Sunday, September 17, 2017

Great excerpts from Hurricane Harvey coverage

Apologies for the very long gap time since my last post - vacation, eclipse totality, and Hurricane Harvey (with many national journalist phone interviews, including these at WSJ and NYT) followed by a hurricane-level wave of work has kept me more than fully occupied. But I have accumulated a great set of Harvey-related links and excerpts I've been wanting to share for a while. I know this is very long vs. my usual post - just consider it making up for the lack of posts over the last many weeks, so dig in and please enjoy.
"And yet, this week I suspect we’ll mostly see another side of Houston: its scrappy sense of humor, and its extraordinary and very Texan largesse. Houston responds to disaster with fortitude: the city absorbed two hundred thousand Vietnamese refugees in the nineteen-seventies, and it currently resettles twenty-five of every thousand refugees that the United Nations resettles anywhere—that’s more than any other city in America, and more than most countries. After Hurricane Katrina, Houston took in a quarter of a million evacuees, and, aided by Mayor Bill White’s multimillion-dollar resettlement program, as many as forty thousand people stayed... in Houston, Harvey is already showing how an individualistic work ethic and a spirit of collective generosity can and have to coexist."
"Nationally, Houston has a lousy reputation. It's too hot, too humid, and too, well, too sprawly. It is all of those things. And don't tell the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau I said this, but it's not a great city to visit. There isn't much to do here that's touristy, especially during our sultry summers. But here's a little secret: Houston is a great place to live. It's the opposite of, "It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there." Rather, Houston may not be a nice place to visit, but you would want to live there. I do."
“If Harvey happened in 1850 instead of today,” added historian Phil Magness on Facebook, “the results would be nearly identical in terms of land flooded…No zoning law or ban on parking lot construction would ever have ‘fixed’ anything about that.”
Magness later added a video from Texas Archive showing Houston’s central Buffalo Bayou after a 1935 flood, at a higher level than it is now, despite the city having far less impervious surface back then."
"Myth #1: Better land-use planning could have significantly alleviated this flooding.
Fact:  50 inches of rain would have devastated any city. Even this article acknowledges that the loss of wetlands from 1992 to 2010 accounted for about 4 billion gallons of lost capacity to absorb storm water. Harvey had already dropped 15 trillion gallons as of two days ago. The total is certain to be far higher."
"And if the region begins to put stricter regulations on building, there is a chance that one of Houston’s great lures — affordable housing — may disappear. This is a concern for Joel Kotkin, the urban theorist and author who has been a great champion of Houston’s lax regulation policies. 
“If you put the kind of super-strict planning shackles on Houston, that would be
the way to kill it,” he said. “Why would you live in a hot, humid, flat space if it was
Like many others, he was quick to praise Houston’s energy and optimism, and said the city would recover. The Texas author Larry McMurtry, a former Houston resident, agreed. 
“Houston will accept anybody who’s got hustle — it respects energy more than
any place,” he said. “Houston is a very resilient city, and it will overcome.”
"And yet, the pundits have largely given up on casting blame for the disaster — with a few exceptions, of course. And the reason is simple: The example set by both Houston's leaders and its people has been too inspiring. 
Houston has always been underrated. It's the energy capital of the United States, the most international metropolitan area in the country and, as we've all now seen, the kind of place where hundreds of people will naturally respond to a major catastrophe by, for example, rescuing random strangers, using their rowboats."
"When a storm of this size hits such a large city — the fourth-largest in America — the financial cost will always be extraordinary. But the courage, neighbourliness and generosity that Texans have demonstrated in recent days are no less so. Nature’s fury may be awesome, but mankind’s resilience is greater still. That ought to be the real lesson from Houston."
"If there’s one lesson I’ve learned as an outsider looking in, it’s that there’s a sense of purpose to these people like I’ve never seen. A central passion runs through Texans unlike any other American identity. Pride percolates here. It’s something people who aren’t from Texas just can’t grasp. We may have a docile sense of civic pride for our hometowns, but nothing like this state demands of its residents.
That sense of purpose and absolute unwillingness to bend in their pride is why Texas will only become stronger in the wake of Hurricane Harvey."
"We are a great nation. We forget. But what happened in Texas reminded us. It said: My beloved America you’re not a mirage, you’re still here."
"Beyond not segregating uses, Houston’s approach to planning is unique in that it doesn’t artificially limit densities or throw up barriers to dense urban redevelopment. This is generally good if you care about housing affordability or racial segregation, since it keeps NIMBYs from blocking new multi-family housing. Unlike San Francisco or Boston, Houston lacks a lot of the discretionary reviews and “neighborhood vetoes,” making it much easier to convert single-family homes in high-demand areas into apartments or townhouses. This also makes dense infill redevelopment much easier, which allows cities to grow up and become more dense. Where the zoning in most cities pushes new development out into the suburbs, Houston keeps it easy to add more housing in desirable urban neighborhoods. Ironically, if we are concerned about destructive greenfield development, Houston’s lack of zoning almost certainly helps more than it hurts."
Actually, I've got even more, but I'm going to cut it off here and save them for next week.  We're also working on a COU briefing on Harvey lessons which I will share as soon as it's published.

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Monday, August 28, 2017

Hurricane Harvey


Saturday, August 05, 2017

Where should Houston's innovation district be?

As Houston has recently reinvigorated efforts to support a tech innovation startup community, the idea of a concentrated "innovation district" has been raised to create a critical mass to concentrate Houston's dispersed initiatives.  The Chronicle article mentions EaDo, Montrose, and the Rice Village, all of which I think are bad ideas.  My own inclination was Midtown at first, but the more I thought about it, the more Downtown makes the most sense, specifically concentrated around the Main Street Square to Preston rail stops.  There are several reasons.

The first and most important reason is that Houston needs to concentrate the startup activities from entrepreneurs all over the metro area.  Because of the tremendous amount of commuter bus service concentrated there (including Metro's central transit center), downtown is the obvious choice.  An Exxon employee out near The Woodlands that quits his job and wants to work on a startup merely has to hop on an express bus downtown to join the community - no transfers required (or a quick transfer to the rail line).  Even if they don't ride the bus, all our freeways point there too - and that works both ways as well: it will be easy for entrepreneurs downtown to go visit customer and partner companies all over the city. Additionally, Rice, UH, and med center students and faculty to easily get there on rail lines.  In fact, I think they need to cut a deal with METRO for an affordable monthly rail pass for any members of Station Houston or other incubators there.

Other reasons downtown makes the most sense:
  • Plenty of unused office space, especially more affordable Class B space (maybe even the old Exxon building?)
  • Recent college grads love living in Midtown, which would have a short rail ride up to the offices.
  • Tons of walkable bars and restaurants for entrepreneurs to mix and mingle in.
  • Several parks within walking distance.
  • Short ride to TX/RX Labs for product design and prototype manufacturing.
The more you think about it, the more sense it makes.  I hope they're taking a serious look at it.

Additionally, this might be a good time to mention my other "big idea" for supporting innovation in Houston: give all the big company employees around the city (especially the energy companies) an option to invest up to a tiny percentage of their 401k funds in local venture capital (a Houston-focused "special situations" fund). Even if capped at 1-5% of their portfolio, that could still put tens or hundreds of millions of dollars into local VC, which would be a huge shot in the arm for Houston's startup scene.

Finally, it's worth stressing how critical this endeavor is to Houston's future. Nobody knows how the energy future is going to play out - especially when it comes to electric cars or renewables - or how it will affect the oil industry, but no matter what, Houston will have to adapt, and having a strong innovation scene will make that much, much easier and more likely to keep Houston thriving instead of going the way of other rust belt cities.

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Monday, July 31, 2017

Houston #1 renovator, culinary bragging rights, cash-out parking, global HTX, and more

This week I'm digging into a few older links I probably should have posted earlier, but somehow didn't get around to:
"...compel employers who provide free parking to offer transit benefits (like a pre-tax bus pass) or a cash payment to workers who find another way to the office. The goal here isn’t to stamp out cars, but to let the non-drivers “cash out” the value of "free" parking. Research suggests this sort of “parking cash-out” works. A series of LA-based case studies by UCLA urban planner Donald Shoup found these programs can decrease the number of drivers who motor alone to work by 17 percent, and increase rates of carpooling, transit riding, biking, and walking." 
"Everything’s big in Texas—including home renovations.
Houston homeowners, with a median budget of $704,000, outspent remodelers in 74 other U.S. metro markets, according to an analysis of building permits for high-end projects.
“People are feeling really good about the city, and the amount of money they can put into their houses,” said Stephen McNiel of Creative Property Restoration, a builder in Houston."
    Definitely a sign of the high standard of living here (average salaries adjusted for the cost of living) that people can afford to spend so much on home renovations.
    "With full recognition that our credibility is suspect, I nonetheless come today to proclaim Houston one of the great eating capitals of America. I mean (and here I mount the mechanical bull) far better than anywhere else in Texas, better than anywhere else in the Southwest, better for that matter than in my current place of residence, Washington, D.C. That the nation’s fourth-largest city is no longer one gigantic steak platter for oil barons should not constitute breaking news. One can go on about the city’s indigenous assets, such as its array of Gulf Coast ingredients and its surprising multiculturalism. 
    But the main reason for Houston’s culinary ascent is economic. This became clear to me one afternoon last fall while eating at Étoile, a vibrant French restaurant that opened in 2012 near the city’s famed Galleria mall, and whose chef and owner, Philippe Verpiand, hails from Provence. After running a restaurant in San Diego with his wife, Monica, for seven years, Mr. Verpiand decided in 2011 to check out Houston. What he discovered, he told me, was that the Bayou City “is very affordable and full of people who like to go out at night and spend money.” It costs probably one-third less to build and design a restaurant here than in California, he said, adding, “I can afford to pay sous-chefs full time and be able to spend the weekends fishing and duck hunting with my boys.” 
    Such cost savings are passed on to Houston’s consumers, who can enjoy a first-rate meal here for maybe two-thirds of what such a dinner would come to in New York or San Francisco."
    Finally, continuing our series of COU videos on Texas cities, this week's focus city is San Antonio, a city I visited last weekend and really enjoyed despite the 100+ degree heat.  The Pearl District is the most impressive industrial re-adaption I've ever seen - Houston needs something similar!

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    Wednesday, July 26, 2017

    COU Houston video, market urbanism, Super Bowl impact on HTX, open transportation markets in TX, and more

    Before getting to this week's items, I want to put in a plug for Scott Beyer's new Market Urbanism Report website (introductory video here). Definitely worth checking out and subscribing if you're a fan of the type of stuff I discuss on this blog. His intro:
    "For about a decade, there’s been a growing bipartisan consensus that America’s cities need liberalization. This consensus formed because of the problems our cities now face thanks to government control. Urban housing supply has been artificially limited by regulations, causing price inflation; publicly-run transportation systems create gridlock and delay; and other services are riddled with patronage."
    Definitely check it out. And here's a good introduction to market urbanism to go with it, with three key arguments:
    1. Housing is expensive, in part, because of bad regulations.
    2. Don’t underrate the importance of bottom-up solutions to urban problems.
    3. More money isn’t the solution to America’s urban transit woes.
    Moving on to this week's items:
    "No city in America runs on anything resembling a free-market model. But Texas' major cities are probably the closest thing, with vast improvements to their economies and living standards to show for it. Their looser land-use laws mean that housing supply grows quickly, stabilizing prices. Their lighter tax and regulatory structure helps businesses locate there and grow. And—shenanigans from the governor's office notwithstanding—their openness to immigrants means they have cheap and robust labor forces.
    Another thing Texas' toll roads have accomplished is greater mobility. The Dallas and Houston metros, in particular, have been the nation’s two fastest-growing metros by net population since 2010. But their congestion levels are not as bad as similar-size metros, according to traffic studies by Inrix and TomTom. This is because they've expanded highway capacity to accommodate population growth, acknowledging that the laws of supply and demand apply to roads like with anything else. Perhaps more crucially, though, they’ve priced the use of these roads, to avoid a tragedy of the commons. And it has worked at creating many excellent, self-funded roads: as I can attest from having lived last summer in Houston, Dallas and Austin, toll roads proliferate throughout each metro, are free-flowing, and charge users electronically, so that they're not having to stop and pay at booths."
    "In many ways, Houston’s Super Bowl was a tremendous success. On the field, it was perhaps the most exciting game in the 51-year history of the event. The weather was perfect, the mild Texas winter providing a comfortable respite for visiting fans and media. For locals and visitors alike, the events at Discovery Green and throughout the Super Bowl Live experience offered engagement with the event regardless of whether they could afford a (minimum) four-figure ticket to the game itself. Taylor Swift had a good time! So did Sting, The Goo Goo Dolls, Travi$ $cott, and the other entertainers who visited and performed for the crowds.
    Still, even with the fuzzy math of an economic impact report, the Houston Super Bowl was a success.
    The impact of Super Bowl 51 on Houston also highlights the significance of events like the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, or SXSW and the Austin City Limits Festival in Austin... Cities around the country compete, year after year, with aggressive bids for the chance to host Super Bowls. The Rodeo happens every year and brings in more money, while SXSW annually serves as a recurring pitch to the 85,000 or so people who come to town that Austin is a cool place to live, work, run a business, and spend money. No matter the exact numbers, the Super Bowl seems to have worked out for Houston—but the most impactful events seem to be the ones that are annually in our backyard."
    Finally, our COU video on Houston has just been released! I'm really proud of it - it came out great. Definitely check it out - it'll make you proud to be a Houstonian.

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    Friday, July 21, 2017

    Localism, piling on DART, Honolulu rail disaster, simple fix for housing, big ice, and more

    Apologies again for the posting delay. I recently returned from a great AEI-COU event in DC, including a fantastic speech by Senator Mike Lee on the importance of localism (vs. federal control of everything).  More local control seems like a bipartisan issue both parties could get behind. You may find some of their follow-up links of interest:
    "Thank you for your interest and participation in AEI's recent event "Localism and social capital: Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) on why federalism is key to restoring civic connectedness and faith in the American government." We wanted to share the event summary and video with you; please feel free to share these with friends or colleagues. For more information on this topic, check out Arthur C. Brooks' publication "It’s better when all politics is local," Andy Smarick's publication "The infinite information problem and state centralization," and Peter J. Wallison's publication "Decentralization, deference, and the administrative state." 
    Moving on to this week's items:
    "Notwithstanding the massive investment in rail over the last two decades made throughout the country, only about 4% of the total daily trips made by Americans are on any form of transit, and less than 2% on rail. Bus ridership has been unchanged for the last two decades. It would be interesting, but ultimately impossible to know how bus ridership might have improved if even a fraction of the billions spent on rail had instead been invested in improving the bus service. 
    With the advent of disruptive transportation technologies like ride sharing, self-driving cars and the electrification of transportation power systems, any further investment in this highly inflexible technology would be folly. We need to be building a transportation system for the next century, not the last one. 
    But there is something akin to a religious belief in rail that I have never been able to understand. The late, great Bob Lanier best summarized it: 
    "First, rail's supporters say 'It's cheaper.' When you show it costs more, they say, 'It's faster.' When you show it's slower, they say, 'It serves more riders.' When you show there are fewer riders, they say, 'It brings economic development. When you show no economic development, they say, 'It helps the image.' When you say you don't want to spend that much money on image, they say, 'It will solve the pollution problem. When you show it won't help pollution, they say, finally, 'It will take time. You'll see.'" 
    Dallas' multi-billion dollar experiment with rail has proved Mayor Bob right. Sorry to all my friends that continue to believe rail is the solution to our mobility problems, but time is up."
    "It’s really not that complicated. Seattle has a housing shortage. Every occupied new unit of higher cost housing translates to one less higher income household competing for a limited amount of existing housing. And whenever there are more people who want housing than there are housing units, it will be the poorest who lose."
    Finally, our Center for Opportunity Urbanism has been creating a series of videos for Texas cities. Houston's isn't ready yet, so this week we'll start with Austin's:

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    Monday, July 03, 2017

    DART eviscerated, tolls vs sprawl, transit apocalypse, build the Ike Dike, top rankings, and more

    After my last post which included problems with DART, a reader sent me this Dallas Observer story that's even more damning of the utter failure of DARTs commuter light rail strategy while subtly endorsing Houston METRO's approach:
    "Since the founding of DART in 1983, the city has been shackled to the suburbs in the creation of what has become the nation’s dumbest mass-transit system
    Instead of investing money where it could actually make a difference — in the dense, urban core where people might be talked out of their cars — DART has spent billions of tax dollars building a kind of amusement park ride. DART has squandered our resources and our time building a slow-poke, light rail, surface-running system that screws up traffic, takes forever, attracts miserably few riders and, as a result, operates at an ungodly subsidy. Its real purpose has been to serve as an amenity and sales-pitch bauble for suburban apartment developers. ... 
    DART, as presently constituted and designed, is a massive failure that sucks up scarce resources we need to spend on smarter things. If DART were a horse, we'd shoot it."
    Wow. Doesn't hold back and tells it like it is! It's not all good news for METRO though - scroll down to some of the graph stats that are not so great.

    In other news, I find it amusing that anti-toll forces have joined with anti-sprawl forces to oppose new suburban toll roads, like the extension of 249 past Tomball.  In theory, anti-sprawl forces should vigorously support toll roads because they better price somebody's decision to live far out and commute in.  The problem with the anti-sprawlers is that they realize even fully priced with toll roads, people prefer affordable suburban living and will still live out there, so they prefer to kill the roads by any means necessary, even if that means aligning with the anti-toll people, who want the road, they just want it to be free (the opposite of what the anti-sprawlers want!).  The unfortunate bottom line is that the anti-toll crowd has gotten politically powerful enough the politicians have to go with it, but TXDoT and rational officials realize it's not toll vs. no-toll, it's toll vs. no-road, so they're going to keep building them because they keep filling up with demand as fast as they're built!

    After yet another story arguing transportation costs should be included in defining affordable housing based on the flawed stat of income percentage spent (i.e. pro-density+transit, anti-suburbs+cars; also here), I posted a comment that got enough up-votes to be the top response:
    "Isn't the more likely explanation that people who spend a lot on housing don't have much money leftover for transportation? And those who do have affordable suburban houses have plenty to spend on high-end vehicles? Is it really fair to say a suburban house has a "high cost of transportation" because people are buying high-end trucks, SUVs, mini-vans, and luxury cars, when they just as easily could buy a cheap used Honda Civic or Toyota Prius if they were really concerned with keeping their transportation costs low?"
    Moving on to make a dent in the huge backlog of smaller items to share...
    "Boasting affordable living costs and a large number of incubators, Houston takes the title as the number one best city for minority entrepreneurs. The city has one of the most diverse populations and its bustling startup scene is full of minority-owned business ventures. It also comes in fourth place for the most economic opportunities for minorities."
    Finally, from the Thrillist list of Totally Underappreciated Cities You Should Move To:
    Houston, Texas
    Texas' most underrated big city does almost everything right.
    City population: 2,167,988
    Cost of living index: 90 (10% lower than US average)
    If you lament your city's poor planning, crumbling infrastructure, and careless corporate community, look to America's fourth-largest city for examples of how all that should be done. Not gonna lie: The traffic can be a drag, and the swampy summers are a slog. But overall Houston has its shit together better than any city its size.
    Even though the oil industry isn't the king it once was, health care, construction, education, and tourism are bringing people to Houston by the tens of thousands. With them have come new sports stadiums, new neighborhoods like the artsy EaDo or the hipster-historic Montrose, and a worldly food scene that extends waaaay beyond the usual barbecue and Tex-Mex (though, obviously, both of those are great too). Through public-private partnerships, Houston has developed America's premier museum district, plus stunning urban green spaces like the 160-acre Buffalo Bayou Park, and it's only adding each year. In terms of perceived "coolness," H-Town is still in Austin's overinflated shadow, but in a state this hot, the shade is a pretty good place to be. Improving quality of life while still rapidly growing? Take notes, Austin. -- M.M.

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    Thursday, June 22, 2017

    The future of transportation, including METRO's new long-range regional transit plan

    Before getting to this week's items, a quick debrief on METRO's new long-range regional transit planning process.  They held a lunch meeting for bloggers to brief us on their plans, which included this slide presentation with some really interesting material (longer original version).  There's some good info in the slides, and they show that METRO has performed better than most other transit agencies in the country (including DART and Portland - see below). My impression was that they're being very open-minded as they go through this process, including consideration of innovative new technologies like autonomous vehicles and high-speed platooning in MaX Lanes. This is also clearly not a case of "here's our plan but we need to go through the formality of public input" - they are genuinely looking for good ideas.  If you'd like to give them your thoughts, the first open house is Tuesday, June 27 from 2-4pm at METRO, 1900 Main Street in downtown Houston, to be followed by additional public events listed here.

    They are certainly doing better than DART in Dallas: Cotton Belt Debt Issuance Fails to Pass DART Board - As Dallas support shifts away from sprawling light rail system, the future of the $1 billion project is in doubt. Hat tip to Mark.  Key excerpts:
    "...most spoke of a desire to refocus DART’s efforts on bus service and overall system ridership and reliability, rather than continuing to build expensive light rail extensions that have not been able to reverse a downtrend in ridership
    ... a crippled public transit system in which residents have to endure the burden of impossibly long commutes and little access to employment or opportunity — sounded very much like DART as it exists today. In its 30-year blitz to build out the nation’s longest light rail network, DART has created a public transit system that is inefficient and unreliable, a system that has contributed to Dallas’ enduring struggles with upward mobility, high rate of neighborhood income inequality, and a burdensome cost of living when transportation costs are taken into consideration."
    Portland is also a basket case:
    "The region has already spent between $4 billion and $5 billion on light rail. Before commencing construction on the city’s first light-rail line, 9.9 percent of commuters took transit to work. Since it is now down to 7.9 percent, rail clearly has not boosted transit ridership. According to a report released last October, one-third of the region’s capital spending on transportation is going for transit, yet transit carries just 2.5 percent of the region’s motorized passenger miles (and virtually no freight). 
    Cascade Policy Institute director John Charles points out that TriMet’s inflation adjusted budget has increased by 72 percent since 1998, not counting the $3.6 billion spent on new rail lines, yet transit’s share of commuting declined. “Just 5% of all commuters in Southwest Portland took transit to work in 2016,” says Charles, yet TriMet wants to spend $2.4 billion on a light-rail line through that part of the city. “Cannibalizing current bus service with costly new trains” is hardly a sound transportation policy, he advises, yet Portland remains wedded to that policy."
    These and all other transit agencies need to read this piece on ten ways to know if your transportation project is a boondoggle.

    What's the real future of transportation if it isn't light rail?
    "The study predicts that everyday Americans will ditch their cars in favor of a system of distributed electric vehicles, and reap the financial rewards. On a per-mile basis, using TaaS will be four to 10 times cheaper per mile than buying a new car by 2021, and widespread adoption of electric vehicles will lower maintenance costs. In their most rosy scenario, each family could save up to $5,600 per year."
    Read that number again. It is a massive boost to incomes.
    "As we see it, the Private Autonomy model is likely to catch on first in developed suburban cities with high per capita GDP, openness to new technologies, and a successful record of implementing public projects. Such places include Houston, the Ruhr area of Germany, and Sydney."

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