Monday, March 28, 2016

Economic benefits of Houspitality, we're doing better than you think with traffic, #1 growth, and more

This week I want to feature a great piece by Scott Beyer in Governing magazine on Houston's friendliness and how that can help a city economy . Going straight to the great excerpts (highlights mine):
"Rather than fast-paced and impersonal, Houston has a friendly, small-town feel that is surprising for America’s fourth largest city. People hold doors, provide in-depth directions and smile at you on the street. Even in denser interior neighborhoods, it is common to greet passersby. 
This contrasts with other U.S. cities, where strangers avoid eye contact. In some cities, such as New York, this coldness can seem like rudeness, marked by aggressive drivers, open profanity and subway riders who hog bench space.
In “unfriendly” cities -- Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco -- street-level curtness has permeated the sociopolitical climate. Construction projects are viewed as neighborhood takeovers instead of much-needed new housing. It’s easier to find examples of corruption, and narrow self-interests seemingly hold more power, suggesting a lack of social cohesion. As a result, residents face high taxes, expensive housing and barriers to entrepreneurship.
This doesn’t mean that friendliness solely propels growth. But Jankowski says it can contribute to -- and result from -- prosperity. Houston, with its low taxes and regulation, has become meritocratic. It has a fast startup rate, a relatively high average wage and a low cost of living. It also has an optimistic spirit, with 89 percent of residents, according to Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, agreeing that “if you work hard, eventually you will succeed.” This perception, along with warm weather and Southern culture, may explain the positive vibe. 
Houston’s lessons are twofold, says Jankowski. Leaders should promote policies that open their cities’ economies. Culturally, he says, leaders should encourage, through political rhetoric at least, a more welcoming atmosphere."
This seems like a good time to repeat my call for "Houspitality" as our city brand and identity.  It just fits us so well, and even outsiders seem to agree! Would be a great theme to spread during the Final Four this weekend!

Moving on to this week's smaller items:
  • For being the fifth-largest metro area in America, I'd say it's not bad at all to be ranked 11th nationally and 93rd internationally for traffic congestion! That's actually a pretty good sign of success for all of our mobility efforts. More can be done, of course, but it's all relative.
  • That last stat is even more impressive when considering that Houston was the fastest growing U.S. metro in 2014-2015 with 159,083 people added (!), even in the face of an oil crash (Census, Chronicle, New Geography stories)
"As a whole, the so-called Texas Triangle of Houston, Austin/San Antonio, and Dallas-Fort Worth added more people last year than any other state in the country, growing by more than 400,000 residents, or roughly the population of Minneapolis. Harris County alone added nearly 90,500 residents."

  • The NYTimes covers the massive boondoggle of Honolulu rail, which has ballooned from an already insane $4.6 billion for 20 miles to an unimaginable $6.7 billion! That's $335 million per mile, folks!  And with a metro population of less than a million, that's a crazy $6,700 of spending per resident for a single project! Worse, since they've already built part of it as these massive cost overruns continue to accumulate, they're forced to throw good money after bad to keep building it.  It's a disaster, and worse, it's a disaster they can't walk away from.  It will be a financial burden for decades to come.  Take note Houston.  What should they have done? MaX Lanes!  Would have been 10x cheaper and easier.
Finally I'd like to end with the comment of the month by Colin Cassells, made on my post about the Purple City alternative to the TXDoT I45 redevelopment plan through downtown:
"I'm an independent business owner running a managed service provider company. We need to make client visits scattered all across the Houston region, to service computers and install computing infrastructure. As such we travel all over the region and we never know where my next client will come from. 
As a consequence, having great roads benefits my business by allowing me to service a larger geographic area, quickly and at lower cost. If I'm stuck in traffic I can't make money, as I'm not servicing any clients. More business opportunities means more money and the more people I can hire.  
The folks who are anti-roads and pro-mass transit are clearly thinking with an employee/office work mentality. Mass transit only makes sense when you have consistent commuting patterns, and only a minority of individuals work for large employer's. Most folks work with small business and often have very chaotic commuting patterns. Think of the guy who owns a home remodeling company, every day his workers go to a different work location all across the city.
Contractors, home builders, IT companies, consultants, all need the ability to free travel and mass transit and making congestion worse with anti-car policies, harms small business."

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

What Auckland can learn from Houston, rail fails, left-right overregulation consensus, why you can't afford to live in a liberal city, and more

My hot air has finally made it to the other side of the planet. A New Zealand journalist interviewed me during a visit to Houston a couple months ago on what Auckland could learn from Houston’s laissez faire approach to land-use regulation and housing development, and she extensively quoted me in this piece that came out of it. The quotes are mine, but I cannot take responsibility for the very outdated/young picture of myself she used!

Moving on to the smaller items to catch up on this week:
"Given the ridership levels we’ve seen so far, will the value added from rail vs. the old bus approach be there? It’s not looking good. And if the case in LA is looking weak, certainly smaller and less dense places are even more speculative."
"Journalists in older cities like New York, Boston or San Francisco may see the role of rail transit as critical to a functioning modern city. In reality, rail transit has been a financial and policy failure outside of a handful of cities.
In 23 metropolitan areas that have built new rail systems since 1970, transit’s share of commuting — including all forms, such as buses and ferries — has actually slipped a bit, from an average of 5.0 percent before the rail systems opened to 4.6 percent in 2013.... 
Virtually all the actual increase in rail commuting has occurred in the “legacy cities”: New York, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, Chicago and Philadelphia. These are older cities built around well-defined cores that were developed mostly before the automobile."
"It’s a city that is open to change and open to new people. I really love that. And it’s a forward-looking city. People in Houston aren’t desperately trying to hold on to what the city was. They want it to change and change for the better."
"There is a deep literature tying liberal residents to illiberal housing policies that create affordability crunches for the middle class.
I asked Kahn if he had a pet theory for why liberals, who tend to be vocal about income inequality, would be more averse to new housing development, which would help lower-income families. He suggested that it could be the result of good intentions gone bad."
Finally, another piece by Wendell Cox: People rather than Places, Ends rather than Means: LSE Economists on Urban Containment. His overview:
"I am providing a link to my just published review of Urban Economics and Urban Policy: Challenging Conventional Policy Wisdom by Paul Cheshire, Henry C. Overman and Max Nathan of the London School of Economic and Political Science. Many of you are doubtless aware of the long list of publications on urban containment policy by Paul Cheshire. This book is certainly among the most important contributions to the literature. Their theme that planning should be focused on people rather than places could not be more timely.  Harvard’s Edward Glaeser also provides a masterful Foreword."
And excerpts:
"… that the ultimate objective of urban policy is to improve outcomes for people rather than places; for individuals and families rather than buildings." 
"This is not to say that we should stop caring about what is happening in different cities and neighbourhoods but serves to remind us that improving places is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself."  
"All policies need to be judged by the impact on people, not places." 
“…argue that the costs imposed by the planning system are prices worth paying to ‘protect the countryside’ or achieve other policy objectives. However, it is not helpful for public debate to pretend that the costs we have documented do not exist; or even that they are negligible. Existing research shows that this is simply not the case; indeed research shows the costs are very substantial even if some are difficult to measure exactly."

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Monday, March 14, 2016

A compelling alternative to the I45 redevelopment plan thru downtown

UPDATE: TXDoT is studying the plan to see what ideas they can integrate!
UPDATE 2: Oscar Slotboom of Houston Freeways has updated his analysis here to incorporate the Purple City plan.

Purple City has just published an absolutely amazing and incredibly detailed report with a comprehensive alternative to TXDoT's I45 redevelopment plan through downtown.  So much thought has gone into it that it deserves very serious consideration by TXDoT, including potential wholesale adoption.  A lot of it sounds very good to me, although I would certainly like to see an objective analysis by a more technical expert than me of the pros and cons of it vs. the existing plan.  The overview in his own words:
"My schematic requires less right-of-way, creates a continuous managed lane network for commuter buses and BRT, and eliminates all left-hand exits, among other improvements."
That part about continuous managed lanes through downtown is what I'm most enthusiastic about. I've been advocating for quite some time a comprehensive MaX lanes network that connects through downtown rather than terminating there, so commuters on opposite sides of town from non-downtown job centers can use express transit to get to work. The downside of this plan is that it keeps the Pierce Elevated through midtown (as managed lanes), but with extensive modifications to make it more friendly to the pedestrian fabric of downtown and midtown (page 5).

Here is his list of the flaws in the current plan:
  • Excessive Right‐Of‐Way Consumption
  • Unnecessary Street Closures
  • Lack of Diagonal Capacity (the ability for traffic to travel from the North and Katy Freeways to the Gulf, South, and Southwest Freeways)
  • Left‐Hand Exits and Entrances
  • Additional Feeder Roads
And here are the benefits he lists for his solution:
  • Converts Pierce Elevated to Managed Lanes
  • Knits together Downtown and Midtown
  • Creates a Continuous Managed Lane Network
  • Develops BRT between Bellaire and UH/TSU
  • Adds a Parallel Bikeway Network
  • Provides for Future Commuter Rail (I don't see this happening, but options are always good)
  • Expands the Downtown Street Grid
  • Reduces right‐of‐way acquisition
  • Eliminates Left‐Hand Exits and Entrances
  • Preserves Polk Street from Downtown to EaDo
  • Eliminates Midtown Feeder Roads
  • Creates a new Western Gateway to Downtown
  • Eliminates a Large At‐Grade Intersection
  • Preserves Interesting Freeway Architecture
  • Accommodates Changing Traffic Patterns (this is particularly cool!)
All in all one of the most impressive "amateur" public input efforts I've ever seen.  The power of the internet to crowdsource better ways of doing things never ceases to amaze me.  When people are passionate about something, creativity and innovation flourishes.  I sincerely hope TXDoT will seriously study the plan and try to incorporate as many of the suggestions as possible - even if we're beyond the official public comment period. This is too big and important of a project to let arbitrary calendar dates eliminate meaningful improvements that could shape central Houston for the next century!  As always, if you know influential people please pass this along...

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Saturday, March 05, 2016

America's Housing Crisis, new hurricane surge maps, techies escaping Silicon Valley for Houston, affordable housing, and more

Before getting to the big backlog of items this week, I should mention that our Center for Opportunity Urbanism recently held a very successful and well-attended luncheon event to release our newest report on America's Housing Crisis.  Chronicle coverage here, and coincidentally it got reinforced by this story at NPR about millennials moving to the suburbs.  The report is packed with interesting stuff - definitely worth at least a skim.

Moving on to this week's items:
"When trains start running on 11 new miles of Gold Line tracks this weekend stretching eastward to Azusa, will they carry any passengers? Ridership on Metro's buses and trains has been not just stagnant, but shrinking for nearly two years. At the start of 2014, there were on average 1.45 million bus and rail boardings on weekdays. A year later, it was 1.38 million. By January 2016, weekday boardings had further slipped to 1.27 million. 
Even given transfers and round-trips, it would appear that upward of 130,000 Angeleno commuters have abandoned mass transit."

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