Monday, April 28, 2014

Mayor gets it right on planning, thoughts on the new Houston Area Survey, petition to save the Astrodome, and more

First, let me express my support for Mayor Parker and her approach to a general plan for Houston. She is right to focus it on coordinated planning and infrastructure rather than land-use or zoning, and also right to be skeptical of New Urbanism and Smart Growth, which have some laudable ideals, but always seem to end up on a slippery slope to "we need a government bureaucracy to tell every land owner in the city what they can and can't build."  Incremental reforms are absolutely the right way to go.  Houston's growth model is working better than anywhere in the country - it just needs continuous refinements, not an overhaul.   A most definite case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."  And it's always worth remembering that everything is a tradeoff - you can't plan or regulate your way to utopia.

I'm sure everyone also saw the new Rice Kinder Institute Houston Area Survey results last week (also here). I'm certainly happy to see the increase in tolerance, but also want to point out that wording definitely affects responses, and people’s stated preferences on simple choice surveys are often very different from what they actually do when there are real world tradeoffs, especially when it comes to things like housing choice and transit usage.  When people say they support transit vs. freeways, what they're usually really saying is either (a) "if there was a great direct route from where I live to where I work that's cheaper and faster and on the exact schedule I need, I'll take it" (very rarely the case) or, (b) "yes, please get everybody else riding transit so my driving commute will be faster."  The answer to the highest-priority traffic concern, as I always tout here, is a more complete network of HOT lanes with express bus services from every neighborhood to every major job center (Houston has at least a half-dozen big enough to support such service). It is far less expensive than rail, faster (65mph w/o stops), and can circulate within a job center to get people closer to their building and keep them out of Houston's nasty weather (heat or rain).  The urban planning community is touting inner core densification as the answer, and Houston is actually doing more of it than anybody else out there. The apartment, condo tower, and townhouse boom is absolutely incredible inside the loop. No other city comes close to our inner core building permit numbers, so I think we're effectively addressing that part of the puzzle.  Now we just need the multi-centric express bus lane network...

Wrapping up with a few smaller items:
Finally, be sure take a minute to sign the National Trust for Historic Preservation petition to save the Astrodome.  I did!  More details on it here.

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Monday, April 21, 2014

Why the Texans should draft Johnny, light rail pros and cons, HTC, and more

Before we get to this week's smaller misc items, my case for why the Texans should draft Johnny Manziel if they feel he's at least in the ballpark of similar potential to the other available quarterbacks in the draft: the Texans are in competition with the Cowboys for the hearts and minds of Texans (citizens, not players).  When the WSJ recently had their national county-by-county loyalty map, it was very clear the vast majority of Texas supports the Cowboys more than the Texans.  If the Texans want to make progress in that battle, drafting Manziel is a great way to suddenly get every Aggie in the state to start caring about their games, and that's the kind of thing that shifts team loyalties over time.  Signing Case Keenum was a similar much smaller nod in that direction for UH alums.  I'm not saying they should draft him if they think there's a much better talent they should go after, but if they think it's a tossup or very close between several candidates, he should be their man as a very formidable weapon not just on the field, but in the ongoing mindshare battle with the Cowboys.  How's that for a Houston strategy?... ;-)

Moving on:
  • Atlantic Cities on "Can Houston learn to love light rail?"  I think it's a reasonably well-balanced article on the pros and cons, with a fierce debate in the comments, but the concluding paragraph is not very optimistic:
"Wandering this neighborhood, now a ten-minute train ride from downtown, I came across Del's Ice Cream, a small shop one block from a brand-new light rail station. Owner Delfina Torres has a front row seat for Houston's transit experiment, but she has doubts. "Houston is a vehicle town," she says. "They love their cars. It's going to be a long way coming to a city with less driving and more walking." Though it is now a direct light rail trip from her home to the Houston Rodeo, eight miles away, she says she can get there and back faster in her car." 
If you can't even attract people with direct point-to-point service, what are the odds with long walks and connections?
"Houston's rise follows its success in many areas. The city's growth rate led to placement on a list of "super cities" based on economic success. Houston has also placed highly in rankings for best places for young families and best places for graduates to get jobs."
  • According to this survey and op-ed, overall a majority of people prefer single-family suburban living, but most cities are still not providing enough multi-family housing to meet the demand - mainly because of zoning/building restrictions.  Fortunately, Houston does not have such restrictions, and you can certainly see the construction everywhere inside the loop as developers race to meet the surging demand for inner core living.  Chalk up another win for no-zoning.
Finally, I was recently given a short tour of the Houston Technology Center by their president, Walter Ulrich.  They're doing great work supporting entrepreneurship in Houston, including partnerships with NASA in Clear Lake to build up aerospace entrepreneurship in Houston during tough times at JSC.  If you're not a corporate sponsor now, you should seriously consider it.  Check out these stats:
"The Houston Technology Center works day in and day out with emerging technology entrepreneurs in energy, life sciences, IT, nanotechnology and NASA related space.  The companies that we have worked with have created over 4,500 jobs that generate over $680 million in annual economic activity.  They have enjoyed investments and financial transactions in excess of $1.5 billion.  A back of the envelope calculation shows that a Gold Sponsor at the upcoming gala Celebration of Entrepreneurs adds $1,670,000 of economic activity and gets to enjoy celebrating with Apache Founder (and WWII Bomber Pilot) Raymond Plank, Nobel laureate Robert Curl, and Houston icons Dr. Red Duke, Dr. Bernard Harris and Morrie Abramson.  Some of our largest sponsors contribute $20 million in economic activity thanks to their generosity."

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

METRO considers making rush hour traffic even WORSE, real housing affordability, the gentrification problem, and more

  • It just makes no sense to me that METRO is considering charging for Park & Ride parking. So as Houston's sustained economic boom leads to rapidly increasing traffic congestion, we're going to *discourage* people switching to the Park and Rides?!?!  How much sense does that make?!  This is an incentives problem.  Metro is getting too much demand on the Park and Rides and can't move fast enough to meet it, so they're going to discourage demand with parking fees and keep cars on the freeways at rush hour that would otherwise use transit.  Does anybody else think this is a really bad idea?  The Mayor and County Judge need to represent the interests of the city as a whole and put pressure on the METRO board to make Park and Rides as affordable as possible and ramp up to meet that demand.
  • An engineer looks at options for Houston's transportation future (hat tip to Jessie).  Unfortunately, he just falls into the same old trap of advocating a NYC-like rail system as the answer, despite our very decentralized, multi-polar set of job centers instead of a single mega-CBD like Manhattan.  And no, you can't just lump downtown together with the med center, Greenway, and Uptown and just pretend they're one big CBD - they're too far apart for a centralized commuter rail focus.  The answer is high-speed HOT/managed lanes with nonstop express bus service from every neighborhood of the region to every major job center.
  • There are plenty of stats showing Houston's median housing costs are much cheaper than the big coastal cities, but what gets missed is also how many more square feet you get in Houston for that money.  This chart compensates for that, showing how many square feet of house a million dollars will buy across the country, ranging from a very expensive 1,502 sq.ft in San Francisco (or 650 in Manhattan!) to your own private apartment complex of 83,333 sq.ft in Detroit.  Houston came in at the very affordable bottom of the list at 10,753 sq.ft (have fun cleaning and air conditioning that puppy), surprisingly substantially more than Dallas (7,042) or Austin (5,128).  How's this for a tag line? "Houston: all the coolness and weirdness of Austin at half the cost"
  • On the other hand, yet another ranking that says Houston isn't so cheap if you factor in transportation (hat tip to Josh). I still don't buy it.  They’re not equalizing on a per sq.ft basis, not considering taxes for transit, and not considering higher-end cars as a luxury good (not a basic “cost of transportation”).  The ACCRA data standardizes for all that and finds Houston *much* cheaper to live in.
  • Is gentrification good or bad? I think gentrification is not as controversial in Houston because we are less regulated and there are plenty of other low-cost areas residents can move to.  Where land use regulation is strict, like San Francisco, you get riots and street protests, because there are no alternatives for existing residents as they're driven out by rising costs.  And here's a hand grenade of a quote from the article: "As California political writer Joseph Perkins (who is black) once said, “smart growth is the new Jim Crow.” "

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Monday, April 07, 2014

Architecture Digest and Yahoo love Houston, top rankings, Mayor SOTC, workforce certificates over college degrees, and the problem of transit and dispersed jobs

Lots of items this week...
"When did Houston—long associated with oil, NASA, crippling humidity, isolating car culture, and McMansion sprawl—become one of the most exciting places in America? Over the past decade the Texas city has welcomed an influx of young professionals, people displaced by Katrina, immigrants, and other transplants enticed by the low cost of living and strong job prospects. At the same time, a growing cadre of avant-garde chefs, artists, and designers have been reenergizing H-Town, as it is nicknamed, creating innovative restaurants and cutting-edge boutiques in hip micro-neighborhoods that barely registered ten years ago. The country's second-most charitable urban center, Houston is also benefiting from healthy philanthropic investments that are helping to expand its cultural offerings. As a result, proud Houstonians will tell you, the city has supplanted Austin as the state's coolest metropolis, thanks to its diverse population and artistically inclined, architecturally ambitious outlook."
"Nor should the rapid growth of educated residents in sixth-ranked Houston, up 16% since 2007, which also enjoys low costs, an increasingly attractive cultural scene and one of the fastest growing hubs of dense urban living in the country.
Since 2007, for example, the Houston and Dallas metro areas have added more BAs than San Francisco-Oakland, and nearly twice as many as Boston. As a result, these and other such cities are gaining a critical mass in brainpower not widely recognized in the Eastern-dominated media."
"Businesspeople almost everywhere decry such labor shortages, but rarely lament a lack of English post-modernist scholars. As I saw on a recent trip to Houston – in many ways the country's most economically dynamic city – developers enjoy high demand but are stymied by a lack of skilled labor. In some cases, companies are beginning to invest not only in community colleges but also looking to recruit high school students into these professions."
  • A good analysis of why, outside of NYC and possibly Chicago, downtowns don't have enough jobs to justify rail transit, rail transit can't save downtowns, and transit in general has been ineffective at serving non-downtown job centers.  I think Houston could be the first major city to do that, though, if we expand our HOV/HOT lane network plus Park and Ride service to serve all of the major job centers instead of just downtown.
  • From Yahoo: Houston is One of the Country's Coolest Cities -- So Why Haven't You Been Yet? My favorite is #8.  Hat tip to Gary.
#8. The food here is so good, Beyonc rapped about it.
"There's a lot to eat in Houston in fact, food may be the single best reason to come here right now."

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

HPD forming task force against ride services

As the Uber and Lyft ride-sharing debate heats up in Houston, HPD has decided to step up enforcement (like this) with a new dedicated task force that has already snagged its first culprits.  On Monday a sting operation backed by a SWAT team swooped in on a car at IAH driven by John Manziel.  John had given an airport ride to his friend Matthew Schaub, when Matthew unexpectedly offered him $10 for gas money during the drop off.  That's when the team swooped in, arresting the unsuspecting criminal John for operating a taxi without a license.  At a press conference later, Houston Police Chief McClelland was quoted as saying,
"For too long we've looked the other way as this kind of underground black market has preyed on our citizens.  No more.  I have a warning to so called 'friends' everywhere: we're watching you.  We now have zero tolerance for this kind of criminal behavior, and we're going to get these thugs off our streets."  
The task force is being staffed from units that previously cracked down on drunk driving, which the Chief described as "a lower priority problem".  The task force will mainly be monitoring airport drop-off zones, but is looking into a partnership with the National Security Agency to monitor social media for "friendly rides" arranged anywhere across the city.

UPDATE: Ugh, this is closer to reality than I thought.

Hope you enjoyed this year's April Fools post ;-D Here are previous years if you missed 'em and would like a chuckle: