Monday, July 13, 2015

How Houston can grow gracefully: Snow White and the Nine Dwarves

A lot of people shudder when they see growth projections of the Houston metro area from the current 6.5 million to 9 or even 10 million people over the next couple of decades.  If traffic is this bad now, how can we possibly handle it?  Is there any way this can be handled gracefully, or at least less painfully? I think it can be if we look at it with the right perspective, and I call that perspective "Snow White and the Nine Dwarves" (yes, even the fairy tales are bigger in Texas - I considered "Asgard and the Nine Realms" of Norse mythology, but I think that's too obscure a reference for most people).

If you look at a lot of modest-sized cities, they can operate effectively on as little as two crossing interstates/freeways.  As you can see in this map, Houston's rapidly growing Grand Parkway outer loop is creating many more of these crossings along our radial spoke freeways.

I think each of these crossings will essentially form the center of a new self-contained suburban village or edge city, with the nine "dwarves" being roughly (clockwise from north)
  1. The Woodlands
  2. Kingwood/Humble (already growing that way)
  3. Baytown
  4. Clear Lake/League City
  5. Pearland
  6. Sugar Land
  7. Katy
  8. Cypress
  9. Tomball
If nine makes your head spin, I think most of the growth will likely center on the Big Two of The Woodlands (drawing from Tomball to Kingwood) and Katy (drawing from Sugar Land to Cypress).  Houston remains the center of the big amenities: professional sports, museums, performing arts, bars, live music/nightclubs, signature parks, the zoo, universities, festivals, high-end restaurants and shopping, etc. - thus "Snow White" (no snickering ;-)

I think each of these "villages" could comfortably grow to as much as a million people themselves, which, when added to 2-3 million in Houston, gets us as high as 12 million people in the metro area, almost doubling our current population and handling several decades of growth.  Under this scenario, I would see much of the job growth increasing along Beltway 8, with workers with families commuting in from the villages and young inner loop singles commuting out, with both able to keep commutes under the magic half-hour limit (hopefully).

As part of this vision, I think it would be good for Houston to encourage a healthy competition among the villages similar to the many hospitals of the medical center (and, um, how the dwarves competed for Snow White's attention ;-)  In both cases, the friendly competition makes the overall entity stronger and healthier.  Of course much of that comparative competition would be on quality of life amenities, but I think the most important competition among them would be cooperating with METRO to provide the best express park-and-ride services to the most job centers in the core (downtown, uptown, med center, Greenway, Energy Corridor, Westchase, etc.).  That's how this growth happens without traffic armageddon, and it will be a big factor in which village those young inner loopers choose when they decide it's time to have a family and move out to the suburbs.  I think The Woodlands has a clear lead in this competition and sets the standard for the other dwarves to aspire to - always good to have a role model to point to (guess that's "Doc" in this case - nickname the other dwarf villages as you wish ;-)

This is somewhat similar to how DFW has grown over the last decades, although almost all of their villages/edge cities went straight north and northwest, which has shifted the metro's center-of-gravity towards the airport and has not been very healthy for the City of Dallas itself.  If Houston can encourage somewhat balanced growth among the nine dwarves, it will help the core stay healthy as well, since employers will want to stay there to be able to draw employees from the entire metro (not to mention the young inner loopers) rather than commit to moving out to a single village like Exxon.

That's my vision for how Houston grows gracefully over the coming decades.  I'm looking forward to your thoughts in the comments...

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At 10:31 PM, July 13, 2015, Blogger Andrew Lynch said...

Awesome analysis ! I agree that Katy & the Woodlands will eventually be large self-contained cities. The east side of town also has lots of room to grow. It will be interesting to see what happens with EaDo and Galena Park.

At 10:46 PM, July 13, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks! And I do think EaDo is and will be the next big growth area inside the loop.

At 1:01 PM, July 14, 2015, Anonymous Luis Guajardo said...


I think it is safe to presume the development of these "edge villages." Although, to suggest we can grow "gracefully" with more highways is an oxymoron. As these crossings mature, surely with autocentric employment, they will induce more single-occupancy vehicle (sov) travel in a region that is already punch-drunk on car-travel and its harmful design for people who walk, bike, bus, or breathe. Houston's park and ride network is based on an "adaptive model" where transit adapts to its land uses in providing service. This is a model that works for large employment centers like Downtown Houston to decrease SOV travel (i.e. Downtown Houston has one of the nation's lowest SOV rates) but has its limits in terms of capacity and shaping growth. However, it might be time to reconsider transit's role in catalyzing positive land uses, particularly in Houston where we lack sensible growth management or respect for our natural environment. We should be focused on promoting growth proximate to transit that is affordable and near good schools to help people break out of poverty -- that is, by reducing transportation + housing expenses for adults while enabling their children to attend better schools. It seems that you are embracing the same-old copy + paste model of growth 'beyond the pale,' around highways that isolate people from jobs, community, and social services while creating more negative externalities (poor air, lost time in traffic, environmental degradation, loss of social capital, etc.). We can do better.

At 2:31 PM, July 14, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think we need to offer all types of housing and mobility options and let people choose how they want to live. Right now, most choose the suburbs for multiple reasons, mainly because it's more affordable, bigger homes in nicer master-planned communities with better schools. In some ways, I think this model might be better off for the poor, as I think the lower income neighborhoods will shift to the "donut" middle ring older housing outside the loop near Beltway 8, which is also where I think jobs will be growing, so they very well may be able to easily bike or ride local bus transit to work. Improving the schools in those neighborhoods is a completely different problem. I think some progress is being made there by the districts and the charters, but I'm not sure we'll see the next step-level in improvements until there is more of a free market in schools - either many more charter options or vouchers.

At 5:14 PM, July 14, 2015, Anonymous Luis Guajardo said...

We are not giving people a fair choice though. According to many studies, Houston has one of the highest wealth concentrations in the country (Pew, Urban Institute, Brookings). In this economy, and particularly in this state, that choice you point out is commensurate with wealth. People who can purchase their 'choice' often restrict it from others through exclusionary land use policies, private deed restrictions, and a regressive tax structure that disproportionately burdens lower and middle class residents -- private and public instruments -- often steering them into lower-end areas on the periphery. Settling for housing supply in the periphery is appeasing a market that was designed to exclude and just perpetuates income segregation for decades to come. In addition, this would also have the effect of increasing transportation expenses for low and middle class households now forced to consume more automobile travel (whether there is park and ride or not) and does not alleviate our congestion/air quality issues. This region needs to make significant reforms in transportation design and begin to explore fair/affordable housing. We are way behind many cities on both of these topics. In regards to schools HISD is making many improvements with their magnet school programs but the fundamental issue is the funding mechanism (i.e. property tax).

At 5:34 PM, July 14, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The wealth concentration is a good thing - it reflects having the energy industry and other big industry here. That money flows through to provide tons of jobs. Not having it just means we're another average American city like Pittsburgh or Atlanta or Tampa.

I would argue that anyone of any class can find affordable housing within a 15-30 min transit ride of pretty much any job or job center in Houston if they choose to. Whether that housing zones to a quality school or not is another question, but as you point out there are magnet and charter options.

Please point out a city to me anywhere in the U.S. (or even the world) of similar metro size to Houston that has solved their congestion and air quality issues while maintaining housing affordability?

At 5:44 PM, July 14, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm all for letting people choose how they live, but are people paying their fair to live in sprawl? Seems we've been subsidizing wasteful behavior in the name of growth.

At 6:31 PM, July 14, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Generally speaking, I do believe the property, sales, and gas taxes in a new suburban area ultimately cover the costs of infrastructure for that area, but I would advocate for more toll roads to make explicit the cost of long commutes. This will somewhat happen with P&R buses being far more expensive than local buses, and people can choose where they want to live making that tradeoff.

At 9:09 AM, July 15, 2015, Anonymous Luis Guajardo said...

*correction* run counter to our education and training.

At 9:14 AM, July 15, 2015, Blogger Unknown said...

I mean wealth concentration as in the spatial distribution of housing, not the simple notion that we have wealthy people. Then re-read my comment; it'll mean something else. Paul Taylor developed an index on the spatial concentration of wealth, suggesting Houston's wealthiest are more concentrated than wealthy New Yorker's, Chicagoans, or Angelinos. My comment offers a few reasons why our wealthy are able to exclude lower and middles class families through a collection of public and private tools that planners should be discussing openly and ruin counter to our education and training.

To your question, getting rid of congestion is not realistic. Expanding accessibility is, however, by enabling a wide array of transportation modes other than the automobile. This starts with reworking our design of the transportation network (complete streets is a good start) that facilitates more trips by walking, cycling, and making transit more accessible for all users.

I would also echo "anonymous'" comment. Road users pay for less than half of their utility through the gas tax in addition to the fact that we publicly absorb the costs of new subdivisions. Many of our outlying communities, often formed by Municipal Utility Districts charge landowners then charge an annexing government for services, are not required to conduct a fiscal impact analysis (which estimates the impact of a new development on public revenues and/or recommends tax increases to cover the costs) for new developments. Moreover, in Texas we can only levy impact fees on 4 of the 10 most common public goods [roads, water, sewer, storm water] while a public entity subsidizes [parks, fire, police, library, solid waste, and schools]. So, no, it seems that property, sales, and gas taxes do not cover the costs of infrastructure.

But please explain why you suggest that more outward growth is good for our region? There are many negative externalities prompted by this growth that place a higher burden on governments to solve; like declining air quality, more maintenance costs for roads that ultimately do not increase access for all transportation users, more infrastructure subsidies, more social exclusion, declining water quality and storm water management, etc., etc., etc.... So on this, we can and should do better in Houston.


At 11:50 AM, July 15, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

There's a reason for the wealth concentration here: Houston is unzoned, so the small zoned cities inside our city limits - Bellaire, West U, the westside villages - have all become tightly controlled wealthy enclaves embedded in Houston's freewheeling development culture.

All for walking/cycling/transit improvements other than extremely cost-inefficient rail.

Harris County, CoH, and school districts roughly balance their budgets every year, so those taxes must be covering their costs. I would endorse a higher gas tax - it hasn't kept up with inflation.

Every city that has restricted outward growth has had skyrocketing home prices and unaffordability - doesn't seem like the path we want to go down. If the infrastructure for it is so expensive, why are Houston and other sprawling Texas cities so comparatively affordable?

At 2:37 PM, July 15, 2015, Blogger Unknown said...

I did not know that Houston was considered affordable -- seems more like a myth. Over 45% of our households are considered low-income, earning less than and up to 80% of MFI or no more than ~$44,150. Median rent is at $1,500 a month and increasing rapidly. Again, CoH can no longer pass up on creating a robust affordable housing strategy. We are entering into an affordability crisis and other cities are demonstrating how complicated it is even when there is political will.

I also disagree that rail is not cost-effective. Rail is cost-effective if you account for its long-term growth impact and associated environmental and public health benefits. Even more so if you can co-locate significant amount of affordable housing proximate to stations (i.e. 20% - 150% MFI) that can help reduce household transportation costs. Making it happen will not be easy but can work for this region if Plan Houston provides policy pathways.

Balancing a budget has little to do with equity in the tax system -- hence where you'll find the cross-subsidies for outward growth. The reason we are balancing budgets is because of the lucrative retail/industrial sectors in the Houston region (which is at the whim of much larger economic forces that swing down just like they go up) subsidizing residential growth in the periphery. That is the hubris of the Houston region -- to falsely presume these positive economic cycles will continue to subsidize our marginal infrastructure costs. I would encourage you to explore the subject of public finance. In it you'll discover that residential uses drain public budgets and depend on retail and/or industrial uses to cover the cost of infrastructure expansion. And again, our planners have limited tools in funding infrastructure expansion for residential communities as the state limits our impact fees and forces local governments to pay Municipal Utility Districts for their expenses even after homebuyers also pay MUDs.

If we are going to continue growing outward, lets at least stop subsidizing it by supporting impact fees that reflect the true cost of infrastructure expansion and stop paying developers (MUDs) double for creating new subdivisions which only entices more MUD formations to exploit local govts.

At 2:51 PM, July 15, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

This graph has everything you need on affordability and incomes. Houston is doing really, really well, even with our sprawling infrastructure costs.

At 1:36 PM, July 16, 2015, Blogger Bryan said...

More companies need to move to the suburbs, or the nine dwarves as you put it. The freeway infrastructure can't support anymore suburb-to-city commuters. A valid train/monorail transit system along those major arteries will likely never happen. Automated cars is likely the long term solution to the traffic problems.

I do not agree with you that anyone can find affordable housing within close proximity of the major job centers (galleria, downtown). The people that primarily live inside the loop are either single apartment dwellers or wealthy executives/drs/lawyers. There are not comparably affordable options for middle income families that wish to own a home - which is why we have so much urban sprawl and so many commuters clogging the freeways.

At 2:19 PM, July 16, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The key word there is "comparably". The affordable housing options exist near each job center, they just might be older apartment complexes (or in some cases, houses) where families choose not to live - instead picking nicer, newer houses in the suburbs. Think of north, northeast, or east of downtown; or west down Richmond or south towards Gulfton from the Galleria.

At 11:22 AM, July 17, 2015, Blogger Unknown said...

If we properly assess and eliminate the subsidies that are over-producing suburban housing units (outlined above), while simultaneously increasing incentives and subsidies for more infill development near transit rich areas, our region can grow in a way that maximizes the utilization of our transportation network without having to continue building and maintaining more roadway supply. I don't think you fully understand the topic you are blogging about -- keyword "fully." There is advanced research on transportation economics, housing policy, and tax policy in Texas that illustrates how we are artificially creating the suburban landscape you see as 'graceful' development. It is time to revisit these market interventions we've put in and adjust them to promote more sustainable development. Some are politically feasible, others are not. But we can improve our development patterns.

At 3:27 PM, July 17, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm all for making sure there are no barriers to dense urban development and giving people that choice, but I also know that every other city that has pushed "sustainable" or "smart growth" policies has crunched housing supply and had housing skyrocket to unaffordability - not appealing. If you can point me to a growing city that has implemented the policies you're thinking about and has not had its housing costs soar, I'd love to take a look.


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