Monday, April 27, 2020

Our double black swan, density vs. pandemic, amazing AVs, and evil buildings

Mix of items this week, including one very bad one to balance out the good news last week:
"In Houston, no one has become more intimately familiar with the details of the oil market woes than Chris B. Brown, the city’s chief financial officer and a fourth-generation Houstonian. 
Rare, severe and unforeseen events are known as “black swans,” a theory that comes from a 2007 book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.” Mr. Brown has taken to calling Houston’s situation a “double black swan.” 
About 40 percent of the city’s economy is tied to the price of oil, Mr. Brown said. That means that when other cities are recovering from the economic damage of the coronavirus shutdown, Houston will still be lagging."
"Even now, it is stunning to contemplate the extent to which the country’s Covid-19 crisis is a New York crisis — by which I mean the city itself along with its wider metropolitan area. 
As of Friday, there have been more Covid-19 fatalities on Long Island’s Nassau County (population 1.4 million) than in all of California (population 40 million). There have been more fatalities in Westchester County (989) than in Texas (611). The number of Covid deaths per 100,000 residents in New York City (132) is more than 16 times what is in America’s next largest city, Los Angeles (8). If New York City proper were a state, it would have suffered more fatalities than 41 other states combined. 
It isn’t hard to guess why. New York has, by far, the highest population density in the U.S. among cities of 100,000 or more. Commuters crowd trains, office workers crowd elevators, diners crowd restaurants. No other American city has the same kind of jammed pedestrian life as New York — Times Square alone gets 40 million visitors a year — or as many residents packed into high-rises.
Right now, there’s a lot of commentary coming from talking heads (many of them in New York) about the danger of lifting lockdowns in places like Tennessee. Perhaps the commentary needs to move in the opposite direction. Tennesseeans are within their rights to return to a semblance of normal life while demanding longer restrictions on New Yorkers. 
I write this from New York, so it’s an argument against my personal interest. But I don’t see why people living in a Nashville suburb should not be allowed to return to their jobs because people like me choose to live, travel and work in urban sardine cans."
Finally, ending on a lighter note: 50 Of The Most Evil-Looking Buildings In The World, with #28 in Houston.  But somehow they missed the Darth Vader house in West University... ;-D

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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Virus declining, future of cities, a gathering place park for Houston, dangerous home financing, and more

Hope everyone is staying safe - things are starting to look pretty good here, let's hope the trend holds:

Moving on to this week's items:
"Put another way, if, as seems likely, higher-income employees simply take advantage of working remotely to fan out more broadly across the country, the housing market and the nature of cities will change dramatically. The peaks in places of high demand will fall. Demand may be spread out, making housing easier to afford. New construction of less-dense housing types may find a place in today’s highest-cost cities, and renovation may take off elsewhere. 
Some will argue that this will undermine the intellectual and commercial innovation that has historically sprouted from the close contacts of cities. The popularity of Zoom meetings and flexible hours suggests otherwise. 
Without a doubt, though, the coronavirus will have implications for where Americans want to live and work. The status quo ante is unlikely to return."
"The country’s three largest metropolitan areas, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, all lost population in the past several years, according to an analysis by William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. Even slightly smaller metro areas, like Houston, Washington, D.C., and Miami grew far less slowly. In all, growth in the country’s major metropolitan areas fell by nearly half over the course of the past decade, Mr. Frey found.
Now, as local leaders contemplate how to reopen, the future of life in America’s biggest, most dense cities is unclear. Mayors are already warning of precipitous drops in tax revenue from joblessness. Public spaces like parks and buses, the central arteries of urban life, have become danger zones. And with vast numbers of professionals now working remotely, some may reconsider whether they need to live in the middle of a big city after all. 
Before the pandemic, millennials and older members of Generation Z were already increasingly choosing smaller metro areas like Tucson, Ariz.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Columbus, Ohio, according to Mr. Frey. Also growing were exurbs and newer suburbs outside large cities. 
“There was a dispersion from larger metros to smaller metros, from urban cores to suburbs and exurbs,” he said." ... 
“The folks that currently live in New York, that stay there full time that aren’t snowbirds, they are going to be like, ‘You know what? That’s it. Density is something we don’t want to deal with anymore.’"
  • NYT: A Cheaper Roof Over Your Head During the Pandemic? A relatively new arrangement, combining the advantages of renting and buying, could help people keep their homes and help millennials enter the housing market. But hidden within that idea is a danger.  This is deeply concerning to me because it means Wall Street will start hiring lobbying firms to block new housing supply so their assets maximize their appreciation. Not good and not healthy for society.
"More generally, increasing the demand for housing cannot resolve the public’s housing affordability woes in America’s expensive coastal cities. Only increasing supply can. Housing costs are high in those cities because for decades strong demand for housing has been met with local land-use policy that severely limited new construction. Even a pandemic, with a recession in its wake, won’t stem housing price appreciation in the long term. 
Increasing people’s buying power, even if it emerges from something as significant as giving up on traditional ownership, won’t improve the state of housing affordability. As long as demand is fundamentally strong, building more housing is the only thing that will help."
Finally, has anyone heard of or seen The Gathering Place in Tulsa. Super cool. We need one in Houston! Any big philanthropists want to step up?...

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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The oil crash solution, sprawl vs. Covid-19, urbanists want our density+affordability, the induced-demand con, and why not to live in NYC

Just a few items this week, but good excerpts:
"There’s a quality about Houston, though, that transcends its built pattern: affordability. For decades, Houston has been the nation’s leading example of an “opportunity city”. It has, like coastal cities, high demand—aka fast growing job opportunities and population growth. But unlike those metros, it builds lots of housing, thus stabilizing prices. The median home price is $190,000, which is just 4/5ths the national average, according to Zillow. Midtown’s median home prices are $309,000, extremely low for a centrally-located urban neighborhood. This affordability has made Houston a refuge for expats from expensive states, and for immigrants—it is now the nation’s most diverse city. 
The affordability can be tied to both Houston’s density and sprawl. Rather than one being good and the other bad, both forms of growth have helped stabilize prices. But the multi-family infill housing is the most organic outcome to be found in the Houston model. If America had a more market-oriented urban approach, those aspects of Houston—the density and affordability—would be the ones most likely replicated. For this reason, “getting a bunch of Houstons” should be an urbanist goal."
  • This is pretty much the perfect solution to Houston - and the country's - energy woes.  And it should please both the right (nationalism and the economy) and the left (increasing the cost of carbon).  Coincidentally, I went to Rice with this guy! 
"A farsighted leader, argued Andy Karsner, a former U.S. assistant energy secretary, “could have imposed a variable U.S. tariff or fee on imported oil, which would be easily absorbed while prices are now slumping.” Such an import fee “could dynamically and automatically kick in incrementally if prices fell below an agreed floor, say $40 to $50 a barrel — the price that U.S. producers need to stay in business and supply America. The fee would disappear if prices jump above the agreed level. Brent crude is now around $31.” 
If we guaranteed U.S. oil producers a predictable price floor to enable the least indebted and most productive of them to survive, Karsner told me, it would pay multiple benefits: “It would raise money for us to invest in infrastructure; prevent job losses for skilled engineers and multibillion-dollar bailouts for U.S. oil companies; keep manageably low gasoline prices for U.S. consumers; and strengthen our energy security from predatory efforts by Russia and Saudi Arabia to wipe out our domestic oil industry.” 
But, most important, it would accelerate our clean energy transition, by shielding our electric car industry from foreign-manipulated gasoline prices and our wind and solar industries from temporarily suppressed natural gas prices."
"Several experts are advancing another explanation, too: Features that have long been viewed as liabilities — the state’s solitary car culture and traffic-jammed freeways, a dearth of public transportation and sprawling suburban neighborhoods — may have been protective
“Life in California is much more spread out,” said Eleazar Eskin, chair of the department of computational medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Single-family homes compared with apartment buildings, work spaces that are less packed and even seating in restaurants that is more spacious.” 
Many scientific studies have found a correlation between population density and the spread of flu and other infectious diseases, something that may exist for the coronavirus as well."
"Imagine Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile discovered that, no matter how much they expanded their cell-phone networks, people kept buying new smart phones and using those networks. Would they decide to stop expanding their services for fear of turning too many people into smart-phone junkies? Of course not; so long as revenues covered their costs, they would happily expand to meet the demand. 
The point is that almost anyone would consider that an investment leading to increased use to be a sign of success. Yet Transportation for America sees it as a sign of failure. Would T4A have us stop building libraries, hospitals, and schools because the ones we build get used by readers, patients, and students?"

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Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Houston is 'Chaotic Good' and #2 in population and corporate growth, Chris Shepherd in NYT, transit mysteries, and more

Hope everyone is staying safe. A few random items this week:
"Houston Public Works has pulled proposals to permanently close the Brazos Street bridge and implement new pedestrian features around a corridor threaded between the Montrose area and Midtown. 
“Please be advised that the Houston Public Works Department along with Mayor Turner has made the decision to resume the project with the original design,” reads a Public Works notice sent to stakeholders on April 2."
"Of the 10 counties with the largest population growth in the country between 2010 and 2019, six of them are in Texas. Harris/Houston had the 2nd largest population increase adding more than 620,000 people just behind Maricopa/Phoenix." 
"Large metro areas had the steepest decline over the course of the decade, Mr. Frey found in an analysis, with the growth rate down by nearly half. Rural areas, in contrast, grew slightly by the end of the decade, though that followed several years of declines. 
Places that had once been popular destinations for young people — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — ended the decade with some of the biggest declines. New York began losing population in 2017, and last year it registered a loss of more than 60,000 people, the biggest population decline of any American city, Mr. Frey found. 
The housing market collapse of 2008 and the rising prices in suburbs prompted millennials to move to big coastal cities. But that pattern reversed by mid-decade, Mr. Frey said, as millennials fled rising rents and home prices. 
Places with the biggest gains for the decade were Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Medium-size metro areas, like Las Vegas, have also moved up the ranks of gainers, as have Charlotte, N.C.; Seattle; and Austin, Texas.
"The experience of Los Angeles County — with its dense urbanization and ideal weather — should be a warning to those, in California and elsewhere, who assume that high density, “transit oriented development” and substituting transit for driving alone naturally go together. In fact, they do not."
Finally, a fun item to end the week with: Nolan Gray's alignment chart for cities, with Houston perfectly positioned at Chaotic Good due to our lack of zoning. This one sparked a huge debate in the Market Urbanism Report Facebook Group and on Twitter... 😅

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Wednesday, April 01, 2020

NBA playoffs to be held in Houston during April lockdown

Moving quickly to take advantage of another month of national lockdown for the COVID-19 virus, the NBA announced today an unprecedented plan to restart their season with nearly continuous playoff games on TV throughout April.  With no other competitive sports and hundreds of millions of bored people stuck at home, TV ratings are expected to set an all-time record.

The plan involves declaring the regular season over early and bringing the 16 playoff teams to Houston to play TV-only, no-crowd games at the Toyota Center.  A "safe zone" will be established downtown involving the Toyota Center, GRB convention center, Marriott Marquis and Hilton Americas hotels.  They will receive a thorough deep-cleaning and then be strictly quarantined allowing only essential personnel, media, players and their families after passing COVID-19 tests.  The GRB convention center will be used for temporary practice courts.

Games will be scheduled back-to-back throughout the days with up to four games a day, with eastern conference games early and western conference games later to take advantage of time zone differences. Since everyone is home anyway, games don't have to just be in the evening hours to draw an audience - essentially every day will be scheduled like a weekend day with a combination of afternoon and evening games.

The NBA considered normal playoff travel schedules to crowd-less home arenas, but ultimately determined the logistics were too complex to guarantee player and personnel safety.  Since the games are TV-only anyway, it just made more sense to hold the games in a single well-controlled location, with the added benefit of not losing game days to travel.  Different locations were considered, but ultimately Houston was selected because it could offer the easiest, most-compact safe zone with an official NBA arena, top-quality hotels, and practice courts.  The central time zone is also helpful in scheduling games that work well for both the east and west coast TV markets.

When briefed on the plans, Houston officials had serious concerns, but these were alleviated when the NBA assured them they would bring their own toilet paper.


Hope you enjoyed this year's April Fools post ;-D 
(although I wish this one was real!)
Here are previous years if you missed 'em and would like a chuckle:

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