Sunday, March 03, 2013

Dissecting Rice's sustainability report on Houston

Last week the Shell Center for Sustainability at Rice released their report on Houston, and some breathless "quality of life is falling!" headlines ensued.  While I'm all for data and analysis like this, I do have some issues with some of the findings and recommended strategies.  Broadly speaking, it follows a typical pattern I find worrisome:
  1. Selectively pick stats and trends that look bad
  2. Comprehensive planning and government intervention are required!
  3. All will be solved, utopia will ensue, there are no downsides or tradeoffs
OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but I do feel like this is the unspoken message under a lot of the material. Getting to some of my specific issues:
  • Holding up NYC, LA, and Chicago as models: I'm not saying we're perfect and they have nothing to teach us, but Houston has been performing better than those cities on a lot of indicators for a very long time, so I'd be really careful what lessons we learn from them.
  • Combining percentage of income spent on housing and transportation to argue Houston is an expensive city to live in and get around. I'm really not a fan of that stat. When people save on taxes with no income taxes, they splurge on houses. When people save on housing, they splurge on their cars. That's a personal choice and it doesn't mean Houston is expensive to get around. Look around at all the fancy cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs you see around Houston. Those high-depreciation, low mileage vehicles are discretionary, not a cost of basic transportation. They are certainly not required to get around town. You can dramatically cut your cost of getting around - both gas and depreciation - with a nice used Prius or Civic, just as you can in any other city.   Cost of living indexes, like I mentioned last week, equalize for that - and show that Houston has the highest cost-of-living adjusted average incomes among the country's major metros.  Another issue I have with that stat is that it ignores taxes that go to transit, esp. in the heavy transit cities like Philly and NYC. Using the farebox as the only cost of transportation is inaccurate, since it covers only a small portion of the cost of the transit system.
  • Subsidizing housing near job centers: There are plenty of apartment complexes and other housing near each of Houston's job centers.  If people want to live close to their job, they almost certainly have plenty of options.  But most people choose not to do this for a host of varied reasons, including home, school, and neighborhood preferences - not to mention dual-income households (whose job do you live next to?).  Commute time is not the deciding factor for most people.  If we're somehow restricting or discouraging new housing supply near job centers, then by all means let's fix that - but pouring tax dollars into programs to incentivize apartment development near job centers just doesn't seem like a wise use of limited government resources.  The market will provide housing where there is demand.
  • Comparing our rail unfavorably to Chicago: See the middle of my TEDx talk and slides explaining why commuter rail makes sense for centralized, older, pre-WW2/pre-automotive cities like Chicago but not for decentralized, newer, post-WW2 cities like Houston.  Express bus HOT lane networks are the right solution for multi-centric Houston.
  • Limited health insurance coverage: Isn't this more of a federal (Affordable Care Act) and state (Perry accepting additional federal Medicaid dollars, as requested by County Judge Emmett) issue?
  • That a loss of anglos inside the city limits implies an unattractive quality of life: what has happened over the last 30+ years is that middle-ring anglos (610 to BW8) have moved out to newer nicer suburbs in unincorporated Harris County, Sugar Land, Katy, The Woodlands, Pearland, etc. and aspiring minorities and immigrants have moved in as mortgage rates dropped and home ownership hit record levels (this happened to cities all over the country).  Yet nobody can argue that the inner loop and westside of Houston isn't attracting plenty of anglos with a strong quality of life, including mass gentrification of previously blighted areas.  Houston's core is definitely healthy and has plenty of quality of life - not perfect, but healthier than most cities - and a great balance of diverse demographics.
Houston is not perfect, but it's doing a lot of things right and embarking on some great new initiatives like expanded parks and bike trails, single-bin recycling+trash, the Uptown BRT line, dedicated revenue for drainage+roads, rethinking the METRO bus network from the ground-up, and revamping Chapter 42 development codes to enable more densification and keep housing affordable.  Let's keep up the thoughtful continuous improvement, but be careful to not forget our great strengths or compromise them because of misleading stats or incomplete analysis.

UPDATE: link to the complete report.

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At 6:52 PM, March 03, 2013, Anonymous Rich said...

Houston's rail isn't just behind that of Chicago, NYC and Los Angeles, but that of comparatively neighboring Dallas as well:

Houston has 8 miles of rail, and Dallas has over a hundred. We have more carcinogenic smog, too.

Are buses adequate substitutes? They pollute (whereas rail can be fueled by electricity from green sources like hydro, solar and wind). Buses get stuck in traffic, and it takes much longer for handicapped individuals to board buses too. We never know when a bus will really arrive, but rail is easy to board and punctual.

Cost-containment's important though, so I'm in favor of removing Metro's monopoly on building and administering rail. Any thoughts?

At 8:32 PM, March 03, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

And Houston has almost as many riders as Dallas with that many fewer miles.

I will agree rail can be a superior service, but the cost is incredible. North of $100 million *per mile*. Practically speaking, only METRO can build local rail, since it requires massive subsidies from their sales tax.

At 8:41 PM, March 03, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I seem to recall folks predicting Houston's demise going back as far as the 1970s. It's generally the usual themes from left-leaning academic types. "If Houston doesn't build rail, we'll decline." (Atlanta put all their resources into rail, look where it has gotten them.) "If Houston doesn't have walkable neighborhoods we'll go into decline." (This is the most recent fad, also totally wrong.) "If Houston doesn't invest more in education, we'll decline." "If Houston relies too heavily on the oil and gas industries, we'll decline." "If Houston continues to sprawl, we'll decline." "If downtown isn't vibrant, we'll decline." etc. We've been hearing these themes for decades and the folks issuing these warnings are ALWAYS wrong.

As Tory suggests, these views are normally promoted by folks wanting a larger and more expansive government at all levels (federal, state, local). As long as we have a pro-business environment, have a government and tax rate no larger than needed, do an adequate job with the basics (education, public safety and transportation), then we'll continue to do well.

At 8:47 PM, March 04, 2013, Anonymous Steve said...

I haven't read the report but I want to emphasize a couple of Tory's points.

I don't see how you can say that Houston's job centers lack housing. Maybe some lack a cheap single family detached product. Others (Greenspoint) lack higher end product. But on the whole, the market has done a good job of putting housing near jobs. And as Tory pointed out, dual-income households make the calculation much more complicated - the best choice for these households may be halfway between the two jobs, a location that might not be near any major job concentration.

The other point is that the "combined housing-transportation cost" is way overstated here. We have many, many square miles of very affordable neighborhoods located on the east side and in the ring between 610 and Hwy. 6 / FM 1960. People who could otherwise save a bunch of $ by buying or renting in these areas are choosing to spend MORE for a house and MORE for transportation (both in terms of commute time and fuel / depreciation) to live either in outer suburbs or in pricey urban core neighborhoods. This fact seems almost willfully ignored by many in the planning community.

At 9:30 PM, March 04, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I looked at the actual "report" today, and it had about as much hard data as one of those sponsored articles in the middle of Time Magazine. It's hard to refute some points because they don't link to their data, don't tell how it was calculated, from what sources, from what years, etc. etc. etc.

Another thing that really jumps out is that Houston is apparently doing poorly in something like 24 of 25 categories. Anyone who has been in Houston in the last 10 years and has opened their eyes for more than, oh, let's say 3 minutes knows that Houston is doing pretty well and that this study is just alarmist BS.

At 9:58 PM, March 04, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yeah, those poor marks in 24 of 25 categories really bugged me too, especially after racking up tons of top rankings, awards, and stats the last few years. Really? What are we, Detroit?

At 11:45 AM, March 07, 2013, Blogger Nathan Gaber said...


Not related to any of this week's discussions but I thought I should pass this along.

At 6:30 PM, March 07, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Great catch, Nathan. Thanks for the heads up. I'll definitely be including it in a future post.

At 2:50 PM, April 18, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to warn Wodehouse and anybody else who uses Gattis' presentation that the ACCRA Cost of Living Index data it is based on reflects expenditures by the highest income quintile households. It is intended to help negotiate business executive pay. Apparently, Houston is an affordable city for relatively wealthy people. I believe it is wrong to imply that this reflects affordability or economic opportunity as the concepts are usually defined, and I think it is dishonest to present this information without explaining its bias. My research indicates that lower-income residents spend significantly less on transportation if they live in an area with high quality public transit ( ), but this is not evident in the ACCRA data.

For more about this issue see my debate with Wendell Cox in "The First Casualty of a Non-Existent War: Evaluating Claims of Unjustified Restrictions on Automobile Use, and a Critique of 'Washington’s War On Cars And The Suburbs'" ( ).

I also want to respond to another false claim by Wodehouse: that the higher housing costs in smart growth communities fully offset the transportation cost savings. The Center for Neighborhood Technology's Housing + Transportation Index ( ) measures combined housing and transportation expenditures by geographic location. It indicates that households in more compact neighborhoods enjoy combined housing and transport cost savings that average from $1,580 annually in lower-priced markets such as Little Rock up to $3,850 annually in higher-priced markets such as Boston. Smart growth provides other savings and benefits, such as significant reductions in per capita traffic fatality rates, improved mobility for non-drivers, and improved physical fitness and health (due to more walking activity). For more discussion see "Understanding Smart Growth Savings" ( ).

Gattis and Wodehouse make numerous claims about the benefits of automobile-oriented sprawl and the costs of smart growth that may have a kernel of truth, but misrepresent the issues. For example, it is true that in automobile dependent areas, lower-income workers have better job opportunities and higher average incomes if they have a car, but this ignores the facts that 1), about half of their additional income is then spent on their vehicle, 2), not everybody can or should drive, and 3), this additional driving imposes significant external costs. As a result, although I support some policies that improve automobile access to lower income people (such as distance-based vehicle insurance and carsharing), I believe that everybody can be better off from improvements in affordable modes (walking, cycling, ridesharing and public transit), and by smart growth policies that increase the supply of affordable-accessible housing ( ), so physically, economically and socially disadvantaged people have better transport options besides driving. For more information see "Evaluating Criticism of Smart Growth" (

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute

At 8:06 PM, April 18, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

So you're essentially saying that if the government massively subsidizes my transportation, then my own personal transportation costs go down? Somehow unsurprising...


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