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Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Reason #763 Why Houston Is Prosperous by Keep Houston Houston

Matty G has a short post up on the economy of Breezy Point, Queens and my first reaction is “right, this is reason #763 why Houston is so prosperous.”

Mostly it has to do with annexation. At one extreme end you have a city like Philadelphia. Philly isn’t all that bad of a place, but when you look at the massive growth of NYC and DC, you have to consider the city’s development trajectory to be a failure. Philly lost population during the nineties and was flat during the aughts, and the city largely coasts on the infrastructure of previous generations. Roadway expansion (e.g. double-decking the Schuylkill) and transit expansion (e.g. Roosevelt Subway, Swampoodle Connection) have both gone nowhere. Taxes are high, services are low, and what little growth has occurred mostly takes the form of cancerous exurban development which has consumed productive farmland without much housing to show in return. Detroit follows the same pattern.

But if you look at the city boundaries this all makes sense. The place is hemmed in on all sides by small boroughs and townships. In some directions you can go from Center City to out-of-the-city in less than four miles.

The fun continues outside the city boundaries. There are no big suburbs outside Philly; instead, counties are a bouillabaisse of boroughs and townships of a couple thousand acres each. This is about the size of your basic Sunbelt master-planned community, so it isn’t particularly surprising that the local governments function more like homeowners associations. Exclusionary zoning is the norm, and most residential subdivisions are required to include large swaths of “open space” which is mostly about maintaining the visual deceit that you live in the “country” and not a suburb.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the annexation distribution you have a city like Dallas. Dallas goes out about eight to ten miles, plus Far North D, which is like an extended middle finger of garden apartments sticking into the adjacent cities. An east-west trip across Dallas is about 20 miles. But while Dallas is in the middle of the “city annexation” distribution, DFW as a whole is hardly in the 50th percentile in terms of prosperity and quality of life.

There is a reason for this: Where Dallas ends, the mega suburbs begin. Arlington and Plano are respectable cities in their own right, holding about 360,000 and 270,000 people, respectively. Carrollton, Frisco, Irving, and Grand Prairie each clock in well above 100,000. Large suburbs are not always favorable to “urban” things like mid-rise and high-rise structures, or LRT and other rail transit. Frisco in particular opted out of the DART taxing area, using sales tax money to subsidize commercial development instead. But large suburban jurisdictions generally tend to have coherent transportation planning, well-developed park systems, and a variety of housing types, including multifamily and small-lot single-family.

Big suburbs also make more effective use of land. The easiest way to measure this is population density. Bellevue, Washington clocks in at 4000 people per square mile. Plano “sprawls” at 3800, Arlington at 3900. Irvine, California holds 3200 a mile, and has what is perhaps the most coherent bike network in SoCal, combining near-100% arterial bike lanes with continuous off-street paths.

Meanwhile, back outside Philly, Exton – a major Amtrak and SEPTA stop – contains fewer than 1400 people per square mile, while neighboring East Whiteland township contains fewer than 1000. Density scarcely improves as you get closer in. The major corporate centers and edge cities of King of Prussia and Plymouth Meeting straddle multiple townships which each contain fewer than 2000 people per square mile. By contrast, even Frisco – which is exploding in population and has annexed a lot of vacant land in anticipation of future development – is already at 1900 people per square mile.

Which brings us to Houston, the opposite extreme. Houston’s expansion knows no geographic or political boundaries. When other cities incorporate, it just goes around. Suburbs like West U, Bellaire, and the Villages become enclaves. Strategic annexations of roadways and other tracts of land extend Houston’s reach even further. A cross-section of strategic Houston annexations from Prairie View to Lynchburg measures 65 miles across. A trip from Willowbrook to El Dorado is forty.

When your city is this large, it leads to some interesting paradoxes. Houston’s nominal population density of 3600 people per sq. mile is surpassed by many of the enclaves. West U, in particular, is north of 7000. But Houston is scattered with pockets of density above 10,000/sq. mi, and portions of Gulfton and Gulfgate check in north of 20k. Houston’s 3600 is also almost exactly 30% higher than Phoenix, which pursues the exact same transportation and annexation policies but with Euclidean zoning.

Really rough back-of-the-metaphorical-envelope calculations tell me that if you drew a line at Beltway 8, you’d come out with a population density in the 6000s. (Note: see followup post.) Which is really incredible. That’s higher than Portland or San Jose, and almost to Minneapolis and Seattle, both of which have more constrained geographic boundaries. And this density is achieved in a relatively young, Sunbelt city, that grew up almost entirely around cars.

Not bad.

The reader may note that the title of this blog post said “prosperous,” while an earlier paragraph on Dallas mentioned “quality of life.” This because the two are indirectly related. Prosperity is inextricably linked to population; you need people to have an economy, you need people with skills to have clusters, the more people you have the more skills there’ll be and the more clusters you’ll get. Likewise, life is typically more enjoyable if there’s more stuff. What the stuff is doesn’t matter – it might be restaurants, museums, churches, or death metal. People do stuff and the more people you put in reach of yourself the more stuff there is and the more likely it is you’ll find stuff you like.

Now there’s two ways to gain access to people and stuff. The first is you can put people closer together. The second is you can build faster transportation so it’s easier to get to them. The Chicago “L” is a slow loris, but at 11000 people per square mile citywide, it’ll still take you to a lot of places. The intersection of North and Halsted affords a view of a set of three successive 10mph corners on the Ravenswood and Evanston Ls. But as you can see there’s also a whole of stuff built there. On the other side, Phoenix is not particularly dense, but you can always hop on this thing and go wherever. Of course the best option is to combine density with high-speed transportation infrastructure which gets you the spur through Midtown or perhaps Roppongi.

Both of these things, land use and transportation, are more easily accomplished in a larger governmental jurisdiction. The primary opposition to land use is NIMBY – “I don’t want to look up at the Ashby high-rise while I’m mowing my lawn.” The primary opposition to transportation infrastructure is, again, NIMBY – “I don’t want to live next to this freeway.” The latter is somewhat more understandable, since freeways generate noise and pollution externalities that residential towers don’t. But in both cases you’re pitting NIMBY concerns against regional concerns. The larger a city you have, the more diluted the NIMBY voices are within the overall governmental framework.

About the only way to screw this up is to devolve decision-making authority to sub-units. DC and NYC do this with zoning decisions, which is sort of exactly why DC and NYC have ludicrous zoning policy. By contrast, Houston’s super neighborhoods are strictly advisory bodies. If you had any doubts you can check out the official site which uses the words “stakeholder,” “plan,” and “priority” twice each in the span of three paragraphs. Anytime you see those words, you know that no actual, real decisions are being made. And that’s the right way to do it.

This post originally appeared in Keep Houston Houston on November 1, 2012.

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

No, Freeways Are Not Dead by Keep Houston Houston

[ Houston is a city that isn't widely regarded in urbanist circles, but some folks like it just fine the way it is. One of them is the blogger behind Keep Houston Houston, who recently resumed posting after a hiatus. He enjoys putting out the other side of the case, so I though I'd share a piece with you. This one examines whether or not the era of the freeway is over in light of a number of recent freeway removals. Even if you don't agree, I hope you enjoy - Aaron.]

I think this is probably the third article I’ve read in the last month asking: “Are Freeways Doomed?” “Is THIS the post-freeway age?” “Are Urban areas moving on?”

Uh, no.

All of these pieces work like any “bogus trend” piece – string together a few anecdotes, posit a trend, quote a couple authoritative-sounding people, call it a day. And indeed, more than one freeway has been removed in this country. But there’s no trend toward de-freewayization; quite the opposite in fact. What’s missing, then, is the underlying reasons for the changes.

Fundamentally, there are two reasons for US freeway closures:
(i) The freeway was replaced by a newer and bigger freeway, built to better design standards, at which time the old facility was abandoned.
(ii) The freeway was part of a link in a grand “master plan” that was truncated by the “freeway revolts” of the 70′s. In other words, it was pre-obsolesced by non-completion of the network.

Some examples:

Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland, Oregon
Berkeley’s “Preservation Institute” says: “When Portland decided to tear down the Harbor Drive freeway, the city made one of key decisions that transformed it into a national model for effective city planning.” Well… maybe. What actually happened was that they had one freeway built to 1942 standards, and in 1964 they opened up another freeway half-a-mile away built to 1964 standards. That was I-5 – the Eastbank Freeway – and it’s still truckin’ almost 50 years later.

Now it’s true that some traffic engineers freaked out about the idea. Even if Harbor Drive only had 24k ADT (which is well down into arterial territory), it was still predicted the city would grow. And considering how slowly traffic crawls across the Marquam Bridge today, you know, there was probably a grain of truth in the forecast. But what the engineers didn’t predict was that Portland would soon enact a ridiculously strict downtown height and FAR ordinance in an effort to ward off further skyscrapers in favor of the existing Glazed Terra Cotta building stock. This essentially killed office development downtown and pushed the region’s employment base into an intensely suburban, office-park-dominated form. In fact, low-rise office parks are the very first thing you see when you cross the UGB into Greater Portland, whether you’re coming in on 26 East or I-5 North.

Those silly traffic engineers thought Downtown office space would keep expanding, like any American city. Instead the downtown office market was frozen in time, new construction confined only to condos and fair trade vegan clothing boutiques. But what really cinched the deal was when they went and built yet another freeway less than a mile away. Sandwiched by parallel north-south freeways of (then) modern design, serving a downtown whose development would be forever stunted, there would never be a need for the widened and straightened Harbor Drive.

Park East Freeway, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Milwaukee is a case where the infrastructure was obsolesced by the freeway revolts. In the original plan for Milwaukee’s freeway system, there were two north-south trunk highways – one inland, and one along the lake. While the inland route got built as planned (and is now signed as I-94 and I-43), the Lakefront route was only half finished. Thus the Park East Freeway – which, as designed, would’ve been an important connector distributing traffic between Lakefront and Inland routes – was rendered a fairly truncated spur. Not really necessary in its original form. And while Milwaukee gets New Urbanist props for killing the spur, it’s instructive to note what they replaced it with.

A brand-new surface street, striped for four lanes but obviously designed for six, got put right in its place. Now, from my perspective, as an infrastructure guy, I think this is pretty sweet. The original freeway was designed primarily as a connector (with distribution functions secondary), so it didn’t utilize a lot of the Milwaukee grid. A proper downtown highway spur should crap traffic out onto every surface street in sight, like 527 does. Thus the new surface street does a better job at fulfilling its primary raison d’etre, since it was actually designed for that purpose. It’s also more amenable to condos than an elevated highway is, which can be good for property values – and good for the local government, if they don’t piss it all off into 20- and 30-year tax abatements like PDX does.

But a green eco-symbol this is not; it’s just the engineers replacing a middling facility with a better one.

Claiborne Expressway, New Orleans, Louisiana

This one is actually still there, although there’s a good chance it’ll disappear in the next decade. If you’ve read Divided Highways you’ve read the tales of Claiborne’s vibrant business and music scene before the coming of the elevated. The pictures I’ve seen show a mostly auto-oriented strip of gas stations and buy-here-pay-here lots. But these also have their charm, and I’m sympathetic to the argument. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been put there.

What we do know for certain is the Claiborne didn’t last ten years before it had been supplanted with I-610, which cut several miles off the route for through-traffic. At this point the Claiborne became essentially just a spur, albeit one masquerading as a through route.

Even just as a spur, there would be a pretty decent argument for the Claiborne’s continued existence… except that the downtown NOLA office market isn’t exactly booming. In fact the consensus is, during times when a surface-street Claiborne would be slow, all the extra traffic could just be routed up the Ponchartrain, which is a solid eight lanes with full-width shoulders and feeder roads. Even CNU proposes that they add a direct connector for this purpose.

Transportation improvements are GREAT. Just don’t try to front like it’s some sort of repudiation of the basic need to move large quantities of cars in and out of a city.

Mas
You can find more examples wherever you look. The Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco was supposed to have been a vital shortcut between the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, providing a downtown through route to complement the east bay’s 580. In fact they only got it about 1/3rd built before they ran into rich white people neighborhoods and the rest of it got canceled. The truncated version lasted until an earthquake killed it, at which point it was deemed not worth saving. But what if they’d finished it?

It’s not too hard to figure out what would’ve happened, since basically the same freeway got constructed in Seattle – the Alaskan Way Viaduct. When that freeway got wounded in a quake, they just patched it up with duct tape and JB Weld and set about planning Seattle’s Big Dig as a replacement. If the Viaduct had been cut off halfway – say, if it never went north of the Seneca exit – well, it’d probably have been torn down by now and replaced with a tourist trolley. Conversely, if the Embarcadero had been completed as designed, San Francisco would have almost certainly embarked on its own “Big Dig.”

The West Side Highway in New York… are you kidding me? New York was broke in the 70′s. The highway collapsed because there wasn’t enough money to do even preventive maintenance. And certainly not enough to rebuild. In fact, they didn’t even tear it down for another 15 years – it just sat up there, closed to traffic. Yet even this gets spun as some sort of “cities transcending the freeway” narrative.

The Freeway Revolts Are Over

Assuming our economy doesn’t implode into one big Teapartian circlejerk, we’ll continue to build newer and better highways that obsolesce old ones. And when that happens, those old ones will make great spots for redevelopment. If I was Houston, I’d seriously be looking at I-10 between Crockett and Jensen – which has, by far, the worst geometry of any of the downtown freeways – and moving it about a half a mile north, opening up more of the north side of the Bayou to development.

What’s not going to happen anymore are the truncated spurs, the freeways rendered obsolete by revolts. It’s not because the concerns over freeways – legitimate and NIMBY alike – have gone away. It’s just that engineers have become sensitive to them.

The master freeway plans of the 40′s and 50′s were models of rationality and efficiency. But they didn’t really account for anything besides rationality and efficiency. Houston largely followed theirs and it’s one of the reasons the place is so easily navigable today. But the original plans also sliced right through parks, forests, wetlands, whitepeople neighborhoods. And thus the revolts.

It’s arguable that we’ve lost something. Newer highway alignments are no longer quite the paragons of scientific virtue they were in the drafting easel era. In a smaller, newer city like Tulsa, you can see the difference between 50′s and 60′s alignment studies versus modern ones.

I look at the alignment for SH 130 south of Austin and I has a sad. So many squiggles. “YO DAWG, WE HEARD YOU LIKE CORNERS SO WE PUT A 3-DEGREE REVERSE CURVE IN HERE SO YOU CAN AVOID ANY TAKINGS FROM DA MOBILE HOME PARK.” This doesn’t necessarily result in better highways. What it does result in is highways that will be built.

And this is where the post-freeway era ends. There’s a very limited supply of highways that are “overbuilt” as a result of their connections never materializing. New construction isn’t going to provide us with any more because they’ll detour and slosh around anything that might have put up a fight 40 years ago. As time goes on, the pace of freeway removal will *slow*, not increase.

Clickbait article writers, take note.

This post originally appeared in Keep Houston Houston on December 7, 2011.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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