Monday, March 23, 2009

Houston's vulnerability, top rankings, and more

Time to clear out some smaller misc items:
"Houston’s energy industry does have a vulnerability, but it’s not $40 a barrel oil and $4 a Mcf natural gas. It is plug-in automobiles that can run for hundreds of miles on one charge, powered by low-cost, long-lived batteries. That’s when you are talking about change that will alter Houston’s energy franchise. But just as New Bedford, Massachusetts, the capital of the U.S. whaling industry, didn’t die immediately after kerosene and rock oil were introduced into the illumination fuel mix, neither will the oil and gas business die overnight with the introduction of battery-powered automobiles, either. However, the question oil industry executives should be pondering is whether there are, or will be, opportunities for them in the energy business of the last half of this decade. Houston has always been populated by risk-oriented entrepreneurs so we remain confident about the long-term health of this city. But energy as a “definite liability” seems a bit too harsh a characterization of Houston in 2009."
  • Lisa Gray has a Chronicle column on Bob Bruegmann's visit to Houston. Bob is probably the most famous defender of sprawl with his book, "Sprawl: A Compact History". I got to have dinner with him while he was here, and it was a very engaging conversation on the nature of Houston. He was clearly curious to see and learn everything he could about how we developed.
  • Houston's fascinating public art on guidespot. Hat tip to Jack.
  • The Austin Contrarian digs into a little data to analyze minimum parking requirements, albeit with high-density downtown Austin projects. Not sure of the applicability to Houston. Still hoping somebody with access to the data will do an analysis for here.
  • The Houston region was named the #1 metro area in the nation for corporate location and expansion activity according to Site Selection magazine, ahead of Dallas and Chicago. Texas as a state came in #2 behind Ohio (?!). Excerpts:
Several factors contributed to Houston's sudden surge to the top of the chart, explains Moseley. "The quality of a place is tied to the affordability of a community," he says. "According to a recent study by the Center for an Urban Future, it takes fewer dollars to be middle class in Houston than it does in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta or Charlotte. It takes just $50,000 in annual income to be middle class in Houston."

By comparison, noted Moseley, it takes $123,000 to be middle class in New York, $80,000 in Los Angeles, and $63,000 in Chicago.

"Even though we are the number four city in America in population, the cost of living and the cost of doing business is so much of an extreme bargain here," Moseley says. "Plus, we have a delightful climate, we are in the Central Time Zone, and we are the gateway for trade into Central and South America."
Moseley says deals like this are the byproduct of a stable market. "A lot of things are organically happening here," he notes. "We did not have a run-up in residential construction and pricing. We don't have zoning, which causes artificial values to be placed on real estate. As a result, there is confidence in the local economy, and we don't have the huge numbers of foreclosures.

"The reality is that your dollar goes so much farther here," he adds. "That allows us to be more proactive in going after jobs."
Read the whole thing for some detailed examples of the expansions happening here. Hat tip to Christiana at the Partnership.
  • On the downside, Houston has been ranked with the #6 worst congestion in the country. Still, we're down 16% from 2007. Another interesting fact: our worst congestion is in the fall, and best is in the summer. Check out the national map here with red blobs for congestion. CA and the northeast corridor are pretty scary. Some commentary and analysis from The Mighty Wizard:

"So, what about Houston? Well, Houston's scorecard can be viewed here. What I find interesting are two things. First, Houston's overall congestion is measured at only 34 percent of that found in Los Angeles, the most congested metropolitan area in the United States. That is because LA has the fewest miles per capita of freeways of any major metropolitan area in America. Second, the data confirms what is probably intuitively obvious to many Houstonians. The overall worst traffic bottlenecks in the Houston area are to be found in the Galleria area. Six out of the top eleven worst bottlenecks are found along IH 610 Loop (southbound and northbound) and various entry or exits to the Galleria, including Westheimer, San Felipe, and Post Oak Boulevard. The exit at 610 Loop and Richmond Avenue comes in at number 22 on the bottleneck list.

The good news is that none of Houston's interchanges make the top 100 list of Inrix's worst segments or interchanges for traffic bottlenecks. The bad news, comparatively, is that every single one of Houston's 25 worst bottlenecks climbed up the overall rankings for bottleneck severity when comparing the 2008 data to the 2007 data, but that almost certainly reveals that the downturn in 2008 has affected Houston less than it has other areas of the country, an observation confirmed by the fact that Houston's travel time index declined only slightly in 2008 verses 2007."

Here's a map of Houston's congested intersections from NeoHouston.
OK, that's more than enough crammed into one post.

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At 7:44 AM, March 24, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the question of zoning, I wouldn't be too triumphal about the study from Center for an Urban Future. According to it it costs $53,000 to be middle class in Atlanta vs. $50,000 in Houston, and Atlanta has zoning. I expect the margin is the same for other cities (like Dallas) that are similar to Houston in size and availability of land. With only a 6% increase in cost of living, you have to wonder if the benefits of zoning (better appearance, protection of property and real estate investment) start to outweigh the cost.

At 8:17 AM, March 24, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I understand that Atlanta and Dallas have very pro-growth zoning (i.e. almost everything gets approved without much trouble), so they're not that far removed from Houston. But I'll tell you my theory for why the difference is bigger than those numbers imply. Both Atlanta and Dallas have both had jobs and middle-to-upper class population sprawl in a very specific direction (N for Atlanta, N-NW for Dallas). In both cases, downtown is at the edge, rather than the center, of the "action". In fact, neither really has much of a defined "center" of the action. That keeps a lid on costs, even with zoning, because there is no clearly desirable center that commands a premium. Jobs, and therefore housing demand, are spread relatively evenly over a large area.

Houston is a little different. We do have a westward tilt to our "action" and growth, but there is a clearly defined center that commands a sharp premium (the downtown-uptown-TMC triangle). We also have middle-to-upper class suburbs in all directions from downtown (except straight east), which helps restrain our "center of gravity" from moving too far west.

In other words, I believe Houston has higher natural pressures on costs, esp. housing, because of our more centralized job growth pattern, but still manages to come in cheaper than Atlanta and Dallas due to our no-zoning advantage.

At 9:14 AM, March 24, 2009, Blogger Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

Well, I think your characterization of Atlanta as not having “much of a defined ‘center’ of the action” is frankly way off. I spend a significant amount of time in Atlanta having both friends and close relatives in the area. I can assure you that in Atlanta although downtown is somewhat dead after work hours (no different than Houston), Buckhead, Midtown and the entire Peachtree corridor is certainly a well defined “center” of activity in the city. That entire area has so much energy it makes comparable areas of Houston seem rather dead. They are at least a decade ahead of Houston as far as integrated planning for residential, commercial and transit. Their infrastructure is much better than Houston’s (heavy rail subway, better roads, more sidewalks, etc.). The urban feel to the place and walkability, although not on par with places like DC, Boston, Chicago or NYC, is much greater than Houston. And, touching on Mike’s point, the city is just more aesthetically pleasing. They use landscaping and retaining walls to hide their highways. You simply don’t see the sea of strip malls and giant signs in your face along the highways like you find in Houston.

Planning and regulations, even at a minimal level, improves the quality of life in Atlanta. It would do the same in Houston.

At 1:59 PM, March 24, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Just made Tory's point.

Midtown Atlanta and especially Buckhead decentralize Atlanta just like the LBJ (north) and the Central Expressway (north) corridors decentralize Dallas.

Also, about hiding highways:

It's easier to do that when you have geography on your side. On top of that, Atlanta doesn't make use of feeder roads to handle it's local traffic. This creates wider freeways with limited capacity exit interchanges.

Houston feeder roads provide a more efficient method to reduce traffic congestion. Also, TxDOT does have a "Green Ribbon Project" in place to spruce up freeways. The Katy Freeway and West Loop (from I10-US59) planted over 75,000 trees. The West Loop through Bellaire is quite hidden. I-45 north (from downtown to the Beltway) and US 290 will get the same treatment when they get rebuilt. I-45 north of the beltway already has the plantings in place and will gradually shield the freeway.

Also, there is a whole lot of planning in the Houston region. The H-GAC plans constantly on a regional level for transportation (all modes) for improvements in the region.

As for transit in Houston versus Atlanta, Houston has a much better method of moving mass amounts of people for commuting than the MARTA trains in Atlanta. Houston' Park-n-Ride system with HOV lanes blow away MARTA in people being moved.

Using walls to hide a freeway is only applicable to residential areas and are used in many places on our freeways. The commercial development along the feeder roads do a much better job at shielding the freeways from residential areas. And being pre-occupied with appearance for quality of life versus real improvement for quality of life it a waste.

At 2:47 PM, March 24, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>Both Atlanta and Dallas have both had jobs and middle-to-upper class population sprawl in a very specific direction (N for Atlanta, N-NW for Dallas).

I'm not sure how we are defining this, but looks like Houston has a *definite* westward focus. That doesn't mean there aren't some nice homes in Clear Lake or the Woodlands, but then it looks like Atlanta can say the same about its far SW side (sorry I am not too familiar with ATL - I don't know what this part of town is called). The point is the vast majority of middle / upper middle class / rich live in the favored quadrant, which in Houston is everything west of downtown.

What hard data do you have that shows Atlanta is fundamentally different? From these heat maps seems like Houston is fairly similar to Atlanta from a "favored quadrant" perspective, and certainly we are no more "centralized" in our upper class sprawl than they are:

Houston heat map

Atlanta heat map

At 3:25 PM, March 24, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The Houston map is missing the orange-red areas that would exist in the NW Spring-Tomball area, The Woodlands, Sugar Land, and Pearland-Friendswood-League City-Seabrook. That goes a long way towards balancing out the westward focus within only the CoH.

This Harris County map helps a bit, but still misses The Woodlands and key areas in northern Ft. Bend, Brazoria, and Galveston counties (although you can run them individually).

At 4:26 PM, March 24, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

FWIW, I consider areas like Tomball / Sugar Land to be western Houston - maybe NW or SW, but still in the western quadrant of the city - everything between 249 and the Ft Bend Parwkay. Even areas you mention like the Woodlands are only marginally out of this favored quadrant.

And as for the exceptions like Clear Lake which are in the complete opposite direction, Atlanta has them as well if you consider the entire 20-something county metro region. For starters:

Dekalb County
Fulton County
Clayton County
Cobb County
Douglas County
Fayette County

At 5:47 PM, March 24, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks for the maps. Still looks like a very strong northward bias to me. The ones to the south are in the far exurbs - probably farms and resort/lakefront homes.

In Houston, the only pull we don't have is straight east. We have Kingwood-Woodlands NE-N, and a huge swath of Clear Lake-League City-Friendswood-Pearland SE-S. Those are very substantial. Atlanta has a quadrant, Houston has a 300+ degree arc.

At 8:52 PM, March 24, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think Houston is particularly vulnerable to efficient electric cars. A wholesale switch of the automobile fleet from gasoline to electricity would be incredibly bullish for electricity and natural gas demand and prices. It would also boost throughput in the nation's pipelines and send price signals for more pipeline construction, which would also be good for Houston. Houston also has a huge power sector that would benefit greatly from the adoption of an electric car.

The electric car might not be a net positive for Houston, but is is definitely not our Achilles' heel. A global collapse in energy use and prices would be much more damaging, particularly if it was caused by something difficult to undo, like a nuclear war.

At 11:16 AM, March 25, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Just made Tory's point.

Midtown Atlanta and especially Buckhead decentralize Atlanta just like the LBJ (north) and the Central Expressway (north) corridors decentralize Dallas."

Are Downtown-Midtown-Buckhead Atlanta any more spread out than Downtown-Uptown-Med Center Houston, the "clearly defined center" that Tory says is the only reason why unzoned Houston doesn't cost way less than zoned Atlanta and Dallas?

But lets say that Houston is much more centralized than either Dallas and Atlanta, and that this difference affects our costs. Are we as centralized as Chicago, which costs $63,000 to be middle class, according to the study? I would say that we are much, much closer to Dallas or Atlanta in centrality, but lets be very generous to Tory and say that we are halfway between Dallas and Atlanta in terms of centrality. You then end up with a cost of around $58,000 to be middle class if Houston were zoned, compared with $50,000 not zoned. Not the horrible cost of living increase that this blog would lead you to expect.

At 11:17 AM, March 25, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the above post should read "halfway between Atlanta and Chicago" for "halfway between Dallas and Atlanta" in the second paragraph

At 2:24 PM, March 25, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yeah, but adding $8K a year in discretionary income to every family in the city supports an incredible number of amenities: restaurants, retail, sports, arts, museums, theater - you name it, including one of the most important of all: higher education for yourself or your children.

At 5:06 PM, March 25, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The discretionary income point is critical.

Let's say it's 8k difference that Tory mentions. That's $667 extra a month. I see a lot of parents that would not want to lose that discretionary income.

And to singles out there, that's a higher end apartment, car, house, or other things to enjoy which to me and many people may be considered a higher quality of life.

At 8:59 PM, March 25, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>Are we as centralized as Chicago, which costs $63,000 to be middle class, according to the study? I would say that we are much, much closer to Dallas or Atlanta in centrality, but lets be very generous to Tory and say that we are halfway between Dallas and Atlanta in terms of centrality. You then end up with a cost of around $58,000 to be middle class if Houston were zoned, compared with $50,000 not zoned.

Why make that assumption to begin with? I would say zoning would add about $0 to the cost of being middle class in Houston - and it might actually produce other benefits by encouraging business relocations / tourism / and individual relocation. I would also not say that Houston is anywhere "halfway" between the density of Chicago and Atlanta / Dallas - we are much, much more comparable to Dallas and Atlanta.

Also see this nice article by Todd Litman which refutes many of the points of Cox / O'Toole et. al. Houston already has many of the regulations which increase costs, parking regulation, and deed restrictions etc. Zoning would just help apply some basic rules throughout the city.

At 11:19 PM, March 25, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Judging by the constant stigma of Houston as a "dirty" city that I hear in Dallas and other places, I think that many people would forego $8,000 to live in a cleaner, more orderly city. Look at how much money people forego to live in nicer neighborhoods, and then apply that to the whole city. Then maybe we would attract a lot of people to Houston who are right now choosing Austin or Dallas over us.

And of course, you and I both know that the change would be much closer to Atlanta's $53,000 than to Chicago's $63,000. I'm still not convinced that we're any more centralized than Atlanta is.

At 7:49 AM, March 26, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Clearly, people are not going to pick Houston over Austin because we become more "orderly". In fact, isn't the bumper sticker "Keep Austin Weird", not "Keep Austin Orderly"?

I think there are plenty of cities out there that offer boring orderliness, aka Disneyvilles. Our distinctive niche is not just the most affordability, but a vibrant, eclectic, diverse, and yes, even chaotic, vibe that appeals to people. We are Hong Kong, not Singapore. If you want Singapore, go to Dallas (or The Woodlands).

That said, I'm not opposed to basic efforts to minimize trash and billboards, keep signage reasonable, increase trees, and landscape roads and freeways - areas where I think we've made great strides in recent years.

At 9:44 AM, March 26, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>Clearly, people are not going to pick Houston over Austin because we become more "orderly". In fact, isn't the bumper sticker "Keep Austin Weird", not "Keep Austin Orderly"?

People do pick Austin over Houston currently because it is more aesthetically pleasing - some of that may be that they prefer the hill country, but seems like Austin also does a better job of making their city more livable.

As for "Keep Austin Weird", looks like they oppose suburban McMansions and strip center developments. See here. I think their slogan is about trying to encourage a spirit of individualism - from their website, the slogan was "a small attempt to counter Austin's descent into rampant commercialism and over-development". I don't think these people would favor the Ashby high rise, but they would probably like something like the Westheimer block party. Big difference.

At 10:51 AM, March 26, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Aesthetically pleasing in Austin is all about their geography, which Houston can do nothing about. They have a very attractive cultural vibe that appeals to young, lefty, educated whites, but Houston has a cultural vibe that appeals to a lot of other groups.

As far as the Ashby high rise, Austin has tons of residential high-rises going up, some quite close to residential neighborhoods.

Austin, esp. in it's core, has much more of a housing affordability problem, mainly from very strict controls. And it's not just unaffordable, but much of it is old and falling apart, because they won't allow tear downs and replacements.

Austin is covered in strip centers, including many with their favorite funky shops and restaurants.

Austin and Houston actually have a lot of eclectic similarities, but Austin is trying to use strict controls to protect its eccentricity (does that sound like a contradiction to anyone else?), while Houston has a hands-off approach that allows every niche to thrive in its own way, from the Heights to Montrose to Kirby to Midtown to Uptown - the list goes on and on.

At 11:18 AM, March 26, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>As far as the Ashby high rise, Austin has tons of residential high-rises going up, some quite close to residential neighborhoods.

Hmm, so you can have zoning plus lots of development - just done in a slightly smarter way? Like not putting high-rises on one lane residential streets? Who would have thunk it?

Also, my points on Austin are that you cannot take "Keep Austin Weird" and claim it as an anti-zoning message. I'm not sure they would be pro-zoning either but they seem like they would definitely be for things like historical preservation - like the River Oaks theater, saving the bungalows, etc. You can still do that and have high-rises and strip centers elsewhere. But "Keep Austin Weird" is anti-corporate, anti-development, anti-sprawl, etc - I don't think you should confuse that as being aligned with your perspective!

>>Aesthetically pleasing in Austin is all about their geography, which Houston can do nothing about.

I disagree and think this is a defeatist attitude. I like many parts of Houston more than Austin. What do they have that we don't? Some hills? Guess what - some people like hills, and others like beaches, lakes, or forested areas of land. Houston can do a better job of preserving and highlighting our nature and building a more livable community - look at Discovery Green - thousands of people go there every weekend and now have a better impression of Houston than they did before. I would much rather work towards building a smart, attractive community than wave my hands in the air and despair that it cannot be done because of some supposed inherent disadvantage.

And anyway, the initial point was that Houston should be compared to places like Atlanta and Dallas which do have zoning and are only marginally more expensive than Houston, a fact which you (as usual) attempt to attribute to zoning but could be explained by numerous factors such as a different mix of jobs, industries, and higher average incomes (which might very well also partially result from the communities being more pleasing to live / work / play in - which attracts these individuals and companies).

According to HUD the median income in Atlanta is about $69,000 whereas in Harris county it is $61,000 - so even though it costs more to be middle class in Atlanta, the people make more money. Subtract the cost of being middle class and your Atlanta household comes out about $5,000 ahead - that is $5,000 they have to spend on movies, plays, restaurants, etc!

At 1:09 PM, March 26, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

My point was that Austin's appeal has nothing to do with being clean or orderly.

Houston can always use more parks and wilderness areas, and I think we're making good progress. We have 50% more parkland per person than the average U.S. city. That has nothing to do with zoning.

The HUD data seems screwy to me, with the exact same number for every county in the Atlanta MSA.

Based on cost-of-living adjusted salaries and discretionary income, Houston comes out ahead of Atlanta and Dallas. See here:

and the chart here, p.39 (or 41 of the pdf)

Both links can also be found here:

At 8:37 AM, March 27, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Aesthetically pleasing in Austin is all about their geography, which Houston can do nothing about."

Drive down MoPac sometime and then drive down one of our freeways and tell me if it's just the hills that are the difference. How many washaterias, convenience stores, or other eyesores do you see ruining residential streets in Hyde Park like you do in the Heights? How many parking garages are on Congress St. downtown or Guadalupe, ruining the pedestrian feel? How many car washes or gas stations are on Barton Springs Drive?

When you ask people around the state what they don't like about Houston, they don't say "it's flat," they say, "it's dirty" or "it's ugly." I don't think I've ever heard anyone besides you describe Houston as "vibrant, eclectic, diverse."

At 10:21 AM, March 27, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> I don't think I've ever heard anyone besides you describe Houston as "vibrant, eclectic, diverse."

I've heard tons of people say it or something similar. The rest just aren't looking...


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