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.

Houston takes freeway interchanges to new levels
Houston takes freeway interchanges to new levels

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!) []

Houston’s zoning regulations allow apartment blocks and duplexes to coexist next to shotgun shacks
Houston’s zoning regulations allow apartment blocks and duplexes to coexist next to shotgun shacks

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,,]

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. 

Tomorrow: Nawlins!

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  1. I’ve found roads in many parts of the US to be in poor condition — lots of potholes, some very old-fashioned and dangerous intersections, traffic lights that are small and hard to see and so on. It reflects much of the infrastructure in the US that was built up beautifully until somewhere around the 1970s/1980s then largely ignored.

    1. I had the same experience myself driving from Vancouver to San Fran in ’09 – the condition of those roads is far inferior to our state highways, from a maintenance point of view.

    2. Things went down hill when Reagan demanded low taxes. Maintenance costs money. One of the reasons NZ local government rates and water charges have increased faster than inflation is the move to “Asset Management Plans” which look at the desired service level and the maintenance/capex required to meet this. If anything, we have gone the other way with over expenditure on maintenance. My small street was recently resealed even there we no potholes or obvious problems. Obviously the computer said it was time to reseal, so it was the job was done.

      1. Thats not really fair on Reagan,
        He actually signed off a 5 cent increase doubling of the US “gas tax” in ’83, (to 9c/gallon) G Bush I added 5 c to in in ’90 and Clinton stuck on 4.3 c in ’93, it has sat at around that level (18c/gallon) ever since, its not inflation indexed,

        Given that the US has had 64% inflation over the last 20 year ( and roading materials have probably gone up even more) its not really hard to see why the US roading network is in the state that it is,

        No president/congress/senate since then has had the conviction to proposed a workable gas tax hike,

  2. You have to remember that the USA has a debt of $17 trillion and is paying off the cost of invading the wrong country twice in 15 years. They owe more per person than Greece. There was a time when Democrat governments spent money and Republicans balanced the books. Now they all just spend albeit on different things.

    1. Is it a law of the internet that any mention of the US economy, even in its broadest sense, will almost immediately attract a comment about supposedly crippling debt?

        1. Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford reduced debt as %GDP. Reagan was the step change who blew it out and both Bushes followed his lead. Their debt is now bigger than any time since World War II. At least then they had a good reason. Now it is simply part of the political process to try and outspend the other side to get votes. Republicans on defence and war, Democrats on anything and everything. The lesson is never separate the executive and legislature and don’t be foolish enough to write a binding constitution.

        2. I don’t think that your conclusions about political institutions and debt follow. The US doesn’t have the most functional institutions in the world, but this is largely a product of the constitutional compromises that had to be made to get 13 colonies of various sizes and views on human rights (i.e. slavery) to agree to federate with each other. Most countries with constitutions don’t have the same issues.

          There are only three OECD countries with unwritten constitutions: New Zealand, the UK, and Israel. (And Canada, to some degree.) As of 2012, the IMF reports that these countries have net government debt-to-GDP ratios of 26%, 83%, 70%, and 35%, respectively. Meanwhile, the 30-odd OECD countries with written constitutions had net government debt ratios ranging from -166% (Norway, with a massive sovereign wealth fund and a constitution written in 1814) to 12% (Australia; constitution written 1901) to 57% (Germany; constitution written 1949) to 155% (Greece, constitution written 1975).

          Can you see any correlation here? Because I can’t.

        3. Yes lots of countries have a constitution but many can simply be changed by their people and parliament the same way our Bill of Rights can. In Australia until 1986 the constitution could have been changed by simple act of parliament in Westminster. Its one thing to write out your constitutional arrangements in one document. Its another entirely to separate the branches of government and make each one subservient to the written constitution. “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” Thomas Jefferson

        4. Yes, historically Republicans did manage finances pretty well, shame about the last 4….. Really the US shows the danger of a two party system and misrepresentative government.

    2. “The last five Democratic Presidents, Clinton, Carter, LBJ, JFK, and Truman all reduced the debt, and one has to go back sixty years to find a Democratic President who, facing the Great Depression and World War 2, allowed the debt to increase. On the other hand, the last four Republican Presidents, GW Bush, GHW Bush, Reagan, and Ford all oversaw an increase in the country’s indebtedness.”

      blah blah blah etc

  3. You cite a lack of regulation as being a cause for Houston’s sprawl.

    The real issue is that the regulator builds the freeways, forcing private enterprise into this low-density nightmare.

    If transport was built as efficiently as possible (as the private sector would demand) eight lane freeways and massive ring roads would not exist.

    The evidence is there – older cities in Europe which developed before the state started subsiding roads are much denser and have much better land use.

    Private businesses built the railroads for profit, and they did a fine job of it.

    1. You’re right – poor price signals for publicly-funded infrastructure have been the main cause of Houston’s sprawl. The effect of minimal land use regulations, on the other hand, has probably been positive, as it’s allowed for significantly more flexibility when redeveloping land and kept prices relatively low.

  4. “two-bedroom attached house…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.”

    I bought a three bedroom house with it own section for 216,500 in 2002. This is not a generation ago.

  5. The big motorway expansion in the US came from the Federal government funding the 1956 Highways Act. This means the US has six times the motorway length per capita compared to NZ. But only double the population density.

    It is my understanding that new motorways are still funded federally but the maintenance comes from State and local governments. If someone could confirm this that would be helpful for this debate. These facts I think explains the US car/motorway centric urban development and the poor maintenance of the road network.

    So I agree with “the real issue is that the regulator builds the freeways, forcing private enterprise into this low-density nightmare.”

    I would argue that if transport infrastructure was built and maintained by state and local government then the US would have developed a mixed public transport/ motorway network that was bike and pedestrian friendly like northern Europe.

    I think the lesson for NZ is decentralisation from the central government /NZTA model is the answer.

  6. It might be the motorway network that was massively boosted following the 1956 Highways Act main effect was providing a free transport network for urban areas to expand into. From what I have read the main user of US motorway users are people travelling within an urban area. This is despite the original intention of the Highways Act to facilitate inter-state or trans-continental transport.

    This free network of motorways radiating out of US cities might explain why housing is so cheap in many parts of the US.

    The good news for NZ is we too could provide a transport network around our urban areas to facilitate affordable housing. Further we do not have to use just motorways and low density stand alone housing sprawl. We could also have higher density nodes of terraced housing and small apartment with pedestrian based business centres connected by dedicated public transport routes.

  7. Melbourne had one of the worst experiences of rail induced sprawl. People forget it wasn’t the road network that caused the sprawl, but rail. Pretty well all the lines were electrified in the 1920s, and this includes fingers right out into the rural hinterland, the orchards and dairy areas. Would be like electrifying to Helensville for you guys. Oddly enough, development followed but the residents then demanded better roads. If the railways had failed to provide this service, people might have thought twice about moving out there in the 1920s-50s, and the sprawl we did end up with would definitely have been less.

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