Wednesday, July 26, 2023

How Houston beats NYC for the middle class

I recently discovered this 2008 City Journal piece by noted urbanist Ed Glaeser comparing NYC and Houston, and despite being 15 years ago the points are still valid, if not even more so. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but here are my favorite, albeit still extensive, excerpts:

Edward L. Glaeser: Houston, New York Has a Problem

The southern city welcomes the middle class; heavily regulated and expensive Gotham drives it away.

New Yorkers are rightly proud of their city’s renaissance over the last two decades, but when it comes to growth, Gotham pales beside Houston. Between 2000 and 2007, the New York region grew by just 2.7 percent, while greater Houston—the country’s sixth-largest metropolitan area—grew by 19.4 percent, expanding from 4.7 to 5.6 million people. To East Coast urbanites, Houston’s appeal must be mysterious: the city isn’t all that economically productive—earnings per employee in Manhattan are almost double those in Houston—and its climate is unpleasant, with stultifying humidity and more days with temperatures exceeding 90 degrees than in any other large American city. So if those two major factors in urban growth don’t explain Houston’s success, what does?

Houston’s great advantage, it turns out, is its ability to provide affordable living for middle-income Americans, something that is increasingly hard to achieve in the Big Apple...

Housing prices are the most important part of Houston’s recipe for middle-class affordability...

To understand what kind of houses these are, go house-hunting on the Web. In Houston, you’ll find a lot of nice places listing for $175,000, and they’ll probably sell for about 10 percent less, or $160,000. These are relatively new houses, often with four or more bedrooms. Some have over 3,000 square feet of living space, swimming pools, and plenty of mahogany and leaded glass. Almost all seem to be in pleasant neighborhoods—a few are even in gated communities. The lots tend to be modest, about one-fifth of an acre, but that still leaves plenty of room for the kids to play...

You thus get much more house in Houston and pay a lot less for it. This chasm would be just as big if you compared Houston with Los Angeles, where the average house price is a whopping $613,000. Small wonder Houston looks so good to middle-class Americans.

It looks even better once you take taxes into account...

Just as with housing, however, there’s a significant difference in the quality of transportation in Houston and New York. In Houston, the middle-class breadwinner likely will drive an air-conditioned car from an air-conditioned home to an air-conditioned workplace, and take 27.4 minutes to do it, on average. Commuting via New York public transit is more complicated. If you live in Queens, the average commute to midtown Manhattan (if that’s where you work, as we’ll say) is 42 minutes, and longer if you’re coming from Far Rockaway. From Staten Island, the average commute is 44 minutes—and often something of a triathlon, with bus, ferry, and subway stages. Our middle-class New York commuter thus spends at least 120 more hours in transit per year than does his Houston counterpart. And except perhaps for the ones spent on the ferry, none of those hours is as agreeable as sitting in an air-conditioned car listening to the radio...

After housing, taxes, and transportation, the New Yorkers have $26,000 left. The Houston family has $30,500, and those dollars go a lot further than they would in New York...The Houston family is effectively 53 percent richer and solidly in the middle class, with plenty of money for going out to dinner at Applebee’s (??? what Houstonian does this?!🙄) or taking vacations to San Antonio. The family on Staten Island or in Queens is straining constantly to make ends meet.

Don’t forget education. Ordinary public schools would be comparable in Houston and on Staten Island, with average SAT scores of about 950. The Houston family, though, has the option of moving to a slightly more expensive school district, like Spring Branch, which has an average SAT score of 1070, better than that in many New York suburbs...

True, New York boasts fantastic cultural advantages, hip downtown neighborhoods, and pleasures you can enjoy even if you don’t have much cash in your pocket—museums, parks, architecture. But the fact remains that living in Houston on $60,000 a year means a high-quality, spacious home, an air-conditioned commute, low local taxes, education options, and a decent amount of spending money left over. Living in New York City on $70,000 a year means a smaller, older home, a long and arduous commute, higher local taxes, fewer educational alternatives, and scrimping every day. For many middle-class families, at least those with kids, the amenities will be no substitute for a more comfortable life. In a sense, the real surprise isn’t that so many middle-income families are putting down roots in Houston (and in other fast-growing cities with similar characteristics, such as Atlanta and Phoenix); it’s that any of them remain in New York...

And the unavoidable fact is that New York makes it harder to build housing than Chicago does—and a lot harder than Houston does. The permitting process in Manhattan is an arduous, unpredictable, multiyear odyssey involving a dizzying array of regulations, environmental and otherwise, and a host of agencies. Then developers must deal with neighborhood activists and historical preservationists. Any effort to build in one of New York’s more attractive, older communities would almost certainly face strong opposition from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

A further obstacle: rent control. When other municipalities dropped rent control after World War II, New York clung to it, despite the fact that artificially reduced rents discourage people from building new housing. As New York owners converted rental units into coops to escape the price controls, the city then turned to public housing to solve the problem of housing the poor. The city’s strange policy remains to try to increase the (modest) number of subsidized apartments rather than opening the market to more development, which would significantly increase the overall supply of housing at all price levels.

Houston, by contrast, has always been gung ho about development...

Indeed, the city is unique in America in not having a zoning code. Many deeds include land-use restrictions of various kinds, true, but these are voluntarily chosen by developers, not decided on high by government bureaucrats. Occasionally, groups rally to try to institute zoning regulations, but the growth machine invariably beats them back, often supported by some of the poorest people in the city. Houston’s builders have managed—better than in any other American city—to make the case to the public that restrictions on development will make the city less affordable to the less successful...

But Houston’s success shows that a relatively deregulated free-market city, with a powerful urban growth machine, can do a much better job of taking care of middle-income Americans than the more “progressive” big governments of the Northeast and the West Coast. 

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Wednesday, July 19, 2023

The epic failure of METRO's Uptown BRT, housing costs vs fertility, YIMBY righteousness, and Honolulu rail-fail

 A few short smaller items this week:

  • I've been saying this for a long time: Higher Rent, Fewer Babies? Housing Costs and Fertility Decline. Lots of good graphs in this one. As economies grow and people get wealthier, they want more space per person, and if they can't afford it, they shrink their family size to compensate. Nobody wants to raise a family in a 2 bedroom apartment anymore. Hat tip to Howard.
  • Atlantic: Why YIMBY Righteousness Backfires (no paywall link) - Treating suburbanites as hateful snobs will not make them more welcoming of newcomers. Concluding summary excerpt:
"Tinkering around with local fiscal incentives, forging alliances with regional business elites, and helping some property-rich homeowners get richer won’t usher in an egalitarian new millennium of integrated neighborhoods from coast to coast, but it will help YIMBYs build a more persuasive case that housing growth is in the enlightened self-interest of suburbanites who might otherwise be concerned about rising tax burdens and sinking home values. That’s not a bad start."

  • Bill King: Ridership For The Uptown BRT Is 5% Of What Metro Projected. What an epic failure by METRO, even taking into account the pandemic. Yet they're just going to pretend it didn't happen and plow ahead with the $1.5B Universities BRT line reducing Richmond to one lane each direction?!? 😠
  • A massive rail-fail in Honolulu: white elephant $5 billion light rail line opens with ridership at TWO percent of capacity! Why does government keep wasting mountains of money on these projects?!

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Monday, July 10, 2023

Houston has less kludge and more opportunity, the value of mobility, and more

 A few misc items this week:

"It is a great oasis of opportunity, especially for the  immigrants, legal and otherwise, who end up there, stay, and prosper.  There is a sizeable and successful Vietnamese population, Chinese too.  The Hispanic community continues to grow and advance.  A construction friend of mine once said, the new arrivals take any job because they can't speak English.  Five years later they do and are foremen.  In 10 they have their own company.  Houston has a wealthy elite that gives unstintingly to its educational and cultural institutions and a great deal to its non-governmental help agencies.  One I got to know helped released prisoners transition into work and careers with astonishing success statistics.  Denominational schools like Corpus Christi and Strake Jesuit Strake do great work prepping minorities for college.  The list goes on.  And, Houston is resilient.  It always rebuild, usually better."

 "We are now retired in Austin (family ties) but despite its airs of superiority, Houston is better. It has what more of what I term real people not pretenders. The attractions there are better, museums, restaurants, entertainment, etc. Along with the real people, the sort of people I grew up and worked with."

“The answer for Houston, as in so many urban places imperiled by inadequate planning and a changing climate, seems to amount sadly to this: We hold our breath, and hope for the best.” 
"For such a an awful place, it sure is curious how the Houston metropolitan area continues to be one of the fastest growing in the nation. Hmm. The real canard here is the foolish, unfounded belief that urban planning would make any difference when natural disasters occur. Urban planners are low rent civil servants whose livelihoods are dependent upon the largess of the politicians to whom they answer. The politicians, in turn, serve the greed of the rich and powerful, or respond to the ever changing whims of an ignorant populace. Who is to say which is worse? So, don’t pretend, for even an instant, that urban planning is a solution. Like central planning everywhere and every when, urban planning merely guarantees misallocation of capital and resources."
"Ah, the mystery of why people want to live in a city that is prospering, even though it hasn’t been adequately planned by experts in planning and is now susceptible to natural disasters like real hurricanes—unlike, say, New York City, where American zoning was invented but which, nevertheless, had to struggle through a “superstorm”."
"I look forward to reading the book; the review hits on many of the negatives of the city, it's hot, wet, sprawling, mosquitoes, snakes, etc...  I'm a life long Houstonian, born and raised in the Bayou City, all those negative qualities do exist but people keep moving to the city. Why? The primary reason is opportunity. All of these opportunity seekers have a hard working, can do, personality, which gives Houston it's magic."
"Lived in Houston 30 years. Loved it!  The Texas Medical Center is a treasure.  The variety of restaurants and cross section of people from across the world is unequaled.  No one cares where you came from, what school you attended who your parents were…just can you do the job. Houston is about “doing bidness”."

To conclude, a segment so good from Bob Poole in Reason's most recent Surface Transportation Innovations I decided to include it in full (highlights mine). It's directly relevant to my concept of Opportunity Zones.

Access to Jobs: New Research on Driving and Transit  
Readers of this newsletter may recall prior articles reporting on “access to jobs” studies carried out by researchers at the University of Minnesota. The broad conclusion of the series of studies is that in the 50 largest U.S. metro areas, a commuter can reach vastly more jobs in a given number of minutes via driving than by using transit. That is generally due to the dispersed locations of residences and employers. There is also a growing body of international research on the impact of journey-to-work time (or travel speed) on the economic productivity of metro areas. 
I’m therefore pleased to report on a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research that provides new findings on this subject. “More Roads or Public Transit: Insights from Measuring City-Center Accessibility,” by Lucas J. Conwell, Fabian Eckert, and Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak was published in Jan. 2023 as NBER Working Paper 30877. 
The authors’ innovation is to define “accessibility zones” surrounding the central business districts of the 109 largest U.S. and European cities. For each city, the study defined a set of car accessibility zones and transit accessibility zones. In keeping with established research on a metro area’s economic productivity, a premise of the study is that larger accessibility zones are associated with greater productivity. One broad finding is that compared with European cities, on average U.S. cities are twice as accessible by car as European cities, but are half as accessible by transit. This is obviously due to the much greater density of European metro areas compared with largely suburbanized America, and the corresponding differences in roadway networks and transit systems between the United States and Europe. 
To simplify the modeling, the researchers divided commuting times into four groups: 0-to-15 minutes,16-to-30 minutes, 31-to-45 minutes, and 46-to-60 minutes. They defined the central business district (CBD) as the area with the highest economic productivity in the metro area and drew a 1-kilometer radius circle around the defined center. The median U.S. central business district accounted for 28% of all the employment within a 20-kilometer radius. They used Google Maps to construct the accessibility zones, using it to find the car or transit travel time to the CBD from any point in each land parcel. All the land parcels that enable a trip to the CBD in 15 minutes or less make up the 15-minute accessibility zone, and so on up to 60 minutes. 
One of the most interesting results is that although Europe’s transit accessibility zones are all larger than those of the U.S., “car travel offers larger overall accessibility across all time distances in both Europe and the U.S.”  And that means that “U.S. cities enjoy greater accessibility overall because they have a comparative advantage in car-based commutes.” One reason for this is that, especially for longer-distance commutes, transit provides only “patchy” access. By contrast, car commuters can use a comprehensive roadway network that directly connects every point A to every point B. But that does offer an advantage to bus transit over rail transit
Although the authors mention in their introduction that larger accessibility (via more possible trips within a given time frame) leads to greater economic productivity, their paper does not attempt to quantify the potential economic benefits of U.S. cities’ much greater accessibility. They do briefly discuss the limited impact that could be expected from “densification” policies. And of course, they discuss how “US cities’ car orientation comes at the cost of less green space, more congestion, and worse health and pollution externalities.” Assuming vehicle electrification continues, the health and pollution impacts should decrease in the coming decades. Also, with greater use of road pricing, urban traffic congestion can be reduced. 
While this study would be even more impressive with quantified economic productivity estimates, it should help transportation planners think through trade-offs between highways and transit in the coming decades.

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