Thursday, September 11, 2014

Induced Stupidity

Helicopter One reporting heavy traffic

Why do highways, like the West Loop in Houston which I had the "pleasure" of driving in last week (and where I took that picture, because it was slow enough for me to actually snap a picture), back up? It's not uncommon at all for highways to get congested even during non-peak hours, and yet hours, days, are wasted. We build these massive ten lane highways, and they just get backed up, with you being lucky if you can average 30 mph.

Hopefully you're not thinking "It's only because they don't have a mass transit system" because if you're thinking that, well, that's not quite right. (Note that the cities with the highest congestion do have what are considered to be top-notch transit systems)

First, congestion's main problem is people. Until they come out with self-driving (or at least semi-autonomous) cars that don't make human errors like humans do, or you suffer some sort of substantial population loss in the city, there will always be congestion.

Highways really only max out at around five lanes (not counting exiting/entrance lanes, HOV/HOT lanes, or frontage roads) effectively and no amount of mass transit will erase congestion.

However, the popular line of thinking along New Urbanists today is that highways cause congestion somehow. This is a corruption of induced demand theory, the corruption being that new developments will follow highways, fill it up, and making the freeway (or widening of it)'s net gain being zero. The actual ID theory is a little less than that, but this New Urbanist corruption is wrong as all get out, so keep reading.

The reality is of course, highways really are the most effective at reducing congestion, and even in the 1960s, the freeways (urban freeways especially) removed lots of surface street traffic and congestion.

With the same line of thinking, this can reach its logical conclusion that by removing highways, you remove congestion. Obviously this doesn't work this way, but those with tinfoil hats think differently.

The Katy Freeway was one of the most controversial highway widening projects ever, but the growth for the highway remained rather constant over time. Houston was booming in the 1960s and 1970s, and even by the 1960s, there was development (with department stores and hotels) some 12 miles outside of downtown, and further developments into the 2000s brought further development as it slowly became the "Energy Corridor", and the town of Katy began to grow far beyond its original borders (a lot of this rapid growth took place in the 1990s). However, during all this time, the highway hadn't been substantially upgraded in years, save for a reversible HOV lane installed in 1984.

For a different example, in the 1970s and 1980s, bypasses were installed in College Station-Bryan (two cities some 90 miles northwest of Houston) and Navasota (a smaller town south of it). The bypasses were functional four-lane highways and even included frontage roads. However, oddly enough, it didn't "induce demand". I talked about this in an old post over at the other blog, but it's important so it bears repeating.

A mall, a few subdivisions, and even a multi-story office building were added along the new bypass in the early 1980s, but it never sucked any life out of the main stretch (Business 6) of town, where all the businesses were located. New stores in the late 1980s and early 1990s, like Target, H-E-B Pantry, Wal-Mart, and Albertsons ALL went for the main road. It wasn't until the 1990s where some big draws started building (Sam's Club, a large movie theater, Lowe's, Wal-Mart Supercenter). It wasn't even until the mid-2000s where hotels, supermarkets, and freeway-fronted restaurants were finally added, wherein the highway finally started to appear like other highways in the case that sprawl surrounded it, but that's because the growth naturally caught up to it as it was expanding anyway (and not even in the DIRECTION of the freeway).

That sort of thing happened in Navasota, but it's ignored because it blows their theory. In fact, despite some anecdotal evidence and observations, studies have shown that highways really do help congestion.

But since the whole "widening freeways causes sprawl" thing is a corruption of the original concept, the base theory still holds water since new lanes will tend to discourage using alternative transport.

In this case, "alternative transport" doesn't necessarily mean mass transit, it means non-freeway arteries.

Let's look at a Houston example of a congested stretch of highway.

The West Loop and the Destruction of Post Oak Road
The West Loop, in Houston, is constantly congested because 610 functions here as both a major loop highway used for commuting and the north-south artery it was originally. As a result, massive congestion, and it's been like that since the 1980s.

In the beginning, that road was Post Oak Road, a road that went from Hempstead Road (the highway that the Northwest Freeway bypassed, and we'll talk about that later) down to the Meyerland area (and beyond). That road was largely superseded by 610 since the road had a fairly wide median and the area wasn't nearly as developed as today.

Want to follow along Post Oak as it was originally? Well, you can't. It looks okay, even after the southbound starts becoming the 610 frontage road, until you realize that you have to turn right to keep following it (you can even see the wide ROW where it curved west), otherwise, the frontage road will either merge south on 610 or force you back onto Hidalgo, which will intersect with Post Oak. Only then by continuing south you can eventually continue on Post Oak as it was meant to go, but only after several miles of playing the role of the 610 frontage road, which involves dealing with cars constantly exiting and entering at relatively high speeds.

That's best case scenario. Following it north would be a harder problem, because just going north means you'll end up as the 610 frontage road that will completely bypass Post Oak, you'd need to turn left on Richmond (a major east-west road in the Uptown area--the source for the northbound Post Oak is coming from the Westpark Tollway), then continue north on Post Oak, then cross under the freeway again to go north, then go back across at Memorial. That's not at all an acceptable north-south route, and the only other viable north-south viable in the neighborhood is Sage, which is a two-lane road. It can't be widened because it's surrounded by million-dollar homes on both sides.

In fact, the whole thing is an IMPROVEMENT from the way Post Oak was chopped up originally, as prior to the Westpark Tollway c. 2004, the southbound Post Oak went straight into the westbound US-59 frontage road.

The real rub comes in the fact in the years since Uptown started to develop and densify, the neighborhood blocked any attempt to improve traffic, the only thing allowed was rebuilding the exits and entrances. This included widening the freeway, double-decking it, and creating a new north-south arterial, the "Uptown Parkway" (from a defeated late 1980s/early 1990s proposal), which ran into problems because it was to go through the Memorial Park area, though the part of the park in question wasn't really accessible and the park suffered great damage in the 2011 drought anyway.

The West Loop has a great many uses, but a replacement north-south arterial to connect parts of the city it is not.

Parkways and Other Arterials
Likewise, it's the same reason why highways out to the suburbs clog up because that is usually the only effective way to go, and a north-south grid doesn't exist yet. It's not for lack of trying--there's a Kirby Drive in Pearland that would go theoretically go the distance to the 15 miles inside the city where the main Kirby Drive is. Same with Bellaire, such a latitudinal line extends out to the vast sprawl of Katy.

There are some problems with this, even decades after they were conceived, there's still gaps in the system, namely for Kirby and Bellaire.

Holmes Road & Airport Blvd. (~1.8 miles)
North of Orem Road (~500 meters)
Between the "City Park" development and Beltway 8 (~1.6 miles)

So you'd still need around 4 miles of road that hasn't been built yet. That's the first problem. The second problem is that the southern Kirby parts actually built (basically south of Holmes Road) are not meant for major arterials. Sure, there's a pretty nice intersection built up for Kirby at Beltway 8 but the actually built segments were built for funneling people out of subdivisions (which, admittedly, is what they do a good job of doing) but would be a poor arterial that would be a good way up to downtown that would avoid the highways).

Bellaire, likewise, is also missing segments.

As discussed last time, did the Claiborne Expressway kill the neighborhood? No. I'm afraid that accusation is (largely) a bunch of New Urbanist bullshit. However, it did do something wrong by essentially killing the businesses along the road. When you have an elevated highway, you can't see a thing when driving, so the solution is to put up lots of high-mast signs for gas stations, hotels, and other stores. This subjectively looks pretty ugly, but it ensures success (at least longevity) for roadside businesses and by extension, the neighborhood. Unfortunately, that's also the fastest way to kill off buildings you might want to be saved.

This is the way to have good commercial districts. (

The Slice
In that case, the best thing to do from even a 1960s P.O.V. is to slice through a neighborhood and forget the original highway or "main road". While New Urbanists might like the fact that I agree that the Claiborne shouldn't have been built, they would go bald in horror that I suggest a freeway cut through a neighborhood. Here's why:

First, it's not as controversial as you think. In Houston, Interstate 10 (the central section) cut through neighborhoods. The result isn't pretty (see the "Built Before Freeways" photo), but where that highway actually cut through, 75% polled felt that the positive benefits of the freeway outweighed the negative. Even the controversial Harrisburg Freeway had a surprisingly good approval rating.

That doesn't mean it's not controversial and wouldn't suck for those in the immediate area, but there has to be a corridor created somehow (because land use doesn't stay the same forever), and that would involve demolition.

Secondly, it leaves the original road open as an arterial, and a way for businesses to continue. Hempstead Road allows for a true relief corridor since it was bypassed by Northwest Freeway, and it continues to have shops, restaurants, and other mid-century buildings (many not doing so well, sadly, but that's just natural decline), just as it did before the freeway. Unfortunately, not all of Hempstead Road is open and drivable, the main continuous segment only really starts at the Beltway.

But these arterials have a lot of traffic on them as well, and has more stoplights than you can shake a stick at, only having a real use when congestion would be bad otherwise. That's why any city could use more parkways, another tool in the "alternative transport" toolbox that's not mass transit.

The best types of arterials that would actually help congestion are parkways (see the Uptown Parkway example above), which, in general, have lower speeds, not built to expensive freeway standards, and often no trucks but they also have other features, including being surrounded by parkland (no commercial blight here), no driveways (that's where things get slowed down), and few stoplights. Unfortunately, since parkways have tended to fall out of favor as freeways were put into practice, and they cannot be retrofitted into the urban fabric, that's really not an option anymore. Parkways were also the hallmark of the Robert Moses era and went down with his reputation.

Supplemented by freeways, parkways can also be used for community events without serious disruption in traffic flow. (Beaumont Enterprise)

While Robert Moses-type parkways don't exist anymore, examples could be found in non-limited access highways that have high speed limits (60 mph) and just a smattering of turns and stoplights. Care should be taken to preserve them as parkways by limiting the residential and businesses off of them or just convert them to freeways.

The lesson to learn here is that expanding highways doesn't make a whole lot of sense COMPARED TO strengthening major arterials, and dual uses should NEVER be allowed. Don't allow a highway to make up for an arterial that was lost (that's even in 1960s freeway literature. Don't allow a residential collector to become a major arterial, it will just encourage people to use the freeway.

And don't believe the nonsense that adding lanes causes congestion.

Do you get what I'm saying?

Please leave comments/questions/angry accusations that I over-generalized in some parts. Thanks!

EDIT: Made some changes to be less harsh

Sunday, August 31, 2014

There Goes the Neighborhood, Part One: Highways

The Claiborne is a target for freeway removal activists, but is it really a cause for the neighborhood's decline? (Credit to Jessica Yoon)

What causes neighborhoods to decline? That's what this two part series will focus on. The first will focus on what are common argument that is flawed, the second will go to what I think is the true reason.

There are so many arguments on Internet forums and New Urbanist blogs that urban highways destroy neighborhoods. The evidence seems pretty clear: the Interstates cut across the urban areas putting homes that were in fairly secure neighborhoods to be right next to a freeway, causing them to become ramshackle and run-down.

But despite the seemingly-damning evidence that freeways destroy neighborhoods, that's just not true. All inner city neighborhoods were in decline after World War II (such as the New Orleans example listed below), with many of the old-line Eastern cities losing thousands of people. Soon we'll talk about "white flight" and suburbanization, but that's different from today's subject. The arrival of the freeway was never a cause for its decline.

One example of this was the freeway revolt that took place in Houston where Texas State Highway 225 never went further in than Houston's loop 610, and community opposition was eventually able to take it off the planning maps permanently.

Despite that, however, the neighborhood kept on a downward swing from the 1970s to the present day, which goes to show you: the freeway was never the problem.

Devil's advocate says, however, that Harrisburg was never allowed to prosper because of the fear of a freeway kept land values down. While I can't say that's actually the case there, I do remember "For Sale" signs cropping up on one nearby road (including a relatively nice house that had recently been built or renovated) because of a proposal that would make a through road instead of the essentially cul-de-sac'd road it was.

However, I could counter with the fact that there are plenty of neighborhoods, especially newer ones, that front highways directly and do fine. One difference is that the neighborhood was conducive to that sort of growth, and the frontage roads are clearly and awkwardly replacing normal streets and city blocks.

Built after highway

Built before highway

A good many (if not all) of these older 'hoods were likely on the downswing anyway (remember, everyone, suburbs existed prior to freeways) because since the railroad was introduced, the poor tend to live toward the center of the city. The rich living in the center of the city hasn't really happened since the pre-Industrialization area and it's a bit of a stretch to declare that this was a perfectly fine neighborhood before the freeway happened.

Speaking of which, one of the big "examples" of this is the Claiborne Freeway.

I'm not disputing that an elevated freeway a block away (with no sound barrier walls) would indeed suck, but let's get a few facts straight:
That's one that I dispute for two reasons:

1) New Orleans, as a city, started its decline years ago (arguably at the start of the Civil War, but either way accelerated past World War II). All the neighborhoods were in decline, not just the one that Claiborne Expressway cut through. The fact that the Claiborne is an old, ugly freeway makes it a convenient scapegoat for the neighborhood's decline.

2) The exact same thing happened in Austin to an extent. East Avenue, built as a flagship boulevard for the city, had the dubious honor of the placement of Interstate 35. Anti-freeway proponents would like to point to the poorer east side in their screeds, but there's a big difference. Long before the Interstate, deed restrictions were in place to keep African-Americans and Mexican-Americans east to the freeway. It's definitely sad that such wholesale discrimination would happen, but it exonerates Interstate 35, and an aside, that thing wasn't exclusive to Austin, it happened in the rest of Texas (and especially the Deep South). It turns out that the subdivision I live in now, which was built in the 1940s and 1950s specifically prevented African-Americans from living there. Of course, that sort of thing was overturned many years ago, but people kept living there, until gentrification forced them out.

Why is it so different? Because Austin became a better city, growing and developing with new industries, in other words, a healthy city. New Orleans, on the other hand, is a moribund Detroit of the South that has been in decline for decades.

I could go on about this but there are really two things about freeways.

Would it be hard to live next to one? Sure.

Does it destroy neighborhoods? No, at least not the leading factor.

Stay tuned for what I think really zaps neighborhoods...

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Manufactured Crisis Regarding Manufactured Foods

Contrary to what NBC thinks about food deserts, convenience stores really do stock more than candy, cigarettes, beer, and soft drinks

One of the latest "topics du jour" that this blog aims to cover is "food deserts", which involves a high obesity rate in poor areas with no grocery stores and only convenience stores. The theory is that without access to real supermarkets, the poor rely on convenience stores with their less-than-healthy fare to supply people calories.

Now, before you demand that supermarkets start building in poor neighborhoods (and try that without some controversial gentrification), I want to inform you of something.

It's not a problem.

Or rather, it's not a "access to better food" problem. It can be broken down into three distinct categories:

1. It's partially bad statistics
While obesity and poverty and lack of real grocery stores are definitely linked, you can't assume that all of these are actual correlations of each other. You should know about lurking and confounding variables, even if you haven't taken a statistics class.

Even in disadvantaged areas, there's a Walmart Supercenter, which despite not being a great grocery store, does sell real food. Before someone cries "food desert" and demands something be done, a few things must be considered:

- What's the obesity/poverty rate in places that do have real grocery stores?
- Where do people in the neighborhood actually go for food?
- Why do people in rural areas (with no convenience stores either) who or may not be poor not as focused on? Are they more or less obese?

2. The single parent problem
Since most of the poor "food desert" neighborhoods in question are predominantly African-American, it should be noted what other problems there are. It isn't a racial issue, but on average, single mothers make a little more than a quarter to what married couples do, and the "father disappearance" especially hits blacks disproportionately. Therefore, even assuming the best of circumstances, if a mother wants to feed her kids, she often works two jobs (or one job and community college classes), leaving her little time or energy to cook.

A traditional two-parent household, as has worked in decades before, allows one person to be the breadwinner while the other (typically the mother) can cook and feed the family. Unfortunately, with traditional families and marriage rates dropping, we have this problem nowadays.

This issue of time and money cannot be easily fixed with food stamps nor an alimony paycheck, or even giving incentives for convenience stores to stock healthier items (like produce). Given a full-line grocery store that has lower prices (think H-E-B for those south of Dallas, and certainly Walmart for everywhere else), anyone with wanting to feed mouths with a serious shortage of time will run straight for those frozen meals like Stouffer's and the others. It happens in wealthier families, too (same concept), so in this case it could just be, instead of pre-packaged food, even cheaper pre-packaged foods, like burritos that I can buy three for a dollar.

Even if you disagree with the single parent problem and that it could be overcome, there's one more concept of why food deserts are a problem but not for lack of grocery stores:
3. Bad education will kill (via obesity)
OK, here's one for you. Three McDonald's cheeseburgers, priced at roughly a dollar apiece, vs. a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of white bread.

Which one is cheaper overall? The peanut butter sandwiches. Which is healthier overall? The peanut butter sandwiches. Which one is better for your money? The peanut butter sandwiches.

But unfortunately, because home economics is only sometimes not offered and often not required, these types of things will win out. While grocery stores do offer this sort of things at a cheaper price, the bread and peanut butter could still be found at a comparable price (in terms of home economics) at any given convenience store. In most convenience stores I've visited, you could find basic staples: bread, condiments, cereal,'s there, if you can resist the siren sound of the candy, soda, or beer.

And that's what I think: the food desert problem materialized out of nowhere built largely on some bad statistics and seemingly a war on convenience stores. Leave a comment if you agree, disagree, or just want to talk.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Don't Fear the Elevated

One recurring theme among urban blogs is a dislike of elevated structures and walking under bridges. This manifests itself usually in the form of being anti-urban elevated highway, but it takes other forms. I wrote a comment on one particular stupid post (though I didn't actually comment it being stupid): here this author complains in Minneapolis how an overpass creates some sort of urban planning nightmare and doesn't seem aware at his hypocrisy. Much thought is given to a dark underpass that goes under several railroad tracks, which, despite pointing out that the intersection used to look much more different than today without the freeways, and with the same the five-pointed intersection that seems to cause much grief.

And I want to ask: why? When you walk under a bridge, you're avoiding what is on there, whether it be vehicular traffic or rails. How is this bad?

This isn't the prettiest, but some would call this a "first world problem".

The question even extends to highways: in Houston, there's the Pierce Elevated, a highway that critics say "cuts" through the area between Midtown and Downtown, but that's a bit of a misnomer since the Midtown area didn't really exist until after the Pierce Elevated and the 59. You can even see when the Pierce Elevated was built (page 15 of the PDF) the area didn't look at all as it does now. The Pierce Elevated isn't in bad shape (it had an extensive re-do in the late 1990s) but it is congested. A lot of people think that it would be better without an elevated highway and replaced with a street-level boulevard. The prototype for this is a few examples in San Francisco, which replaced a few highways with boulevards as with another example in Milwaukee. However, Keep Houston Houston candidly reminds us that freeway removals are only done when it was a spur that was rendered more or less useless after the rest of the plans were cancelled, or that it was rendered obsolete with a wider freeway anyway. The Pierce is neither of these and is mostly congested because of outdated exits and entrances, including a particularly short left-hand entrance into the freeway from eastbound Allen Parkway.

There's no real rhyme or reason why the Pierce should be dismantled, but boulevards, favored by the anti-freeway crowd, make even less sense. Here you have a three to four lane road to cross, then going under the freeway, whereas a boulevard option would have you crossing on foot 9-10 lanes of traffic. Crossing streets tends to suck, and in most options if available, I'll take an underpass and go under a bridge.

We're not here to talk about the Pierce Elevated, but what is it about elevated structures that people hate?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Gardens Ephemeral

Urban gardens are nice, but don't be too carried away in their location or purpose.

I first learned about urban gardens through a book I read, entitled Reimagining Detroit. A few years back, I wrote a short review on it at Carbon-izer, decrying most of the ideas as unrealistic and/or expensive (ironically, some of said ideas author wanted to avoid), with one notable exception: urban gardening, which was the most well-researched bit as it did the most research behind it and reported the drawbacks of it, as well.

Urban gardening of course needs land, the larger being better, and in nearly every urban environment, there's a vacant lot or otherwise unused patch that's able to be used for food production (barring certain things like industrial uses, and even then, flowers could work).

The most important thing about urban gardening is that people recognize unless you truly live in an area with zero real grocery stores for miles around (we'll discuss food deserts later), it's really not about "eating healthier" (the right choices at your local store do that) or "eating cheaper" (not when you factor in opportunity costs), it's a labor of love and a way to make vacant lots less sad looking.

That's not to say that you can't sell some of your wares at farmer's markets, but (hopefully) you aren't selling them so that you or your family can have shoes and food to eat. It's just a nice bonus, not something to live off of.

Let's take a look at one urban garden, in Houston. Unlike Detroit, where vacant lots are everywhere (and almost certainly has gardens that are technically squatting), Houston has a number of high-value lots that change hands. One in particular was the Midtown Community Garden, which was a 13,000 square feet garden that was essentially leased for free to a non-profit if they cleaned up the site, which was overgrown and vacant and had been for years (a Google Earth view shows that houses were once there back in the late 1970s, but was totally vacant for a few decades).

It worked well, and the Midtown Community Garden thrived, with one big thing they overlooked: due to general reinvestment in the Inner Loop area and especially in that neighborhood, that little plot of land was worth a whole lot of money, selling to a developer for just shy of a million dollars, giving the gardeners just 24 hours to vacate.

Let's take a look at the facts here:

- The gardeners knew it was never "their" land and could be sold out at any time. Even in 2010, the Midtown renaissance was well underway, so a contingency plan should've been thought up or discussed.

- It's plausible that since the plots were sub-parceled out, the gardeners (who paid for plots) didn't know it was borrowed land that could change (and thus plots paid for would be worthless). In that case, it's the "caretaker"'s fault.

- 24 hours is a short time to vacate, and all existing plants would likely be tossed. So yes, the only thing really wrong was the short time to evacuate, but...

- It was at the beginning of a growing season, so it was probably best that it was March and the plants hadn't matured yet.

Urban gardens should be a part of the community, as a lot full of plants is a cheery site to see (certainly better than an overgrown lot), but unless you buy up land for yourself and work that out with taxes and zoning, urban gardens, especially in changing neighborhoods, cannot be expected to remain forever. There are many restaurants that lived and died in that time, and lots open up continuously in Houston, and so, gardens must move.

Could there be a place where a garden could be safe? You could probably buy a lot with a Kickstarter fund, buy up a plot, and use local zoning laws to plant a garden, but that's less attractive as you'd have to pay market's easy to agree on a garden in a low-rent lot (and cities like Minneapolis do allow tax-forfeited properties to be free garden sites) but the problem is people want a neighborhood garden in their neighborhood, which may not be disadvantaged and have lots of vacant lots. The solution is simple. Part of the underlying causes of urban gardening today is sort of a rebellion, not so much as a way to fight back not governments or even big business (let's face it, you aren't going to win a war against the grocery stores, even the smaller ones), but rather the oft-oppressive urban fabric. As with most underdog movements, you can't simply stay in one place. You have to keep moving.

As much as we'd like it, gardens should move around as land uses change and the city moves on, as seasons change. Besides, who wouldn't want to see something "sprout" up somewhere unexpected?

Picture Credit: Life in the 'Ville, "Somerville Loves Urban Gardening!"

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

So, what is ABCB anyway?

A Better "City Blog" is the antidote to all of those websites that are devoted to the same thing. You know, the ones that have "mobility" in the name and have this optimistic-at-best, delusional-at-worst in the "rails vs. freeways" debate (if there ever was a debate at all)? Well, this blog is here to break that nonsense. We're not going to look at abused statistics, we're not going to bash freeways, and we're not going to bash suburbs. Because that's what those "other guys" do, and that's not right. We're not just going to look at effective city planning (what works and what doesn't), we're going to look at highways, sprawl, aesthetics, and all those other things that seem like minutiae every day, certainly observations of such.

Equally important is having fun! I'm not some sort of mass transit fundamentalist who wants you to believe that their way is the only way. These "essays" that will be posted will have some other stuff in there so it's not a dry read. Audience participation is encouraged! Leave comments and banter. All you need to do is not be a jerk, because comments will be deleted.

Some of this stuff is copied from (or at least based off of) what I wrote on a Houston forum before, so don't be surprised if there are some similar wordings.