Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The housing theory of everything, Vision Zero accomplishes zero, HTX tops for tech growth, zoning causes homelessness, the value of VMT, and more

 Catching up on the backlog of smaller items this week...

“Although sometimes overshadowed by the cachet of Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio, Houston is absolutely a tech hub in its own right, attracting a mix of major tech companies and VC-backed startups to join its already established base of aerospace, defense, and energy companies,” Dice says.
  • Governing: Few Mayors Connect the Dots Between Zoning and Homelessness. Restrictive codes can severely limit housing development, but a new survey of mayors finds that few take them into account in their plans to address homelessness. This is definitely a major factor in Houston's relative success in alleviating homelessness vs. other major cities. Hat tip to Judah.
  • The Atlantic: Everything Is About the Housing Market (archive link) - High urban rents make life worse for everyone in countless ways.  I expect this “housing theory of everything” to continue to catch on because it’s absolutely right. It’s related to what I’ve been talking about for years with the four factors that go into Opportunity Urbanism, including discretionary income that determine how vibrant a city can be. If you pay too much for your house, you don’t have money to put into other things. That has been covered up for decades now by the wealth accumulated by those homeowners, but that’s a short-term effect that’s diminishing.
  • City Journal: Lone Star Housing Crunch - State preemption could ease the affordability crisis created by bad local policy. Texans for Reasonable Solutions is doing great work on this problem with the legislature.
  • Vision Zero Accomplishes Zero:

"I can’t help but think that Vision Zero is really more about inconveniencing auto drivers than increasing safety. Just three policies — a motorcycle helmet law, bicycle boulevards, and moving homeless people away from major arterials — would save far more lives than anything in the adopted plan."

  • The Value of VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled), and why trying to reduce them takes our economy the wrong direction:

"There is clear research showing that faster travel speeds means higher per capita incomes because such speeds give people access to more jobs and employers access to a larger pool of workers, which means more people can do the job that fits them the best.

Even if it was a good idea, no urban area anywhere has found policies, short of war or natural disaster, that can significantly reduce VMT. Yet planners keep spouting the same rhetoric while ignoring the fact that good intentions are meaningless, if not outright harmful, if they don’t produce actual results.

The lesson we need to stress to public officials is that it makes a lot more sense to make better automobiles and highways than it does to try to reduce driving. Since 1970, automobiles have become 50 percent more fuel efficient, 70 percent less likely to be involved in a fatal accident, and 95 percent less polluting of toxic chemicals. If anything, efforts to reduce driving have made these problems worse by forcing people to drive in more congested traffic where cars use more energy and produce more pollution.

I strongly suspect there is some class warfare going on here. Urban planners are by definition college educated and middle class. They probably drive cars, but the cars they drive are likely to be electrics, hybrids, or other high fuel-economy vehicles. The vehicles driven by the working class are more likely pickups, vans, and other large vehicles, partly because they need such vehicles for their work, but the planners see them as the deplorable enemy. So while planners pay lip service to low-income people and the working class, they want to design a society that has no room for them.

Those who truly care about helping low-income people and building healthy, wealthy urban areas need to take a stand in favor of more automobile ownership, more miles of driving, and better roads for those automobiles to drive on."

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Tuesday, February 21, 2023

City of Houston sneaking through backdoor zoning

The City of Houston is trying to sneak through backdoor zoning in Mayor Turner's lame-duck last year by rushing through an ordinance authorizing "conservation districts" where 51% of a neighborhood can impose a form-based code on all the owners there (Chronicle, NPR). 

"The draft recommendation characterizes conservation districts as “a more flexible way for property owners to protect their community’s character and address other concerns stemming from redevelopment.” Toward that end, these districts could regulate a variety of elements including minimum lot size; lot width and depth; front, side and rear setbacks; building height; and architectural style."

By charter, zoning is illegal in Houston without being authorized by the voters, but this is an end-run by the mayor and the council around that restriction.

Had this ordinance existed 30 years ago, Houston would not have experienced the wonderful townhome and apartment densification we've had, including the attendant affordability. Central Houston would have instead evolved like West U or Bellaire, with massive expensive McMansions on large lots displacing middle-income families.  It would have been a disaster, and it will be now if it passes. It will give a powerful tool to NIMBYs all over the city to kill development and force stagnation on their neighborhoods, and more broadly kill the vibrancy, dynamism, and affordability of Houston itself.

The council is opening it up for public comment tomorrow, February 21st (here is their FAQ). Please make your opposition heard! (written comments can be submitted here)

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Thursday, February 09, 2023

Houston drops to #9 for traffic congestion

This week I'd like to do a simple re-post from Bob Poole's excellent Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter at Reason, where Houston has dropped to #9 in the traffic congestion rankings with delay hours far below the worst cities like Chicago, Boston, NYC, Philly, Miami, SF, and LA. Highlights mine.

Traffic Congestion Roars Back, Despite Work from Home

The 2022 INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard was released last month, and it shows a strong resumption of metro area traffic congestion, despite the continued high level of telecommuting. The same pattern appears in major metro areas in Europe, Latin America, and South Africa.

The INRIX global top 25 most-congested metro areas table resembles the 2021 ranking, with London still in first place, Paris in third place, and Toronto moving up from 22nd to 7th place. The 10 most-congested metro areas worldwide had delays ranging from 121 hours per driver to 156 hours per driver in 2022.

For U.S. cities, Chicago moved up to 2nd  from 6th place, Boston zoomed from 18th to 4th, and Miami rose to 9th from the previous year’s 32nd place. Other areas rising a lot included Los Angeles, up to 14th from 33rd, San Francisco, from 15th from 34th, and Washington, D.C., which went from 99th to now 20th.

The changes in congestion rank for U.S. metro areas were nowhere near as dramatic as the worldwide changes. Here are the key 2022 INRIX figures for the top 10 metros.

2022 Rank (2021)Metro AreaAvg. Delay (hrs)Cost/driverCost per Metro
1 (2)Chicago155$2,618$9.5B
2 (4)Boston134$2,270$4.3B
3 (1)New York117$1,976$10.2B
4 (3)Philadelphia114$1,925$4.5B
5 (5)Miami105$1,773$4.5B
6 (6)Los Angeles  95$1,601$8.6B
7 (7)San Francisco  97$1,642$2.6B
8 (13)Washington  83$1.398$3.5B
9 (8)Houston  74$1,257$3.7B
10 (10)Atlanta  74$1,257$3.1B
Source: INRIX

Many factors are responsible for these traffic congestion results, but let me suggest a few that might be relevant. First, despite much rhetoric arguing that traffic congestion is a byproduct of low-density sprawl land-use patterns and that higher density and mass transit are the answer, the top four U.S. metro areas are all characterized by high-density and high-transit mode-share, in comparison with lower-density, low-transit Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Atlanta.

Second, which of these areas have added express toll lanes to portions of their freeway systems? Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, Houston, and Atlanta.

One other point about density and transit as the long-term solution: urban agglomeration benefits. Extensive research shows that large metro areas are generally more economically productive than smaller ones because a lot more positive-sum transactions can take place in the former—assuming there is fast and reliable transportation from any origin to any destination (since both residences and jobs are spread out all over the landscape). (See Alain Bartaud’s excellent book, Order Without Design, MIT Press, 2018)

Less-congested freeways, due to variably-priced express lanes, contribute to employers having a wider choice of qualified prospective hires and workers having many more good employment options. The same is true, in theory, of a large transit network. Yet, a series of “access to destinations” studies by University of Minnesota researchers have shown that in most large metro areas one can get to nearly all the potential jobs in 30-45 minutes by car, but to very few via transit.

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