Sunday, May 24, 2020

Debating deed restrictions and zoning, office vs. remote work, transit radio show, and more

I've actually been accumulating items faster than I've been posting them, and it's gotten out of control, so this will be a long post to do some catching up.

The featured item this week is I got in an active debate with the Market Urbanist Scott Beyer on the value of deed restrictions vs. zoning, which you can read in the comments at the bottom of his piece on deed restrictions here.

Moving on to the rest of this week's items:
"New York City has withstood and emerged stronger from a number of catastrophes and setbacks — the 1918 Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, the 1970s financial crisis and the 2001 terrorist attacks. Each time, people proclaimed the city would forever change — after 9/11, who would want to work or live in Lower Manhattan? — but each time the prognostications fizzled.

But this moment feels substantially different, according to some corporate executives.

The economy is in a sustained nosedive, with unemployment reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression. Many companies are in financial trouble and may look to shrink their real estate as a way to cut expenses.

More fundamentally, if social distancing remains a key to public health, how can companies safely ask every worker to come back?

“If you got two and a half million people in Brooklyn, why is it rational or efficient for all those people to schlep into Manhattan and work every day?” said Jed Walentas, who runs the real estate company Two Trees Management. “That’s how we used to do it yesterday. It’s not rational now.”
“We have a lot of millennial buyers who are already used to working remotely. They don’t know how long this (pandemic) is going to last, and they’d rather be here (Tahoe),” Bednar told the Tribune, “The people I’m talking to are looking for a simpler life, a close community. They want the outdoors and don’t want to be stuck in places where there’s a health problem.” ... 
“People are starting to ask themselves, ‘Why do I have to live in such an expensive area and drive an hour to work every day, or rent out an expensive office space when everyone can work remotely?' If you don’t need to live in the city, why would you?” Bednar said.
"in the shadow of the pandemic, a recent Harris poll found that almost two-in-five urban residents are considering a move to a less crowded area."
“The COVID-19 pandemic forcing those who could work from home to do so has led to a surprising result — improved productivity. U.S. workers were 47% more productive in March and April than in the same two months a year ago through cloud-based business tools, chat applications and email, according to an analysis of 100 million data points from 30,000 Americans by workplace-monitoring company Prodoscore.”
“Our salespeople meet five to eight customers a day now [via videoconferencing] versus the one it took them three days [to see in the past] because of travel,” he added.
  • This gets reinforced in the comments of a pro-office op-ed in the NYT, which are at least worth skimming. Even though the author makes a case for some of the benefits of the office, the overwhelming sentiment in the comments is “screw that, I love working from home and not commuting!” for all sorts of reasons, including less office drama/politics and fewer worthless meetings.  It’s clear to me that both overwhelming sentiment, as well as simple economics/costs, work against offices. I think they will go into a significant decline.  One other point the author misses is that you can separate the social aspect from the work aspect with the rise of coworking spaces, which are exploding everywhere: a shared space where there are others you can interact with, but everyone works for different companies.  Still get the networking and socialization without the long commute to one central office with all of your company’s other employees.
  • The NYTimes editorial board really goes after zoning. A very in-depth piece worth the long read. 
  • And a follow-on NYT op-ed further attacking zoning and implicitly endorsing the Houston model. A couple of excerpts:
"An important step is simply to permit more housing in more locations. We should put an end to zoning policies that restrict building to single-family homes and stop mandating that lots meet large minimum-size requirements, leading to sprawling, sparsely populated neighborhoods. Ending such restrictive zoning doesn’t have to lead to the construction of towering apartment buildings. Rather, we should encourage cities to permit more homes on existing single-family lots, allow apartments in retail districts and near transit, and dedicate excess or underused public property like surface parking lots in downtowns to new housing. All of this can be done without materially changing the look, feel and experience of a place. 
The second important step is to reduce the cost and uncertainty of getting a housing project built. It often takes years to get permission to build. Local government processes often allow multiple “bites at the apple” of public comment and hearings for a plan. Sometimes, even when there is a vote to approve a project, a neighbor or special interest can sue to stop the approval, resulting in further significant delay. These delays add cost and risk, driving up the price of new homes and sometimes stopping projects in their tracks entirely. 
These types of actions, which can be taken now, will lay the groundwork for a broad and shared prosperity. When denser housing is allowed, workers can live closer to their jobs, help save the planet by driving less and pay less in rent or mortgage payments because a bigger housing supply will lead to lower costs. Research shows that children tend to be more successful in neighborhoods with access to high-quality schools. In restricting building, more-affluent Americans are shutting lower-income families off from economic opportunity. 
Now is an especially good time to reduce restrictions and allow for denser housing. Construction is hit hard during recessions, and opening up more building opportunities would be a stimulus for the industry, and it doesn’t require any extra funding. This would get workers back to work, provide safe and affordable living for those hard hit by this pandemic and get property taxes and other revenue flowing back to local governments for the services communities need. It would be a win for everyone."
"Without a significant expansion in the supply of housing, adding vouchers would be like adding players to a game of musical chairs without increasing the number of chairs. 
Market-rate construction can help: More housing would slow the upward march of housing prices. New York and San Francisco are the nation’s most tightly regulated markets for housing construction, and it is not a coincidence that they also are the most expensive. Tokyo, often cited as an international model for its permissive development policies, has expanded its supply of homes by roughly 2 percent a year in recent years, while New York’s housing supply has expanded by roughly 0.5 percent a year. Over the last two decades, housing prices in Tokyo held steady as New York prices soared."
Finally, I'd like to end with a radio show I did with Bill King along with Carrin Patman and Tom Lambert of METRO on what's happening with the past, Covid present, and potential future of transit.  Apologies for my bad body language - I didn't even realize I was being videoed until over halfway through, lol. I was just focused on my notes and getting the audio right.

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Sunday, May 17, 2020

The City of Houston's problematic requests for the I-45N project

This week's guest post is by Oscar Slotboom.

For the last 10 years the City of Houston (CoH) has worked as a partner in the development of the plan North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP). Now, within weeks or months of a record of decision on this plan, CoH is abruptly changing its position and for Segments 1 and 2 is requesting drastic changes that are harmful to mobility, safety, and aesthetics. This blog post looks at the negative impact of the CoH requested changes for Segment 1, which is the section between Loop 610 and Beltway 8.

The main features of the CoH request for Segment 1 are
  • “Rebuild the highway within the current footprint as much as possible”, and “CoH favors remaining in the existing right-of-way in Segments 1 and 2”. Note that the existing right-of-way is unusually narrow, around 260 to 280 feet, between Crosstimbers and North Shepherd.
  • “Current reversible HOV lane is replaced with dedicated transit lanes”, which are available only to “North Bus Rapid Transit [and] regional express bus service”, and the transit lanes “should include intermediate stations in the freeway”. Transit lanes are somewhat wider than the existing HOV and stations will require much more space than the existing HOV.
  • “Design exceptions and lane widths and shoulder widths to keep the footprint within the current right-of-way”
  • “Accommodate freight demand throughout the corridor”
This means that
  • The existing HOV lane is eliminated, so carpoolers, ride-sharing, and vanpools no longer have this option
  • The planned managed lanes are entirely eliminated
  • Design standards must be compromised to accommodate the dedicated transit lanes and stations, probably including 11-foot-wide lanes and narrow interior shoulder
  • With no right-of-way acquisition, the narrow corridor will basically be fully paved edge-to-edge, drastically reducing opportunities for landscaping
Let's take a closer look at the negative impacts of the changes requested by CoH
Very Harmful: Loss of the HOV lane for carpools and vanpools
Carpools and ride-sharing will be forced onto the main lanes, eliminating a strong incentive for carpooling and worsening traffic in the main lanes.
Huge Loss for Future Mobility: elimination of the managed lanes
Managed lanes are the most effective tool for providing options to freeway congestion and are widely used nationwide. Metro bus ridership on the Katy Freeway managed lanes exceeds all of the three most recent light rail expansions (see chart). The NHHIP managed lanes are currently planned to be toll-free but may be restricted to high-occupancy vehicles only at peak periods, providing a strong incentive for carpooling. The Katy Freeway managed lanes generated $22.5 million in revenue in 2019, an amount which is 33% of Metro’s (separate) 2019 systemwide farebox revenue of $67.5 million. The CoH request to eliminate the managed lanes is a huge loss to the future mobility of North Houston.

Source. For comparison, segment 1 of Interstate 45 serves average traffic of 282,000 vehicles per day (average of 4 locations).
Wasteful Duplication: the dedicated transit lanes compete with the Red Line
When study of this corridor began in the early 2000s, the community said it wanted transit first so the $756 million Red Line extension to Northline opened in 2013 and Metro Solutions includes a $634 million extension to North Shepherd. Ridership has been low on the Red line, averaging 7,414 weekday boardings over the last 15 months, which is only 24% of the original Red Line on a per-mile basis.

New dedicated transit lanes on Interstate 45 will duplicate the costly Red Line and cannibalize its ridership, reducing the Red Line's already low ridership. It is far more sensible for the Red Line to serve the local transit needs in the corridor, and for Metro’s BRT to operate on TxDOT’s planned managed lanes and serve longer high-speed trips, such as to Bush Airport and Greenspoint.
Lost Opportunity: Making the corridor more attractive
The North Freeway Segment 1 is not a scenic corridor. In fact, it is among the most unattractive of all Houston freeways (which is saying a lot), and this has always been a sore point with local promoters since it is the first thing many visitors to Houston see. As the CoH document says, "I-45 North is a major gateway to Houston".

A narrow, fully-paved corridor as requested by CoH will maintain the unsightly status quo and leave virtually no space for landscaping. With the TxDOT plan, there are typically 30 to 40 feet between the main lanes and frontage roads, a perfect setting for landscaping. Consider the West Loop in Bellaire, where we now have a nice forest of trees between the main lanes and frontage roads. This is possible with the TxDOT plan, but not with the CoH request. In addition, TxDOT's proposed plan is slated to remove 24 billboards. This will be a great improvement for the aesthetics of the corridor, similar to the improvement achieved with billboard removal along the Katy Freeway. If there is no right-of-way acquisition as requested by CoH, there is no need to remove billboards.
Contradictory Goals: "Accommodating freight demand throughout the corridor" and compromising design standards
Segment 1 is one of the main truck corridors for freight movement in Houston, and truck traffic is projected to increase 21% by 2045. The overall NNHIP corridor includes five locations in a list of the 250 worst truck bottlenecks nationwide, in ranked positions 8, 11, 13, 25, and 65.

For a corridor with heavy truck traffic, you generally want high design standards including standard-width 12-foot-wide lanes, ample and long auxiliary lanes for safe merging, geometric design which meets standards, and traffic moving at posted speeds outside of peak periods. The CoH request is the opposite of those needs.
Attention CoH Planners: frontage roads are not the same as city streets
The CoH request says “The frontage roads and frontage road intersections should be designed as city streets and not highways”, including lane widths (narrower) and off-street bike paths. This ignores the reality that frontage roads handle different situations than a neighborhood street. Vehicles exit from the freeway at high speed, and vehicles entering the freeway are increasing speed. Intersections must handle heavy traffic volumes, especially turning movements, and heavy lane weaving is normal. Furthermore, there are very few neighborhoods immediately along segment 1. Let’s be real: how many people are going to bicycle to a car lot, retailer or Gallery Furniture?
Right-of-Way Acquisition: CoH is no longer using a logical approach
CoH is suddenly hell-bent on preventing any right-of-way acquisition on Segments 1 and 2. While displacements are always unfortunate, this subject must be approached logically in terms of the existing situation, benefits, and costs. Items to consider include
  • The existing corridor width is very narrow between Loop 610 and North Shepherd, averaging around 280 feet but with some sections more narrow.
  • The current substandard freeway design is partially a result of the existing narrow right-of-way, and staying within the existing corridor will greatly limit potential improvements.
  • The overwhelming majority of displacements are on the west side, so nearly all properties are the east side are unaffected by the planned right-of-way acquisition.
  • The overwhelming majority of actual acreage planned to be acquired is lower-tier commercial establishments like fast-food restaurants, car lots, warehouses and strip malls, many of which are old and unattractive.
  • Residential displacement on segment 1 consists of 58 single-family units and 160 multifamily units. Considering that the corridor is nine miles long, this is not an excessive number of displacements.
  • A similarly large right-of-way acquisition was needed for the Katy Freeway expansion. The corridor has boomed since the expansion completion in 2008, with substantial redevelopment along the corridor, including Crown Castle reaffirming its plans for a new headquarters building just last week.
  • A wide right-of-way expansion (around 200 feet as planned) is only incrementally more disruptive than a smaller right-of-way expansion, such as 50 or 100 feet. This is because many properties along the freeway are less than 200 feet deep, and taking a narrow strip often requires the entire property to be cleared. I saw how this process works when I fully documented the US 290 corridor property acquisition and observed how very narrow acquisition strips such as 25 feet frequently caused entire properties to be cleared. I observed the same pattern with the recent clearance for SH 146 in Seabrook, where a large number of properties were displaced for a relatively narrow strip of right-of-way. The conclusion to be made is that if there is going to be right-of-way acquisition, you might as well do the full planned expansion since the impact is only incrementally more than the impact of a narrower strip.
  • The mobility benefits of NHHIP Segment 1 are totally eviscerated by the CoH request.
  • The CoH request does serious harm to current mobility by removing the existing HOV lane.
  • The CoH request compromises the $1.4 billion investment in the underutilized Metro North Red Line by introducing a competing transit facility alongside it.
  • The North Freeway corridor is perhaps the most unattractive freeway corridor in Houston, and it will stay that way with the CoH request.
  • TxDOT should reject the CoH requests for Segment 1, since the project goals will no longer be met by implementing any of the CoH main requests.
A logical path forward includes:
  • Retaining the design as planned by TxDOT, but enhancing the landscape and architectural design to transform the corridor from one of the ugliest freeway corridors in Houston into one of the most attractive.
  • Ensuring that all displaced residents have access to equal or better housing in their neighborhoods.

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Monday, May 11, 2020

More on how density and transit relate to the pandemic and drive the rise of exurban Fringe Cities

The last week has been crazy, with at least several weeks worth of new items coming over the wire, including some new items related to last week's post on how density and transit relate to the pandemic. Continuing that theme:
  • NYT: Coronavirus Escape: To the Suburbs - The pandemic has convinced some New Yorkers that it’s time to finally give up on city living.  I think this indicates a bigger potential trend in rising exurbs everywhere: people can work virtually most of the time (it has become normalized), but still get into the city when they need to. Big metros will stay healthy, but the balance will shift out more. Will it reduce urban home prices? Will it deflate the impetus for the YIMBY movement?
"For some New Yorkers, it’s time to get out of town for good. 
Cooped up and concerned about the post-Covid future, renters and owners are making moves to leave the city, not for short-term stays in weekend houses, as was common when the pandemic first arrived, but more permanently in the suburbs. 
While some of the fresh transplants are accelerating plans that had been simmering on the back burner, others are doing what once seemed unthinkable, opting for a split-level on a cul-de-sac after decades of apartment living. Others seem to have acquired a taste for country life after sheltering with parents in places with big lawns or in log cabins.
But there’s also a sense that in today’s era of social distancing, one-person-at-a-time elevator rides to get home and looping routes to avoid passers-by on city streets has fundamentally changed New York City." ... 
“I feel sometimes like I am only safe in my car”
  • Will the pandemic drive the rise of fringe cities in the far exurbs? I wanted to post this comment separately from the main article because I think it opens an interesting new conversation about the "urban-suburban town" as an ideal for a lot of middle-age people, especially those with families. With remote work normalized, people will be much more comfortable living 1-2 hours outside a major city/airport since they don’t have to cover that distance on a daily basis. This goes beyond the suburbs and edge cities. I'm thinking “Fringe Cities” maybe?  Examples: Palm Springs, San Ramon, Monterey, Sacramento (for SV), Galveston, Fredericksburg (hill country beyond SA and Austin), Providence, Ann Arbor, Madison, New Haven, Manchester, Boulder, and many others. Would love to hear more ideas for fringe cities with potential in the comments?  Here's the comment on the NYT story:
"I lived in the tri-state area for four years. We had a chance to live in New York City and politely passed. The subpar public schools, the insane competition and cost of non-diverse private schools, the constant noise, the grime, and hassle to do normal things were completely unappealing. Not to mention the (over) price of real estate. I went to an event at a $10M Soho loft apartment. It was beautiful, but the owner couldn’t escape the constant noise from the street below. And for what? Access to a new craft cocktail speakeasy that I would never go to anyway? A Michelin star restaurant that’s booked up months in advance? You get the most efficient value of a city like that by living in a close in suburb. We lived in Montclair, NJ where you could get high quality restaurants, bars, independent theaters, unique shops and boutiques, and even concert venues walking distance from your house. A friend lived in Park Slope and we talked constantly about the respective quality of our lives. Most of the things he talked about he never actually enjoyed. Once big cities got gentrified, they lost their edge anyway. The urban suburban town is the city of the future. All of the shops/bars/restaurants in very close proximity, easy access to the city for the weekend/occasional cultural immersion, quality public schools and an overall easier life. Big cities ask too much and return too little in terms of how people actually live beyond the young, single professional or retiree years."
"Top state and city officials are already contemplating the need for radically different routines, including transit systems with limits on occupancy for trains and buses. That could require staggered shifts for millions of workers. 
I don’t know that it’s going to be possible to have rush hours,” said Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates commuter trains to and from Manhattan.
My thoughts: I just assumed they would do the Asian protocol with masks and cleaning, but if they’re truly going to cut down the occupancy of the trains (which, to be safe, they do), I’m not sure NYC really works anymore.  You can talk about staggered shifts all you want, but office workers already do that naturally, with many spreading out arrivals from 7am to 9:30 or even 10am. Yes, you can stagger shift workers, but I just don’t think there is any reasonable set of shifts that will reduce the crush of office workers. They’ll just have to work remotely for the foreseeable future.  And if that’s the case, how many will stay in the city vs. move elsewhere? And then when there is a vaccine, what are the odds they’ll move back? 
Try to imagine this in a couple of months: most of the country is operating back to semi-normal with some distancing, but NYC is still in lockdown.  Will large employers start to seriously explore moving?  Which employees really have to be in NYC? And has that definition of “have to” changed in a video meeting world and electronic trading markets?  And if they do move, do they go to the suburbs of NYC, or elsewhere in the country? 
Just as Texas has been preying on California companies for a while, you could get a feeding frenzy of cities and states across the country trying to lure companies out NYC.  And who wins that game? Florida? North Carolina? Texas?
“The New York urban area (roughly New York City plus Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties in New York plus Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Union counties in New Jersey) provides 45 percent of all transit trips in the United States and, not coincidentally, has seen about 45 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the United States.”
“For many years we have a lot of aspirations for transit: We want it to beat traffic, fight climate change, and revitalize communities,” he said. “But the two things it has demonstrably done in last half century is provide mobility for those without — whether that’s due to age, income, or disability — and allow highly agglomerated places function. My educated guess is that we will see the rise of transit as a social service.”
That's enough for this week - apologies for the length.

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Monday, May 04, 2020

How density and transit relate to the pandemic

Our main theme this week is the relationship between density, transit, and the pandemic:
"It should go without saying that evaluation of the COVID-19 spread needs to be objective. This means that it needs to include all potentially factors, even the most “politically correct”, such as density --- especially the exposure density from how we live, work and get around. 
The subways are an important part of this in New York City. As Harris notes, “We know that close contact in subways is fully consistent with the spread of coronavirus, either by inhalable droplets or residual fomites left on railings, pivoted grab handles, and those smooth, metallic, vertical poles that everyone shares.”
“A city comes into being for the sake of life,” wrote Aristotle, “but exists for the sake of living well.” This should become the first principle of our next urban renaissance. Cramming poor people into tiny spaces, forcing them to ride crowded subways and taking away many upwardly mobile jobs, may work for luxury developers and those in search of kitchen help, but does not create the foundation for an urbanism that can thrive after the pandemic."
"A commuter from a detached house in Westchester County to a job in Lower Manhattan’s financial district is likely to experience high exposure density. The trip, for the sake of discussion, includes a walk or car to the commuter rail station, a ride on commuter rail to Grand Central Station, a walk through corridors to reach the subway station, a ride on the subway train, exiting through a subway station for a walk to the high rise work location. At this point, the commuter joins others in a crowded elevator, and exit at the 40th floor, walking to an office shared with others."
"Evidence is mounting evidence that urban transit has been one of the main spreaders of COVID-19. New York governor Andrew Cuomo says the virus can survive for days on transit seats and metal surfaces. The head of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority was infected by the virus and the head of New Jersey Transit actually died from it. 
In the face of this evidence, anti-auto advocates have given up on their efforts to get people out of their cars and onto transit. As a Huffington Post headline reads, “The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Forcing Cities To Rethink Public Transportation.” 
Just kidding. In fact, despite the headline, the story goes on to tell how anti-auto politicians are using the pandemic to somehow argue that more people should be discouraged from driving."

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