Saturday, February 18, 2017

Delay renovating NRG, don't incentivize local movies, USA rail beats Europe, Astrodome, anti-zoning PSA, visualizing our density, good gentrification, and more

Quite the backlog of items to get through this week:
"While the gentrification narrative (having rich neighbors makes life harder for poor people) is common, news stories seldom promote the narrative of concentrated poverty (having mostly poor neighbors makes life harder for the poor), which is both more prevalent and demonstrably more harmful."
Finally, Houston beats Dallas handily for Super Bowl hosting, but we're still not likely to get it again anytime soon. There's just too much new/renovated stadium competition out there. In fact, despite their last disaster, Dallas is likely to get it again before we do because of their palatial $1B stadium. Other cities in the pipeline include Atlanta, Minneapolis, Miami, NOLA, Phoenix, and a $2 billion behemoth being built in LA (count on at least two Super Bowls there after it's built). If we're going to renovate NRG to make another run at a Super Bowl, it sounds like we need to wait at least half a decade or more for the NFL's hosting backlog to clear out before doing it. Why invest a ton in NRG now when the upgrades may already be out of date by the time our next potential Super Bowl slot opens up??

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Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Super Bowl kudos, Houston keeps winning, Texas HSR questioned, and more

First the Super Bowl items this week, which was the biggest NFL comeback/collapse since... well, this, which I remember all too well. From everything I've seen and everybody I've spoken to, we pulled off the hosting with flying colors. Congrats and thanks to everyone involved for their hard work.  Unfortunately it could be quite a while before we get another one - too many cities are building new stadiums or upgrading old ones (Miami, NOLA) - each guaranteed at least one Super Bowl - and I'm betting the $2.6+ billion behemoth in LA will get more than that.
And moving on to the non-Super Bowl items:
"I sat down with Angela Blanchard last year at a coffeeshop in the Third Ward, a historically black neighborhood about two miles from her house. She had walked there to meet me, so I brought up the concern of some self-appointed urban advocates who want to redesign Houston to make it “walkable.” She laughed: 
'I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to roll my eyes, but everyone is trying to create these precious neighborhoods. I remember being at a conference and someone said the thing we need to do with poor neighborhoods is make them walkable. I thought this was absolutely hilarious. If you’re in a poor neighborhood, your neighborhood is walkable. It might not be a nice walk or a fun walk, but you walk. … I actually love Houston for its total, messy, sprawling randomness. I get invited to conferences where people talk about Houston with frowns on their faces. People haven’t been able to figure out our city and how to make it smart and precious like other cities that no one can afford to live in. My biggest concern for this city is that it remains a place where you can start at the bottom and work your way up. Where it’s a good city to begin in, and where if you have a dream and water it with hard work, it amounts to something.' "

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Monday, January 30, 2017

Super Bowl! more MaX lanes, paying for infrastructure, affordability ranking, pension fix, autonomous vehicles vs. rail, Texas Urbanism, and more

Lots of items for Super Bowl week in Houston!
And some non-Super Bowl items:
“To improve transit in the region, auditors called for increasing the number of HOV lanes in the Houston area.”
"If President Trump wants to seriously improve American infrastructure spending, he should champion a new federalism for transportation, in which infrastructure is funded by states, localities and especially the users themselves. Too often, public debates devolve into a simplistic argument of "more" infrastructure versus "less." In many ways, America's infrastructure is woefully deficient, but we have also wasted billions on bridges to nowhere and highways in the middle of nowhere. The right question is how to get better infrastructure.The best decisions are made when decision-makers bear the costs and reap the benefits."
Hear, hear! 
"Houston owes its police, fire, and city workers about $7.8 billion, and it doesn’t exactly have the cash on hand. Their hard-fought solution could serve as a model for the rest of Texas, and the nation."
Finally, "Self-driving cars could spell revolution for Houston--or not" (hat tip to Julia).  I do think they help make the argument that Houston could get rid of parking minimums (like Buffalo recently did) and let the market naturally reduce parking over time as autonomous vehicles ramp up.

In addition, the City's Public Works department may not have too much to consider, but METRO certainly does with their new long-range plan.  If we’re about to make point-to-point vehicle transportation far cheaper, safer, and more convenient, then what’s the impact on transit? I for one would argue that further rail investments will get nowhere near the ridership they expect and are likely to be horrible investments. This month's Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter from Reason concurs:
How Will Autonomous Vehicles Affect Public Transportation?

"A final point for transportation planners and transit managers to consider is the impact of these technologies on long-range planning for infrastructure. Here is the most relevant paragraph: 
"Numerous communities across the country are planning for or evaluating major capital fixed-guideway public transit investments whose success may be impacted by the presence of alternative mobility options. The criticality of reflecting on these issues relates to both the magnitude of the cost of these commitments and the fact that these assets are very long-lived. These fixed-guideway commitments may well have extensive economic life remaining at points in time when new travel options compete with them, potentially cannibalizing their markets and rendering the investments less productive than envisioned in the planning stages."

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Another outsider loves Houston, top rankings, Super Bowl mobility, reducing rents with supply, insane rail costs, and more

Apologies for the posting delays - quite the backlog of items to get through:
"Another list recently heralded Houston as one of the best places in the U.S. to start a business — the Bayou City ranked No. 6 around the country. Houston ranked as fourth-best city in the U.S. for young entrepreneurs, and Texas was rated No. 2 on CNBC's "Top States for Businesses" list."
  • This article does a great job explaining the absolutely *insane* infrastructure costs in NYC for new subway lines, stations, and a bus terminal.  $2 billion per mile for new subway?! $4 billion for one new downtown station?! $10 *billion* for a new bus terminal?!  The equivalent of *thirty* NRG stadiums! Are you kidding me?!  Just pull out these numbers next time anyone complains about TXDoT spending a couple of billion completely rebuilding a spoke freeway in Houston... it's a relative bargain!
  • Speaking of insane rail costs, just in from the LA Times: California's bullet train is hurtling toward a multibillion-dollar overrun, a confidential federal report warns
"California’s bullet train could cost taxpayers 50% more than estimated — as much as $3.6 billion more. And that’s just for the first 118 miles through the Central Valley, which was supposed to be the easiest part of the route between Los Angeles and San Francisco. 
A confidential Federal Railroad Administration risk analysis, obtained by The Times, projects that building bridges, viaducts, trenches and track from Merced to Shafter, just north of Bakersfield, could cost $9.5 billion to $10 billion, compared with the original budget of $6.4 billion. 
The federal document outlines far-reaching management problems: significant delays in environmental planning, lags in processing invoices for federal grants and continuing failures to acquire needed property.  
The California High-Speed Rail Authority originally anticipated completing the Central Valley track by this year, but the federal risk analysis estimates that that won’t happen until 2024, placing the project seven years behind schedule."
"Denver is spending billions of dollars building more than 100 miles of rail lines. When all the lines are done, promoters project they will reach just 26 percent of the region’s jobs. Since most people won’t live near a rail line, only about 2 or 3 percent of commuters are likely to use it
Even most of the people who live near it won’t ride light rail because it is so slow. According to the American Public Transportation Association’s Transit Fact Book, the average speed of light rail is 15.6 mph while streetcars average just 7.3 mph. Not much accessibility benefit there."
"Houston, perhaps America’s least-regulated metro housing market, is the simulacrum of this 21st-century urbanism in all its messy brilliance. The fast-densifying greater downtown area has good Walk Scores and could legitimately be called "urban"; a half-dozen similar job centers--from random edge cities to tasteful towncenters--dot the metro; makeshift settlement communities pop up to house incoming immigrants; and, of course, haphazard single-family and multi-family housing sprawls in every direction. This willingness to build is why Houston can accommodate large population influxes, remain cheap...and perform so well economically."
I've got more, but that's more than enough for this week's post.  See ya next week.

P.S. Memo to the Texans: get Romo. Whatever the cost (although he should be willing to take a pay cut to get on a team with a real shot at the Super Bowl). With him and a healthy JJ Watt, next year's Super Bowl is very, very possible...

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016 Highlights

Time for the annual hike down memory lane for 2016, wrapping up the 12th (!) year of this blog (official anniversary coming up in March). Looking it over, I feel like we've got a particularly strong set of highlight posts this year. These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument; and, last but not least, they've also been invaluable for me to track down some of my best thinking for meetings or when requested by others (as is the ever-helpful Google search).

Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly once/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box at the bottom of the right sidebar. An RSS feed link for newsfeed readers is also available in the right sidebar (I'm a fan of Feedly).

As always, thanks for your readership.
And don't forget the highlights from the first few years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging) and most definitely in the 10th birthday retrospective and the best of the first 1,000.

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Bright lights district for Houston, millennials love HTX, tech cars vs. transit, real Houspitality, topping Chicago, and more

A lot more catch-up items this week, but some really good stuff in here:
"San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver tend to dominate discussions about where millennials are moving to. Further examination, however, reveals that there are other metros that are attractive as well, especially in Texas – Houston, San Antonio, and Austin all ranked very well."
  • Super-Cheap Driverless Cabs to Kick Mass Transit to the Curb - Bloomberg. Hat tip to Oscar.  Even more impressive, their graph shows that driverless carpool might be as low as $0.20/mile in 2025! How transformative is that?! This is part of why I think traditional rail mass transit is a very bad investment as it will get obsoleted by these very cheap point-to-point rides.  Excerpt:
"Having no driver to pay could reduce taxi prices to 67 cents a mile by 2025, less than a quarter of the cost in Manhattan today, the report found. 
It’s a change with the potential to reshape commuting patterns, transforming urban life. As prices fall, the challenge for cities is that the cars may become too popular. Instead of complementing public transit, they may lure commuters away from buses and trains, inundating streets with drone cars."
  • Atlantic CityLab: Self-Driving Cars Are Going to Beat Up on Trains, Too - "Got a gig in the global passenger rail industry? Prepare for an “enormous shakeout.”  Great cost graphs in this one to make the case.
  • Speaking of problematic rail, at the recent TAG luncheon Judge Emmet again expressed support for commuter rail.  Now I'm a big fan of the Judge (especially his Astrodome efforts), but I think he's been misinformed here.  Here's my simple challenge:  LA - with twice our density, perfect walking weather, and worse traffic - spent *$9 billion* on rail and yet transit ridership *fell*! Why do we think we can do any better with half the density, very problematic walking weather much of the year, and traffic nowhere near as bad as LA?  Commuter rail simply does not work in low-density, decentralized, multi-polar, post-WW2 automobile-based cities like Houston (with less than 7% of our jobs downtown - and falling).  It's also been tried and essentially failed as a strategy in Dallas, with low ridership (given the size) and no reinvigoration of jobs in downtown Dallas.  As I keep saying, the better solution is MaX Lanes - Managed eXpress lanes moving the maximum number of people at maximum speed across a network connecting all job centers to all parts of the metro area.
  • Second Ave subway in NYC: “At $2.2 billion per km, this sets a new world record for subway construction costs”  Wow. Just…. Wow.  There's no way the benefits top the costs there.
  • A great personal essay demonstrating Houspitality from a Cuban that made Houston home.
  • We Are Chicago, After The Fall:
"A question on every Chicagoan’s mind, at least in the context of this conversation, is “What about Houston?” Newspapers for years have (in Chicago) decried the city’s endless losses, or (in Houston) praised the city’s innovation and growth. It’s not difficult to see why, as the census numbers show, Houston just keeps going, while Chicago just keeps slowing. 
A Houston Chronicle article from June 2015 quoted University of Southern California demographer Dowell Myers as predicting that “It isn’t ‘possible,’ it’s ‘probable’ that Houston will grow to be the country’s third largest city,” and that “[Houston] has the employment trajectory, and it has the land area.” Chicago’s “exclusionary zoning rules” are also cited as an issue that gives Houston an edge, because Houston’s zoning laws are much looser."
Finally, I think it would be cool for Houston to do a "bright lights district" in our theater district around Jones Plaza, although I'm open to thoughts in the comments on other good areas around the city for it?...

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

GQ loves Houston, top rankings, our affordability model, sidewalks, worsening traffic theory, and more

Been too long since my last post, so a lot of items to catch up on...
The Next Global Food Mecca Is in… Texas? | GQ
“After a handful of visits since then, I've realized the joke is on me: I wish I were opening in Houston, because it just might be the next food capital of America. I've always wondered where the food in a Blade Runner-like future would appear first and what it would taste like—and I genuinely believe it's here. 
Partly that's due to a demographic reality: By some measures, Houston is the U.S.A.'s most ethnically diverse city (a bunch of New Yorkers just choked on their halal kebabs reading that, but it's true), and when you get a collision of immigrants, the food scene is guaranteed to be bonkers. 
Houston also has cheap commercial and residential rents—oh, and no state income tax—which means broke-ass cooks and chefs can afford to live and open here. Zoning laws are more permissive than an Amsterdam brothel. And customers have cash to spend.”
"By contrast, Houston has been enjoying record growth in jobs overall, middle-class jobs, STEM jobs and population — and may overtake Chicago as the third-largest city in America within two decades
Kotkin and Cox note that net migration between California, New York, and Texas has all been to Texas’ benefit: an influx of young, well-educated and socially diverse people. The most diverse county in America is now Fort Bend, on the edge of Houston. Low home prices have helped make that possible: 52 percent of Latino households own their own home in Houston, which is twice the rate in New York (in L.A., it’s 38 percent)
And low regulation has helped make those low housing prices possible. Houston famously has some of the most relaxed zoning and land-use regulations in the country. That doesn’t mean hog-rendering plants sit cheek-by-jowl with hospitals, but it does mean developers face fewer roadblocks when they want to knock down old buildings and put up town homes. 
Such an absence of restrictions has produced “a mash-up of architectural styles,” notes another piece in City Journal. “Everything about Houston screams spontaneous.” That no doubt would curl the hair of Virginia’s historic preservationist class. 
Houston might not be able to boast hundreds of homes preserved in antebellum splendor like dragonflies encased in amber. But it does boast a median-home price of just $145,000. And more than 60 percent of Houston’s housing stock is affordable for a family with a median income — which helps explain why so many young, diverse people are flocking there
Texas has a reputation for being arch-conservative territory. But on the metrics that matter most to economic and social mobility, it’s one of the most progressive places in the country."
"Some, such as Tory Gattis at the Center of Opportunity Urbanism and a frequent observer of local freeway projects, have noticed traffic worsening – albeit anecdotally. Gattis even theorized that one cause could be those energy workers finding new jobs that are scattering them around the area. 
“Whenever people have to switch jobs within the metro area, they’re more likely to end up with a worse commute than a better one,” Gattis said. “Assuming they picked where they live based on the original job they no longer have.” 
There might be some validity to Gattis' guess. According to TranStar average travel times, eastbound Interstate 10 west of downtown and the northbound portion of Loop 610 from Stella Link to Shepherd – two of the most congested freeway segments in the region – saw increases in the amount of time they were congested from 2012 to 2015, with a noticeable jump from 2014 to 2015."
Enough for this week. More items to catch up on next week.

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Monday, November 21, 2016

Houston's changes, challenges, opportunities, and identity

Apologies for the sporadic posting lately - it's been a crazy couple of months. My Center for Opportunity Urbanism recently held an HBJ-sponsored event (alternate link) to release our major report on Texas Urbanism, with a focus on the Texas Triangle cities.  I'll have more to discuss on this in future posts, but in this one I wanted to give my thoughts/notes on the questions the HBJ moderator asked the panel during the event.

How has Houston changed in the past 30 years?
Culturally, from provincial to much more cosmopolitan (including restaurants). Much more educated, attracting many more college grads. Higher demographic diversity. Economically full cycle, from the collapse of the first oil boom to the collapse of the second oil boom. Massive growth - more than doubled in metro population.  Huge growth and densification inside the Loop, especially townhomes, apartments, and residential towers.  Also the rise of the suburban edge cities: Sugar Land, Pearland, Katy, Woodlands, League City.

Obviously the second oil boom was a massive driver. The lack of zoning enabled easy densification. Culturally, our long history of comfort/tolerance with diversity has made it easy for immigrants to move here and assimilate.  The energy industry has become much more global.  Massive housing unaffordability developed on the coasts which made Houston a much more attractive proposition for all classes (including recent college grads). Freeway investments/expansions helped enable the suburban growth, especially the edge cities.

What are Houston’s biggest challenges?
  • Traffic congestion, and in turn keeping major employers in the core instead of moving out to the suburbs like Exxon and Shell (solution = network of MaX Lanes – Managed eXpress lanes moving the maximum number of people at maximum speed).  
  • Education (Klineberg).  
  • Risk of the fossil fuel industry being replaced with renewables – how long will the transition take and how will we adapt?  
  • Building the Ike Dike before the Big Hurricane hits.
  • Resolving the City pension funding crisis and making them sustainable long-term.
What are Houston’s biggest opportunities?
  • Continuing to offer the highest standard of living among major metros in the US (esp. for families and mainly thru housing affordability), which helps attract a diversity of talent and cultures. 
  • Continuing to develop a more urban core.  
  • Growing the port, esp. trade via the expanded Panama Canal and downstream petrochemical investments with some of the cheapest feedstocks in the world.  
  • Becoming the city of choice for foreign companies to put their Americas regional headquarters offices.
Houston’s has struggled with its identity in the past. How would you describe Houston?
  • America’s most affordable global city.
  • Cultural crossroads of opportunity: Started with South meets West meets Mexico in the 1800’s and evolved from there with immigrants from all over and the international energy industry.
  • Houspitality!
Is it possible for Houston’s dynamic be appropriated in other cities, like Atlanta or Denver since they seem similar. Can they learn from us?

They are not as global or diverse as us, but they can certainly learn from our mobility investments (freeways, toll roads, managed lanes) and free market in land use/development.

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