Monday, July 18, 2016

Elements of an Opportunity City

As part of a project for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, I tried to take some elements of Houston and generalize them to describe an Opportunity City model that other cities could emulate. I came up with three major items supported by many descriptive sub-points. I'd love to get feedback from readers in the comments.  Did I miss anything?

Elements of an Opportunity City

  1. Energized community with an open culture
    1. Big small town - combine the best of both worlds
    2. Belonging + Diversity
    3. Strong philanthropic/charity culture
    4. Strong civic/contributing culture
    5. Arts & culture scene
    6. Friendly, welcoming
    7. Openness to outsiders, immigrants, minorities
    8. Live and let live tolerance
    9. Future orientation, optimism
  2. Entrepreneur friendly (both for-profit and nonprofit)
    1. Emphasis on “the little guy” here, small business including immigrants; tech entrepreneurs too, but that’s secondary
    2. Pro-growth, pro-business
    3. Vibrant economy
    4. Diverse and high-quality restaurants
    5. Lots of small and mid-sized developers (urban and suburban)
    6. Small businesses
    7. Competition increases affordability, lowers cost of living, improves quality of life
    8. No zoning (lowers barriers to development)
    9. Predictable checklist permitting
    10. Low regulation
    11. Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs) easily enabling new subdivisions of housing
    12. Cultural tolerance of risk-taking and failure
    13. Supporting nonprofit entrepreneurs too
  3. Affordable proximity: can affordably live within range of where the jobs and urban action are, especially family-friendly neighborhoods with good schools
    1. Good mobility infrastructure opens up more housing within a reasonable commute range
    2. Allowing housing supply to meet demand - both urban and suburban - ensuring affordability
    3. Low cost of living -> high discretionary incomes -> vibrancy
    4. #1 standard of living (graph)

Houston has the nation's highest standard of living

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

On-demand is the future of transit, #2 friendliness = Houspitality, benefits of no-zoning, red vs. blue urbanists, and more

This week's items:
"Under a shared mobility system, the Gini co-efficient dropped from 0.27 to 0.11 for access to jobs; from 0.26 to 0.08 for access to health services; and showed near perfect equality at 0.01, down from 0.26, for access to education. The more efficient use of vehicles makes it possible to cut current prices of public transport journeys in the city by 50% or more without any subsidies."
"...transit can provide mobility for people who can’t or don’t want to drive, but it can’t relieve congestion, reduce transportation costs to taxpayers, save energy, reduce pollution, create real estate development, or stimulate the economy of a region."
"...these self-driving fleets will be significantly cheaper than owning a car, which sits idle roughly 95% of the time. With the savings, you will be able to escape your cramped apartment in the city for a bigger spread farther away, offering more peace and quiet, and better schools for the children. 
Your commute will be downright luxurious, quiet time in a vehicle designed to allow you to work or relax. Shared self-driving cars will have taken so many vehicles off the road—up to 80% of them, according to one Massachusetts Institute of Technology study—that you’re either getting to work in record time or traveling farther in the same time, to a new class of exurbs."
Finally, a great piece in the City Observatory on "Why Houston has been special since at least 1999," which goes into great detail about how we've been able to add more affordable density in the core, especially townhomes.
"...Houston’s lack of an official zoning code actually does allow for more flexibility, and densification, than the vast majority of American cities."

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Monday, July 04, 2016

Building to the Grand Finale - An updated analysis of the 45N rebuild

Happy Independence Day! (a bit of that theme in the post) I'm finally back from my travels. This week we have a guest post by Houston Freeways author Oscar Slotboom on plans for the 45N project, which was recently featured in the Chronicle where I was quoted.

In May TxDOT  posted updated schematics for the inner loop section of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project on the official project site. This is the second update after the seriously flawed original design released in April 2015 and the first update in September 2015.

The good news is that TxDOT and their engineering consultant HNTB continue their steady progress of improving the design, and my updated analysis now contains only four serious design concerns, down from sixteen in the original release and seven in the September 2015 update. See the September 2015 issue status list for the improvements in the latest version.

For the latest project design:
  • Three of the four remaining concerns are related to access to the northbound MaX (managed express) lanes from downtown, including the poorly situated proposed slip ramp, the lack of access to the MaX lanes inside the loop, and reducing northbound IH 45 to three main lanes at the Loop. TxDOT has agreed that the design in the area can be improved and is currently studying options.
  • TxDOT made a huge improvement in the latest design by restoring the on-ramp to northbound IH-69 from San Jacinto, which currently exists but was removed in the first two versions of the plan. But the new design does not restore the currently-existing southbound exit to Fannin, and still requires vehicles to exit to Almeda and then proceed west through Midtown, where the streets are not designed east-west traffic. So half of this problem is solved, and I propose possible designs to fix the other half.
Overall we’re very close to getting a plan which will be just about the best it can be within the already established framework and constraints. Let’s continue the ongoing refinement to get a plan worthy of a fireworks grand finale, with no remaining serious design concerns.

The MaX Lane North-South connectivity issue
TxDOT and HNTB say that their traffic model indicates that traffic will move through downtown much better, an average of 24 miles per hour faster, and touts the huge benefits for IH-69. But we all know that future traffic often exceeds projections as economic and population growth push volumes higher, and latent demand also consumes newly added capacity. In the larger perspective, north-south travel has become one of the most serious travel challenges at rush hour, with downtown, the West Loop and West Sam Houston Tollway all typically heavily congested.

With the IH-45 MaX lanes in this plan, construction soon to begin on the SH 288 managed lanes, existing HOV lanes on the Southwest, Gulf and Eastex freeways, the planned Hardy Toll Road extension into downtown, and possible future MaX lanes inside the loop on the Katy and Southwest Freeways, there will be a huge number of managed lanes converging into downtown with no dedicated path for managed lane traffic to get through downtown.

Ideally, this plan should have included a MaX lane connection through downtown on a north-south axis, both for transit and to give an option to motorists. The biggest beneficiary of the connection would be the Texas Medical Center, since downtown congestion limits their access to the workforce on the north side of the city.

While it may be too late to include a north-south connection in this plan, it is important that future options are not precluded by the project design. Within 6-9 months, it should be possible to do the following:
  • Launch a short-term technical study to identify future volumes of demand for MaX lanes in all directions around and through downtown, based on current and potential future MaX corridors. Also identify possible future long-term connection corridors, which could be tunnels.
  • On the section of IH 69 between Spur 527 and SH 288, consider a right-of-way set-aside for one or two managed lanes. Even if a north-south MaX lane connection is determined to be infeasible, this connection could serve as an extension of the SH 288 managed lanes to connect to the Southwest Freeway.
  • Based on the study results, adjust the design so as not to preclude potential future MaX lane connections. This could mean preserving space for an additional lane on the downtown spur (on the west side of downtown), or preserving space for connections between existing HOV lanes and lanes going through downtown, for example, allowing the Eastex Freeway HOV lane to connect into the IH-69 main lanes near IH-10 to allow passage through downtown to the medical center.
Very Nice, but Expensive
The most recent cost estimate places the overall plan cost at $7 billion, with the downtown improvements costing $4 billion.

TxDOT has fully accommodated the wishes and desires of downtown and north side interests, leading to a very ambitious downtown design which is very expensive. To put things in perspective:
  • The 35-mile-long US 290 project currently in progress from 2013 to 2017 has a total cost of $2.4 billion and a construction cost of $1.3 billion.
  • The 25-mile-long Katy Freeway expansion built from 2003 to 2008 cost around $2.7 billion, which would probably be in the range of $3.2 to 3.5 billion in today’s money.
  • At current funding levels, this project will consume virtually all funds for new construction for a period of around 10 years, or the construction could drag on for a very long time, 15 years or more
What does this mean?
  • There will probably need to be an increase in funding at the federal and/or state levels to complete this entire project in a reasonable amount of time, which I would say is seven years or less after construction begins since we don’t want downtown to be a construction zone any longer than necessary. 
  • Looking at the benefit/cost ratio of separate independent sections will be necessary if funding is short, rather than plunging straight into the entire costly downtown rebuild.
  • Independent sections which could offer the most benefit to relieve bottlenecks include the section of IH 69 between Spur 527 and SH 288, IH 69 on the east side of downtown, and the IH 45/Loop 610 interchange and adjacent sections. 
Looking Ahead
While the funding issue can be worked out in the next few years, getting the federal “record of decision” (ROD) is the top priority, since nothing can move forward until the ROD is received. Houston is a can-do city, and by getting this project done we’ll have perhaps the best, most urban-friendly downtown freeway complex in the United States.
  • Make the final needed refinements to the design as soon as possible, including adjustments to ensure any future north-south MaX lane connections are not precluded.
  • Get the record of decision by 2018, which is TxDOT’s stated goal
  • Start work on sections with the most benefit as soon as 2020.

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