Thursday, August 05, 2010

More raves for Houston, Jane Jacobs re-think, buses vs. rail, and more

Sorry for the late post this week.  I was doing a little traveling to the Hill Country.  Just a few small items.
  • Interesting transit concept from China: tall buses (trains?) that allow cars to travel underneath them.  Creative concept for very tight rights-of-way, but I think the number of accidents would be astronomical as cars accidentally merge into or collide with the moving supports - esp. at cross streets or exits, or anytime the road is wider than 2 lanes.  It seems like you might as well just put an elevated bus/railway over the road.  Hat tip to Chris.
  • Kiplinger says Houston is one of 10 great cities for young adults.  Of course Austin is on it too, but for those of you keeping score on in-state rivalries: no Dallas (but to even things out, Forbes says their football team is worth more).  Somebody pointed out on HAIF that it's amusing that Austin has reasonable commutes at 23 minutes, but Houston has bad traffic and commutes at 26 minutes.  3 minutes makes all the difference.  Here's their blurb on Houston:
Metro population: 5,867,489 
Cost-of-living index: 91
Median monthly rent: $775 (average is $819)
Average annual wage: $41,074
Unemployment rate: 8.3%
Percentage of Gen Y residents: 23.9%
Top employers: Wal-Mart Stores, Memorial Hermann Healthcare System, Administaff, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Continental Airlines, Kroger, Exxon Mobil
Like its rival Austin, Houston offers great job prospects and exciting big-city amenities at a price so low, even struggling grads can afford it. Diversity is one of its unsung strengths. More than a million of Houston's inhabitants were born outside of the U.S. H-Town's economy is varied as well: The city has strong energy, manufacturing, aeronautics, transportation and healthcare sectors, and 25 Fortune 500 companies have headquarters here.
PROS: A small-town cost of living in the country's fourth-largest city, rents well below the national average, one of the country's best restaurant scenes, vibrant nightlife, an hour from Gulf Coast beaches
CONS: Oppressive heat and humidity, infamous bumper-to-bumper traffic (the average commute will last 26 minutes), heavy air pollution, a crime rate well above the national average
"...the Greenwich Village she held out as a model for city life has become some of the highest-priced real estate in New York City—it's no longer the diverse, yeasty enclave she treasured. Ultimately, many of the policies she advocated blocked real-estate development—causing prices of existing housing stock to rise and pricing out all but the wealthiest residents."
Discovery Green also gets a (positive) mention. My own thoughts on re-thinking Jane Jacobs for the modern city built around the car can be found here and here.
"Too many American transit enthusiasts, especially outside our largest cities, harbor a deep hostility to buses for some reasons. There’s been an interesting alliance for light rail between transit advocates who pooh-pooh buses and the traditional rent seeking interests that brought us things like many local stadium boondoggles. Especially for smaller cities, light rail is, like pro sports teams, just another accoutrement of the “big league city” that they need to have in order prove they are one."
 Can I get a "Hallelujah!"?...

In that context, I'll repeat the FTA administrator's quote from last week's post:
“One [simple truth] is this—paint is cheap, rail systems are extremely expensive. Yes, transit riders often want to go by rail. But it turns out you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a ‘special’ bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.” In addition, once you have the special buses, consider busways: “Take that paint can and paint a designated bus lane on the street system. Throw in signal preemption, and you can move a lot of people at very little cost compared to rail.”

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At 11:10 AM, August 05, 2010, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

The most interesting thing about the Austin/Houston commute comparison is that metro Austin has one fifth the population of metro Houston and a much smaller land area yet boasts an average commute only three minutes shorter. Obviously, Houston does vastly better at moving many more commuters over a vastly larger area.

At 1:31 PM, August 05, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

The WSJ Jacobs article is boring. Yes, the Village has gentrified, says this critic, as have dozens of other before him. He adds nothing to the conversation.

For once, I wish one of those critics would point out that Jacobs herself warned of gentrification (she called it "the self-destruction of diversity"), and that in the years before she died she was active in fighting gentrification-promoting city initiatives. It's one thing to argue that those efforts can't work and any diverse, walkable neighborhood will gentrify; it's another thing to completely ignore what Jacobs actually said.

At 1:35 PM, August 05, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

By the way, the New Zealand piece should be tempered by this graph of New Zealand's unemployment rate. To say nothing of New Zealand's higher pre-recession economic growth.

At 10:12 PM, August 05, 2010, Anonymous awp said...

it is possible that they just had some cutoff say 25 min that delimited good traffic from bad.

but I think this my tell the real reason.

"infamous bumper-to-bumper traffic"

I wouldn't have been suprised to see the same difference in descriptions even if Austin had the exact same commute times as Houston.

kind of like how Houston is notorious for being a post apocalyptic industrial wasteland that is full of nothing but a bunch of Troglodyte redneck bubba's. So that even in a lot of the good press Houston has gotten in last few years, the tone is often one of surprise.

At 7:51 AM, August 06, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

It's often a tone of surprise because of leftist academics don't want to believe a city and a region not following their playbook on "quality of life" and development is succeeding so well.

It's just like the AP reports that always have economist that are surprised or think things are unexpected. It gives serious credibility to the economist and academics in question.

At 10:07 AM, August 06, 2010, Anonymous Evan said...

Not too worried about the Cowboys being worth more since the value of pro sports franchises is determined by how much money they can swindle out of local taxpayers.

At 5:47 PM, August 06, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

AWP, KJB434, I think the issue is a bit different. People in dominant regions think of the rest of the universe as one undifferentiated whole. Westerners can't tell the difference between China and Thailand, Americans can't tell the difference between France and Sweden, and Northeasterners can't tell the difference between Mississippi and Texas. Thus, when one region looks different from another, they express surprise.

At 9:40 AM, August 07, 2010, Anonymous awp said...


(First I meant to concede that this is subjective, and maybe I am doing the same to them, reading the surprised tone because I assume they are all snobby yankee elitists.)

"Thus, when one region looks different from another, they express surprise."

That seems to be the exact opposite of what I meant and what I often see in the national press. There most often seems to me to be a tone of surprise that Houston is actually pretty much similar to "their" parts(i.e. New York, L.A., or wherever these writers come from) of the country and is not a "post apocalyptic industrial wasteland that is full of nothing but a bunch of Troglodyte redneck bubba's".

And also if your point is true doesn't this still reflect quite badly on the writers? I think everyone on this blog would agree that it would be lazy/idiotic to assume Vietnam, Kazakhstan, China, and Japan are all exactly the same because they are over there in Asia. Wouldn't it be even more lazy/idiotic to assume that the rest of their own country is exactly the same because it is not in the Northeast?

At 6:32 PM, August 07, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

AWP, what you're seeing is exactly what I'm referring to. In the Northeast, people aren't used to thinking of Houston as any different from the stereotype of the rural South. Thus when they visit and see that it's a functioning city, they express surprise that it's so similar to New York and Los Angeles.

(I live in New York, and I definitely get this "Who cares?" buzz from people about the South. The only times I remember someone even mention the South in a conversation other than about red state politics come from people who are from there. Usually, they talk about how different it is from New York. If they're from a small town, they might also complain about it, but then they'd contrast it with Houston, which has everything. It's not true that most New Yorkers are snobby elitists - though nearly all in the financial/political elite are - but that doesn't mean they know the differences within the South well.)

Yes, it reflects badly on those writers. But it's not necessarily an indication of stupidity. Sometimes the "All Asians/Europeans/Southerners are alike" trope comes off more subtly, and is used by people who are quite intelligent and astute in their analysis - for examples, Samuel Huntingon on what he calls Islamic and Confucian civilizations, Jane Jacobs and Paul Krugman on the Sunbelt, Thomas Friedman on the Arab world, and David Brooks (and nearly every Anglo-American writer who's not a leftist) on Europe.

At 6:22 PM, August 08, 2010, Blogger Unknown said...

I find it fascinating that the commute in Austin seems so much less problematic than that of Houston, but having spent much time in both cities, I would never have guess the actual time only varied by 3 minutes. Maybe the Htown commute sucks so much because it is long no matter how close you live to your destination, while Austin commutes are PHYSICALLY far but move at a better pace? Just one Iron Fence Houston Guy's guess.

At 6:17 PM, August 09, 2010, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

Austin commutes don't move at a better pace and they are on average much shorter than Houston.

At 3:56 PM, August 10, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Austin commutes are farther than Houston commutes?

I think the opposite is the case. Even from Georgetown to South Austin, past downtown, it's about 35 miles. And there's no job centers south of there.

In Houston, just to get to the center of town (not past), it's 40 miles from Conroe to downtown. Other commutes I hear about are pretty crazy: Conroe to Energy Corridor (50 miles), Magnolia to downtown (45 miles), N Woodlands to Bellaire (40 miles), Willis to downtown (50 miles), Bellaire to UTMB-Galveston (60 miles). I've even heard of some poor bastard commuting Huntsville to downtown for awhile (65 miles).

My next door neighbor commutes to Port Arthur every morning (90 miles), but I know this is the exception.

I commute less than 2 miles, but nearly all of my colleagues have 15+ mile comutes.

At 4:03 PM, August 10, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree. I'll bet Houston commutes are much longer but faster (in mph, not mins) on average than Austin commutes. I35, Mopac, and plenty of surface streets in Austin seem very congested and slow for large parts of the day.

At 10:00 AM, August 30, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Houston's MSA at roughly 5.9 million versus Austin's MSA at roughly 1.7 million is about 3.5 times larger, not 5 times larger as Jardinero1 stated.

The point that Houston is doing a superior job of moving more commuters is correct, though.

At 10:11 AM, August 30, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did some quick calculations showing how much larger the Houston MSA is compared to the Austin MSA over the years. I used the population data from

1970 - 5.52 x larger

1980 - 5.38 x larger

1990 - 4.45 x larger

2000 - 3.77 x larger

2009 - 3.44 x larger


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