Sunday, October 18, 2009

Lessons for Houston from the global urban revolution

Thanks to a generous invitation from the World Affairs Council of Houston, I was able to attend a recent talk by Jeb Brugmann, author of "Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World", on "Cities of the Future: Ideas for Houston from Cities of the World." Most of his talk focused on the benefits and risks of the rapid urbanization of our planet, especially in the developing world (with a focus on India). He articulated four primary benefits that are driving the global rural-to-city migration:
  1. Concentration: making markets with proximity economies of scale. Our own example is the concentration of flower shops along Fannin north of the Medical Center, not to mention various farmers' markets.
  2. Density: the most efficient possible cost structure. His developing world examples were similar to what you'd see in the NYC immigrant tenements 100+ years ago. While I agree that, in a world of walking and transit mobility, maximizing density is important, I don't think it's necessarily the optimal answer when societies become wealthy enough that other mobility technologies start to dominate, like the personal vehicle. It is all about maximizing connections to other people, and that is a combination of density and mobility, or what I refer to as opportunity zones.
  3. Association economies
  4. Extension of urban infrastructure and connections
As for urbanization risks, he mentioned several: crime (inc. organized crime), populism from income disparities, disease spread and mutation, and the financial/housing crisis. I did not know that the Pearl River delta in China, home to hundreds of exotic live animal markets, is a major source of mutating animal diseases that jump to humans (like SARS a few years back).

The most interesting part of his talk was on Curitiba, the Brazilian city famous for its BRT transit system. Some of his points on their system offer good lessons for Houston:
  • The transit system is profitable, which is unheard of.
  • 100 private bus companies compete
  • Not master planned (more organic)
  • Dedicated bus corridors
  • Different optimally-sized buses by route
  • Boarding tubes/shelters like the subway, to speed payments and boarding
  • 385 routes
  • 40-second headways (not sure on how many of the routes)
  • 45% of daily trips are profitably served by BRT
  • They have the most autos per capita of any Brazilian city, but the least gas usage per capita
This amazing high-service, low-cost system could easily be achieved in Houston if we were less obsessed with pouring billions into rail.

He ended abruptly by saying the new urbanist, mixed-use densification of San Jose, CA represented the future, and Houston should emulate it. He said they wanted to move away from the private corporate campus model of the tech companies. I don't buy it. Can you imagine Google or Apple maintaining their security if their buildings were part of a mixed-use campus open to the public? And San Jose's transit system is one of the larger disasters in America. A key excerpt:
...VTA has “the worst operating statistics of any American transit operator.” The reason for this, he says, is that San Jose — being built mostly after World War II — is one of the most spread-out urban areas in the country. Not only are people spread out, but jobs are spread out, with no job concentrations anywhere.

This makes large buses particularly unsuitable for transit because there is no place where large numbers of people want to go. So what was VTA’s solution when its bus numbers were low relative to other transit agencies? Build light rail — in other words, use an expensive technology that requires even more job concentrations.

Now it has one of the, if not the, poorest-patronized light-rail systems in America. So what is its solution? Build heavy rail, a technology that requires even more job concentrations.

The initial analysis for building BART to San Jose, Rubin notes, projected that it would cost more than $100 to get one person out of their car for one trip on BART (!!!). (By comparison, most bus improvements cost $2 to $6 per new ride, while light rail usually costs around $10 to $30 per new ride.) To make the numbers look better, VTA assumed that downtown San Jose would grow to be 80 percent the size of downtown San Francisco, which Rubin considers unlikely in the extreme. Even if it builds this BART line, VTA admits it doesn’t have the money to operate it.

VTA is now so heavily in debt that when the dot-com bust hit Silicon Valley, it was forced to cut transit service by nearly 20 percent. The in turn contributed to a 33 percent loss in transit riders. This makes San Jose’s light rail a true planning disaster and suggests that BART to San Jose, if it ever gets built, will be an even bigger disaster.

The fact that VTA is willing to sacrifice its transit riders in order to persue a dream of ever-more-expensive rail transit leads Rubin to conclude that, while he doesn’t know for sure if VTA is the worst-managed agency, “if there is a worse one out there, I hope I never find it.”

Does any of this sound ominously similar to Houston's direction?

I think there will be many more mixed-use, new urbanist projects, and they will be popular, but they will not be fundamentally transforming either San Jose or Houston. We will change the propulsion technology of cars before we make any mass, fundamental shift to density and transit.

On the other hand, he did make one point that I wholeheartedly agree with: it is extremely important to have a vibrant local developer community to do customized local development for a particular city's situation. Customize the urbanism, transit, and transportation to the city. Curitiba went against convention with BRT over heavy rail like NYC, London, and Tokyo. Houston should do the same.

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At 8:11 PM, October 18, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Curitiba is a third-world city; it has lower labor costs, which makes it easier to run many low-capacity buses rather than a few high-capacity trains. Now that labor costs have risen and the city has expanded outward, it's planning to build a subway to relieve its BRT system.

If you want a better model for Houston, take Calgary, a high-income, fast-growing, low-density city. Its light rail costs $0.27 to operate per passenger, versus $1.50 on the bus; the fare is $2.50 base, or about $1.50 with various discounts, which gives a farebox operating ratio approaching 800%. Construction costs averaged $24 million per mile, or $2,400 per passenger. Ridership has surged to become the highest of all light rail systems in North America; New York still has the highest rail ridership-to-population ratio in North America, but Calgary is a close second.

At 10:22 PM, October 18, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

From what I can tell, Canadian planning/regs have forced almost all of the jobs into a dense concentration in downtown Calgary, in which case rail makes great sense. It would too in Houston if we combined most of our job centers into downtown. But that's not the situation we have.

At 12:55 AM, October 19, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

It's not Canadian planning. It's local city planning. Calgary had a large downtown to begin with, and, from the 1960s onward, reserved space for rights-of-way for access to downtown. It also upzoned near the proposed stations. (If you don't like zoning, then go for Houston-style zoning-by-subterfuge, like "Parking minimums are zero within a half mile of each light rail stop.")

At 7:43 AM, October 19, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, I'm sure the planning is local, but I've seen similar things in all major Canadian cities, so I'm assuming there's some sort of national standard approach.

At 8:22 AM, October 19, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Canadian cities also have to contend with really rough winters where it just makes sense to get on a rail transit system that is predictable in heavy snow versus putting your life at the hands of a bus driver.

In Houston, even in our roughest summers, we can cool off in our personal vehicles and bad rain storms can be dealt with.

It's interesting that Calgary if it continues it's current development pattern and reaches the population of the Houston metro, it would consume a similar land area. They are as much a modern low density city just like us. Having a successful light rail system has more do with the organization managing it as it does with putting it in the right corridors. The cost for Houston LRT system would be significantly smaller if we didn't have to run through the federal process (which tends to add 20% to costs). 20% is the average rise in costs due to federal involvement in pretty much any transportation project. Whether its using federal funds to build a bike trail, highway, freeway, city street, or rural bridge replacement. The projects also take much longer. So much longer that groups like the West Houston Association, Greenspoint Management District, along with Precinct 3 and 4 have built miles of hike-n-bike trails without federal money. It was done quicker too. Yet the City of Houston continues to rely on the STEP program to fund and use TxDOT to manage their hike-n-bike trail construction.

A city street example is Studemont from White Oak Bayou to 20th/Cavalcade. The typical street project utilized federal funds which require TxDOT to administer it. It's cost again reach 20% greater than if the city paid for it in-house. The project left enough of a bad taste at the city they moved out of projects structured liked this. Yale Street from I-10 to Loop-610 will be re-built from local CIP funds.

On a county level, the main lanes of the Beltway built by HCTRA cost less than if TxDOT built them because the federal process doesn't occur for it to move forward.

Just a little more to think about.

At 9:01 AM, October 19, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That's a good point on the weather I hadn't considered. Rail is definitely better for heavy winters.

At 11:26 AM, October 19, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Calgary doesn't have very heavy snow. It's semi-arid, with cold, dry winters - the Rockies block moisture. Its roads are surely a lot less snowy in winter than the roads of almost any Northeastern US city.

In fact, you could even argue it the other way. Harsh weather should make people more likely to drive in a climate-controlled car and less likely to walk to surface rail. It's equally true for Texan summers and for Canadian winters.

There's no real national Canadian standard for development. Canada's federal government interacts with provinces, not cities. The similarities between Canadian cities come from the fact that their urban renewal proposals lagged those of US cities by about 10 years, by which time the failure of urban renewal was evident. This lag also meant that unlike in the US, a lot of Canadian development plans were made not in the 1950s but in the 1970s, when public transit was more popular.

At 12:00 PM, October 19, 2009, Blogger ian said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8:28 PM, October 19, 2009, Anonymous Keep Houston Houston said...

Actually, the real factor that makes third-world bus systems so awesome is they incentivize quick/on-time driving. For instance, in Bogota, drivers on the TransMilenio BRT are paid per mile, resulting in a very rapid and speedy system.

The flipside is none of these systems has a safety record approaching even a relatively "bad" US transit provider.

At 9:13 PM, October 19, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

KHH: in Curitiba, there was also the issue of government incentives. Jaime Lerner is an architect, who, as the junta-appointed mayor of Curitiba, imposed his own ideas of how a city should look. He came from an anti-car, pro-pedestrian movement, so he pedestrianized streets and built high-capacity transit (often with community support - he was popular enough to win free elections after democracy was restored). It just happens that in Curitiba it was cheaper to build grade-separated busways than grade-separated rail.


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