Seattle traffic congestion seen from Rizal Park

The Value that Mobility Adds to Quality of Life, and more

Every planner should prominently post this quote in their office:

“You can’t overestimate the value that mobility has on people’s quality of life and their ability to achieve their full economic potential.”

A few other items this week:

“It is a great oasis of opportunity, especially for the  immigrants, legal and otherwise, who end up there, stay, and prosper.  There is a sizeable and successful Vietnamese population, Chinese too.  The Hispanic community continues to grow and advance.  A construction friend of mine once said, the new arrivals take any job because they can’t speak English.  Five years later they do and are foremen.  In 10 they have their own company.  Houston has a wealthy elite that gives unstintingly to its educational and cultural institutions and a great deal to its non-governmental help agencies.  One I got to know helped released prisoners transition into work and careers with astonishing success statistics.  Denominational schools like Corpus Christi and Strake Jesuit Strake do great work prepping minorities for college.  The list goes on.  And, Houston is resilient.  It always rebuild, usually better.”

“We are now retired in Austin (family ties) but despite its airs of superiority, Houston is better. It has what more of what I term real people not pretenders. The attractions there are better, museums, restaurants, entertainment, etc. Along with the real people, the sort of people I grew up and worked with.”

“The answer for Houston, as in so many urban places imperiled by inadequate planning and a changing climate, seems to amount sadly to this: We hold our breath, and hope for the best.”

“For such a an awful place, it sure is curious how the Houston metropolitan area continues to be one of the fastest growing in the nation. Hmm. The real canard here is the foolish, unfounded belief that urban planning would make any difference when natural disasters occur. Urban planners are low rent civil servants whose livelihoods are dependent upon the largess of the politicians to whom they answer. The politicians, in turn, serve the greed of the rich and powerful, or respond to the ever changing whims of an ignorant populace. Who is to say which is worse? So, don’t pretend, for even an instant, that urban planning is a solution. Like central planning everywhere and every when, urban planning merely guarantees misallocation of capital and resources.”

“Ah, the mystery of why people want to live in a city that is prospering, even though it hasn’t been adequately planned by experts in planning and is now susceptible to natural disasters like real hurricanes—unlike, say, New York City, where American zoning was invented but which, nevertheless, had to struggle through a ‘superstorm’.”

“I look forward to reading the book; the review hits on many of the negatives of the city, it’s hot, wet, sprawling, mosquitoes, snakes, etc…  I’m a life long Houstonian, born and raised in the Bayou City, all those negative qualities do exist but people keep moving to the city. Why? The primary reason is opportunity. All of these opportunity seekers have a hard working, can do, personality, which gives Houston it’s magic.”

“Lived in Houston 30 years. Loved it!  The Texas Medical Center is a treasure.  The variety of restaurants and cross section of people from across the world is unequaled.  No one cares where you came from, what school you attended who your parents were…just can you do the job. Houston is about ‘doing bidness’.”

To conclude, a segment so good from Bob Poole in Reason’s most recent Surface Transportation Innovations I decided to include it in full (highlights mine). It’s directly relevant to my concept of Opportunity Zones.

Access to Jobs: New Research on Driving and Transit

Readers of this newsletter may recall prior articles reporting on “access to jobs” studies carried out by researchers at the University of Minnesota. The broad conclusion of the series of studies is that in the 50 largest U.S. metro areas, a commuter can reach vastly more jobs in a given number of minutes via driving than by using transit. That is generally due to the dispersed locations of residences and employers. There is also a growing body of international research on the impact of journey-to-work time (or travel speed) on the economic productivity of metro areas.

I’m therefore pleased to report on a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research that provides new findings on this subject. “More Roads or Public Transit: Insights from Measuring City-Center Accessibility,” by Lucas J. Conwell, Fabian Eckert, and Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak was published in Jan. 2023 as NBER Working Paper 30877.

The authors’ innovation is to define “accessibility zones” surrounding the central business districts of the 109 largest U.S. and European cities. For each city, the study defined a set of car accessibility zones and transit accessibility zones. In keeping with established research on a metro area’s economic productivity, a premise of the study is that larger accessibility zones are associated with greater productivity. One broad finding is that compared with European cities, on average U.S. cities are twice as accessible by car as European cities, but are half as accessible by transit. This is obviously due to the much greater density of European metro areas compared with largely suburbanized America, and the corresponding differences in roadway networks and transit systems between the United States and Europe.

To simplify the modeling, the researchers divided commuting times into four groups: 0-to-15 minutes,16-to-30 minutes, 31-to-45 minutes, and 46-to-60 minutes. They defined the central business district (CBD) as the area with the highest economic productivity in the metro area and drew a 1-kilometer radius circle around the defined center. The median U.S. central business district accounted for 28% of all the employment within a 20-kilometer radius. They used Google Maps to construct the accessibility zones, using it to find the car or transit travel time to the CBD from any point in each land parcel. All the land parcels that enable a trip to the CBD in 15 minutes or less make up the 15-minute accessibility zone, and so on up to 60 minutes.

One of the most interesting results is that although Europe’s transit accessibility zones are all larger than those of the U.S., “car travel offers larger overall accessibility across all time distances in both Europe and the U.S.”  And that means that “U.S. cities enjoy greater accessibility overall because they have a comparative advantage in car-based commutes.” One reason for this is that, especially for longer-distance commutes, transit provides only “patchy” access. By contrast, car commuters can use a comprehensive roadway network that directly connects every point A to every point B. But that does offer an advantage to bus transit over rail transit.

Although the authors mention in their introduction that larger accessibility (via more possible trips within a given time frame) leads to greater economic productivity, their paper does not attempt to quantify the potential economic benefits of U.S. cities’ much greater accessibility. They do briefly discuss the limited impact that could be expected from “densification” policies. And of course, they discuss how “US cities’ car orientation comes at the cost of less green space, more congestion, and worse health and pollution externalities.” Assuming vehicle electrification continues, the health and pollution impacts should decrease in the coming decades. Also, with greater use of road pricing, urban traffic congestion can be reduced.

While this study would be even more impressive with quantified economic productivity estimates, it should help transportation planners think through trade-offs between highways and transit in the coming decades.

This piece first appeared at Houston Strategies.

Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Urban Reform Institute and co-authored the original study with noted urbanist Joel Kotkin and others, creating a city philosophy around upward social mobility for all citizens as an alternative to the popular smart growth, new urbanism, and creative class movements. He is also an editor of the Houston Strategies blog.