Sunday, August 24, 2014

Dallas vs. Houston in two words, HSR loses its sweet spot, how cities decline, and more

This week's items:
  • Dallas finally added a rail connection to DFW and thinks this helps qualify them as a world class city, even though downtown Dallas only has a tiny percentage of metro employment and it will take an hour to get there.  I've always heard a big differentiator between Dallas and Houston is that Dallas is much more image conscious about appearances (sort of an LA of Texas), and this really drives it home for me.  We're more pragmatic and are not worried about being considered world class (at this point, we already know we're there).  We tried express bus connecting downtown to IAH (far faster than a rail line), and it flopped, with only 2-3 riders per trip on average.  With that low of a demand, why would we build a multi-billion dollar rail line to the aiport that would be even slower?! That may very well sum up Dallas vs. Houston in two words: prestige vs. pragmatic.  A few years ago I laid out the case here for why rail to the airport rarely makes sense.
  • Speaking of Dallas vs. Houston, we definitely win this tourism smackdown vs. Dallas.
  • Aaron Renn kicks off a 3-post series with a devastating description of how declining cities get into a viciously reinforcing cycle of decline driven by corrupt vulturous interests in real estate, construction, and legal services.  The short version of the argument is that big local banks used to influence local politics to get broad economic growth, but those banks got rolled up into national firms and the business interests that are left really are mostly looking for narrow contracts subsidized by the taxpayer - they don't have the broader interests of the city at heart.  It is a scary and depressing trap that is almost impossible for a city to get out of once it starts (Detroit and Cleveland being two examples).  So far Houston seems to have avoided this fate, but it's certainly something we have to stay vigilant about...
  • A pretty devastating but logical case against the viability of high speed rail, with the nail in the coffin being that self-driving cars will eliminate any distance "sweet spot" that might have existed between driving and flying.
  • Governing magazine dissects the Ashby legal case and no-zoning in Houston.  My favorite excerpt:
"Whatever views one may hold about a city without zoning, it’s hard to deny that Houston has done pretty well for itself over the past generation or so. Its population has grown faster than that of almost any other American city. Its unemployment rate is among the lowest. It continues to attract new businesses no matter what slogan it chooses to adopt for itself. And a growing number of scholars, notably the urbanologist Edward Glaeser, have argued that Houston has done well precisely because it imposes so few restrictions on development."
"By 2023, Houston's gross regional product (GRP) will approach $1.1 trillion, more than double where it stands today. The region will add nearly 1.2 million residents, more than 700,000 jobs, and $300 billion in personal income."

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At 12:05 AM, August 25, 2014, Anonymous Rich Robins said...

Didn't the direct bus route from Downtown to IAH Bush Airport cost $15 each way, and only leave from a few rather inconvenient locations? In contrast, rail's much more economical to the end user, doesn't require one to stand around, bake in the sun and inhale heavy traffic fumes extensively while waiting to board.

As for autonomously driven vehicles, our roads are cluttered enough as it is. It will likely be a step up if we move on to using such vehicles, but the traffic congestion will remain if not worsen as our population grows.

I'm admittedly intrigued with Tory's notion of a responsive taxi bus that's autonomously driven though. But even if the technology's ever approved, Houston won't even allow jitney buses outside of certain very limited ranges. :-( Maybe we could change that though.

At 7:37 AM, August 27, 2014, Anonymous Neil said...

Although the subway station under Love Field was eventually shelved for good, this is not DART's first airport connection. The Orange Line already has had a station at Southwest headquarters and another with bus service right to the terminal there. What the service does mean, though, is this -- travelers, no matter which airport they choose, can get within a stone's throw of three or four convention centers (Irving and the WTC/Market Center/Anatole) as well as the medical centers - without a transfer. I don't think that's proof of a prestige play, and I think downtown is just lagniappe in this setup.

At 7:45 AM, August 28, 2014, Anonymous Neil said...

I'll try to make an even more helpful remark. I have been thinking about James Utterback's excellent "Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation: How Companies Can Seize Opportunities in the Face of Technological Change." I think that the classic innovator's mistake you are making is to think that the incumbent will take this lying down.
In fact, when an incumbent tech's very existence becomes threatened, it is empowered to take risks it had no possible excuse to take before, and it captures previously unthinkable performance improvements. Ultimately this incumbent, mass transit, which works by bundling many origin and destination pairs, may still lose out to the new ability to unbundle trips. But it's not a done deal!

Less fundamentally, I think I have seen you previously take the time to construct analogies between Houston activity nodes and Dallas ones. You kind of rushed past that in your enthusiasm for disruptive competitiveness this time. But it's worth doing:

> working outward from DTD, you almost immediately have the ten million square feet of wholesale offices and the Southwestern Medical School, which together are most like having our Smith Lands station one stop from Uptown.

> next up, the two Love Field adjacencies mentioned yesterday: like having a five minute bus ride to Hobby Airport.

> HBU (U of Dallas)

> Woodlands Waterway (Las Colinas)

> Energy Corridor P&R (Las Colinas)

> FM1960 (Belt Line)


the track-sharing Green Line takes this through downtown right to Fair Park for sporting events, and that's not even counting the seven TODs under construction along the Orange Line east leg, where we really have no equivalent here.

So that's the good and the bad. Now it's time for the ugly. You endeavor to state that we are world class already, that we have nothing to prove. But isn't it the epitome of a freshman to say that? Houston, we have nothing to prove except that we have nothing to prove. Houston has fine hardware (economic engine) and great runtime efficiency (at quality of life for what you pay); but it's got a clunky user interface. We're not there yet.

At 10:19 AM, August 28, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That is a pretty good number of destinations. It will be interesting to see how the ridership numbers play out vs. the cost of the line.

At 10:29 PM, August 28, 2014, Blogger Max Concrete said...

The cost of light rail continues to be mind-boggling. This was probably the least expensive light rail you could possibly build. It is almost entirely on "greenfield" with no streets, minimal intersections or utilities. I recall seeing two overpasses, one over Airfield drive and one water crossing. There was only one new station. From the Dallas Morning News:
"Extending the Orange Line into D/FW Airport reflects some cooperation. DART spent $321 million on the 5-mile line, including rail cars. D/FW put $36 million into a station that meshes seamlessly into Terminal A."

That's $71.4 million per mile.

At 8:27 AM, August 29, 2014, Anonymous Neil said...

No doubt Dallas and Houston could have made significant applied-science progress toward developing self-driving cars if they had invested three (four, by now?) billion dollars in research infrastructure instead of in light rail, but, to my chagrin, we seem to think that state-sponsored R&D only has a place at the federal and the state-[university] levels.

At 1:07 PM, August 29, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Oh yes, Max, in Houston we're already well north of $100m/mile!

At 4:16 PM, September 06, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

Dallas' understanding of image an what sells has helped them quite a bit in the past, allowing them to dominate southwest convention-going and act as a gateway to Texas tourism for nearly a century now. When it comes to rail, Dallas sees the world moving a certain way and they react and jump to it and get there first, the way all successful marketers do. They are not going to go down in some blaze of glory, touting their theories of which transportation paradigms are outdated and waving a sheaf of job location statistics. They are doing what people want, and people are excited about it.

At 9:23 PM, May 22, 2015, Blogger Unknown said...

Totally agree. According to AAA TEXAS JOURNEY magazine Dallas area is the number 1 visited destination in Texas.


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