Monday, April 27, 2009

How the crash will - and won't - reshape America

A couple months ago, Richard Florida (of Creative Class fame) published a major article in The Atlantic on 'How the Crash Will Reshape America' (hat tip to Deborah). A short summary of his thesis is here, and here are some cool interactive maps of patent activity, income and population growth that came with the article (hat tip to Peter). It's been sitting in my overflowing reading stack since then, but I finally got a chance to read and react to it.

There is a lot here, including a lot I agree with, but in the interest of brevity, I will focus on areas where we disagree, which are substantial. His biases show clearly throughout the article. Just one example: he sees the decline of the industrial Midwest, and also talks about the critical importance of creativity, innovation, and patents - yet his data maps show incredible concentrations of patent activity in the Midwest, actually looming over all other regions of the country. These two things do not square, yet no explanation is found. Clearly that critical-mass creative cluster is not able to save itself from the powerful forces of the internet and globalization, yet he claims that similar clusters in finance, media, entertainment, and tech in much higher-cost NYC and CA are safe. Nothing to see here, NY and CA, just move on along and don't worry yourselves...
"...New York is more of a mecca for fashion designers, musicians, film directors, artists, and—yes—psychiatrists than for financial professionals."
Does he not realize that those financial professionals are also the wealthy patrons that support all those arts? If they go, or get a lot poorer, the artists go. Look at history: artistic creatives follow the money, and are not wealth generators themselves. They are an effect, not a cause.

As a preamble to calls for more dense, urban living, he calls for a shift from homeownership to renting:
"As homeownership rates have risen, our society has become less nimble: in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans were nearly twice as likely to move in a given year as they are today. Last year fewer Americans moved, as a percentage of the population, than in any year since the Census Bureau started tracking address changes, in the late 1940s. This sort of creeping rigidity in the labor market is a bad sign for the economy, particularly in a time when businesses, industries, and regions are rising and falling quickly."
I think this is a misreading of what's happening. As a society, we've moved up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs over the last 50 years. As we've satisfied our economic and material needs, social needs have become more important, and people are simply less willing to break those geographic ties to friends and family for a slightly better job. Evidence of this can be seen in college applications, where teenagers are now much more interested in staying closer to home and parents, rather than trying to get as far away from them as possible. I think it's a healthy sign of more mature priorities than the old climb-the-salary-ladder-at-all-costs approach.
"(The economy) no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism. Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs. The economy is driven by key urban areas; a different geography is required."
It's amusing that the entire essay calls for breaking from the past and moving forward, then at the end he suddenly lurches backward to the past calling for more density, rail transit, and walking with fewer cars. We agree that growth is all about people making lots of connections quickly, but he thinks that means people physically stacked on top of each other. In a world built around walking as the primary mobility mode, he - and Jane Jacobs - are right: it's all about physical proximity and density. Speed is fixed and slow, so density needs to be maximized. But as I've pointed out before, we have become a wealthy and technologically advanced society where the car is the primary mobility mode. Speed is now variable and potentially fast, while density is more limited (because of the need to accommodate roads and parking). Keeping up the same, or even faster, velocity of connections means keeping up speeds - and that means high-speed freeways and arterials with adequate capacity and with minimal traffic congestion. See this post for a detailed comparative analysis of how these two approaches play out in Manhattan and Houston.

The personal vehicle, whatever its propulsion technology, is now a permanent part of society. Accept it, and optimize your cities around it to maximize the velocity of connections (note that this does not preclude pedestrian-oriented villages within a broader car-driven regional urban area). Any other strategy has about as much chance of success as the Midwest does of reclaiming manufacturing from Asia...

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At 8:52 PM, April 27, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

That patent is utterly useless for years since 1995 in measuring innovations. The shear volume of patents being filed now is in no relation to entrepreneurs and creative class types.

If one were to comb through the volume of patents found now in the patent office, you'll see many are for quite pointless applications, ideas, and processes. Apple computer alone files tons of these hoping to monopolize ideas. Microsoft and many other tech companies do the same. Small unknown companies file patents on processes that don't exist waiting for a larger company to actually perform the process. Voila, patent lawsuit. This is part of the reason Microsoft and Apple file so many now to prevent these lawsuits.

The US Patent Office is a joke now allowing pretty much patents on anything.

At 11:08 PM, April 27, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

This article by Yglesias makes a similar case as Florida, arguing that there are simply fewer homes with children as a percentage of the population. And guess what? 20-somethings and empty-nesters aren't lining up to live in Fulshear.

I don't think anyone is arguing that the car or suburbs will disappear. What they are arguing is that transit and walkable urbanism HAVE in many cases disappeared over the past decades in our rush to build for the automobile *exclusively*, even though by all measures, there is much unmet demand for the "new urban" lifestyle. Walking, like the automobile, isn't going away anytime soon.

>>Keeping up the same, or even faster, velocity of connections means keeping up speeds - and that means high-speed freeways and arterials with adequate capacity and with minimal traffic congestion.

Hmm, I can connect to people in many ways - by walking, riding a bike, calling them on the phone, texting them, taking a bus, riding a train, instant-messaging, video-conferencing, etc. It is not at all obvious to me that providing freeways and arterial roads above all else is the best means to an efficient economy.

I also do not agree with you that our densities must be constrained in order to build parking lots and wider roads. I think Houston in 2050 will probably have half the downtown surface parking you see today... just a guess. And I'll hazard a guess that we will have several bike parking facilities around town.

At 8:52 AM, April 28, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think an argument could be made that the decline in family households with children is substantially driven by people living longer after their kids have grown up. From my experience and the data I've looked at, the vast majority of empty-nesters stay in place in their suburban home because of community ties and wanting to have space for their kids and grandkids to visit. Of those that do move, a whole lot more move to the exurban and rural country to build their dream house than into the city. Check out the building boom all over the hill country.

I did note that walkable urban villages do make sense within a larger car-based regional framework, for those that do want that lifestyle. We have a small one thriving at the corner of Bagby and W. Gray, no transit involved. Theory was that would have happened near one of the light rail stops, but it didn't. In fact, development around LRT in midtown has been a pretty huge disappointment.

Setting aside virtual connections, which anybody can do from anywhere, it's about personal meetings: how fast and easy is it for me to meet this person or group of people? Is it worth the transportation hassle and time? In almost all cases, a good freeway makes it faster and easier to make the trip than any set of transit connections.

For the record, I have no opposition to bike paths - in fact, they should be encouraged, with routes all over the city - although I believe they should be kept off major arterials like Westpark. Keep them along bayous and in neighborhoods along side streets, which is both more pleasant and safer.

Yes, our densities will increase, but they will still stay in a relatively narrow band compared to the density of majority walking/transit cities like London, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Manhattan.

At 10:47 AM, April 28, 2009, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

I have many objections to your arguments (for example that planning for pedestrians, cycling or transit is somehow “lurching backward”). But I would just note that given there is essentially about one block of mixed-use, pedestrian oriented development in the entire city of Houston (the Bagby and Gray intersection you cite), I think that is pretty good evidence that Houston’s way of doing things doesn’t encourage this type of development at all. The 4th largest city in the country and we have essentially one block; it’s laughable actually. We know there is demand (compare the rents around that area to rents in suburban Houston) but the historical revulsion to transit here, the city codes that require parking and set backs, and the other policies that encourage sprawl, to the detriment of other types of development and it is hardly surprising that we are not seeing dense developments like other cities in the country.

At 11:58 AM, April 28, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I in no way said we shouldn't plan for pedestrians, bikes, or transit - just that they will not be the dominant, or even substantial minority, transportation modes.

Actually, I think it could be argued parts of downtown and, to a lesser extent The Rice Village, have this form of development. There are also at least a half-dozen projects underway or planned. I'm not arguing against these types of projects (far from it), just saying the vast majority will not get to them via transit, but by car.

As far as the code, the city easily grants setback and parking waivers for these sorts of projects (never rejected, according to someone on the committee). The new urban corridors initiative will make them standardized around the LRT stops.

At 12:23 PM, April 28, 2009, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

But Tory, the problem with the current code is that it destroys the network effect of urban, pedestrian-type development. Bagby and Gray area is one block. Right across the street is a CVS that belongs in the suburbs, not on the edge of downtown.

Urban walkable neighborhoods require a network of seamless urban areas. This network is required to make walking feasible. Shopping malls work on the same principle. Unless a developer buys up an entire area, the ability to develop such a network is made extremely difficult, if not impossible. This is why most places have city codes. The current code system in Houston not only doesn’t help facilitate this network but it does exactly the opposite; it actually discourages it. So, even if they grant variances for each and every application, the majority of the development is still likely to be similar to the Midtown CVS. That is why Midtown is so spotty.

Anyway, I am glad the city has finally woken up to the fact that this is part of the reason why Houston is so far behind on this type of development but they need to go farther. There is no reason for default set back and parking requirements in a place like Midtown.

At 4:12 PM, April 28, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

It's laughable that our code has discouraged urban pedestrian friendly development. Many projects have been constructed other than the typical one mentioned along West Gray at Bagby.

Has anybody looked at Washington Avenue lately. Give it a couple of years and it'll make W Gray at Bagby look like a little toy box next to a house. Washington Coridor is making pedestrian friendly eating and commercial activity much more attainable with a large population living in dense street side apartments and dense urban housing within walking distance. So much so, the one main suburban style apartment complex (Archstone Memorial Heights) was slated for demo and in it's place was to be a massive mixed use development fronting Washington, Heights, and Studemont. The current financial situation slowed that project down. Across the bayou, Regent Square will also develop a large mixed use project which beyond the residential space it will provide, it'll sit within an existing dense residential neighborhood.

All this occurs with our current code.

The only plan change to the code would be part of the Urban Corridor Initiative. But I even have issues with that since along Richmond from Greenway Plaza to Spur 527 there are several denser development that have been completed or in the process. On top of that, many businesses are already quite pedestrian friendly along that stretch. The METRO Rail project will completely rebuild Richmond which will include the sidewalks and landscaping to help in the summer months with tree cover.

What about Kirby from Westheimer to San Felipe? This corridor will be transitioned into a dense urban corridor. The street rebuild will add much more pedestrian improvement with increased tree cover and removal of the power lines (placed underground) to allow for better sidewalk paths. The tree planted median will also give pedestrians a safe stop when crossing the street versus having the current continuous turn lane.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that Houston's free market development strategy is working to provide various pedestrian friendly neighborhoods.

Yes, it isn't one massive pedestrian friendly zone, but neither is New York, Chicago, or Boston.

At 5:21 PM, April 28, 2009, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

If you think Washington Avenue is pedestrian friendly, frankly, I just have to say we are on two completely different wave links. In my mind, nothing about Washington Avenue is welcoming to pedestrians but, perhaps I have a different set of expectations than the regular "free market is god" local.

I stand by my assertion that the current default code setback and parking requirements determinately effect walkable, pedestrian friendly development here in Houston. I suspect that anyone who has lived in other cities that are way ahead of Houston in this department would likely feel the same.

At 5:48 PM, April 28, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would argue that the whole area bounded by Richmond, Kirby, Westheimer,and Montrose is a very excellent very mixed use walkable neighborhood. Also the Heights along Studemont, Heights, and Yale North of I-10.

Why are you guys limiting yourself to prepacked mixed use purpose built neighborhoods. I have had many friends live all over that whole northwest part of near town, in Houses and apartments. We would always meet at their place and walk to the bars, resteraunts, coffee shops, and bookstores. Very awesome especially the ability to walk home FROM the bar.

At 10:43 AM, April 29, 2009, Blogger ian said...

Tory, you've expressed distaste for the Westpark bike lanes in the past, so I feel like I should jump in and address this. Westpark is where the bike lanes belong. What you're suggesting -- keeping bike routes on quiet neighborhood streets and along bayous -- will guarantee that biking will never be a "substantial minority" of trips. Believe it or not, cyclists are actually a lot like drivers: they want direct connections from their origins to their destinations. You know how many destinations are along quiet neighborhood streets? Not a whole heck of a lot. How about Westpark? A whole heck of a lot -- and there are even more along Bissonnet and Richmond, neither of which have adequate bike/pedestrian infrastructure or mirroring routes that do (other than Westpark).

Yet, that's not all! If there were numerous alternative routes on quiet side streets, cyclists could theoretically use them for a time and then switch over to the main street for the last leg (you could at least suffer that, right?) But they most likely wouldn't. And they don't. I don't. I cycle a lot. Your neighborhood bike routes, although scenic, quiet, and pleasant, are NOT good bike routes, just like they're not good through routes in general -- because you have to stop, stop, stop, and then stop a few more times. Stop signs. Drivers hate 'em, and cyclists hate them even more. You wouldn't put a bunch of stop signs on Westpark because it would be inefficient and stupid to expect drivers to stop again and again. Why would cyclists, who have to use their own human energy to accelerate from those stops, feel any differently? Cyclists need long distances routes without stops too. The bayous are good, but there are only so many of those, and they don't typically go into a lot of activity areas (see previous paragraph).

And one last reason that neighborhood bike routes suck for bikes as a transportation mode: crossing major thoroughfares can be a bear. I urge you to try this one out for yourself. Start at Dunlavy and North Boulevard (or South? I can't remember). There's a bike route that leads into the Museum District. It's beautiful -- mature oak trees, mansions; you'll love it. Until you get to Montrose. When you get to Montrose, I'd like you to jot down how that intersection makes you feel. After 5 minutes of waiting for a gap in traffic, does that make you feel happy or sad? Does it make you feel like cycling is a legitimate transportation mode? Or does it make you feel like that nice bike route is actually some kind of mean-hearted joke, to give you fleeting hope that someone is trying to adequately provide for your chosen mode of transportation just so they can snatch the rug out from under you?

Westpark is where that bike lane belongs. In fact, all the major roads are where bike lanes belong. Not in their current format, of course; roads like Kirby and Richmond and Bellaire are incomplete. They're car streets, not people streets. But those streets are where people want to go -- whether they're driving, walking, cycling, or transiting.

So please, please, please stop trying to take away my Westpark bike lane. It's a pretty meager lane as it is, but it's better than nothing.

At 11:39 AM, April 29, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

You make good points, but the Westpark lanes in particular don't make sense: not only was an important passing car lane lost, but there is a giant, safe empty right-of-way right next to it where the power lines are. How hard would it have been to put a nice, traffic-separated, asphalt bike lane in that RoW?

> If there were numerous alternative routes on quiet side streets, cyclists could theoretically use them for a time and then switch over to the main street for the last leg

Yes, that's the answer. As far as neighborhoods and stop signs, we just need a little better street engineering. In my Meyerland neighborhood, Jason is a great east-west route through the neighborhoods (alternate to Beechnut or Braeswood) with few stop signs (they're 2-way put on the north-south streets), good intersections for getting over major arterials, and speed humps that minimize car traffic (not that I'm a fan of those, but they work). In most of Houston, I think similar bike routes could be worked out, and stop signs removed (by putting them on the crossing direction instead).

The Montrose route you mention should be moved to take advantage of the traffic light on Banks St. (or maybe the Banks signal needs to move to Barkdull) There are small neighborhood streets like Banks all over that get a signal at major arterials. The bike routes just have to be designed to take advantage of them.

At 12:34 PM, April 29, 2009, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...


I've only read through part of Florida's article, but I'll play devil's advocate here on some of what he writes.

1) In order to grow bigger and overcome diseconomies of scale like congestion and rising housing and business costs, cities must become more efficient, innovative, and productive.It is true that cities and urbanized areas suffer from growing externality problems and diseconomies of scale as they grow, but my thought of what drives urban areas is that those who live in them have to produce something that allows them to trade with rural areas and those who live in other cities. Rural areas, for example, can always produce crops. What is Houston going to produce to get farmers (or those who live in other places) to send their goods and services here?

2) Some of the stuff Florida cites, such as loss of construction, mining, and manufacturing jobs, verses increases in knowledge jobs, may be a short term issue. Eventually the U.S. and world economies will come back and many of those dreary old fashioned jobs will come back with it. If transport costs rise, then some manufacturing may return to the United States, which is where the wealth and markets are.

3) The Economist magazine recently wrote a story of one way to weather an economic downturn, a way in which our City's leaders should think about. Since the federal government transfers hundreds of billions every year in Social Security and Medicare benefits to the elderly, one way to weather an economic storm is simply to attract more elderly people to living in your city, a strategy that helps to steady an economic downturn via capturing some of that economic transfers of wealth. As we know, Houston does not do well in keeping its older workers, as most retirees decide to move elsewhere after their kids are grown and their careers are over.

More later. This is interesting.


At 1:11 PM, April 29, 2009, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...


A quick follow up. Florida's arguments regarding economic geographies, spatial issues, creativity, and agglomeration, largely run counter to what is known in the learned literature as the Williamson hypothesis. Briefly, this idea is that agglomerations in urban areas really matter the most when a city is in its early stages of development. Financial capital may be scarce; power, communications and transportation infrastructure may all be underdeveloped. In such a situation, there are gains to be had through agglomeration through close proximities. However, as an urbanized area develops and its markets expand, then it often pays off to handle congestion externalities via expansion.


At 2:21 PM, April 29, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That is interesting. I hadn't heard of that before.

At 9:48 AM, April 30, 2009, Blogger ian said...

Okay, I think we see pretty well eye-to-eye on these bike route issues. I agree that some kind of multi-use trail could have been built along Westpark. It would have taken some interagency cooperation -- but that shouldn't be a barrier to a worthwhile project.

However, there are often not alternative routes on side streets. I'd say Westpark is a great example. Some of the neighborhood streets south of Bissonnet offer decent through-connectivity, but they're too far out of the way for anyone trying to access destinations along Westpark. And they offer no alternative routes west of Edloe.

What if you wanted to tap into what I feel is a huge potential bike population along Westheimer between BW8 and the Galleria? A lot of people live along that stretch, and there are a ton of jobs and activities relatively nearby -- perfect bike conditions. But what minor road alternative is there to Westheimer? Nothing, really. That's a pattern that is repeated across many of the post-WW2 areas of the city, ie, most of Houston.

As for providing traffic signals for minor streets -- that's just not always possible (usually because of their high cost). And if the minor road is so minor that it wouldn't have already warranted a signal, any signal timing would probably give the vast amount of green time to the major street. That can sometimes create just as many delays for cross-street cyclists as an unsignalized crossing. Or, even worse (for cyclists) yet more probable -- the side street will be controlled with loop detectors embedded in the pavement that will only give the minor street a green when they sense a vehicle. Bikes usually don't have enough metal to trip the loops, so then the signal does them absolutely no good whatsoever.

So again, I'd argue that for people to find bicycles to be a viable mode of transportation, they'll have to ride predominantly on the major roads. Otherwise they'll ride so far out of their way or be stopped at so many stop signs and busy roads that they'll keep their bikes hanging on the wall in the garage.

At 2:57 PM, April 30, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Just quickly looking at the map along Westheimer, you're right that there's no good alternative side street, but you're also right that it is a major corridor, and it also is one where it would be quite unsafe to have bikes in the main lanes (even if provided, I think people would find them very uncomfortable and unsafe and often filled with debris).

But a bike path takes very little space. With some detailed analysis of satellite photos, I'll bet the city could figure out how to wind one along parallel to Westheimer, even cutting thru areas without cut-through streets, including private property (maybe a new, mild form of eminent domain for an easement, rather than actual land taking). Yes, it would probably wind around a bit.

I'm advocating existing minor street signals, not adding new ones unless absolutely necessary. And obviously they would need some mechanism to be usable by bikes - not just a loop detector (or maybe a very sensitive one).

At 12:50 PM, May 01, 2009, Blogger Peter Wang said...

"The personal vehicle, whatever its propulsion technology, is now a permanent part of society. Accept it, and optimize your cities around it to maximize the velocity of connections"

I take issue with the unwritten assumption that this "personal vehicle" has to weigh at least 2500 lbs and can range up to past 6000 lbs. *Why not just put wheels on a house and call it a vehicle?*

Lots of things are permanent parts of society, like narcotics. Does not make them right.

Optimizing around vehicles instead of optimizing around the neighborhoods where citizens live is twisted. Think about what you've just said, man. If we truly had unlimited resources and optimized around vehicles for the sake of speed, we'd have a grid of freeways spaced 1 mile part, with a few buildings scattered in between.

And how shall we power these vehicles? I have no doubt that alternative vehicular power will be found. I have profound doubts that it can be done fast enough, or economically enough. Tesla Roadsters are great... at $80,000 per copy.

When Mexico's Canterell field completely dies, any they stop exporting oil to us around 2013, and we lose our 3rd large oil import source, the wheels are going to fall off of this bus. I know that's hard to accept with oil at $50, but we all know that's because of this very severe recession (which may've been triggered by high energy prices to begin with).

At 2:59 PM, May 01, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The weight (composite materials) and propulsion technology will change, but the personal vehicle is permanent. If oil gets expensive, we'll buy hybrids, or plug-in hybrids, or use biofuels, or tap tar sands, or use natural gas. The possibilities are many.

Neighborhoods can certainly be optimized just about any way you like, inc. around pedestrians and bikes and even transit, but once people leave the neighborhood in their car, they need to go fast on a regional basis.

We probably do need more freeways to be optimal. Or at least more parkways like Allen Parkway. But your description is wrong ("few buildings scattered in between"). There is an optimal range of densities. Too dense and everything gridlocks. But too sparse, and people have to travel too far to meet up.

Practical considerations say congestion price the freeways for free flow and let the market dictate the optimal density.


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