Monday, September 22, 2014

What motivates sprawl?

Cort McMurry at Houstonia gives a bit of a confusing shout out to myself and Opportunity Urbanism (a followup to his previous piece I linked to last week). Confusing, because it seems like it's not in a good way at first, but then we don't seem to fundamentally disagree on too much.
"There is a wide difference of opinion on whether our messiness is a good thing. Some of us find it distressing. Tory Gattis and the other evangelists of “Opportunity Urbanism” disagree, painting Houston as a sort of libertarian paradise, a place where fully actualized men and woman can work out their destinies through grit, brains, and good ol’ trial and error. Master plan? We don’t need no stinking master plan.  
Surveys indicate that the majority of Houstonians are quite content to live in this Sue Ellen Mischke of metropolises: we love “the whole free-swinging, freewheeling attitude” of the place..."
I think his core issue is that he believes too many people give up the hard work of living in the messy and diverse urban core (in many cases out of imagined fears) and opt out for the easy life in the sprawling suburbs, and in the process they become detached from Houston and being a Houstonian. My comments:
A key theme of Opportunity Urbanism is letting the market (i.e. people) decide how they want to live - whether suburban or urban - not govt telling them how they should live. Houston is thriving with both the fringe and the core. The densification going on inside the loop is simply incredible, and not happening in most cities in the country because their zoning doesn't allow it. I myself love living in a dense, walkable part of Midtown. Let the city have a wide variety of neighborhoods that appeal to everybody's different preferences - don't try to force a "one right way". The key to our long-term vitality will be keeping employers in the core instead of them fleeing to the outer burbs, as they have in Dallas, LA, and others - and our core is so vibrant and appealing to young people, I think we've got a good shot at that as long as we have good express bus HOV/HOT lane transit from the far suburbs. 
I'm always amused a bit at the predictions that Houston will sprawl halfway to Dallas. Fun fact that might blow your mind: at our current density (3,662/sq.mile), we could hold the population of the NYC metro (20m, 3x what we currently have) in a circle only 41 miles in radius - basically downtown to Conroe. Not really that far when you think about it... and it means the Grand Parkway is likely to be the last loop we ever need (famous last words, I know). 
I do wish the Exxon project were closer in, but I still think we're more unified than most metros our size - most of us still think of ourselves as "Houstonians", not our various suburbs. More on this here.
I worry somewhat about the Balkanization too - it's happening in every city in America. I don't think it's unique to Houston. School quality is a big driver. There is much more emphasis on edu quality in the 21st century than what you describe decades ago. I don't know what the solution is. Possibly vouchers, which would open up more quality school options in the urban core.
Anyway, check out the piece and its comments, and I'd love to hear your own thoughts in my comments here...

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Smart traffic lights could be our salvation, Scotland vs. Texas secession, the South's secret of success, and more

The smaller misc items have been piling up fast last week...
" Harvard’s Edward Glaeser and others have emphasized, high housing prices in slow-growing states also owe a lot to policies that sharply limit construction. Limits on building height in the cities, zoning that blocks denser development in the suburbs and other policies constrict housing on both coasts; meanwhile, looser regulation in the South has kept the supply of housing elastic and the cost of living low. 
So conservative complaints about excess regulation and intrusive government aren’t entirely wrong, but the secret of Sunbelt growth isn’t being nice to corporations and the 1 percent; it’s not getting in the way of middle- and working-class housing supply."
  • Houston needs this!  Love this new technology for dynamically adjusting traffic lights.  If you know anybody in CoH or Harris County Public Works, please pass it along.  Check out the amazing results:
"Smith's team installed nine smart signals back in 2012 and saw instant results. Travel times along the corridor with the new signals were reduced by 25 percent, idle time fell by 40 percent, and vehicle emissions dropped by 20 percent. The system is also scalable for cash-strapped cities, says Smith, because you can install the signals one intersection at a time as funding becomes available. "
    "Taken individually, each development requirement and restriction may be a legitimate exercise of a city’s police power. With increasing reliance on developers and their projects to satisfy societal goals through a multitude of land use controls, the potential cumulative effect of all regulations risks turning all proposals into discretionary or conditional approvals. When the increased number of regulatory constraints causes development to be so economically infeasible that the only way for a property owner to gain the right to develop is to request discretionary approvals, have we not effectively removed the right to make reasonable economic use of the land?"
    Finally, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments on how you think Houston measures up on these criteria for having a vibrant tech scene?...

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    Friday, September 12, 2014

    Great infographic - 6 reasons everyone is moving to Houston

    Just love this infographic and wanted to share it for your enjoyment on a rainy Fri afternoon even though it is going to break the formatting of my blog (if you have trouble reading it, right click on it and open the image in its own tab, or just go here to read it).  Great stuff in here - definitely worth your perusal, especially #4...

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    Tuesday, September 09, 2014

    Dallas airport rail not very popular and reducing city corruption

    This week we have a couple of followups from my post a couple of weeks ago.

    First, I criticized Dallas' decision to build a very expensive light rail line to DFW airport, and it doesn't seem to be getting much ridership traction, nor do their downtown rail lines seem to be doing as well as our very full HOV express buses:
    Here’s the crazy thing: She was the only one who got off the train at DART’s Terminal A station. She said she looked up and down the rail cars and station platform, and not one other person disembarked. 
    I was surprised, for two reasons: 
    1) About 60,000 people work at D/FW. That includes airline workers, concessions employees, parking people, security personnel, folks with badges and everything. With all those thousands punching the clock there, you’d think one or two might have been heading there at 8 a.m. from the 13-city DART service area. Strange. 
    2) The sheer volume of outgoing local passengers, about 30,000 a day. (That’s based on 31 million enplanements a year, with 35 percent of fliers with local origination/destination — all figures provided by David Magana, D/FW’s PIO. Blame me, not him, for any bad math.) 
    Not all of those tens of thousands of fliers come from the Dallas side of the airport, but still. A pile of them do.
    I hope DART reaches and exceeds 1,200 passengers a day at D/FW. I’d like to think the line to the airport was worth the civic investment. It makes sense, on the face of it. But we’re a car-loving metro area, and it’s rare that I see a DART park-n-ride approaching half full on my way to work each day. 
    Public transit can be a hard sell in these parts.
    Secondly, I mentioned the Aaron Renn's Urbanophile series on city corruption a couple of weeks ago, linking to part one, and now parts two, three, and four are out, listed here along with interesting excerpts from part two on fixing corruption:
    1. The City As a Decline Machine, or How the Loss of Hometown Banks Paved the Way For Corruption (short summary in my post here)
    2. Fixing Corrupt Cities
    3. Thoughts On Eliminating Systemic Corruption
    4. When the People Are Corrupted
    "The authors’ basic formula for corruption is simple: C = M + D – A. That is Corruption = Monopoly power + Discretion by officials – Accountability. Resultingly, as they put it:
    A strategy against corruption, therefore, should not begin or end with fulmination about ethics or the need for a new set of attitudes. Instead, it should look cold-bloodedly at ways to reduce monopoly power, limit and clarify discretion, and increase transparency, all the while taking account of the costs, both direct and indirect, of these ways. 
    There is another crucial point in designing an anti-corruption strategy: Corruption is a crime of calculation, not of passion. People will tend to engage in corruption when the risks are low, the penalties mild, and the rewards great. This insight overlaps the formula just mentioned because the rewards will be greater as monopoly power increases. But it adds the idea that incentives at the margin are what determine the calculations of corrupt and potentially corrupt official and citizens. Change information and incentives, and you change corruption.
    The book is also notable for being against what would appear to be one of the most popular responses to incidents of corruption, namely adding more rules. This often just makes it easier for corruption to flourish. As they put it, “Corruption loves multiple and complex regulations.” We also see in the US that more regulation increase the rent seeking returns to corruption and leads to regulatory capture, either by regulated industries or activists (or some combination of both).

    They also say that corruption shouldn’t be looked at in isolation or as the sole aim, but rather that anti-corruption efforts should be seen as a tool for reinventing and improving the delivery of public services...
    Among their recommended approaches in the fight against corruption are having a point person with a high profile and public accountability for delivering results, creating an independent anti-corruption office (such as an inspector general type organization), starting by picking low-hanging fruit, eliminating the perception of impunity by “frying big fish” via prosecuting senior officials , working with and not against the bureaucracy, and many other things. "

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    Tuesday, September 02, 2014

    Thoughts on the proposed Astrodome Park

    I was really excited to hear Judge Emmett's proposal last week for converting the Astrodome into an indoor park (official proposal news release).  Although I have touted a big idea for the Astrodome as well as some smaller ones, my longest running proposal and backup plan has always been the one with an absolute minimum of capital requirements: an indoor festival park, first articulated here in 2005 and briefed to the Judge in 2009.  The benefits are huge:
    • Low cost, with the ability to incrementally add new features over the years as private funding is raised (like the zoo does).
    • Climate control and protect festivals, enabling Houston to have festivals year-round instead of in narrow spring and fall seasons, and with no rain-out risk.  We currently have 75-100 festivals a year in Houston subject to weather risk, according to the Judge.
    • Easy fit with the Rodeo and Texans' needs and contractual rights to NRG Park, including the option to just shut the park down during their days (although I doubt that would end up being the case).
    • And of course, historically preserving the world's first domed stadium(!!).  Did I mention the benefits were huge?
    Here's my biggest thought on the design moving forward: the park inside the Astrodome should be design integrated with an outdoor festival park between the Astrodome and NRG (aka Reliant) Stadium. This will allow festivals to have a large outdoor component if the weather is nice, but also shift indoors if the weather forecast becomes problematic.  It's the best of both worlds.

    Some other thoughts:
    • Could it include the proposed Houston Botanical Gardens that are looking for a home?  No freeze risk would allow for even more exotic tropical plants...
    • There's a proposal on HAIF for replacing the currently darkened ceiling panels with clear solar panels that would generate power to run that big air conditioner while also letting light through.  Love the idea if it's technically feasible and NRG is willing to sponsor them.
    • It would be cool if they could put a bike track in one of the upper level concourses.  Imagine the feeling of speed biking through essentially a long circular tunnel! (well, maybe with a view to one side if seating tiers get removed)
    • One of my original ideas was renovating the sky boxes to hold some of Houston's 92+ international consular offices, with each country's flag hanging in a giant circular ring around the dome, emphasizing Houston's international diversity (and reinforcing the international festivals that would be held there).  It would be very cool, but the tricky part would be having them operate during the Rodeo.
    • The Judge is saying parking will be free for the park, but I think they should consider keeping that revenue source on the table, considering what it will cost to run the air conditioning there.  I think the right model might be paid parking with some free days every month, just like the museums do. Parking and admission fees are perfectly normal for federal and state parks, I don't know why they shouldn't be considered for a local park too.  People will always have the option of riding the train there to avoid the parking charges.
    • Naming: how about "Historic Astrodome Park", which everybody would just call "Dome Park" for short?   
    Finally, check out a very personal story from a sophomore at Rice (and a friend of mine) about what the Astrodome meant to him as he experienced the Hurricane Katrina evacuation as a child.