Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Prop 1, TX vs. NYC, #1 shopping, JFK+Rice, and more

I had a tough time deciding this week between discussing the Geoffrey West/"A Physicist Solves the City" NYT story or another group of small misc items.  Since I figure this is a holiday week when people might have more time to follow links and read more, the misc items won out.  I'll post on the West article next week.
"Houston comes in at No. 1 one the list. “Houston might be a big city, and sure you can spend days buying up the shopping malls, but for me the best thing has always been the boutiques that are somehow both 100% Southern and completely chic,” says stylist Kate Barash, a Houston native now living in Los Angeles."
And passing along some links from the Houston Digital Ambassador newsletter:

Houston ranks 10th in U.S. for high-tech jobs! http://bit.ly/gTfBBE  

Houston and three other Texas cities dominate Top 15 best recovery cities, according to Brookings Inst. http://bit.ly/eFNYHA. Full report: http://bit.ly/gTAsBB.
NY Times highlights Houston’s sustainability efforts http://nyti.ms/gKLHYH

·         National thought leader Joel Kotkin considers Houston part of a new wave of “efficient cities” http://bit.ly/gCr7Zc

Finally, a rather, um..., eclectic video titled "In Love with Friedrich Hayek".  What does it have to do with Houston? Watch and you'll see (hint: go 1:27 into the video and see what you recognize)  It seems appropriate to me that a love letter to the patron saint of free markets and capitalism would be filmed in Houston.  I haven't checked out the rest of her YouTube channel, but if you come across any good ones of Houston, let me know in the comments.

And, to all my readers: thanks for your readership in 2010, and may you - and all of Houston - have a very happy new year in 2011!

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Commute costs, census, rankings, cool maps, and more

Some smaller items this week for your holiday reading (how many of you are really working at the office this week?), but first a paragraph on one of my pet peeves.

Another report came out recently claiming Texas has some of the worst and most expensive commutes in the nation (hat tip to Jimmy).  While we do have our share of delays and traffic problems, these reports all share a similar flaw (which I've blogged about here before): rather than standardizing a single type of car across all of the cities, they look at actual spending averages in the cities.  So if you live in cities with inexpensive housing - like in Texas - and then spend your savings on an expensive car, truck or SUV (inc. the extra gas for low mileage vehicles), to them it looks like an expensive commuting city - when, in fact, you could just have easily chosen an inexpensive, high-mileage car here as you can anywhere.  The fact that most people don't here is a discretionary choice, not a reflection of an expensive city to get around.  These studies all come from nonprofits with an agenda promoting smart growth or 'urban sustainability' - which has benefits but does tend to substantially raise housing costs - but they want to deflect that criticism by pointing to high transportation costs in more free market cities like Texas.  They also conveniently ignore the tax subsidies that go to transit, making cities like NYC and DC look much less expensive for commuting than they really are.  But that's not going to stop these reports from coming out every year and getting eagerly picked up by the media.

On to this week's items:
  • You've probably already heard about the newly released Census results and Texas' big gains (+4 seats in the House), but check out the interactive graphic at the bottom of this AP article.  Mouse over any state, statistic, or bar and see the data.  Pretty cool.  You can definitely see the heavy trends to the south and west, and especially to Texas.
  • Good news: Forbes ranked Houston the #2 best city for young adults.  The bad (? ;-) news: Austin was #1.  Still, we did beat Dallas, and it's all good news for Texas.
  • A recent NY Times profile of a Third Ward Houston house built by an architect to have great views of the downtown and TMC skylines as well as the 288 freeway.  Quite unusual, but very cool.  His views are definitely protected - as long as they don't double deck that freeway...  Toll Roads News also picked it up.  Hat tip to Peter.
  • Houston IAH Terminal E was ranked as one of the four most beautiful airport terminals in the U.S. by The Street.  It is very nice, although I think the "gold plating" oneupmanship competition at airports is getting a little out of control.  Due to the mandatory passenger fees and monopoly status, they have way too much money to play with.
Finally, some super-cool interactive census maps.  Zoom and explore on all sorts of stats - from a national map down to individual census tracts in Houston.  See home value and income changes, racial compositions, education levels, and more.  Really incredible.  Hat tip to John.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Making urban highways more likeable

Just a quick pass-along this week from transportation expert Bob Poole at Reason, followed by a few comments of mine:
Making Urban Highways More Likeable
Last month I wrote about the Reason Mobility Project’s first major policy study, which makes the case that over the next 25 years, America’s urban areas need to add 104,000 lane-miles of expressway, arterials, and local roads in order to catch up with growth in vehicle miles traveled and eliminate the worst (Level of Service F) congestion. That’s all well and good, some of you responded, but where on earth could we put that new capacity? There’s no more room—and besides, roads are ugly bad neighbors.
Those are very legitimate concerns, and they are the subject of the second major policy paper from the Mobility Project, just now being released. It’s Peter Samuel’s “Innovative Roadway Design: Making Highways More Likeable.” Can we, it asks, figure out ways to make roadways better fit in, adding much-needed capacity without paving over our metro areas with unending concrete? I’m very impressed with what Peter has come up with, and I hope you will be, too.
The paper acknowledges many things that highway boosters don’t always like to admit: making freeways ever-wider can create real operational difficulties; there’s a case for reviving pretty, winding pre-World War II cars-only parkways; and there’s definitely a case for traffic-calming measures to preserve neighborhood streets from invasions of through traffic that threaten neighborhood tranquility and safety. And many of our freeways are just plain ugly, incapable of inspiring admiration like some of our iconic transportation landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge.
Acknowledging all that, what does the paper suggest as innovative design ideas? Much of it deals with limited-access expressways, since that is the most difficult challenge. For these kinds of lane-miles, the paper scours the world for innovative examples, both built and on-paper, of going up, going under, or creatively re-using existing freeway rights of way. Tunnels hold great promise, for example, for filling in much-needed but politically impossible missing links in existing freeway systems (illustrated by examples from Paris and Melbourne). Selected double-decking holds promise, too, with an elegant example being the just-opened elevated tolled express lanes in Tampa that I wrote about last issue.
Two other keys to squeezing in more urban expressway capacity are special-purpose lanes and use of non-traditional rights of way. Cars-only express lanes or truck-only toll lanes can make use of much narrower rights of way than a conventional freeway—and such rights of way exist in the form of abandoned rail lines, power transmission rights of way, flood control channels or flood plains alongside rivers, etc. Some very provocative examples are shown, for example of an express-lanes roadway from Los Angeles International airport to downtown LA and a trucks-only tollway in Brooklyn—both using abandoned rail right of way.
The paper devotes a whole chapter to arterial improvements, as well, suggesting selective use of overpasses to avoid delays at signalized intersections (as in Silicon Valley’s “expressways,” which are half-way between freeways and conventional arterials), innovative intersection designs, and both the benefits and limitations of traffic signal synchronization.
This is, of necessity, a highly visual policy study, and it will repay careful perusal. As the Mobility Project releases a series of city-specific case studies in coming months, you will see many of these ideas proposed for use in real-world settings.
An executive summary and the full report can be found here.  A lot of good ideas, although I'm not a fan of car or truck-only lanes, which seems like it would often be underutilized.  Better to allow all traffic and use congestion-priced tolling to match supply and demand exactly, perfectly maximizing the throughput of the road.  One of their more intriguing ideas for Houston might be using the power transmission rights of way, like along Westpark or the one that crosses 610S near Stella Link (which could finally connect the Ft. Bend Parkway to 610, providing relief to 288 and 59S).  I'm also a big fan of more small parkways like Allen Parkway or Memorial.  As far as cool tunnel ideas, check out the recent update to this post.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Gov 2.0, crossroads Houston, HSR, TOD, and more

A busy holiday season week with a business trip to Austin thrown in, so just a few small misc items to pass along:
"In fact, the U.S. is well situated to be the crossroads nation. It is well situated to be the center of global networks and to nurture the right kinds of networks. Building that America means doing everything possible to thicken connections: finance research to attract scientists; improve infrastructure to ease travel; fix immigration to funnel talent; reform taxes to attract superstars; make study abroad a rite of passage for college students; take advantage of the millions of veterans who have served overseas. 

The nation with the thickest and most expansive networks will define the age. There’s no reason to be pessimistic about that."

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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Five ways regulators think wrong (+ the impact on land use/zoning)

The Wall Street Journal had a fascinating article recently on "Studying the Biases of Bureaucrats" - essentially applying behavioral economics to examine how government bureaucrats systematically make mistakes in their judgement.  The key excerpt (my highlights):

..."in the mainstream economic literature there is a near complete absence of concern that regulatory design might suffer from lack of competence." Public servants are human, too.
Mr. Tasic identifies five mistakes that government regulators often make: action bias, motivated reasoning, the focusing illusion, the affect heuristic and illusions of competence.
In the last case, psychologists have shown that we systematically overestimate how much we understand about the causes and mechanisms of things we half understand. The Swedish health economist Hans Rosling once gave students a list of five pairs of countries and asked which nation in each pair had the higher infant-mortality rate. The students got 1.8 right out of 5. Mr. Rosling noted that if he gave the test to chimpanzees they would get 2.5 right. So his students' problem was not ignorance, but that they knew with confidence things that were false.
The issue of action bias is better known in England as the "dangerous dogs act," after a previous government, confronted with a couple of cases in which dogs injured or killed people, felt the need to bring in a major piece of clumsy and bureaucratic legislation that worked poorly. Undoubtedly the rash of legislation following the current financial crisis will include some equivalents of dangerous dogs acts. It takes unusual courage for a regulator to stand up and say "something must not be done," lest "something" makes the problem worse.
Motivated reasoning means that we tend to believe what it is convenient for us to believe. If you run an organization called, say, the Asteroid Retargeting Group for Humanity (ARGH) and you are worried about potential cuts to your budget, we should not be surprised to find you overreacting to every space rock that passes by. Regulators rarely argue for deregulation.
The focusing illusion partly stems from the fact that people tend to see the benefits of a policy but not the hidden costs. As French theorist Frédéric Bastiat argued, it's a fallacy to think that breaking a window creates work, because while the glazier's gain of work is visible, the tailor's loss of work caused by the window-owner's loss of money—and consequent decision to delay purchase of a coat—is not. Recent history is full of government interventions with this characteristic.
"Affect heuristic'" is a fancy name for a pretty obvious concept, namely that we discount the drawbacks of things we are emotionally in favor of. For example, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill certainly killed about 1,300 birds, maybe a few more. Wind turbines in America kill between 75,000 and 275,000 birds every year, generally of rarer species, such as eagles. Yet wind companies receive neither the enforcement, nor the opprobrium, that oil companies do.

Now try to imagine these five biases in the minds of overreaching urban planners and zoning board regulators arbitrarily determining land use.  No wonder so many cities are so messed up with housing, office, and retail supply and demand so out of whack (see the recent housing bubble).  Houston is very lucky we never implemented such a system, which is nearly impossible to dismantle once created (in fact, I know of no such city that has ever eliminated zoning after implementing it).  The payoff can be seen in this ending quote in Continental magazine's recent article on Houston as a cultural capital (alternate pdf link):
To Zenfilm's Wells, the city's free-for-all nature, affordability, and enormous diversity have all been key to its thriving, creative energy. "Right now I have several thousand feet of studio space that I pay less than a dollar a square foot for," he says. "Houston's no-zoning landscape allows entrepreneurs to start businesses in their living room. By the same token, because of the cost of living, it's a lot more manageable for artists to find a place to live and work, to find a following, to find a community as an artist. That's why we have such a blooming cultural community, which is a wonderful vehicle to hitch our star to."
Houston - and Texas - are lucky we don't have the level of regulation found in other cities and states, but it doesn't mean we're immune to the side effects of these biases.  If you're a regulator, please keep a list of these handy to check your thinking.  If you're in the media, keep them in mind as you cover all levels of government.  And the rest of us citizens need to consider them as we watch the sausage-making legislative and regulatory process, and point them out when we see them (also consider them the next time you're screaming for a government solution to a problem).  Some laws and regulations are obviously a good thing, we just need to check them against our natural human biases.

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