas Triangle cities made a clean sweep of the top five positions. Wow. Are we "world-class" yet? ;-) All, I can say is, be thankful you're in the right place at the right time during this global recession.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

The top four urban stories of late '08 (and my response on Houston's freedom)

So I've been backlogged on my Planetizen emails since October. That's over 35+ emails with links to 700+ stories related to cities and urban planning. But I caught up last week and have selected what I think are the four most interesting stories I came across:

"'The areas we now admire,' explains Toronto architect and co-author John van Nostrand, 'are pre-planning areas. But older areas didn't always offer access to parks and open space. Then, when planning hit in the 1960s, we rejected the unplanned city for the fully planned community. I think now we're way overregulated. There are so many rules. What we need is an approach that allows for changes.'

In other words, planning may be the problem, but it's also the solution.

Or is it? Van Nostrand argues that when it comes to planning, less is more. The trick, he insists, is not to be overly proscriptive, but to allow for maximum flexibility.

'Real life is always right,' he says. 'It's planning that's wrong.'"

The final story is Urbanism Legend: Is Houston really unplanned? (and response by Brian, a local property rights defender) Really he's asking if we're truly a free market city. My thoughts on his main points:
  • We don't allow our townhomes to be small enough or dense enough. He's referring to the compromise inside-vs.-outside the loop density regulations of 1998. I agree I'd like to see this restriction gone. But clearly we are addressing the lower end of the market (he says we don't), because there are plenty of very affordable townhomes north and east of downtown. I also question whether there's any real demand for smaller townhomes here, even if they were allowed. And, finally, I've heard a lot about the new density overloading our infrastructure in the core - especially sewers - so there may be practical density limits in any case.
  • We have minimum parking requirements. Again, I would like to see this restriction gone and let the market sort it out, but I suspect it would make little difference. Developers in Houston know the market demands parking, and they'd be committing suicide without it. What I'd really like to see, if someone has it, is data on approved apartment projects of the last few years, and how their built parking compares to the legally required minimums. If many of them are right at the minimum, then relaxing the regs could have an impact. But if most projects have more than them minimum required, as I suspect they do, then relaxing the minimums may have little practical impact. It's also worth noting that the Urban Corridors plan is expected to relax parking requirements near rail stops.
  • Minimum setbacks force parking in front of buildings. True, and they will fix this in the urban corridors. Outside of them, I suspect the free market would still choose to put parking in front, for convenience, even without the required setbacks.
  • The city enforces deed restrictions. I don't really understand the problem here. Clearly deed restrictions would be a lot less reliable if they required homeowners to pay attorney's fees every time there was a violation. The real benefit of deed restrictions is their voluntary nature, and that they have mechanisms for local neighborhood control. Also, unlike zoning, they have to be market-oriented and realistic. Developers and homeowners lose out if their deed restrictions reduce their value, so they're naturally careful about what they do. Zoning - or any other land use restrictions - created by government bureaucrats have no such restraint. Value can be destroyed arbitrarily with no impact on those officials.
As Brian points out in his response, Houston may not be a perfect unregulated free market in land-use, but it is far more so - and therefore more flexible and affordable - than the average city.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Rail Anti-Christ, HOV->HOT, rankings, HSR, popular cities, and more

After the PBS town hall a couple weeks ago, first one and then another person commented or emailed me referring to the "Rail Anti-Christ". I didn't understand what they were referring to, but figured it couldn't be a coincidence. After inquiring, they explained it to me. The videos of the town hall are online here. If you go to the 16:52 point in the first video, you can see my comments on the difficulties of rail in Houston. I will admit I made a mistake not differentiating commuter rail from our current inner city rail plan (although they both have their own issues). Then, if you go to the 15:25 point in the second video, you'll see Frank Wilson, CEO of Metro, refer to me as the "Rail Anti-Christ". It completely went by me while I was there. It seems a little harsh given the mildness of my original rail comment, which I only made because the facilitator asked for a negative view on rail, nobody else jumped in, and I felt the devil's advocate (;-) point-of-view needed to be put on the table. On the one hand it stings a little, but on the other it means I must be having an impact on the debate. People tend to ignore non-threats but lash out at perceived real threats.

Moving on to the rapidly growing list of smaller misc items:

In its brochure Metro said it could use $70 million to convert 83 miles of under-used HOV lanes on the Northwest, North, Southwest, Eastex and Gulf freeways to toll lanes.

Carpoolers would still get to ride for free while single drivers could pay to use the lanes. The toll fees would be used for patrols, maintenance and repairs.

Why not just eliminate the HOV lanes altogether? Wouldn’t an extra, unrestricted lane help with congestion? And couldn’t the money then be put somewhere else?

Tory Gattis, Houston Strategies blogger, considers the HOV-lane conversion a long overdue idea. He’s also a proponent of fares that can be adjusted “on the fly” during traffic surges.

Fixed-price lanes, he said, can get clogged when weather is bad or after accidents.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority would be the best fit to manage those lanes, given that they already have the technology in place, Gattis said.

“There’s no reason to duplicate all the infrastructure HCTRA has at Metro,” he said.

The managed or HOV toll lanes also are a good idea in Gattis’ book because “HOV lanes often find themselves stuck between the two-person and three-person rule.”

The two-person rule for HOV lanes creates too much demand on the system, while three drops demand off too much because it eliminates couples from sharing rides, he added.

"Tolling Infrastructure Anti-Christ", anyone? ;-)

Hope you enjoy your Friday-the-13th+Valentines+Presidents Day weekend. (how's that for a strange combination?)

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Monday, February 09, 2009

$50K In Houston Equals $123K in NYC, study finds

This stat comes from a recent report from the Center for an Urban Future focused on the disappearing middle class in NYC. The Gothamist has a good blog post summarizing, including some nice graphs (#1 and #6 include Houston data). In the sixth graph, note that the average commute in Houston is only 2 minutes longer than the national average, far below NYC, and even beats Boston and LA.
"A new report from the Center for an Urban Future (whose previous report, "Attack of the Chains," sparked a bidding war between Fox and Warner Bros.) confirms the obvious: the so-called middle class can no longer afford to live in New York and are relocating in large numbers to the exburbs or far-flung cities like Houston, where $50,000 a year gets you the same standard of living as a $123,322 salary does in Manhattan. Don't scoff; Space City has theater, opera, ballet, air-conditioned skywalks, a Holocaust Museum—even a lively local weblog, just like the one you enjoy here!"
Then again, the NY Times had a story this morning about how hard it is to live there on a mere $500K per year... (!!!)

Of course, there are plenty of stereotypical disparaging remarks about Houston in the comments, along with a smattering of defenders. I'd like to invite all my readers to get in there and defend our cosmopolitan hometown. Yes - hate to burst your bubble, New Yorkers - but Houston has plenty of culture and restaurants.

If you're interested, there are a lot of Houston stats in the report - just search for "Houston".

Here's one excerpt:
"Someone moving from Houston to Manhattan would pay 68 percent more for groceries, 447 percent more for housing, 54 percent more for utilities, 22 percent more for transportation and 38 percent more for health care."
Wait, isn't density supposed to reduce costs vs. sprawl? At the very least for utilities and transportation?

Hat tip to HAIF.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Comprehensively addressing graffiti

The City Council Quality of Life committee met today and talked about, among other things, graffiti abatement. You may remember Councilmember Sue Lovell's graffiti op-ed a couple weeks back in the Chronicle (why oh why,, can't you have real permalinks like the rest of the newspaper web site world?). That op-ed displaced another potential op-ed on the same topic by Deborah January-Bevers, Executive Director of the Quality of Life Coalition, and I'd like to pass it along here.

She and I had a good conversation after the PBS town hall forum, and I'm convinced they're on the right track with the solution - basically a combination of best practices from across the city and country - even incorporating my own suggestion from a while back (definitely my #1 post for ongoing comments over the last 3+ years - and a lot of good insight into the taggers' perspective there - with potential elements of other solutions, like giving graffiti artists legitimate outlets on otherwise boring walls). One solution I haven't heard enough about: why doesn't the city/county/etc. put those graffiti-resistant coatings on obvious target surfaces, like the 59 trench and the bridges that cross it?

One final point before the op-ed: I really like and support the Quality of Life Coalition, because they're focused on real-world solutions to real issues you can point to (trees, landscaping, parks, recreation, bayous, billboards, signage, litter, graffiti) - rather than a lot of vague hand-waving around "we need comprehensive government planning and regulation to solve all problems and create utopia-on-earth."

From Deborah:

It’s time once again to step up the anti-graffiti efforts along Houston’s freeways, parks and other public areas.

Numerous businesses and civic advocates work regularly with the City of Houston on private and public property to improve anti-graffiti efforts through increased enforcement against violators and anti-graffiti education. Several years ago, these groups supported the City of Houston’s policy changes and implementation of better graffiti removal processes. The result of increased use of graffiti abatement trucks by the City of Houston and management districts, heightened use of 311 to report graffiti violations, and business participation in anti-graffiti enforcement have proved effective in reducing graffiti in many areas around Houston -- so much so that the errant graffiti taggers have now turned their attention to our freeway systems, parks and other public areas, where reporting and removal is more difficult and costly.

Law-abiding citizens know the multiple ill-effects of graffiti on our community. Graffiti fosters crime, lowers property values, mars our landscape and leaves a bad impression for all who see it. Anti-graffiti education and public awareness play a key role in lessening the number of graffiti “tags” in the community but graffiti is still a taxpayer problem – costing thousands of dollars each year for the City of Houston, TxDOT and surrounding counties to remove it on public property.

While the business and civic communities, through management districts and other organizations play a large role in keeping graffiti out of their respective neighborhoods – many groups work in conjunction with the East End Management District’s very successful Graffiti Abatement Program – areas outside of a management district are still large targets for taggers.

The Quality of Life Coalition, comprised of more than 85 endorsing organizations in the Houston area, has long supported implementation of Best Management Practices in anti-litter and anti-graffiti policies. We strongly support increased anti-graffiti efforts by the City of Houston, TxDOT and Harris County through public outreach, education and awareness programs, crime-stopper rewards, criminal enforcement and use of more graffiti abatement trucks. We also encourage continued use of Public Service Announcements under the Stop Trashing Houston campaign (see and development of an City of Houston-hosted anti-graffiti resource website, which has proven successful in reducing graffiti in other cities.

If indeed our region’s current success with anti-graffiti efforts is causing graffiti taggers to move to new areas – such as our freeways, parks and other public areas -- then a coordinated approach is needed between the City of Houston, TxDOT and Harris County. Reducing graffiti is a critical component of continuing to improve our region’s quality of life.

Deborah January-Bevers is the Executive Director of the Quality of Life Coalition

Update 7/22/09: A new City of Houston graffiti web site.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Houston resilience, transportation stimulus, and energy conservation

For those of you who didn't catch the PBS town hall forum last week, here's the video online. I think I did ok, making points about the difficulties of commuter rail in a city like ours, some deceptive transportation cost stats, and the win-win benefits of water retention parks. I'm still not sure I'm much of a fan of the TV format. There's not enough time for nuanced views - it really favors simplistic sound bites - and then there's the whole realtime problem where you can't edit out your screw-ups like you can in a blog... ;-)

The backlog of smaller misc items has been building up, so I'm going to pass along a few of them tonight:
  • A good approach to energy conservation we should adopt in Houston by tapping peoples' natural competitive instincts to at least keep up with - and maybe surpass - their neighbors. Are you listening, Centerpoint?
  • A nice pass-along from a NYTimes blog of businesses that are actually doing well in this economy. Hat tip to Brian. His comment:
    "It is a list of around 30 types of business that are actually doing well. When you think about what kinds of businesses are common in Texas and especially Houston it is little wonder why we are fairing better. This is not just oil. From the medical center, to NASA, Waste Management, to all the ugly industries that Houston has a large footprint in, but most people ignore."
  • Another good pass-along, this time from Reason:
    Transit Trips Take Longer Than Car Trips in 272 of 276 Metro Areas
    Reason Foundation's Director of Urban Growth Sam Staley testified before the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit on Tuesday. Staley urged Congress to prioritize transportation solutions that increase our mobility and decrease traffic congestion. Staley suggested that Congress keep transit's role "in context" in the stimulus bill and upcoming transportation reauthorization bill. Staley finds: "Despite recent gains in ridership, public transit remains a relatively small part of the overall travel equation in most major urbanized areas in the U.S. Notably, higher gas prices contributed to a reduction in road travel by 100 billion vehicle miles traveled in 2008, according to the Federal Highway Administration, a fall of about 4 percent. Public transit experienced an increase of about 5 percent. Yet, because transit carries a very small portion of travel, transit was able to capture just 3 percent of the overall decline in road travel. In addition, the kinds of policies that will be necessary to fundamentally change land use to boost transit ridership significantly would require a dramatic and largely involuntary relocation of people and families into housing they do not want. The single-family, detached house would be an option only for the wealthier income brackets in our major urban areas, effectively inverting the existing distribution of home options and choices. A policy that focuses largely on shifting travelers out of cars and into transit will reduce mobility. An examination of work trip travel times in 276 metropolitan areas found that the length of public transit trips exceeded those for private automobiles in 272 of those areas. On average, public transit riders spend about 36 minutes traveling to work while private automobile travelers commute about 21 minutes."
It's not about being anti-transit or pro-road - it's about making pragmatic spending choices with the best cost-benefit ratios. And Obama has said he is all about pragmatism - how to make government actually work - not ideology.

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