Monday, June 30, 2014

Big news, critiquing Dallas, Houston's transportation history, and more

First, some big news I want to share with all of you: the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism is pulling together a book on the future of cities and their suburbs, and they've asked me to contribute a paper!  Very exciting yet humbling.  Publication is estimated for the spring of 2016, so fortunately I have a bit of time to pull it together...

On to this week's smaller misc items:
  • Thanks to Bill King for the shout out. Total agreement supporting METRO as it revamps the bus system and backs off from the costly obsession with rail.
  • The Urbanophile does Dallas (doesn't quite roll off the tongue in the same way, does it? ;-) followed by a mixed review of Downtown Dallas specifically.  Reading the critique, I think he'd give our downtown a better review, although still mixed.  I think he has some good thoughts on potential solutions that Houston should be considering, especially #1 on creating an authentic street experience appropriate to Texas. It also includes a great excerpt on the walkability challenge that I have also stressed for Houston:
"For one thing, Dallas temperatures are very high. It was in the 90s and blazing sun every day I was there. This renders the city functionally unwalkable. I wanted to do a lot more exploring but just couldn't because if I spent more than about 10-15 minutes outside I needed to take a shower. 
When I tweeted this people kept talking about other places in the world with high temperatures. It may be that some places are acculturated to this, or too poor to afford air conditioning. But I actually didn't even get a good counterexample once you factor in humidity. Some folks mentioned Seville, Spain, but the July dew point in Seville ranges from 51-66 while in Dallas it’s 64-72. That’s a big difference. 
So walkability and urbanity is going to mean something different in a hot, Southern climate vs. northern cities. Think of that as challenge #1."
"Great and small enterprises often have two births: first in purity, then in maturity. The idealism of the Declaration of Independence gave way to the cold-eyed balances of the Constitution. Love starts in passion and ends in car pools. 
The beauty of the first birth comes from the lofty hopes, but the beauty of the second birth comes when people begin to love frailty. (Have you noticed that people from ugly places love their cities more tenaciously than people from beautiful cities?)"
Yes, yes we do.
Finally, H-GAC recently released a new Mobility Now special edition video on "The Art of Transportation" celebrating 40 years of transportation planning in the region, including an extended conversation with County Judge Emmett.  A lot of interesting history in here, including (surprise!) yours truly at the 4:32 mark.

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Debating "No Limits", our traffic is better than you think, DFW vs. Houston rail, F500 HQs, and more

The backlog of smaller misc items is getting a bit out of control, so here we go...

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Thoughts on Houston's newest brand: The City With No Limits

Recently the Greater Houston Partnership rolled out its newest marketing campaign for Houston, "The City With No Limits", with broad coverage in the Chronicle, CultureMap, and HBJ.  What makes this campaign different from previous ones is that its core mission is different: instead of the usual GHCVB campaign trying to attract tourists, this one is designed to convince people, especially young college grads and professionals, that Houston has a great quality of life.  It also marks a new direction for the Partnership, which will now go beyond trying to attract jobs and economic development to attracting talent to fill those jobs.  I strongly agree with both of those new directions.
"While the Convention and Visitors Bureau targets convention and tourist business, the Partnership's campaign is designed to get people to move here, Harvey said."
I really like a lot of things about this campaign:
  • The clever inverted H logo:

The only part I've had a problem with so far is the neighborhood quiz/survey, which I think is broken.  I answered questions preferring high-density, urban, and walkable, yet it recommended River Oaks to me instead of where I actually live, Midtown - the very obviously correct answer.

City branding and identity are topics I've covered quite a bit in this blog, including:
  • Why brand a city?
  • Houston's branding history and some strategic thoughts where I discuss the GHCVB vs. GHP problem, brands I've proposed, and how we have the distinctive positioning of offering the "best of both worlds" between a big, multi-ethnic, international city with great amenities, culture, and opportunities while also being affordable and fast-growing with a feeling of community (the "big small town" label people often use describing Houston).
  • Previous branding/identity ideas I've put out for discussion:
  1. Houspitality: I still really believe in this one and think it could be very complementarily integrated with the No Limits campaign.
  2. Houston: (Galactic Hub), Global Village, American Dream, Texas Spirit
  3. "Houston, Texas - Problem Solved" based on the well-known Apollo 13 quote, "Houston, we have a problem..."
  4. "Engineering City", or "Engineering World Headquarters", or "Engineering Hub/City/Capital of the Americas"
  5. "Tropical Texas"
  6. "Open City of Opportunity" or "Texas' Open City of Global Opportunity" (more), summing up our friendliness, hospitality, entrepreneurial energy, minimal regulations (including no zoning), open-mindedness, diversity, affordability, social mobility, optimism, and charity (especially after Katrina).
I know we live in a cynical age and there are a lot of people sneering and poking fun at this campaign, but I think it really deserves our support and an honest chance. That said, I'm going poke a little fun: I definitely think the new "Houston: The City With No Limits" brand should go on all our city limit signs... ;-P

UPDATE: Christopher Andrews has some good thoughts on it too over at his blog.

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Sunday, June 08, 2014

Rebutting the pro-rail op-eds and how to fix Houston's top issues

I wanted to focus this week's post on the GHP's new "No Limits" branding campaign for Houston, but multiple op-eds in today's Chronicle need an immediate response, so it'll have to wait a week.  I'm referring to both of the pro-rail ones (here and here) as well as the board editorial calling out Houston's leadership on multiple issues.

First, based on the responses, it's very clear to me that Bill King struck a very sensitive nerve with his well-researched and devastating case against rail for Houston (my discussion of it here) - they obviously see it as a serious threat.  But I find the responding arguments pretty weak:
  • "It's got strong public support" - The 2003 referendum passed by 52% to 48% and that was when the budget estimates were one-half or less of what the spending has actually turned out to be.  If you're so confident in public support, run the referendum again (or heck just take an unbiased poll with real cost effectiveness numbers).  It will get slaughtered, and they know it.
  • "Millennials/knowledge workers/surveyed Houstonians love transit and density" - That's great - when the existing and newly opening lines are absolutely packed with high-density transit-oriented development around the stops and we need to build more rail to accommodate demand, get back to me and we'll look at building some more.  Given trends around the well-routed Main St. line, I'm guessing we might have that conversation in the 2030's or 2040's, if we're lucky.  In fact, I really hope that development does happen, because the only way I see these new lines adding enough value to justify their insane cost is if they spark a massive new housing supply on the north and east sides to reduce the relentless upward pricing pressure on Houston housing, which is putting our much-vaunted affordability advantage at risk.
  • "We can do everything, including light rail" - Let me introduce you to the concept of opportunity cost: if we spend $150+ million per mile (!!!) for light rail, we lose the ability to spend that money on other things.  What other things might we spend it on?  Certainly better local bus service would be great, and I applaud Metro's re-imagining plan designed to fit within the existing budget.  Imagine how much better it could be if it had that rail money available, with more frequency on more routes to more places connecting more people?  But even more critical for Houston is expanding our suburban express bus transit network to all of the job centers in the city with a much more comprehensive express lane network.  I agree we can't build enough freeway capacity to keep up with growth - we can't afford it and there isn't the right-of-way available even if we could.  But if we don't make it easier for suburban employees (who are out there for nice affordable houses in good neighborhoods with good schools) to get to their employers in the core, more and more of those employers are going to give up on the city, pull an Exxon, and head out the 'burbs with a nice campus in The Woodlands, Katy, Sugar Land, or Pearland..  And that will leave Houston with a deteriorating core and tax base.  A great core light rail network does no good if all the employers move to the outer rim.  They'll let the young single 20% of their employees that live in the core reverse-commute while the 80% families have a much easier local suburb commute.  This *will* happen if we don't address the suburban commuter problem, which we can't do right now because massively expensive light rail is sucking all of the air out of Metro's budget.
You heard it here first, note it for posterity: when Google's little driverless taxis are running around all over the place a decade from now, whisking people from anywhere to anywhere at the touch of a smart phone button for 50 cents/mile, we will look at all the white elephant rail lines we built and wonder what the heck we were thinking given that the technology trends were so utterly obvious at the time, yet we still thought sinking $150+ million a mile into light rail was a good idea?!

Finally, my thoughts on some of the issues brought up in the board editorial that I didn't address above:
  • Pensions busting the budget: the Mayor needs to go nuclear on this.  By that I mean stop all city contributions to the pension plans until the legislature gives her the authority to fix them. It will generate massive much-needed media attention and legislators will have to explain why they won't give the city the power to fix its own budget. In her last term with no higher-office aspirations (that I know of - but unlike her successor, I'm sure), she is our last hope to stand up to the police, firefighters, and city employees and get this fixed.  If she doesn't, then I foresee an epic failure of an attempt to raise tax revenue followed by massive cuts to city services followed by a long, slow, Detroit-like decline.  All of the city's public and private leadership needs to be focused on this, and most especially you, Madam Mayor, backed up by the GHP lobbying machine.
  • Fixing HPD and its budget: Total agreement with Bill King's op-ed today calling for a detailed investigation into how the department is run.  The numbers simply don't add up and imply massive mismanagement.  Note to Bob Harvey at the GHP: get a McKinsey team on it! ;-)
  • Hurricane risk and the stalled Ike Dike plan: Think creatively on funding it: it should reduce home insurance rates dramatically, so why not just tax those insurance plans equal to the savings to pay off the dike and come out ahead?  Nobody pays any more than they already are, and we go ahead and skip all the death and destruction. 
End venting.  Looking forward to your thoughts in the comments.  I'll be back next week to discuss the city branding campaign.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Impressive Houston stats you don't know, Ashby densification vs the courts, national transit scandal, and more

A couple of weeks ago Joel Kotkin came to town to present at May meeting of the Houston Economics Club at the local Federal Reserve bank branch.  It was their highest attended session of the season and very well received.  He brought an excellent set of slides chock full of insightful stats on Houston - well worth a skim.  Some key highlights:
  • We're one of the only major cities in the country adding high-value blue collar jobs, and the fastest grower of middle-skill jobs not requiring a college degree - crucial to social mobility and opportunity.
  • We have the second-highest concentration of engineers in the country after Detroit.
  • We work for a living - we have the lowest percentage of income from investments of any major metro (i.e. living off of existing wealth).
  • Houston, with 6m people, is issuing more building permits than all of California combined with 38m people! 
  • And my absolute favorite chart on page 20, showing Houston with a significantly higher cost-of-living-adjusted average annual wage than any other major metro ($75k vs. $62k for #2 Dallas and #3 Austin), meaning we offer the highest standard of living in the country and probably the world (objective standard of living, not arguing subjective quality of life, which is heavily dependent on personal preferences).
Moving on to a few smaller misc items this week:
"The real point of the report is that almost all proposed new rail lines are high-cost, low-capacity transit. Double-decker buses can move 18,000 people per hour on city streets, twice what three-car light-rail trains can move; double-decker buses can also move more than 100,000 people per hour on a freeway lane, twice what a subway line can move."
Houston would be able to do *so much* so affordably with express buses in a comprehensive managed lane network connecting up all of the city to all of the major job centers... 

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