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This is a really interesting article on Houston. Probably the most car-centric city and certainly the most anti-zoning, given that it doesn’t have any, city in the nation, Houston is an urban planning disaster. But there are interesting trends taking place there:

Houston’s expansion is going in two directions at once. While development on the suburban fringe continues, there is intense focus on the urban core.

According to the Houston Area Survey published last month by Rice University’s Kinder Institute, fully half of the respondents said they prefer a walkable urban lifestyle to a suburban one. That still leaves plenty of people to fill the master-planned communities and subdivisions going up on the outskirts. But it also indicates that many Houstonians want amenities that only a denser city can offer.

The evidence of the demand is plain: From 2013 to 2014, the average home price in the city of Houston rose from $248,000 to $270,000. That $22,000 is a small step compared to many American cities, but a giant leap for Houston. Even with a slight drop this year, increases like that demonstrate that cheap housing might not be a limitless resource.

Many longtime city residents are understandably nervous, eyeing new development as a threat that could price them out of neighborhoods that have historically been affordable. Along with continuing to lure newcomers, can the city, as it gentrifies, avoid displacing low-income people?

To assess Houstonians’ deepest fears, the most recent Houston Area Survey asked an open-ended question: “What would you say is the biggest problem facing people in the Houston area today?”

Nearly one-third said traffic.

Previous surveys revealed concerns that were arguably more harrowing. In 1987, 71 percent cited economic woes. In 1994, 70 percent named crime. This year’s survey lists both of those concerns at 21 percent. In many ways, the responses mirror the city’s prosperity. The economic boom has meant less desperation, more residents and more cars on the road. Traffic is a sign of economic vibrancy, especially when many Houstonians have no alternative.

“We have been fairly successful at a traditional car-centric approach to providing access and mobility to our residents,” says Walsh.

That’s an understatement. With 16.4 public transit trips per capita per year as of 2013, Houston ranks 91st out of 290 cities included in a National Transit Database study. Philadelphia, with a comparable metro population, ranks 10th, with 68 trips per capita. That means that as the Houston region adds population, it adds a disproportionately high number of car trips.


However radical the retooled bus system is, it is nothing compared to the expansion of the city’s light-rail network.

Last May, the east-west Green Line opened along the median of Harrisburg Boulevard and through the East End, and the southeast Purple Line opened connecting downtown with local universities. Extensions are under construction. Monthly rail ridership is up 24 percent from March 2015.

Rather than shuttle white-collar commuters into a central business district from suburban areas, Houston’s lines are designed to take city-dwellers from one urban neighborhood to others. Some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods are now in easy reach of its biggest employment centers. The new east side lines give residents access not only to downtown but also to the University of Houston and the Texas Medical Center, the latter of which is the largest medical center in the world. Its employment base of 106,000 is bigger than that of all but a handful of American downtowns.

“Houston ended up with probably the most interesting rail system in the country in that it really is concentrated on the urban core,” says Zakcq Lockrem, director of planning at planning firm Asakura Robinson, which has offices in Austin and Houston. “It’s about urban people living an urban life.”

The article addresses other problems Houston has–including gentrification and flooding. But just focusing on the transportation and density issues, this is a strong sign that even if the most car-centric city in the country, there’s a strong desire for density and good public transportation. So often we assume that because people move to a place like Houston and buy a suburban house that it’s because that’s what they are choosing. But those choices are heavily determined by public policy. If you are moving to Houston, what other choice have you had for the last 50 years? We need to stop assuming suburbia is the default desire of Americans and start providing actual opportunities for urban lifestyles. If the people of Houston are feeling this way, they almost certainly are everywhere else in the country.

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  • Thirtyish

    We need to stop assuming suburbia is the default desire of Americans and start providing actual opportunities for urban lifestyles.

    Quoted simply because it needed to be said again.

  • Denverite

    Probably the most car-centric city

    Is Houston really any more car-centric than the other hot-as-hell Sun Belt cities? Dallas, San Antonio, Phoenix, Little Rock, Oklahoma City, etc.?

    I really like Houston. It has some fun neighborhoods, great food, etc. But the weather is quite literally the worst in the country. I’ve lived somewhere where there is snow on the ground from November to April and the winter sunlight lasts 3-4 hours. That weather is better than Houston’s.

    • NonyNony

      Not even having visited Houston – what’s wrong with its weather?

      • Heat, heat and more heat. Plus probably the worst humidity I’ve ever felt this side of Guam.

      • Denverite

        Dallas heat meets Florida humidity. From May through September, it’s usually 90+ degrees with 75%+ humidity. You get days where it is over 100 with high humidity.

        I had a bunch of family in Houston when I was growing up. They literally all left or died. Most did so because they just couldn’t take the weather any more.

        • They literally all left or died. Most did so because they just couldn’t take the weather any more.

          I love the (unintentional?) fuzziness of so’s antecedent here. That’s some pretty bad weather, tell you what!

          • Denverite

            Intentional. I had an uncle who died of an unexpected heart attack after working in the sun. The docs thought it was at least influenced by the heat.

            • Around here, it’s shoveling the snow that causes the weather-related heart attacks.

              • twbb

                The problem with snow shoveling is the cold frequently keeps you from realizing how hard you’re working. At least in a hot climate you’ll give your heart a break when you take a break because of the heat.

            • Origami Isopod

              Yeah… heat kills more people than any other type of weather. People who rail against all air conditioning never take this into account. I’m aware of the environmental costs of A/C, but that’s not the whole story.

        • Atrios

          I hate the common argument that “transit won’t work here/no one will stand at bus/train stops and walk because it’s too hot.” Almost everywhere in the US has 4-5 months of shitty weather per year. Some mostly hot, some mostly cold, some split between summer and winter. I even hear this from people in LA, who spend most of the time bragging about the weather and the worst of it isn’t usually very bad.

          • Here in Ohio we get all that in the same week.

            • Woodrowfan

              having grown up in southern Ohio and now having lived almost 30 years in DC I can say the weather in both places are a lot alike, except that Ohio got more snow (and knew how to handle it!). hot and humid summers, cold gray winter, rainy spring and fall, and that’s just an average day in April.

          • Denverite

            Almost everywhere in the US has 4-5 months of shitty weather per year.

            With notably rare exceptions!

            (A lot of people think of Denver as this snowy wasteland. In fact, the winters are exceedingly mild. You get a handful of three day cold stretches or snow storms, but in general, it’s 45-50 degrees and sunny. The snow that does fall usually doesn’t make it to a third sunrise. And then the summers are usually in the 80s with low humidity.)

            • DrS

              I’ve actually been thinking about Denver. Are there urban neighborhoods where one could get by without a car? How’s the transit? Bike friendly?

              • Denverite

                Are there urban neighborhoods where one could get by without a car?

                Yes. Craploads. Ranging from cute little neighborhoods with early 20th century bungalows (Wash Park) to downtown lofts (LoDo) to small town suburbs (Littleton). You’d want to be picky within those neighborhoods to make sure to live close enough to the train stop and shopping, but with that caveat, it’s completely doable. We were a one car family until the kids started needing different school drops. I got by with bus/train/Car2Go/uber.

                How’s the transit?

                Great. Light rail goes throughout the city and many of the ‘burbs (again, the stations are far enough apart that you’d want to factor distance to a stop into your housing decision). There’s extensive bus service.

                Bike friendly?

                Yes. Perhaps the friendliest in America. I know several people who commute by bike from the suburbs. There are multiple dedicated bike trails that take you into downtown from as far away as 20 miles.

                • What’s the story with Stapleton? There were high hopes that it would be built out as a model of walkable urbanism.

                • Denverite

                  Stapleton is weird. It’s “walkable” in the sense that there are well-maintained sidewalks, trails, parks, etc. But unless you live close to the big shopping center (and the train stop opened within the last month), you’d need to drive to have access to restaurants, retail, groceries, etc.

                  The big draw with Stapleton is that you can get new construction with great schools, lots of parks and open space, and a convenient location (about halfway in between downtown and the airport) for a more affordable price.

                • Brett

                  Denver was great the couple times I’ve been there. The pleasure of living in the mountains with seasons and not too bad winter weather, without the annoying crap imposed by an anti-booze church with a large presence on local politics (I live in the Salt Lake Valley).

                  And I definitely would not be a fan of Houston summer weather. Orlando in July was bad enough when I was there for a few weeks.

                • wjts

                  My 30-year-old memories paint Denver as being very bicycle-friendly. Some of the main surface streets (Montview) had dedicated bike lanes.

          • Amanda in the South Bay

            I relied on transit exclusively while living in Santa Clara County, and waiting out in the heat wasn’t fun (esp next to a busy road like Stevens Creek or ElVamino). That’s not going to attract people who own cars and are sympathetic to transit.

            • waiting out in the heat wasn’t fun (esp next to a busy road like Stevens Creek or ElVamino).

              Street trees are an absolute necessity for successful pedestrian (and therefore transit) supportive cities. Cutting glare, cutting dust, fighting the heat-island effect.

              Even in 70 degree weather, one of those transparent-plastic bus stop shelters in direct sunlight will be sweltering on a sunny day.

              Seriously, street tree installation should be treated as a core element of transit and pedestrian projects, not an amenity like banners or nice brick work.

              • Amanda in the South Bay

                And orienting shelters so you don’t have to be exposed to be exposed to the afternoon sun. People who rely on transit don’t have a choice, they’ll wait outside in any weather. But it is a deterrent to car owners who want t do their civic duty.

              • Murc

                Even in 70 degree weather, one of those transparent-plastic bus stop shelters in direct sunlight will be sweltering on a sunny day.

                Why… why would you stand inside it?

                I visit Toronto regularly, and when I wait for the bus or the streetcar in the summer, I don’t stand inside those shelters unless it is raining, in which case it is… cloudy!

                Those shelters are for inclement weather. Having just a windbreak in the winter can be a godsend. But in the summer you just… don’t use them?

                • My point is, they become that much hotter in actual hot weather. They aren’t “shelters” from that type of bad weather at all.

                • so-in-so

                  Also, not so much standing as sometimes the only seating is inside, so you stand in the direct sun on concrete outside or sit in the sweltering heat inside.

                  This is true even in much more temperate climes in the summer.

                • NonyNony

                  Shade. If you are standing out in the sun for 15 minutes many of us will fry to a crisp if we don’t have sunscreen or shade.

                  I’ve often had the choice of baking in a bus shelter built for winter weather or frying in the afternoon sun. And that’s here in Ohio – I can’t imagine doing it somewhere hotter than it gets around here in the summer.

                • Origami Isopod

                  Disabled people will still need somewhere to sit.

            • Amanda in the South Bay

              That should be El Camino obviously.

          • DAS

            One of the challenges with weather and mass transit is the difference in temperature between outside and inside the vehicle. If you are waiting in freezing weather for a bus, you are probably bundled up to the hilt. But then you get on the bus or perhaps a subway train and you are suddenly in a hot environment where you need to shed your winter coat … and how do you do that in a standing room only bus/car when you are also managing your briefcase and lunchbox?

            Similarly, you can go from a walking in the heat outside to an even hotter subway platform to a freezing car. So how need to bring a coat along with everything you need for work! And you are schlepping this all in the heat!

            These tempeture extremes are manageable in NYC or even DC and Boston, but I’d hate to think about commuting using mass transit in anyplace hotter than DC or colder than Boston.

            • Amanda in the South Bay

              Yep busses and trains need reliable AC on a lot.

              • lunaticllama

                And when it’s really hot, even if you are “under-dressed” for the AC, it’s a welcome respite. I commute every day via bus and subway from NJ to NYC and even if it feels too cold inside a subway car or bus, it’s a relief to get out of the heat and humidity.

                • DAS

                  It’s definitely better than the other way: i.e. when it is cold outside and then you end up on an overheated subway car. Still, for some of us, these sudden temperature changes (coupled with exposure to everyone’s germs) are a recipe for getting sick.

          • McKingford

            Not to mention that with the advent of smart phones, does anyone really need to *wait* for transit anymore? With open data and app development, I have to think that if not presently, then within the next couple years, just about any major city in the Western world allows a user to time their arrival with the arriving bus/LRT. In Toronto, I have at least 5 apps to choose from and I know I can leave my house when the streetcar shows that it’s 4 minutes away and essentially walk right on.

        • NonyNony

          Dallas heat meets Florida humidity.

          Ok back up for a second – are you describing Houston or a literal circle of Hell?

          • Rob in CT


            • DrS

              As soon as I got off the plane I knew I was somewhere that starts with H.

              • N__B

                Were you at Hobby or George Bush Intergalactic?

      • Lost Left Coaster

        I wholly agree with Denverite. Worst weather I have encountered in the USA. Period. I have spent weeks there visiting family (who no longer live there). It can be over 85 and humid in the middle of winter. In the summer, you’re house to car to work to car to house with the A/C full blast pretty much 24/7 for about 9 months.

        • DrS

          There is nothing like a nice summer morning in Houston, where even at 7 AM a 50 foot walk from the door to the car will leave you drenched in sweat.

          • Lost Left Coaster

            Yeah, it drove my family crazy that for so much of the year, you never get any relief, no cool breeze, no open windows in the evening, no drinks at dusk on the porch. Just shelter from the heat.

          • skate

            There are too nice summer mornings in Houston. They just occur in April.

            I lived in Houston for 7+ years while in grad school. Weather effing sucked, and the transit situation was dire.

    • Karen24

      Texans talk about how dreadful the weather is in Houston. I have to go there once a year or so for business, almost always in the summer, and there is no misery on Earth quite like 102 degrees with 95% humidity. Manila has better weather, even with the typhoons.

      • rea

        It’s no accident that almost no one lived there before air conditioning

        • sparks

          The Astrodome came about for the same reason. Colt Stadium was a miserable place to watch a game.

  • ThrottleJockey

    But the weather is quite literally the worst in the country. I’ve lived somewhere where there is snow on the ground from November to April and the winter sunlight lasts 3-4 hours. That weather is better than Houston’s.

    A shit load better than Houston…and the air pollution there makes pig farms smell good in comparison!

  • ThrottleJockey

    The problem with density is that it bids up the cost of housing. If you compare Philly’s housing prices to Houston’s I’m sure you’ll find that the former is many times more than the latter. Your money goes a loooooot farther there than in cities like Chicago. Houstonians have made a working class life affordable and they should be commended for that.

    Walking in that city is just insane. Walk 2 blocks and you’ll look like you’ve spent a half hour in a sauna.

    • MaxUtility

      I think you might be confusing cause and effect though. Density doesn’t make housing get more expensive. Density seems to align well with desirability. When a lot of people want something, it gets expensive. Other things being equal, creating more housing by adding density will bring down the cost of housing. Of course the flip side is that if you can keep your neighborhood crappy and undesirable, house prices stay low!

      • ColBatGuano

        Yeah, I’d like to see the mechanism in which lower density would drive down prices in a desirable neighborhood.

    • The problem with density is that it bids up the cost of housing.

      …because nothing increases prices more than greater supply, am I right?

      If density, which is naturally less expensive because of land costs, is relatively expensive, it’s because there is substantial unmet market demand for dense housing. Which, as a matter of fact, there is. Urban-scale housing is vastly undersupplied. It’s not the dense housing itself that bids up the price of that which does exist, but the scarcity of it.

      • LeeEsq

        The problem with urban housing is that the politics of real estate make building an adequate supply hard in an urban area. There are wealthy people with incentives to lower the amount of available housing.

        • This is just as true in the suburbs, though. You can’t build a subdivision next to my subdivision! The traffic will lower my property values!

          And I think your comment is mainly applicable to big cities. Cities like Lowell love redevelopment, love new residential units downtown.

      • DAS

        Certainly more people per unit area of land means the price of land per unit area will go up because of increased competition for that land. I think the question is if the price increase is linear: if the price increases linearly with density, then things cancel and density would have no effects on housing costs. If the price increases sub-linearly, then denser places would, all other things being equal, be cheaper. OTOH, If the price increases super-linearly, then denser areas would be more expensive.

        • Certainly more people per unit area of land means the price of land per unit area will go up because of increased competition for that land.

          Ah, but the “unit of land” isn’t the same between denser and less-dense areas. Certainly, an acre in even Lowell’s poorest neighborhoods is worth more than an acre in one of the suburbs near us, but that acre can host 10x as many housing units in Lowell, and the overall cost difference certainly isn’t 10x.

          The land cost necessary to build 6 units in Centralville (pronounced Center-ville, because Lowell is awesome) is less than building 2, perhaps even 1, unit in the town of Andover.

          • DAS

            So that would be my “sub-linear” case: you have 10x the population density, but the cost per unit area of land does not increase by a factor of 10 but rather by a smaller factor.

            • One caveat: 10x the density of residential units, not people.

              Big single-family homes in the suburbs have a lot more people per household than apartments in the city, because of who lives in each. Very few singles or couples without kids buy large-lot single-family homes.

              Related to this point about household size: when people compare the total populations of older cities in the mid-20th century to today, in order to show that there has been decline as people allegedly fled them for libertarian paradises in the sunbelt, tell them to look at # of households, not total population. Boston has many more households today than it did at its population peak. The difference is, there are very few families with 6-10 kids anymore.

    • Hogan

      If you compare Philly’s housing prices to Houston’s I’m sure you’ll find that the former is many times more than the latter.

      Yeah, no.

      • cackalacka

        I was going to respond to LeeEsq’s post from 22 min ago with an additional anecdote, citing a young friend who bought a town-house in a very central part of Philly for peanuts two years ago, and here you bring data.

        • I think TJ’s statement might be true if we limit it to apples-to-apples comparisons – a 2800 square foot detached single family home in Houston on half an acre is cheaper than a similar home in Philadelphia, for instance – and the overall lower price is a consequence of Philly’s more diverse housing mix.

          But that’s precisely the point: having a mix of housing types brings down prices, while demanding large-lot sfh monoculture drives them up.

          • Hogan

            a 2800 square foot detached single family home in Houston on half an acre is cheaper than a similar home in Philadelphia

            But not “many times” cheaper.

    • Lost Left Coaster

      I have spent a lot of time in Houston’s northwest suburbs. A lot of those neighborhoods don’t even have sidewalks. So walking is indeed insane. Goes back to just how car-centric that city is.

      • DrS

        My parents live in the northeast suburbs and it’s the same there. At least their neighborhood has greenbelt pathways, but there are no sidewalks.

      • LeeEsq

        I’ve never understood the no sidewalk logic. Even if your building a car-centric, low density suburb, I’d assume that people might just want to go out for a walk on occasion.

        • Hogan

          So drive somewhere with sidewalks.

        • Here in Massachusetts, we had an extremely strong real estate lobby when the subdivision control law was passed, so we ended up with something called Approval Not Required (ANR) subdivisions.

          If the new lots you create already have frontage on a public way – say you own an acre of land that extends along an old country road – you get to subdivide the land without receiving formal approval, meaning the town can’t require you to make improvements to the street. As a result, you see houses lined up on some old country road with no sidewalks and 16′ of crumbling pavement.

          It’s one of the dumbest development laws in the country, and it’s proving a bugger to reform it.

        • so-in-so

          What’s to understand? An added expense that the homeowners probably don’t want to pay for. If they thought they could sell houses without plumbing or electricity, most houses would have neither unless you paid for the upgrade.

        • Murc

          I’ve never understood the no sidewalk logic. Even if your building a car-centric, low density suburb, I’d assume that people might just want to go out for a walk on occasion.

          I’ve lived most of my life in houses (or townhomes) in large or largish subdivisions without sidewalks.

          And it’s fine. People go for walks all the time. Kids set up hockey games in the street. They just… use the road.

          The key thing is that many housing developments actually do not see a lot of traffic, even during morning and afternoon rush hour. Cars just don’t come through a lot. So you just use the street for everything. It works out okay.

          That said, there’s always been a pseudo-sidewalk in the form of concrete guttering on the side of the road that merges smoothly with the grade. Because water still has to drain somewhere when it rains and without a storm drain system everyone’s yards would just flood with road runoff.

          But there’s not a proper sidewalk and nobody really cares.

      • Fake Irishman

        Remember that Houston is geographically a huge city. Inside the I-610 loop you have many neighborhoods with decent sidewalks and good connectivity. When I first moved here in 2013, I actually bought a bicycle and was able to use it.

      • Domino

        I grew up in The Woodlands, so I guess I have the most experience when it comes to this topic.

        Yeah, no sidewalks by houses in my neighborhood, but there is a pretty robust set of them that is tree-lined and connects subdivisions to subdivisions, along with access to parks.

        As someone who was at school (briefly) for planning I learned that The Woodlands is generally considered very well designed, in that it mandated not all tree be cut down, along with sidewalks that are set away from the road and also in the middle of a lot of greenery.

        The shade that all those trees cast was critical in the Summer, when I biked with friends. Yeah, even in the shade the heat was terrible, but it would be completely unmanageable if most sidewalks didn’t have tree cover.

        • Domino

          For reference, I biked here many times when I was young, biking from around here

          Which is, of course, a short distance. But you never had to bike on any major road, just on the sidewalk.

    • Seitz

      This sounds like the absolutely batshit logic currently being displayed in Chicago by those protesting both rising rents AND new development. Logan Square isn’t gentrifying because developers are cranking out a lot of buildings. Developers are cranking out buildings because people really want to live there. That’s how supply and demand works. There’s over 1,000 new units going up on the Milwaukee Ave corridor between the California and Western stops alone. Those people aren’t building and crossing their fingers that they can get the units sold/rented.

      There may be slight kernel of truth to the idea that new development makes urban living more palatable for people were already inclined to move back to the city, but without that desire, the new buildings never go up.

      Your money goes a loooooot farther there than in cities like Chicago.

      This isn’t really true when throw in the additional cost of living outside of just rent or mortgage. Things like car ownership, maintenance, gas, parking, etc. We have a ton of Transit Oriented Developments going up in Chicago, some which virtually preclude car ownership*. Good luck finding a TOD in Houston. Even care ownership in Chicago can be somewhat inexpensive. I think I’ve filled my gas tank once since December.

      *One proposed development on the Brown line will for all intents and purposes forbid car ownership. Most of the street parking in the area is zoned. If you rent in that building, you are precluded from getting a zone permit in that neighborhood, meaning you need to somehow find zone free street parking. Good luck with that.

      • DAS

        This isn’t really true when throw in the additional cost of living outside of just rent or mortgage. Things like car ownership, maintenance, gas, parking, etc.

        Is that true? Factoring out property taxes (which are higher in NJ, although income taxes are higher in NYC), the amount of money we spend on co-op maintenance living in Queens is greater than the amount of money we’d have to spend on maintaining a single family home in NJ: maintaining an apartment building is very expensive! And parking if you live in the suburbs is typically free whereas, if you are in an urban area, even one without adequate mass transit, you may still have to either pay for parking (assuming someone even has a spot to rent) or spend a good chunk of time every day looking for a parking spot.

        Also any good or service you may want that is dependent on having a store or other business space (at say ground level) is going to be more expensive in a denser area because there are more people competing to purchase goods/services from a land-space limited number of suppliers than in the suburbs (that being said, competition does drive quality up as well, so it’s not an apples to apples comparison … and I mean that literally! produce you can get from your local greengrocer or supermarket in NYC is generally better quality than what you get from a supermarket in NJ unless you travel out to an area with actual farms!).

  • Great conclusion.

    Here’s the bit that grabbed me:

    Rather than shuttle white-collar commuters into a central business district from suburban areas, Houston’s lines are designed to take city-dwellers from one urban neighborhood to others. Some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods are now in easy reach of its biggest employment centers.

    Yay! California could take a page out of Houston’s book on this one.

    I wonder if this positive development is an ironic consequence of the car-centric culture itself, in the form of the belief that only poor people are interested in public transit.

    • Fake Irishman

      This is also an ongoing fight in Houston as well. There are some people here who value the usual bad transit (commuter rail, prioritizing train links to the airports)that serves upper class people works best. The key for activists is settle for some things that serve those interests and still work– like one of the light rail lines to Hobby airport and would pass through some very dense neighborhoods on the way there) while getting some of their key priorities — a university light rail line on Richmond ave that would connect three major job centers inside the I-610 loop., and/or a more robust bus service (which we’ve made some major upgrades to in the past year)

      • skate

        Ooh, I would have killed for a light rail line on Richmond 25 years ago. I lived on Richmond or within two blocks of it for 5 years.

    • DAS

      NYC could use a few lessons as well. Many of NYC’s remaining affordable neighborhoods are quite far from any major employment centers. So unless you work in your neighborhood itself, chances are, you have quite a long commute — it may be on an “express” line, but you still have 1+ hours to get to work. The one advantage of being further out is that you are more likely to get a seat on the subway/bus than you would be if you lived closer to your destination.

      • twbb

        “Many of NYC’s remaining affordable neighborhoods are quite far from any major employment centers.”

        That’s causation, not correlation; if you were to add a public transportation option that made the affordable neighborhood closer time-wise to employment centers, it would rapidly become unaffordable.

        The problem with NYC, like SF, is that geometrically the city can’t support the amount of people who want to live there at affordable prices. There’s not really a feasible planning solution.

        • TribalistMeathead

          Exactly. There’s a reason Williamsburg gentrified but Bay Ridge didn’t.

          • The coverage of Hurricane Sandy made me aware of a place called the Outer Rockaways.

            I don’t get it. Where do people who live there work? How are they supposed to get there?

            • DAS

              I wonder if anyone is looking at the “where do people who live here work?”/”where do people who work here live?” questions on any large scale, e.g. for mass transit planning purposes. It seems there are certain routes that are always crowded with cars where perhaps the addition of a bus route may make a huge impact, if enough people traveling on that route really are going between the same two places

            • SIS1

              They drive to one of the Subway stops in the Rockaways and do that, or work in Southern Brooklyn, Nassau, or JFK.

            • N__B

              If you think the Rockaways are strange, Google “Broad Channel.” It’s the part of NYC most likely to be the setting for Deliverance 2.

              • That’s really something. I’d never heard of that place.

                But at least there’s a subway station there. The stations in the Rockaways are all a considerable distance from the Far Rockaways.

                • N__B

                  A friend from Ozone Park* delivered pizza by bicycle when he was a kid. He said that he delivered once to a guy in Broad Channel who mentioned that he hadn’t been to “the mainland” – meaning Queens – in years.

                  *Yes, really. I grew up in Queens and I still sometimes am amazed by it.

    • stinapag

      It also has to do with the fact that TexDot funds the major in-and-out of the city routes, and TexDot’s hands are tied to road construction due to how it’s funded by the legislature. So the projects that Metro and the city does are more likely to be the modest lite rail and bus routes. I think there was a bit of NIMBY-ism with the lite rail, and businesses were concerned that construction would kill them (and it did along the Main corridor in 2002 when the first line was built). So the routes that were chosen they didn’t have as much political upheaval.

      Also, John Culberson has a lot to do with transportation funding at the federal level is allocated to the city of Houston and he hates rail. So anything on the west side of town (where a bulk of the suburbs are) is met with resistance.

      In January, the new mayor pointed out the problem of focusing on roadways to Texas Transportation Commission, and his speech calling for a paradigm shift was very well regarded. Hopefully, they’ll take some of his remarks to heart. http://usa.streetsblog.org/2016/01/29/houston-mayor-calls-for-paradigm-shift-away-from-highway-widening/

      • Fake Irishman

        Mayor Turner has said some good things about transportation here. Culbertson has been a complete clown on this — He’s put riders in the federal budget blocking any Federal money going to support the university light rail line (on behalf of a small group of homeowners on Richmond who think the line will… I don’t know…) I kind of miss the old days where Reps put stupid projects into the budget instead of blocking needed ones. Incidentally, this is a Houston tradition — the original main street line was paid for all with local money because Tom Delay blocked federal money for the line, even though it scored really high on the FTA’s criteria. Yet another reason that a Dem house majority is better than a GOP one. (Metro pulled down more than a $1billion in federal funds between 2007-2011 to expand its original line and put in two more)

  • “If you are moving to Houston, what other choice have you had for the last 50 years?”

    We moved here last fall (for a better job).

    Being Chicagoans used to urban walkable neighborhoods, we wanted to get something in the city, but with two young kids, we were more or less funneled to the suburbs. We couldn’t afford a house in the city in a walkable neighborhood, and the supply of decent houses in the city was surprisingly limited. We didn’t want a condo or townhome… we wanted some garden and garage space (We like to garden & I do some woodworking in my free time).

    We still like to walk when we go out for drinks or to the park. People in their cars look at us like we’re from Mars when they see us walking with a stroller. somewhat ironically, our area (laid out in the late 70’s) has sidewalks, parks, and some reasonably walkable areas… it wasn’t easy to find a comparably priced neighborhood like that in the city.

    granted, in a couple weeks, it will be too hot and humid to walk anywhere for most of the day. And at dawn and dusk the insects are really bad. so I can echo the comments above about the climate here being awful. It does make it hard to live a less air-conditioned, gas-guzzling lifestyle.

    • Don’t feel bad about the air conditioning. It uses less energy than heating a house in a cold climate.

      Tell us about solar down there. Does the hurricane threat prevent rooftop solar like in south Florida?

      • Really? Heating a house takes less energy? I have to say this in genuine curiosity, because although I have lived in WI for nearly all of my adult life (not counting the year in Antarctica) my roommates have always been the ones responsible for the power bill. (they tell me what my share was and I pay up, so I don’t have history of power bills to reference) I was under the impression that the summer months were more expensive than the winter. Perhaps it depends on the insulation and air tightness of the home? Perhaps I was coasting on free heat from my apartment neighbors that couldn’t stand an indoor temperature below 80 in the winter?

        • Honoré De Ballsack

          I was under the impression that the summer months were more expensive than the winter. Perhaps it depends on the insulation and air tightness of the home?

          Heating a house (supposedly) takes more energy, not less…although, obviously and as you note, geographical, design, and engineering differences make each building a unique set of conditions in terms of what the actual bill works out to.

          • DAS

            From my graduate level physical chemistry understanding of thermodynamics, wouldn’t heating even a house by X degrees take less energy than cooling it down by X degrees? After all, to heat a house by X degrees, you just need to add Y*X amount of thermal energy to the house (where Y is the total heat capacity of the house) whereas to cool a house down by X degrees you need to remove Y*X thermal energy outside (against a temperature gradient), which is a lot of work!

            OTOH, perhaps as an engineering problem its easier to build a more efficient cooling system than heating system? Or maybe the issue is just one of temperature differences: say it’s 100 Freedom degrees out and you want to maintain your house at 75 Freedom degrees: that’s only a 25 degree temperature difference. But if it’s 20 Freedom degrees out and you want to heat your house to 65 Freedom degrees, that’s a 45 degree temperature difference?

            • My understanding is that it’s a combination of the temperature differentials and the efficiency of the devices.

        • It’s definitely the apartment in a multi-family building that lowers heating bills. Fewer exterior surfaces, fewer windows, and a larger internal mass to hold heat, and what waste heat does escape goes largely into adjacent units.

          I was thinking in terms of single-family homes.

          • erick

            Here is my anecdotal data. I live in a LEED certified high rise condo in Portland, OR (so fairly mild temperatures year round)

            I probably turn the heat on less than 10 days a year. Even during the coldest days it doesn’t get below 65 inside much.

            I use the AC a lot from April – October, but that is mostly a Personal comfort level thing, I prefer it a little cooler so probably a more generic ratio for someone might be 20-30 days with heat on and 50-60 with AC.

            All in all the energy consumption is really low. When I say use heat or AC that is just for an hour or two a day usually.

        • Rob in CT

          Depends on where you are, but up here I think Joe’s right. There may be some places where it’s even or tilts the other way.

          Put another way:

          I use some A/C in the summer (June through August). But we chew through 1000 gallons of heating oil (granted, some of that is for hot water, as ours comes off the boiler) a year. That blows the A/C energy use out of the water.

          I’ve been poking around recently for more efficient boiler options (ours isn’t terrible, as it was installed in 2001, but it’s not great either).

      • cackalacka

        It uses less energy than heating a house in a cold climate.


        • That wasn’t brilliantly-written, was it?

          The total energy costs for temperature control in a house in a hot climate is lower than for a house in a cold climate, because heating the house in Maine uses more energy than cooling the house in Arkansas.

          • cackalacka

            I’m not sure if we can do an apples to apples here, thermodynamically speaking, particularly agreeing to the controls (for example there is Arkansas heat, and then there is Houston heat; Arkansas:Houston::Maine:Minnesota)

            But I am under the impression that, ignoring natural gas prices vs electric, keeping a house air conditioned on a 100* day was more energy-intensive than heating the same house that is -10*.

            Am I mistaken?

            • Scott Lemieux had a post a few months ago on this, and it turns out that heating is more energy-intensive than cooling. Not in the sense of the thermodynamics, but because of the efficiency of the heaters vs. air conditioners, and because the outside weather is usually no more than 30 degrees above comfortable, while it’s common in cold climates from the temperature to be 40, 50, even 60 degrees from comfortable.

      • Murc

        Don’t feel bad about the air conditioning.

        Nobody should ever fucking feel bad about AC.

        I know a lot of people who feel guilty about using it for some reason, like they’re making some sort of faustian bargain. They’ll hem and haw and futz around with temperature settings in the high seventies and only turn it on if it is over 90 outside.

        And I’m like… what the fuck? Do you also set the thermostat to 55 degrees in the winter and wear layers and a hat inside all the time? Because if the answer to that is no, turn your AC on and stop feeling bad. It’s your home. You deserve to not feel awful when you’re inside it, and cooling it is exactly the same as heating it.

        I think some people just view it as a “luxury” because, at least in the US, even in the high summer heat isn’t as immediately dangerous to your life and health like cold can be in the winter. I know a lot of people in my grandparents generation and a non-trivial number of those in my parents view AC as a luxury.

        (Please, god, note the qualifiers I used in those sentences. Can I not have people jumping down my throat with “well, actuallies” about the dangers of heatstroke in certain parts of the south?)

        • Denverite

          The “south.”


          Unless you mean south of Roosevelt?

          • DAS

            Well, if people in Queens can refer to Mt. Vernon as “upstate NY”, people in, for example, Wilmette, can refer to south of Roosevelt as “the South”.

            • I once asked where Upstate New York began, and received the answer “About 130th.”


        • Rob in CT

          The lady who sits next to me at work is hardcore about keeping her thermostat low in the winter. Sweaters & blankets are indeed her answer. Every year she mentions that she turned on her heat for the first time and I’m like holy shit, ours has been kicking on for like a month or two. And we’re hardly extreme about things (we aim for 66-68 in the winter and 76-78 in the summer).

          • Origami Isopod

            In the winter I keep my heat at 60 during the day, 50 at night. I wear knit caps, sweaters, and slippers indoors. I sleep under a mountain of blankets and wear a sleeping cap.

            Obviously, I don’t recommend this to everybody. But it’s not inherently impossible.

        • Hogan

          Air-conditioning is for the weak and indolent. This isn’t the Ritz, you know. Be thankful for a little breeze. It was luxuries like A/C that brought down the Roman Empire. With A/C, their windows were shut, they couldn’t hear the barbarians coming. Decadence: we’re on the verge of it, one wrong move and k-shoom! the fat man sits on your teeter-totter. You get A/C and the next day Mom leaves the house in a skin-tight dress, holding a cigarette and a glass of gin, walking an ocelot on a leash.

    • Fake Irishman

      What part of the city do you live in? I’m in Montrose where the housing prices have…. yikes… in the last 10 years. My wife graduated from Rice in 2005 and had friends who bought bungalows there for very reasonable prices and now are sitting on a gold mine.

      • stinapag

        I have a Montrose bungalow that I bought in 2002 for less than $200,000. My husband and I look every now and then for a bigger house, and there’s no where in the city that we can expand and have as good a quality of life as we do in Montrose: Walkability, green space, interesting things going on, commute (I work in the Med Center and he works downtown.), generally like-minded neighbors (though that’s changing a bit with the demographic changes). There are million dollar mcmansions being built all around us, and sooner or later I think we’ll just add on rather than move.

        • Fake Irishman

          That sounds right. Bet that Bungalow is about $600k now. My wife and I might be interested in some of the townhomes going up, but no thanks on the 4,000 sqft $1.5 million monstrosities going up. Out of our price range (and far too much for our needs)

          • stinapag

            Based on comps right now, I think it’s about $450-500, but still, I’m not sure I’d be able to afford my own home if it were on the market. I think the developers got a little overly excited about the big ones. There are seven brand new 4000 sqft plus in our neighborhood that haven’t budged on the real estate market in months. We’re deed restricted and minimum lot size restricted so they can only build one per lot, and they got really excited by the craziness of 2014. But that price point is understandably nervous about the price of oil, so I think they’re all going to sit for awhile until mass layoffs at big oil companies slow down.

            • Fake Irishman

              Yeah. I know several of the houses you’re talking about. DrMrsFakeIrishwoman and I toured a few for kicks and laughed when we realized that the closet space in the master bedroom was bigger than the living area in my last apartment near Philly.

      • we’re in Sugar Land now. like I said… we were looking in the city, but gave up.

        Buying the same house we got in the city would’ve been $100K+ more, at least, and most of the areas in the city in our price range would’ve been like the suburbs anyway. We have 2 kids, one of which is under 1 year old, so a 2-3 bedroom condo wouldn’t cut it.

        Sugar Land isn’t too bad… it’s actually more diverse than some of the neighborhoods we checked out in Houston. most of our neighbors are minorities actually (south/east Asians, Hispanics, some African Americans) so it’s not the lily white experience, which we like, though income wise, there’s not much diversity in that respect.

        • Fake Irishman

          Yeah — West Houston is generally suburban hell with all the horrible commuting problems unless you work in the Energy Corridor.

    • Seitz

      Being Chicagoans used to urban walkable neighborhoods, we wanted to get something in the city, but with two young kids, we were more or less funneled to the suburbs.

      I grew up in the suburbs of LA, which were probably just as car centric back then as Houston (’80s and ’90s). I live in Chicago now, and on really cold days when people ask why I’m still here, it’s entirely due to the urban lifestyle. I was back home a couple years ago at New Years, and driving to a party it dawned on me that I couldn’t really drink because I had to drive 45 minutes home afterward. It’s something I never even think about in Chicago. As someone who likes to drink, that’s a big plus.

      • Domino

        As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Houston, and now in a much more urban area in Kansas City, I’ve been thought about moving out somewhere on the West Coast one day. That’s in part due to vacationing in Portland and Vancouver these past 2 Summers (really liked both of them, even though they have very different vibes). But I did visit Chicago briefly last Summer, and there were parts of the city I really liked.

        Granted, the weather really would take some getting used to, but it’s a downer to read how car-centric LA is.

        • Seitz

          I think LA, like most places is getting a lot better. I grew up around Pasadena, and they have the gold line now to get downtown, which we didn’t have when I was there. I think the region is getting a lot more walkable type neighborhoods. It’s a cultural shift, though. Had I never left LA, I probably wouldn’t use the new public transportation options. It just wasn’t part of my mindset. It’s only after moving to a place where everyone uses public transportation that I was able to see how valuable it is. It will take a generation or two to really take hold in LA.

          • Jay B

            The Metro has done some great things. The Gold Line has expanded, the train to Santa Monica is almost open, that they didn’t make a convenient stop at LAX is still, to this day, an utterly lost opportunity and I’m pretty sure the Wilshire expansion is still on schedule. They need some better feeders to the stations, but the walking opportunity in places like Highland Park, South Pas, Eagle Rock and Pasadena (not to mention downtown) is getting better and better.

          • Domino

            That’s nice to hear. In KC they just installed a street car that connects parts of downtown to Union Station. It’s (hopefully) the start of a long process of more public transit in the city. Expansion plans were voted down a few years ago, but as long as this runs without any major hiccups I wouldn’t be shocked if that got put on the ballot again and passed.

            Long-term, I’m not sure what they’ll do. The wealthiest part of the city is Johnson County (in Kansas), which the airport is way in the north in MO. Issue will be what to prioritize vs what they realistically can sell to voters.

            One thing I will definitely miss if I move – KC is very affordable to live in. Don’t really have to compromise too much on where to live vs what I can afford. That definitely won’t be the case if I move away.

      • yeah, I loved Chicago for that reason. It’s pretty much why I decided to move there after law school (I also like to drink).

        though, the last couple years there, I was doing a lot less drinking. At around age 28, the hangovers started getting to be a bit much. Then having a kid a few years later… babies are not very understanding when you ask them to please stop screaming, b/c papa has a throbbing headache and needs to lay on the couch for a few more hours. Being hungover sucks. Being hungover with a screaming infant… Absolute Hell.

        • Denverite

          Being hungover sucks. Being hungover with a screaming infant… Absolute Hell.

          You’ve got to suck it up and power past that.

          • Lost Left Coaster

            What’s the alternative? Not drinking? That sounds much, much worse.

          • Dennis Orphen

            Was the baby hung over too?

            • I don’t think so, but that would explain why he was so cranky

  • Gordon Freeman

    Houston may not literally have zoning, but it sure as hell has parking minimums and other land use regulations that function as a de facto zoning code.

    • MattT

      I came here to post this exact thing. You can run a business in the single family lot rather than live there, but that doesn’t mean you can put in a row house. It’s all the negatives that bad zoning can bring to urban planning without any of the positives.

    • DAS

      I was wondering about that too. I usually think of (bad) zoning being an obstacle to walk-ability: “You can’t build a grocery store here, it’s a residential zone. You can only build a grocery store over there, where people have to drive to it”.

    • djw

      Yes, the “no zoning in Houston” is somewhat misleading, given how the term zoning has come to encompass a whole host of land use regulations. Houston has plenty of density/height restrictions, minimum parking requirements, setback/FAR rules, etc etc


      • Fake Irishman

        THIS. A lack of zoning can actually help a city become more dense. Parking minimums, not so much. Houston actually just passed a comprehensive plan that makes many of these things a lot better.

        • djw

          Yes, for a big sprawly car-centric city they do seem to have their priorities straight and are moving in the right direction. Their big bus network restructure last year was really smartly done; a potential model for a lot of cities. and seems to have succeeded in attracting more riders.

          • Fake Irishman

            Yes indeed. Christof Spieler — a humble blogger on urban planning issues — got the shock of his life in 2009 when Mayor Parker called him up and said “I’m appointing you to METRO.” He suggested the redesign of the bus network and many other worthwhile projects. Along a related line, I’m not quite sure if I’m ready for Farley and Loomis to be running DoD and Labor in a potential HRC administration.

            • howard

              what? that’s amazing.

    • howard

      i want to thank every single person who has made a comment here starting with gordon freeman, which just served as a little reminder of what is so great about the comments section here.

      i read the initial post and i thought “interesting, no-zoning houston,” and then i immediately thought “but what really do i know about that? i’ve never looked into it, let me just see what comes up in comments.”

      so thank you all for the education.

  • Honoré De Ballsack

    To assess Houstonians’ deepest fears, the most recent Houston Area Survey asked an open-ended question: “What would you say is the biggest problem facing people in the Houston area today?”

    Nearly one-third said traffic.

    And, if my long experience living the American Southwest is any indication, one-third said “illegal immigration” and one-third said “Muslim terrorists.”

    • As a midwestern yankee liberal transplant, my responses would be: 1) traffic – mostly because Texans drive like idiots; 2) Texans themselves; 3) too many churches & porno shops.

      • El Guapo

        too many churches & porno shops

        does it have a revolving door?

      • Fake Irishman

        I won’t speak for all my fellow residents (we’ve got our share of idiots), but Houston has a huge diversity of residents — not just African Americans and Hispanics, but also east Asians (Houston’s Chinatown is the second most populated in the U.S.), and south Asians — a considerable number of whom are Muslim. The Houston Independent School District has numerous bilingual/immersion schools in Spanish, one in Chinese… and just opened one in Arabic. Idiots picketed the first day of school there, but most of them were from the ‘burbs. Most of the city residents think the idea is great.

  • I got to travel to Houston back in my IT consulting days.

    I was working on billing systems for this company called Enron.

    • Turning accounts payable into derivatives and selling them for 3X face value, no doubt.

      • I do remember wondering to myself “How are these people actually making money?”

        • Hogan

          The old-fashioned way–with a printing press.

        • BigHank53

          Why make your own money when it’s so much easier to simply convince other people to give you theirs?

        • DAS

          You wouldn’t understand how they made money unless you, like them, were one of the smartest people in the room (/snark)

  • Fake Irishman

    For those who are interested, Jeff Wood runs a blog and podcast called the Overhead Wire on urban planning. It’s national in scope, but he’s from Houston and is wonderfully conversant on the city. You should also visit the Web site for Houston Tomorrow, which is a great little activist think tank dealing with livability issues — most notably transportation and land-use planning. I’ve done some volunteer work with them on Vision Zero and other initiatives recently and they are really good at what they do for being such a teeny tiny outfit. Drop them a contribution if you are so inclined, they really do run on a shoestring.

  • stinapag

    This is a link to the Houston Area Survey report for 2016: https://kinder.rice.edu/uploadedFiles/Center_for_the_Study_of_Houston/53067_Rice_HoustonAreaSurvey2016_Lowres.pdf And this is a link to the project homepage with links to methodology and previous reports: https://kinder.rice.edu/has/

    It’s a pretty awesome project that has been going on for 35 years. Dr. Klineberg has been asking the same questions and tracking the data, and as far as anyone knows, no other metropolitan area has done a project of this scope. Over time, as the city gets bigger, he’s been widening the project, so now Montgomery and Ft. Bend Counties are included. Ft. Bend is truly fascinating, in that it may very well be the most diverse county in the country. It splits almost perfectly 50/50 Democrat/Republican, and there’s no majority population there at all.

    • Fake Irishman

      Yes. When Harris finally tilts blue at the county level elections (getting close….) Fort Bend will be the first suburban county in Texas to follow. And then…..

  • Gwen

    I prefer to think of Houston’s relative lack of zoning (there is no zoning ordinance but there are regulations involving distance, signage, etc.) is a charming feature rather than a bug.

    It makes the landscape electic. Sort of like modern art. But with people living in it.

    • Jean-Michel

      It also results in some weird “spontaneous” zoning, like a seemingly endless street of almost nothing but rug and towel shops.

    • stinapag

      It’s not really due to the lack of zoning but more due to the population, but one of my favorite strip centers in Houston is on the corner of Long Point and Blalock in Spring Branch. There’s a Tex-Mex sports bar, a Korean bbq place, a Mandarin restaurant, at least one Karaoke bar, and a chiropractor/physical therapist. Plus a mexican butcher and a place to buy cheap cell phones. My husband and a friend ducked out of the Korean place (very good btw) for a smoke in the parking lot once, and listened to bad Karaoke overlapped with cheers coming from the sports bar for some boxing match. It was very Houston.

      • Fake Irishman

        One of my favorite breakfast places is a central American hole in the wall stuck in an ugly facility that looks like a former gas station because I think it was a former gas station.

  • ColBatGuano

    Traffic is a sign of economic vibrancy

    It’s funny how often people miss this. The number of comments on articles about local Seattle issues that basically say: “Liberals have ruined Seattle’s economy. Just look at the horrible traffic.” is always remarkable to me.

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