Monthly Archives: May 2008

Cost-Effective Reductions in Greenhouse Gases

A new brief from the Brookings Institution says American cities should “expand transit and compact development options” in order to reduce their “carbon footprints.” The brief is based on a study, but frankly, I don’t think the study supports the conclusions.

The study compared per-capita carbon emissions from transit systems with a crude estimate of carbon emissions from driving. But it failed to note that per passenger mile carbon emissions from transit tend to be more than from driving. The study also looked at residential carbon emissions, but not emissions from other sources. The study used so many shortcuts — for example, estimating carbon emissions based on miles driven rather than using actual fuel consumption data — that it is likely rife with errors.

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Houston: The Opportunity City

No doubt a lot of people think I am some kind of nut for promoting Houston’s land-use and transportation policies. But I am not the only nut to do so.

Another writer who finds Houston attractive is Joel Kotkin, who has written several books about cities and urban areas. Kotkin is no free-marketeer, but based on his assessment of Houston, he is proposing a new paradigm that he calls “opportunity urbanism.” His recent report of that name contrasts this idea with Richard Florida’s “creative class” policies.

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Houston in Perspective

On the day I flew to Houston a couple of weeks ago, I received an email from an old friend, an Oregon elected official who supports the state’s land-use planning program. Responding to my invitation to attend the Preserving the American Dream conference, he said he had been to Houston once before and it was “a living hell.” Then he added (ungraciously, I thought), if I liked it so well, why didn’t I move there?

I suspect that our attitude when we visit a place for the first time has a great deal to do with how we view that place afterwards. I admit that I, raised to believe that no landscape east of the Rockies could be worth visiting, took a long time to warm up to places such as New York and New Jersey (which, as it turns out, both have much beautiful scenery). Plus, I’ve noticed that the first objection many planning advocates have against Houston is its climate: “it’s hot and humid.” Yet I doubt any of them really believe that planners can do anything about local climates.

Kunstler might call this nowheresville, but the photographer called it “suburban bliss.”
Flickr photo by The Other Dan.

In any case, I came to Houston prepared to like it, and I did. This doesn’t prove anything; I may have looked at the city and region through rose-colored glasses. (Actually, I wore my amber ones.) I’ll be the first to admit that Houston isn’t perfect, and due to my ingrained prejudice against flat, I will probably never live there.

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Long-Range Planning Is Irrational

Today, the Cato Institute released a new report, Roadmap to Gridlock: The Failure of Long-Range Metropolitan Transportation Planning. Based on a review of more than 75 long-range transportation plans, the review has two major findings.

First, only two of the plans reviewed bothered to follow the “Rational Planning Model” that is taught in every planning school. This model calls for the identification of goals, the development of alternative ways of meeting those goals, evaluation of those alternatives, and selection or development of a preferred alternative that best meets the goals.

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Houston Through a Bus Window Part 2: Sienna

Click here for part 1.

After lunch at a typical Texas restaurant, our buses trundled out to Sienna Plantation, one of more than two dozen master-planned communities in Fort Bend County alone. Fort Bend is one of ten counties in the Houston meto area. Covering 10,500 acres, Sienna Plantation includes churches, schools, shops, parks, and single- and multi-family homes. The developer, Johnson Development Company, purchased the land, built levies to protect the area from floods, subdivided it, installed utilities, and sells parcels to builders, the local school district, and other companies. Johnson does not build any homes itself.

A map of Sienna Plantation. Click for a larger view.

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Back in the Air Again

On Monday, May 26, the Antiplanner will fly to Washington DC. Tuesday, May 27, I will participate in a Cato forum on transportation. If you are in DC and want a free lunch, please register by noon on Monday (sorry for the short notice). You can also use this link to watch the forum web cast.

On Wednesday, May 28, I will participate in a Cato forum on housing. Again, you can register by noon Tuesday and get a free lunch, but this forum will not be web cast.

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Houston Through a Bus Window

Last Friday, the Antiplanner joined other participants at the Preserving the American Dream conference on a bus tour of Houston. The first half of the tour focused on the downtown-Galleria area, while the second half zipped to the suburbs to see a master-planned community.

This classic bungalow is in a neighborhood of fine homes that are probably protected with deed restrictions.

In the city, we saw stately manors, skinny houses, granny flats, mid-rise housing, and high-rise condos. We saw gated communities with strict covenants, and in areas with no covenants we saw mixed-use, mixed-income, and mixed-density neighborhoods.

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Gas Prices Up, So Cut Transit Service

Gas prices are at record levels, transit ridership is growing, so what do transit agencies do? Cut service!. Denver’s Regional Transit District says it plans to cut some of its “lowest-performing routes,” including one of its light-rail lines.

Of course, transit agencies face higher fuel costs, too. And since transit fares cover only 28 percent of average transit costs (and just 13 percent in Denver), increased ridership doesn’t pay for much of the increased cost.

RTD says that one of the buses it plans to cut costs $330,000 a year and only carries 295 riders a day. Assuming they mean “weekday” (and annual ridership tends to be about 300 times weekday ridership), that works out to an operating cost of about $3.73 a rider. But the average bus operated by RTD costs $3.46 a rider, which isn’t much less.

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Houston’s Housing Market: Neither Boom nor Bust

The Preserving the American Dream conference in Houston this past weekend was a lot of fun, but also pretty exhausting. I’ll have more detailed reports in upcoming posts, but for now here is an article about Houston’s housing market by a Federal Reserve Bank economist.

“Given that Houstonians had access to the same new types of mortgages as the rest of the country and that Houston has had greater population growth than other large metros, we might expect price appreciation to be stronger in Houston than elsewhere,” says the article. “However, the opposite has been true.”

The reason? Houston’s lack of zoning and its large supply of land available for development allowed builders to respond to easy credit by increasing the pace of construction. Slow and unpredictable permitting processes prevented builders in many other regions, including Florida and the Pacific Coast states, from similarly stepping up production.

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