Monday, January 31, 2022

The URI Next American Cities report, Texas MUDs as a model, HTX #1 for college grads and MPCs, ADUs, global housing is broken, and more

Our featured item this week is the release of our newest report from the Urban Reform Institute: The Next American Cities:

"The urban form has shifted throughout history. This has been critical to its success. Today we are on the cusp of another transition, ushered in by new technologies and changing demographics, and accelerated by a devastating pandemic. Although these forces affect all geographies, the best chance of success and growth lies in what we define as The Next American City. 

This newly released report from Urban Reform Institute examines the places that offer opportunity for a revitalized American Dream for more citizens. 

The Next American City offers an answer to the problem plaguing those living in and around major cities. Offering a combination of affordability, amenities, and proximity to the large cities, but without the burdensome, heavy-handed regulations of local government or many of the social ills running rampant in our cities, these places – like The Woodlands and Bridgeland – are quickly shaping up to be the urban destinations of the future."

The Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University even mentioned and endorsed our report in their recent article, "After 20 years, the center of Harris County's population has moved outside the Loop":

“The Urban Reform Institute, which advocates for market-oriented city planning, recently argued that the new models for American city living are developer-designed suburb and exurb communities such as The Woodlands, Bridgeland and Cinco Ranch, and there are a lot of reasons to suggest they are right. Development ever outward will almost certainly continue, particularly in Houston where there are no constraints and plenty of land.  

Adding to the expectation for further suburban expansion are the evolving norms around remote/hybrid work, meaning long commutes will be less of a drawback for some workers. Looking even further forward, technologies such as autonomous vehicles could actually encourage more sprawl, which researchers are beginning to anticipate. 

The pandemic certainly accelerated this trend. Based on our estimates from USPS data, tens of thousands more Houstonians left the city than moved here in 2020, and most of the move-outs stayed in the metro area, opting to live in one of the suburbs instead.”

It also includes a section from me on the Texas MUDs model of development.


Moving on to some smaller items this week:

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Monday, January 10, 2022

Can Houston avoid LA's mobility disaster?

This week we have another excellent guest post from Oscar Slotboom.
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Over the past 20 years, Los Angeles County has drastically curtailed highway improvements and poured massive resources into expanding public transit, mostly costly rail lines. The result: disaster.
Tory has mentioned L.A.'s fiasco, including this 2019 WSJ article detailing plummeting ridership and this scathing 2018 report.
Why should we be concerned about the folly in Los Angeles? Because there are voices in Houston, including the majority on Harris County Commissioners Court, who want to bring Los Angeles-style transportation planning to Houston.
Let's take a close look at the disastrous results for Los Angeles, and we'll see why we need to stick with Houston's longstanding emphasis on highway improvements.
High Taxes in L.A. Provide Poor and Worsening Results
LA Metro's program is paid for with a 2% sales tax. The base sales tax rate in Los Angeles County is 9.5%, with many cities having a rate of 10.25%. This compares to Houston's 1% Metro sales tax with an overall rate of 8.25%.
California localities can raise funds for transportation projects with 4 funding mechanisms for the 2% sales tax, and L.A. uses 95% of the $22.7 billion funding for transit, as shown in the pie chart adapted from the official page at LA Metro. Other regions put more toward roads and highways, for example, pro-mobility Orange County uses Measure M to help finance a $2.1 billion project on a section of the 405.
Currently, there is only one major highway project in progress in Los Angeles County, the Caltrans-managed CA 71 freeway upgrade in Pomona, 25 miles east of downtown L.A. Most other projects listed on the Catrans site are complete, or are mainly maintenance work.
Declining Public Transit Ridership
LA Metro public transit ridership peaked in 2013 and was in steady decline through 2019 (pre-Covid), down 21.9% in this period of strong economic growth. Bus ridership has been in a steady downward trend, down 24.9% between 2009 (the earliest data on the LA metro site) and 2019. Data source is the official LA Metro ridership page, which shows plots if you click the Details button.
Looking at the chart, we can see that rail ridership was on a plateau from 2013 to 2017, but was in decline in 2018 and 2019. This is a pattern that occurs in many cities. Resources are poured into expensive rail lines which have small increments of increased ridership, but losses in bus ridership often due to service neglect are much greater than the rail increase.
Houston Metro performed much better than LA Metro in the pre-Covid period. Houston lost more ridership than LA due to the great recession in 2008, but from 2012 to 2019 Houston Metro showed increasing or steady ridership while LA was in steady decline. Houston Metro's strong performance is almost certainly due to the bus service improvements launched in 2015, since the new rail lines opened in 2013 and 2015 have low ridership. (Houston's ratio in 2020 is much better than L.A. since Houston's fiscal year was affected by Covid only 6 months.)
Of course, Covid-19 caused transit ridership to collapse everywhere. The chart below shows the impact on LA Metro over the last 30 months. We can see that bus ridership is recovering more quickly than rail ridership, with bus down 24% compared to 2019 and rail ridership still down 39%. If there's any glimmer of good news for L.A., it's that ridership is recovering from Covid faster than most places, as national ridership is still down around 46% as of October.
L.A.'s Transit Emphasis Provides No Reduction in Traffic Congestion
As we compare congestion in L.A., Houston and DFW, we need to consider population growth. We would expect congestion to increase in regions with strong population growth. Houston's metro area population grew 21.8% since 2010 and Dallas-Fort Worth grew 20.4%.
Los Angeles County population grew 1.5% since 2010, but has shrunk 1.35% since its 2016 peak. If public transit improvements reduce traffic, we would expect substantial traffic reduction in L.A., especially considering the stagnant population.
TTI data for the 2014-2019 period show no reduction in traffic in Los Angeles. Fast-growing Houston and DFW both show a slight downward trend in the travel time index, with Houston showing the best reduction and DFW having the lowest congestion. Houston and DFW have focused on highway and toll road improvements, and DFW has built a leading managed-lanes network.
TTI data for delay per auto commuter shows Houston and Dallas performing better than L.A. from 2009 to 2019 (based on absolute increase), with Los Angeles increasing 23 hours to 119, Houston increasing 22 hours to 76, and top performer DFW increasing 16 hours to 65.
TomTom data, readily available only for 2017-2020, show no pre-Covid traffic reduction in Los Angeles. Los Angeles (42% congested), Houston (24% congested) and DFW (19% congested) are all shown as flat in 2017-2019, but Houston and DFW are at much lower levels than L.A., with DFW the top performer.
Sales tax increases in Los Angeles were sold to the public with promises of reduced traffic congestion. L.A.'s transit-focused planning was not delivering any traffic congestion reduction prior to Covid. Highway-focused Houston and DFW are accommodating high population and economic growth with steady or declining congestion, with congestion levels much lower than L.A.
Houston Should Stay on the Path to Mobility Success
To summarize, Los Angeles has high taxes, massive spending on rail lines, steadily decreasing transit ridership prior to the Covid ridership collapse, and no pre-Covid reduction in traffic congestion. In recent years, the region's population is declining as people move elsewhere. This is definitely a policy disaster.
We know what fails: Los Angeles-style transportation planning. We know what works: longstanding transportation policies in Houston and DFW emphasizing road improvements. This means we should
  • Continue to focus on road and highway improvements
  • Recognize DFW's leading performance and its successful managed lanes, and plan for a future managed lanes network that will accommodate transit, ridesharing, and technologies of the future.
  • For public transit, avoid costly rail expansions and focus on affordable, flexible and adaptable bus service, including bus rapid transit instead of rail.
    We can be glad that Houston Metro's $7.5 billion MetroNext plan learns from the Los Angeles disaster, and focuses mostly on expanded bus service.

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