September 28, 2003
Houston's urbanity

This great op-ed piece in today's Chron makes a good economic argument for rail, and also puts its finger on something that I'd peripherally thought about but hadn't quite formed into a real idea yet. Let's start with his case for rail:

Many people who oppose the Metropolitan Transit Authority's November referendum argue that the major priority of public transit should be to make life easier for people who don't use transit -- drivers. If a transit plan doesn't appear to do this, opponents say, then more roads should be built instead of transit. The goal, they say, should be to reduce traffic congestion. But that should not be a high-priority goal of transit operation, and it is probably impossible to achieve with any transportation strategy.

Anthony Downs, one of the nation's top authorities on growth and transportation, flatly told Congress a couple of years ago that rush-hour congestion can't be reduced, and certainly not by expanding roads. Market doctrine says that people will use something that is free until it is gone, and likewise, free travel space will be used until it is full.

The most common approach in attempting to reduce congestion is to add more lanes. But evidence is overwhelming that adding more highway lanes produces a dynamic generally known as induced demand. That is, if you make it possible to travel faster on a roadway, more people will use it and many will decide to live farther away from jobs as a result. Soon the road is full again.

Houston is a terrific example of this. Even though for a period in the 1990s our region was spending more on roads than any state except California, travel delay increased by 97 percent, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

Transit's highest purpose is to provide citizens with more mobility choices. People who choose to live in a situation where transit makes a car generally unnecessary simply don't participate in congestion; they avoid it. Each of those people, of course, is also not contributing to congestion.

That's exactly right. Houston is a sprawled-out car culture not because of divine intervention but because no competition for cars has been admitted. We pour money into roads, and the development has followed. Hell, as often as not, the development leads the way, with master planned communities of cul-de-sacs and strip centers, knowing that the roads will follow. It's why I reject arguments that Houston is inherently inhospitable to rail. Why can't (or won't) development follow rail? There's no guarantee it will, but to say that it can't happen is baloney.

More importantly, author David Crossley notes that what this is really all about is supporting an urban, rather than suburban, lifestyle.

Urbanity is about a world in which things are close together, with the sidewalk as the principal means of transportation within the urban place, and with the urban places connected to each other by transit.

Urbanity can be in many places all over the region, but its primary concentration has to be in the central city, radiating from downtown. We already are seeing in Houston's downtown a massive reconstruction of our central business district. With the opening in January of the Main Street light-rail line we will quickly see urbanity spread down through Midtown, jump Hermann Park, and pick up again in the Texas Medical Center, which is a small city in its own right (more jobs than downtown San Diego).

Urban commercial and residential places are stunted by the need to move and store cars. Parking areas push productive uses apart. Streets inconvenience and even endanger the primary denizens of the city, pedestrians.

In not-quite-urban places like Uptown/Galleria, the stores and services could easily accommodate more people, and thus more transactions, but more people cannot come because the only way to get there is by car. The desire, or demand, of many people to get to these places is inhibited by the difficulty of access. And, of course, the space given over to parking cars is space not being utilized for economic development.

The people who want a more urban lifestyle are at least 30 percent of us, maybe more. That percentage is definitely growing as our demographics change radically in the next 20 years or so. People who live and work in the urban zone are the most efficient users of tax money, infrastructure and land in the region. Twenty-five percent of residents inside the Loop live on only 17 percent of the land. Only a small fraction of that urban market is being served today.

Encouraging as much as possible of this efficient urban dynamic should be a high priority in the Houston region, because it can remove from the suburban system a huge group of people who are perfectly willing, even eager, to live a far more compact urban lifestyle.

But in order to provide this demographic group with the ability to make the urban choice, the most urban portions of the region need safe, convenient, high-quality transit.

What Crossley is arguing is that this fight is about improving the lives of folks who live in and around Houston's urban centers. With Metro's plans scaled back to a modest 22 miles of rail, that's even more true, since most of what will be paid for now won't go anywhere near Houston's outer suburbs. In doing so, the debate is framed as making a choice about those who live primarily inside the Loop and who would stand to benefit from having enhanced transportation options.

When considered in that light, the recent actions of Rep. John Culberson are neither evil nor wrong, at least not in an absolute sense. Culberson's choice is clear - he doesn't want to spend any money on urban Houston if he doesn't have to. From his perspective, it doesn't benefit his constituency, while road construction does. It's logical and defensible as far as that goes, no matter how much steam it makes come out of my ears.

(Of course, one could also mention that the Republican Party in general, which gets much of its strength from the suburbs, has little reason to lift a finger to help urban areas, which are mostly Democratic. The same is true in reverse - I for one would happily vote to kill Metro's payouts for road maintenance to its non-Houston member cities. And I still think that Culberson's methods for giving his side the upper hand in this fight are often reprehensible.)

I doubt that either the pro-rail or anti-rail forces will make their case in such stark city-versus-suburbs terms in their advertising. I'm not even sure who'd have the advantage if either one tried. And for sure, one can live in the suburbs and see value in Metro's plan, and one can live inside the Loop and see it as a boondoggle. I do see it as being a net plus for the city, but I also see it as being good for me, and I see no reason to feel any shame in admitting that.

If you want some background, a Google search on Crossley shows he's the president of the Gulf Coast Institute, on the executive board of Blueprint Houston, and has a number of published articles on this theme, including one that more directly addresses the urban-suburban dichotomy.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 28, 2003 to Elsewhere in Houston | TrackBack