This is the fourth of a series of posts by economist Peter Nunns from his travels earlier this year in the US
I often argue that Auckland can learn the most not from long-established, highly livable European cities but from North American cities. In particular, we should look to cities along the American West Coast, as they were founded at around the same time, shortly before the advent of the streetcar and the automobile, and have since dealt with similar opportunities and dysfunctions. In the short term, cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver may offer some lessons for Auckland. And, as Joel Kotkin would recommend, we should consider whether there is anything to be learned from Houston.
There is no reason why we shouldn’t aspire to adopt the best urban trends, whether they come from America, Europe, Africa, or even New Zealand itself. But transforming Auckland to be more like Amsterdam or Paris (for example) may be a generations-long project. The West Coast cities offer a few lessons about what can – and can’t – be accomplished in a generation.
I spent several weeks in February and March travelling throughout this vast territory to see friends and family. I spent a week in the San Francisco Bay Area; a day in Los Angeles; a long Amtrak ride through the desert with my youngest brother; and another week in Houston, where my middle brother lives, and New Orleans. Here are a few of my observations about how each city functions and how it is changing, with a focus on transport and urban development.
Houston, Texas is often cited as an example of what can be accomplished with light zoning regulation and car-based greenfield development. It has accommodated significant population growth without becoming unaffordable or growing more dense. Of course, it’s astonishingly hideous – I’d describe it as a random collection of buildings and freeway overpasses rather than an actual city. And some of Houston’s good fortune is due to the fact that it’s one of the few car-based cities in the developed world that has been a net beneficiary of higher oil prices, due to the economic role of the region’s vast petrochemical complex.
It’s easy to see the results of Houston’s lack of zoning laws while driving around the city – or walking, in the unlikely event that you can find a footpath. There is a remarkable, eclectic mix of housing types – old shotgun shacks on grassy lots sit next to aluminium-sided townhouses and apartment blocks. An example of this can be seen in the picture below, which I took down the block from my brother’s house. Houston’s made it remarkably easy to undertake small-scale redevelopment at moderate density – because developers don’t have to pursue a zoning variation for new development, they’re more willing to build new things on small sites. However, the city hasn’t done away with all forms of regulatory intervention – it still has quite high minimum parking requirements that apply across the board to new developments. (Absurdly, they also apply minimum parking requirements to public parks – a minimum of nine spaces for a four-hectare park!) [http://www.houstontx.gov/planning/DevelopRegs/offstreet/]
Regulatory flexibility appears to help keep house prices down in Houston, by enabling in-demand areas to be redeveloped or built as greenfields. Take my middle brother. He lives in a recently built two-bedroom attached house in walking distance of the Medical Centre, one of Houston’s five to eight large business centres. When he bought it several years ago, it cost him less than US$200,000 – the sort of deal that Aucklanders haven’t seen in a generation. While he’s opted for proximity to where he works and studies, others haven’t – as you drive out of Houston, new speculative greenfield suburbs cluster up in empty fields, with billboards promising easy financing and low prices.
To feed this growth, Houston has become as freeway-mad as Los Angeles – it’s enclosed by not one but two concentric ring roads. In line with the aphorism that “everything’s bigger in Texas”, Houston seems to have been a bit better about future-proofing roads for growth. Most freeways have eight lanes or more for traffic, along with several more lanes of parallel access roads and wide grassy medians and reserves. After driving around the city for a bit, it seems to be a bit less prone to interpeak congestion – although the average Houstonian experiences almost as much travel delay as the average Angeleno.
Maintenance appears to be the big challenge for Houston’s massive expanses of asphalt and concrete. The city’s roads were in remarkably poor condition. Residential roads were frequently potholed even in affluent areas; freeway surfaces were rough and noisy to drive on; lane markings had often worn off the road and not been repainted. Texas seems to be short of money for maintenance and road renewals – perhaps a sign that it is running up against some hard budgetary trade-offs between freeway expansion and operations.
Finally, it’s worth saying a few things about the alternative transport options available in Houston. The short answer is: there aren’t many. Public transport is, by most accounts, incoherent and poorly used, although as in LA there are some signs of change. In the last decade, the city opened a light rail line between the Medical Centre and major events facilities. Although the light rail line is constrained by the fact that it was built without a separated right-of-way, it’s performed well enough that the city is planning to add another half-dozen light rail lines over the next few decades, along with a far-reaching rethink of their bus network. [See http://nextcity.org/theworks/entry/houston-heads-west-as-light-rail-goes-east-with-buses-to-plug-the-gap1, http://www.lightrailnow.org/news/n_hou003.htm, http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2009/02/16/houston-readies-four-light-rail-lines-by-2012/]
Walking and cycling facilities are largely nonexistent or difficult to use, although there were some nice recreational paths by the river. I met a Danish friend of my brother’s who was visiting to do research in a local university. She said that coming to Houston from Copenhagen had required her to fundamentally change her expectations about transport. She was still cycling some places, but only against the advice of her co-workers, who view biking in Houston as a mad and dangerous act.
Postscript: Houston’s Transit system is getting the ‘Auckland treatment’ from a team lead by Jarrett Walker, who is also behind our New Network. See here at Human Transit and this cool comparison map.