Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Global and racial Houston, top rankings, good govt, healthy housing, and more

Another week to clear out the rapidly growing list of smaller items:
"Sometimes it’s hard to remember what good government looks like: government that disciplines itself but looks to the long term; government that inspires trust; government that promotes social mobility without busting the budget."
"Zachary Neal found that although America's largest cities once had the most sophisticated economies, today that honor goes to cities with many connections to other places, regardless of their size... The rise of commercial aviation, high-speed rail, the Internet and other technological advances have allowed smaller cities to compete with urban powers such as New York and Chicago, Neal said."
And finally, kudos to the Houston 311 service line, especially the traffic light synchronization group.  Lately I've put in a couple requests to them that have been fixed very quickly, with very professional and friendly follow-up phone calls explaining what was found and fixed.  Color me impressed.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cities and Democracy vs. Freedom

Sometimes I have a half-formed idea for a post.  When that happens, I throw a few notes into a draft and save it to get back to it one day.  At this point, I must have 30+ of these post ideas saved up (some from years ago), but I almost never get around to finishing them because of the substantial time investment they usually need.  Since today is blogging day, and I've posted plenty lately on Metro and smaller misc items, I decided to force myself to pick one of them and finish it.  Thus the random subject and less than timely nature of this post.

Several years ago a Portland planner, Jeff Joslin, made a well-articulated opposition comment to one of my posts on Jane Jacobs.  This quote in particular about Portland planning jumped out at me:
"Our remarkable form of excessive democracy has generated a genuine partnership between neighborhoods, the development community, and government."
This comment touched a nerve with me, and I think brings up a core difference in people: collective community vs. individual thinking. Communities put democracy first; individuals put freedom first. I tend to fall in the latter camp. I agree democracy is the best way to make collective decisions, but democracy can go too far - thank God we don't a vote on where you live, go to college, take a job, who you marry, or how many kids you're allowed to have (extreme examples, yes, but you get the point on the limits of democracy).  In fact, a lot people don't realize that the U.S. is actually a constitutional democracy (well, technically, republic) where a strong constitution protects many individual rights from the democratic "tyranny of the majority."  We didn't really understand the subtle difference as we promoted democracy around the world over the last several decades, and then we're surprised when new democracies with weak constitutions slip towards socialism (see much of Latin America).  This is a very broad, simplistic generalization, but in a free, capitalist democracy with strong, constitutionally-protected individual rights (esp. property protections), if people want something, they generally have to earn it.  In a pure democracy, if people want something, they just have to vote for whoever promises it to them, even if that involves taxing or taking from the minority to satisfy the majority.

Some communities - like Portland or Austin - want to set and enforce a majority vision (or at least a majority vision among the politically active), and the minority can love it or leave it as far as they're concerned. Other cities - like Houston - don't impose a vision, and let the city develop bottom up from individual decisions. It's chaotic, but there's also a beauty in the chaos.  I'm not saying one is right and other is wrong, but they are distinctly different approaches, and I think Houston should be proud of its (relatively rare) freedom-centered approach (like being the largest city in the country without zoning).

This same opposition can be seen today in the debate over historic preservation here.  A community/neighborhood wants to "protect" itself, but to do that it has to substantially limit what the individual homeowners are allowed to do (which, in turn, can hurt the value of their property).  From the articles I've read, it sounds like the new historic preservation ordinance started pretty heavily on the collective side, but has been "Houstonized" (can I copyright that term?) through committees to be more balanced and homeowner-friendly.  It might not be the right answer for every city, but it feels like the right one for Houston.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A better vision for Metro

I haven't commented much on all of the recent Metro news, but today's article puts the absurdity level over the top.  What the heck were they thinking using short-term debt to pay the cities their quarter-cent mobility payments?  How are they possibly going to balance the budget and build rail without cutbacks?  While I applaud Greanias' appointment as CEO, how could they possibly think they can still build all of these rail lines after the FTA findings/mandates and the huge budget and debt woes?  Not to mention spiraling cost estimates approaching $6 billion, Bill King's well-argued op-ed on the plans flaws, and a soon-to-be-Republican Congress that will be focused on slashing spending and deficits, not increasing them.  The whole situation reminds me of Hitler still thinking he could unify Europe after Stalingrad and D-Day.  At some point, Metro, you have to face reality.

With that in mind, here's my proposal for a new vision for Metro - one that will help many, many more residents and employers of Harris County.  Here are the goals:
  • Dramatically increase overall commuter transit ridership (and thereby reduce freeway congestion)
  • Provide comprehensive single-seat express commuter service from all neighborhoods to all job centers
  • Keep employers and their tax base within the city of Houston (rather than moving to the far suburbs because of intolerable commutes and “hollowing out” the city like Detroit and others)
  • Increase employee commute productivity: laptop/smartphone email, wifi, tray tables for laptops
  • Attract increased employer subsidies/funding because of employee productivity value-added
And the changes they need to make:

FROM: Closed, internal, opaque
TO: Open source, transparent, crowdsourcing, open innovation (some progress already happening here)

FROM: Proprietary data kept in-house
TO: Government 2.0, all data published on the internet (scrubbed for privacy), allow anybody to analyze or mash-up to web site (students, universities, entrepreneurs, etc.)

FROM: Route demand “guesstimates”
TO: Online commuter community to register their commutes in a database to improve route matching (privacy option: replace names with ID numbers, use only zip+4 of address)

FROM: Only Metro-controlled, centralized, large Park-&-Ride lots
TO: Optional private, decentralized, smaller Park-&-Ride lots: underutilized existing lots, churches, groceries/malls looking for evening customers, register their interest in participating

FROM: Only Metro buses
TO: Allow private operators of buses, shuttles, and vans in addition to Metro vehicles:
  • Operators compete on schedule, routes, service, timeliness, and amenities
  • Possibly partially subsidized (Per rider? Per passenger-mile? Hybrid?)
  • Metro controls all money (model: Apple and the iTunes App Store), standard card readers
  • Metro publishes master integrated schedule
FROM: Downtown-centric
TO: All major job centers: Uptown, Texas Medical Center, Greenway, Energy Corridor, Westchase, Greenspoint, Clear Lake/NASA, etc.

FROM: Show up, wait in line with weather exposure, hope for a seat
TO: Reserved, pre-paid seat reservations: piece of mind, can show up at the last minute, minimal weather exposure

FROM: Unpredictable bus arrivals, time wasted arriving early and waiting
TO: Real-time bus-status text messages: leave the office right before afternoon bus arrives, no time wasted, minimal weather exposure

FROM: Buses often stuck with regular traffic
TO: Use bus tracking and online community to identify common bottlenecks and implement new HOT/MaX lanes (freeways, left lanes, esp. 610 and BW8) and diamond lanes (key local arterials).  Managed eXpress (MaX) lanes real-time priced to move the maximum possible number of people at maximum speed (improved throughput vs. free).

FROM: Buses often underutilized or run empty
TO: Detailed commuter database and open source approach allow route/stop tweaking to pick-up/drop-off incremental riders

FROM: Stand-alone agencies with separate domains
TO: Partner with other agencies across region, inc. HGAC commute solutions and their vanpools.  Option: create new commuter-oriented regional subsidiary of Metro that can be easily joined by the outer counties (vs. full Metro membership which they are unlikely to be interested in)

These are just a start, but they are all imminently doable and affordable - even with the current budget crunch - assuming that most of the rail lines are converted to signature bus service.  Isn't this better than building a few miles of at-grade rail until budgetary collapse followed by decades of stagnation as debts are repaid, funded by service cutbacks to the poor and transit-dependent?  Please, Mayor Parker and Metro, get real before it's too late.

Update: now Metro is considering selling debt bonds with a legal obligation for them to raise fares.  Will the madness never stop?  Hat tip to Barry.

Update 2: Bill King has an excellent op-ed in the Chronicle on Metro's financial situation and the new reality that is starting to dawn over there.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Debunking 'GM killed trolleys', weak office mkt, I69, MetroRail

Sorry about the erratic posting recently - Internet access problems.  Just have time today to pass along a few small items:
  • One of the common stories you'll hear is that GM killed off the trolleys in the first half of the 20th century to increase the purchases of cars.  The Debunker over at BNET has looked into it and, well, debunked that myth.
"The main point of “General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars” and other critics of the conspiracy theory is that trolley systems were replaced by bus systems for economic reasons, not because of a plot. Bus lines were less expensive to operate than trolleys, and far less costly to build because there were no rails. Extending service to rapidly growing suburbs could be accomplished quickly, by simply building a few bus stops, rather than taking years to construct rail lines. So, buses replaced streetcars.
For similar reasons, with the added one of personal preference for individual transportation, private cars also played an important role in the demise of streetcars. People understandably liked driving their own cars directly to their destinations more than crowding onto trolleys that dropped them blocks from where they were going."
"For Houston landlords, the depth of this downturn is a far cry from the devastation of the 1980s, when a construction boom left the city with vacancy rates higher than 30%. The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that the city had more empty space than Philadelphia had occupied space.
This time around, new supply is more limited, and the booming oil-and-gas industry has helped keep the region's economy afloat. Houston's unemployment rate hit 8.3% in July, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, more than a point below the national rate of 9.5%. The 36 million square feet of office space in the central business district is 12.9% vacant, nearly three percentage points below the national average for downtowns, according to brokerage Cushman & Wakefield Inc. The nearly 130 million square feet of suburban office space is 17.1% vacant, almost two points below the national rate for suburban space.
But the events of the last six months have injected a new degree of uncertainty into Houston's economy—and, by extension, the office market. "The wonderful rebound spurt in the Houston economy has slowed down significantly," says Barton Smith, a University of Houston economist. Mr. Smith says the slowdown appears to have happened independent of recent events like the Continental merger and the government moratorium on deepwater drilling. That followed the explosion of the rig leased by BP PLC in the Gulf, the consequences of which are still hard to measure."
  • Book review: Interstate 69 - WSJ.com This proposed NAFTA superhighway from Mexico to Canada would run roughly along 59 in Texas, but is facing a lot of local opposition along other parts of the route.
"Texas may have found a more promising route. On the same day that Indiana broke ground for I-69 outside Indianapolis in 2008, the Texas Department of Transportation "announced that its I-69 segments would follow existing roads as much as possible," Mr. Dellinger says. If that plan for I-69 were followed elsewhere, many opponents might drop their objections. Such a move might also help address I-69's biggest pothole: a shortage of federal dollars."

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