Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Houston, We Have a Problem

...and it's you.  So cut it out will ya?

Look.  We get it.  You have smart, effective leadership.  We're understood across the state to be a hive of corruption and graft.  That can't possibly hurt us in the competition of cities could it?  Don't answer that.

You're doing smart things, like shifting your bus service to prioritize ridership and convenience via frequent network planning.  We still seem to think planning transit for the fickle fancy of tourists is in anyway sustainable.  And that serving everybody equally poorly is a great way to provide transit.  And that the cart of development should go before the horse of transportation is a good idea.  But I digress...

And now there is this.

"The question we are facing is: We have provided streets to move cars," Mohite said. "As the traffic increases, are we going to take down homes to maintain that lifestyle?"
The proposals also reflect more emphasis on so-called "complete streets" policies that encourage planners to consider cyclists and pedestrians in street design. In October, Mayor Annise Parker, by executive order, declared Houston would embrace Complete Streets policies.
Residents along Dunlavy, and generally around Neartown, told planners they wanted their streets to allow for biking and walking, rather than widened to accommodate more traffic.
"What we said was, make it a neighborhood where you could ride your bike or take a walk," said Greg LeGrande, president of the Neartown Association, a coalition of civic groups.


Houston is going to begin 'dieting' streets in their urban core in order to, and unabashedly mind you, make driving less convenient and other forms of movement safer and more convenient.  Apparently they've learned that more people means more cars and there is no way on this decreasingly green earth that that scenario can possibly be a good thing (unless you judge the world by facile metrics like VMT = GDP exclamation point).

Sun Belt cities are all the same because they have the same genetic formula.  Rather than being defined by its people and geography, they're all defined by cars.  That is because we've allowed traffic formulae to be the prime directive that governs uber alles.  Well, you get what you prioritize.  Point being, there is a competition of cities and the way forward is differentiation.  And you differentiate by being expressions of your people, which is only possible by creating places for people and facilitating the efficient exchange of goods and ideas.
The city is the platform for progress and expression, yet we've built anti-city.  Houston, at least seems serious about the 21st century.  There is a Zipfian hierarchy yet to emerge in the South on top of which will sit either Dallas or Houston some day.  It's disconcertingly looking increasingly like Houston will be the victor.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Statistical Surreality

Being armed with facts only makes you dangerous if you don't know how to use them.

For example, one might make the assumption that highways are a necessary part of urban life and too, building more highways would relieve congestion, somehow mysteriously clean the area, and reduce commute times.  One might also make the assumption that since Texas is growing in population (or at least has - as a state and DFW as a region) therefore more highways are necessary.

These assumptions are rife within a certain sect of seemingly libertarian minded people that really, really like freedom.  Not yours.  Just theirs.  And the only thing they like more than free-dom is free-things.  Like free highways and lower taxes and low density housing.  How any of these things are paid for when interconnected is beyond me.  I choose the freedom from thought.

So let's unpack some of these misconceptions:

We need more highways because... growth.

The above is highway capacity per capita within city boundaries.  Most of this data tends to cover the metro.  However, the above was measured by me as I keep a growing table of the burden urban centers must bear for the sprawl their governments subsidize.

There is belief that new people will mean more people on the road and thus we'll need more highway capacity.  That is true, of course, if you're only capable of understanding one form of city living: car-dependence.  Portland and Seattle, those fiscal conservatives, have built a third of the highway capacity per capita as Dallas.

Building more highway capacity only serves to increase the amount people drive, as shown below:

The more highways we build, the more people drive.  And the more people drive, the more they ARE the congestion.  Therefore, we're not solving the problem of congestion only exacerbating it.

We need more highways because...congestion.

The above is an excellent bit of research by Shane Phillips.  The red line shows the increasing number of billions spent each year on highways.  The green line represents the national travel to work time, which has been steady at 25 minutes.  The funny thing is, this is about the typical travel time throughout the history of cities if you're to believe Professor Peter Newman's hour-wide city theory.

The reason for the increased spending on highway capacity, supposedly, is to reduce congestion.  However, the cost of congestion isn't decreasing according to TTI's annual Urban Mobility Study, having increased from $115B to $120B in three years.  In effect, we're spending hundreds of billions each year to marginally reduce the $100 billion or so congestion is costing the country each year, and that policy is not even not successful, but actively making the problem worse.

We're spending hundreds of billions with no discernible positive outcome, but plenty of negative outcomes and externalities.

While we should be focusing on the real waste which is car-dependence, costing the country $2 trillion per year.

Let's see, does population density affect commute times?

Nope, not really.  How about highway capacity?  Does that speed up commutes?

Nope.  Commutes hover around 25-30 minutes.  The longer ones are accompanied by significant increases in median income as well, the outliers being San Jose and NYC.  In other words, people are willing to go above and beyond average commute time for significantly higher pay.

Well, maybe building more highways and all that public money is what we need to jumpstart the economy and increase GDP...

We need more highways because...jobs.

Well, no.  There is no correlation between between vehicle miles traveled and GDP.  And since we know there is direct correlation, er in fact causation, between highway capacity and VMT, we can assume that highway capacity does not affect GDP.  Meanwhile, those urban centers heavy on highway capacity are hemorrhaging jobs: KC, Detroit, Dallas, Atlanta...

Assuming that more highway capacity to address the issue of congestion is also to assume that more highway capacity has no affect on the world around it, which in fact, it has extreme impact.  It's like the scientist who doesn't take into account his own affect on the experiment.  The only thing inner-city highway capacity is proven to do is make people drive more.  That doesn't sound like freedom to me.

The last assumption is the one that is the most annoying to me from the various pseudo-statisticians and economists, that growth lasts forever and carrying capacities don't exist.  Therefore we can extend trend lines in perpetuity.  The reality is there are carrying capacities and Texas is not exempt from this certainty.  There are issues of water, ag production, and the , but also issues of debt.  Sure we're growing now, but who will want to move here when Texas can't afford to maintain all that new shiny highway infrastructure (let alone service the debt) in a low tax political climate?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Friday, May 2, 2014

Kansas and Missouri at a Crossroads

Illuminating piece in the KC Star pointing out the politicians who want to perpetuate endless highway construction in the faulty assumption that it creates job growth and prosperity.  Perhaps only for the builders and those with hands in that trough.  Meanwhile, they're struggling to figure out how to pay for it under the rhetoric of tax cuts.  I guess they haven't realized most taxpayers don't realize what kind of debt you can run up and get out of the door before it's too late and they catch on.  They could learn a thing or two from the Texas Miracle.

Here's what we do know:

StL and Kansas City have some of the highest highway capacities per capita in the country.  Further, they under-perform other urbanized areas in wage growth.  Proportionally, cities have been losing jobs (not to degree of these areas), but also gaining in wages (these places are left behind).

Within city proper:


We also know their urbanized counties have been under-performing in terms of job and wage growth.  Thanks to an astute St Louisian (?), I needed to add StL city to my chart of job/wage growth of urbanized counties since the city is carved off from the county.  Here's how it now looks with call outs for the DeKalb half of ATL as well as StL city and StL city/county combined:

I mean, they're still doing better than Detroit, but is that something the Convention and Visitors Bureau is going to use in their marketing?  "Come to Missouri! Not as bad as Detroit!"

What's interesting is that while most urbanized counties in the country out-performed their surrounding counter-parts in wage growth, the areas with the most highway capacity (KC, StL, Dallas, Detroit) under-perform.  The urbanized areas, *should* be gaining in wages in proportion, but these places are not.  I sense this is a function of companies following the form of subsidies towards sprawling, cheaper land made available via this unsustainable highway building.  It makes sense now, until that bill comes due for the second generation of the infrastructure.

**Note:  Again, Houston/Harris County is the exception to this model as pointed out previously.  This is believed to be due to the sheer size of Harris County that encompasses the majority of their MSA.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Schools vs Highways, Mr. Rawlings. You Must Choose, But Choose Wisely

The two biggest issues in Dallas at the mo' seem to be the public school system (DISD vs Home Rule) and highways (345 and the Trinity Toll Road).  They may seem disconnected, but they aren't.  Our ineffectual and exorbitant transportation spending on the derelict and dysfunctional infrastructure of the past has assimilated our school system into competing forms of dereliction and dysfunction.

Dare I use visuals?  We once built gorgeous schools as emblems of our prioritization of education and its role in creating a civilized society:

Oh, sorry.  That's not up to date.

Occasionally the boarded doors aren't so new either:

Today, school design and construction has devolved to the point of simply gussying up warehouses to store children for 8 hours a day.

Trust me.  I understand that highways and schools come from different pools of money.  That's just bureaucracy and politics.  Before that money is divided into various pools, it starts as taxpayer money.  So it does come from one pool that we as political body can determine where it should go.  The question is what are our priorities?

Don't trust me?  See for yourself.  It seems pretty obvious:

A few billion here, a few billion there.

We're gold plating highways that only serve to push debt onto our future generations while we limit their opportunities at a better life.  TxDOT is $35 billion in debt and deferred maintenance.  Guess who will be paying that off?  It's the children who can't afford a pencil, let alone a calculator to count up where all their hard work will be paying off.  Public schools ought to empower rather than being the farm system for the prison system (costs upon costs), as I believe Michael Sorrel, president of Paul Quinn College called it.

The problem is, with schools as with many things, we get hung up on costs, rather than returns.  Yet, we look at highways as investments when it's the worst investment you could possibly make.  Don't believe me?  See the blog by Civil Engineering professor, David Levinson, citing various studies showing the return on investment of new highway expenditures is approaching zero.


The reason is that every highway only serves to further disconnect and disperse.  It's highly inefficient and downright pernicious in cities, particularly when you think about where else that money could go, as real investments.

Returns on investment in public education are virtually impossible to calculate, but also understood to be so exponential that everyone from Ataturk to Thomas Jefferson realized it might as well be free.  Rather than trying to calculate it to pay it forward, it's paid backwards.  In other words, students go to good schools, get a good education, go off to become productive members of society.  Through their production, they then contribute back via taxes which then fund the education of future generations.  That's how investment works.

It's one or the other, Mr. Mayor.  What are your priorities?  What are ours?  You must choose, but choose wisely.