Is There a Civilization War Going On?

This article first appeared at The Orange County Register.

“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” — Arnold J. Toynbee

From the heart of Europe to North America, nativism, sometimes tinged by white nationalist extremism, is on the rise. In recent elections, parties identified, sometimes correctly, as alt-right have made serious gains in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, pushing even centrist parties in their direction. The election of Donald Trump can also be part of this movement.

Why is this occurring? There are economic causes to be sure, but perhaps the best explanation is cultural, reflecting a sense, not totally incorrect, that western civilization is on the decline, a movement as much self-inflicted as put upon.

French intellectuals First to See the Trend

In 1973 a cranky French intellectual, Jean Raspail, published a speculative novel, “The Camp of the Saints,” which depicted a Europe overrun by refugees from the developing world. In 2015 another cranky Frenchman, Michael Houellenbecq, wrote a bestseller, “Submission,” which predicted much the same thing, ending with the installation of an Islamist government in France.

Both novels place the blame for the collapse of the Western liberal state not on the immigrants but on cultural, political and business leaders all too reluctant to stand up for their own civilization. This is reflected in such things as declining respect for free speech, the importance of citizenship, and even the weakening of the family, an institution now rejected as bad for the environment and even less enlightened than singlehood.

Critically, the assault on traditional liberalism has come mostly not from the reactionary bestiary, but elements of the often-cossetted left. It is not rightist fascism that threatens most but its pre-condition, the systematic undermining of liberal society from within…

Read the rest of the article at The Orange County Register.

Photo: JÄNNICK Jérémy [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Rising Rents are Stressing Out Tenants and Heightening America’s Housing Crisis

This article first appeared at Forbes.

The home-buying struggles of Americans, particularly millennials, have been well documented. Yet a recent study by Hunt.com found that the often-proposed “solution” of renting is not much of a panacea. Rents as a percentage of income, according to Zillow, are now at a historic high of 29.1%, compared with the 25.8% rate that prevailed from 1985 to 2000.

No surprise, then, that 58% of the 1,300 renters in the Hunt survey said they felt “stressed” about their rent, or that many respondents said they couldn’t save for future purchases like homes. Rather than the sunny freedom promised by those who promote a “rentership society,” most of those surveyed said that finding a convenient place with the amenities they required – for example, fitness rooms, places for pets and adequate space – was very difficult. Some renters have been forced to euthanize their pets, spend upwards of 50 days looking for a place or move farther from family and friends.

All of this is taking place at a time when the national vacancy rate has fallen to 7.3% (in the second quarter of 2017), from 11.1% in the third quarter of 2009. That trend has continued even with apartment construction in many areas, notably core cities, because the new buildings tend to be too expensive for most renters.

Fuel For A Housing Crisis

There is a strong relationship between high rents and high house prices. Although rents have not risen as much as house prices generally, they tend to attract people who in the past might have become homeowners but instead have been crowded out by the high prices. This essentially brings into the rental market more affluent tenants who directly compete with those with lower incomes.

The result in many places, such as Southern California, is overcrowding. Two-thirds of the places in the United States (municipalities and census-designated places) with more than 5,000 residences and with more than 10% of housing units being overcrowded are in California, according to the American Community Survey.

The rent-related stress also points to a bigger crisis: the decline in the purchase of homes. One of the most prominent reasons for not buying a house directly relates to higher rents: It becomes all but impossible to save enough for a down payment. This also reflects changes in the labor market; service and blue-collar workers, whose incomes have been down in relation to rents, are the most burdened by rising rents. In San Francisco, even a teacher has been driven into the ranks of the homeless.

The situation is worst in the most expensive markets. In New York City, incomes for millennials (ages 18–29) have dropped in real terms compared with the same age cohort in 2000, despite considerably higher education levels, while rents have increased 75%. New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco have three of the nation’s four lowest homeownership rates for young people and among the lowest birthrates.

According to Zillow, for workers ages 22-34, rent costs claim up to 45% of income in the Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Miami metropolitan areas, compared with closer to 30% of income in metros like Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. Home prices provide an even starker contrast. Dallas-Fort Worth, the nation’s fastest-growing housing market, as well as Houston, San Antonio and Charlotte have prices that are more like one-third those of the superstars.

That helps explain why, according to the Hunt survey, the highest percentage of people who cannot save for future purchases (almost 60%) live on the pricey West Coast. The West Coast also had the largest percentage of people stressed about their rent, followed, not surprisingly, by the East Coast.

High rents may also help explain recent shifts in migration to lower-rent areas. A recent survey by Apartmentalist.com found that the best prospects for renters becoming homeowners are in metropolitan areas like Pittsburgh, Provo, Madison, San Antonio, Columbus, Oklahoma City and Houston; the worst are, not surprisingly, in California, New York, Boston and Miami.

Profound Implications

What emerges from the Hunt study, and other research, is a renting population that may never achieve home ownership. This represents a sort of social evolution from the culture of self-assertion and independence that once so clearly characterized America after World War II and was so important to the unprecedented spread of middle-income affluence. Rather than striking out on their own, many millennials are simply failing to launch, with record numbers living with their parents or forced to shell out much of their income rent.

The implications of high rent, and declining home ownership, could be profound over time. In survey after survey, a clear majority of millennials — roughly 80%, including the vast majority of renters — express interest in acquiring a home of their own. A Fannie Mae survey of people under 40 found that nearly 80% of renters thought that owning made more financial sense, a sentiment shared by an even larger number of owners. They cited such things as asset appreciation, control over the living environment and a hedge against rent increases.

But it won’t just be renters impacted by rising rents. Jason Furman, who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Obama, calculated that a single-family home contributed two and a half times as much to the national GDP as an apartment unit.

The decline in investment in residential properties has dropped to levels not seen since World War II. By some estimates, if we had that kind of housing investment again, we would return to 4% growth, as opposed to our all-too-familiar 2% and below.

America’s housing crisis, long tied to ownership, is now extending into rising rents. But the stress that renters are feeling impacts all of us.

Photo credit: Omar Bárcena, via Flickr, using CC License. (Minor brightening of image)

What Does the Future Hold for the Automobile?

This piece first appeared at The Orange County Register.

For a generation, the car has been reviled by city planners, greens and not too few commuters. In the past decade, some boldly predicted the onset of “peak car” and an auto-free future which would be dominated by new developments built around transit.

Yet “peak car,” like the linked concept of “peak oil” has failed to materialize. Once the economy began to recover from the Great Recession, vehicle miles traveled, sales of cars, and particularly trucks, began to rise again, reaching a sales peak the last two year. Instead, it has been transit ridership that has stagnated, and even fallen in some places like Southern California.

Demographics — notably the rise of the millennial generation — were once seen as the key to unlocking a post-car future. Yes, younger people have been slower to buy cars than their predecessors, much as they have been slow to get full-time jobs, marry or buy homes, but more are now driving, so to speak, the car market, representing the largest share of new automobile buyers.

Convenience can’t be banned

The persistence of personal transportation has little to do with the much hyped “love affair” with the automobile but convenience and access to work. Simply put, with a few notable exceptions, Americans live in increasingly “dispersed regions.” Transit works brilliantly, as Wendell Cox and I demonstrated recently in a paper for Chapman’s Center for Demographics, to downtown San Francisco and a few other “legacy” urban centers, notably New York which accounts for a remarkable 40 percent of all transit commuting in the United States.

Yet, overall, 90 percent of Americans get to work in cars. Access to jobs represents a key factor. University of Minnesota research shows that the average employee in 49 of the nation’s 52 major metropolitan areas can reach barely 1 percent of the jobs in the area by transit within 30 minutes while cars offer upwards of 70 times more access. This practical concern does much to explain why up to 76 percent of all work trips remain people driving alone.

Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

Photo credit: evgonetwork (eVgo Network). Original image was trimmed and retouched (lighting and color tones) by User: Mariordoderivative work: Mariordo [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

How to Deal With an Age of Disasters

This article first appeared in The Orange County Register.

When Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston, followed by a strong hurricane in Florida, much of the media response indicated that the severe weather was a sign of catastrophic climate change, payback for mass suburbanization — and even a backlash by Mother Nature against the election of President Donald Trump.

Yet, these assumptions are often exaggerated. Although climate change could well worsen these incidents, this recent surge of hurricanes followed a decade of relative quiescence. Hurricanes, like droughts and heavy rains, are part of the reality along the Gulf Coast and the South Atlantic, just as droughts and earthquakes plague those of us who live in Southern California.

The best response to disasters is not to advance hysterical claims about impending doom, but rather resilience. This means placing primary attention on bolstering our defenses against catastrophic events, whether in protecting against floods, ice storms, earthquakes or droughts.

The limits of original sin

Days after Hurricane Harvey hit, Quartz opined that “Houston’s flooding shows what happens when you ignore science and let developers run rampant.” The Guardian’s climate columnist, George Monbiot, even portrayed the event as a kind of payback for being the world capital of planet-destroying climate change.

In ascribing every disaster — even the Syrian civil war — to human-caused warming, we may be venturing into something more akin to the religious notion of original sin than to rational science. We should want to reduce greenhouse gases, but, as both rational skeptics like Bjorn Lomborg and true believers like NASA’s James Hansen agree, such things as the Paris climate accord are unlikely to make much of an impact on the actual climate in the near term — or even in the medium term.

In the short run, then, who sits in the White House is pretty irrelevant. Having Barack Obama, or even Bill Nye, the “Science Guy,” in the White House would not make an appreciable difference in addressing nature’s fury.

Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

Photo credit: Jill Carlson (jillcarlson.org) from Roman Forest, Texas, USA (Hurricane Harvey Flooding and Damage) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hurricanes Don’t Kill Cities — People Do

This piece originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Cities that believe in themselves are hard to kill. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey many pundits have urged Houston to abandon many of the traits that have made it a dynamic, growing metropolis, including key elements of its light-handed, pro-business regulatory regime.

Houston, we are told, should retrench and reduce its sprawl; Slate recommends New Orleans’ post-Katrina shrinkage as a model. This goes against the best of urban tradition. Great cities generally do not shrink themselves.

Many cities have rebounded and even improved after far more lethal devastation, including London, Berlin, Tokyo and New York. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the city ultimately constructed a downtown that may well be the world’s most beautiful. San Francisco famously rebuilt itself after the 1906 earthquake and fire into “a new and improved city” that has evolved into an integral part of the world’s dominant tech hub.

In contrast cities that destroy themselves from within, like Detroit after the 1968 riots, and New Orleans before Katrina, can decline for decades.

Urban resiliency requires two things: an ability to learn from experience and, per Northeastern University’s resiliency expert Daniel Aldrich, a commitment on the part of its residents to improve their city.

Should Houston downsize?

Unlike New York or New Orleans, Houston is not celebrated by the mainstream press or intellectuals; its residents have been portrayed as hypocritical religious fanatics and even neo-Nazis, despite living in what may well be America’s most diverse city.

To many pundits, Houston’s problems are due to a lack of zoning and too much unregulated growth. Days after Hurricane Harvey hit, Quartz opined that “Houston’s flooding shows what happens when you ignore science and let developers run rampant.” The Guardian’s climate columnist George Monbiot even portrayed the event as a kind of payback for being the world capital of planet-destroying climate change.

Few Houstonians are likely to embrace this interpretation of natural forces, or their own culpability. Longtime residents know that the Bayou City always has been prone to serious hurricanes and flooding due to its location along the Gulf, and Houston has shown an ability to deal with it.

A 1935 flood caused proportionally much more severe damage on a much smaller city. Tropical storm Allison in 2001 led to significant hardening of infrastructure. Unlike New Orleans at the time of Katrina, many services in Houston, including police and fire, were ready for Harvey. Flood control, although clearly not up to the standards required by such a huge weather event, has been much improved. New developments are required to show how they can make up for the absorption lost, often with sophisticated drainage and storage techniques.

Much blame for Harvey has been linked to development on the fringe, a major component of the region’s growth. Over an 18-year period, Houston lost about 25,000 acres of wetlands, which took away about 4 billion gallons of storm water detention capacity. In contrast Harvey dumped about 1 trillion gallons, meaning those wetlands could have only absorbed about 0.4% of Harvey’s deluge. Many flooded roads were consciously designed to hold storm water temporarily when there is nowhere for it to drain.

To succeed, Houston, like any city, must adapt and bolster its defenses, particularly if such events become more common. This does not mean, as many suggest, that the region abandon its development-friendly policies. In contrast to claims of “wild west” regulation, many developments after Allison are required have better systems to handle downpours than older areas closer to the center. One friend notes that his 10 suburban shopping centers employed the most advanced methods for handling excess water and survived.

Most of his projects’ first line of defense is made up of catch basins and stormwater lines in the parking lot which flow to a retention pond. The second line of defense is the retention pond. In the event the pond reaches capacity, the third line of defense is storm water backing up into storm drainage lines and ultimately ponding in the parking lot. These three defenses are very typical in newer developments, and many withstood the biblical flooding intact.

Many others, either not up to code or built well before the new regulations, did not do so well. But on the whole, rather than prove the inadequacy of Houston model, as the New York Times Bret Stephens correctly noted, the region managed to survive a crisis with minimal, albeit tragic losses, that in other places would have cost thousands of lives.

In the coming years, Houston surely will have to find ways to grow with less peril. But as both MIT’s Alan Berger and Houston’s Mayor Sylvester Tuner have noted, Harvey did not “punish” Houston for lax development. Houston has a planning system that is not the “wild west” but simply less bureaucratic and politicized. Its suburbs, notes the planning blog Strong towns, “are largely indistinguishable from the suburbs of any American city.” As Mayor Sylvester rejoined, if Houston had zoning, he would be presiding instead over a “flooded zoned city.”

The zoning argument is, simply put, bogus. Cities in the area that were heavily zoned, like West University, or intensely planned like Sugarland, got hit as hard as more haphazard areas. Harvey, it turns out, was an equal opportunity devastator. Similarly, Sandy dropped barely one-third the rain from Harvey, yet overwhelmed a dense and very zoned area. New Orleans before Katrina was dense and zoned; a lot of good it did them.

Nor, as many commentators suggest, can Houston’s supposedly enormous “sprawl” be the prime culprit. As demographer Wendell Cox points out the Houston urban area density at 3,000 per square mile, is 20 percent above metropolitan Boston (2,200), and Philadelphia (2,700) and not much less dense than that mecca of smart growth, Portland. Overall Houston ranks 18th in urban population density among the 53 metropolitan areas with more than a million residents, according to Census date.

In contrast to its image as a paved over dystopia, Houston has more parkland and green space than most any other large city in America and ranks third overall to San Diego and Dallas in park acreage per capita. Rather than focus on urban form, Berger, himself a landscape architect who is co-director MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism, says this region really needs better and stricter building codes, such as the ones that saved my friend’s shopping centers. Others, like Rich Campanella at Tulane, suggests the best strategy for the Gulf cities should be to focus on building barrier islands along the coast, and improving often aged drainage systems.

In the end, it’s the civic culture

As we know from experience, storms, violent conquest and, in the case of Hiroshima, even nuclear weapons, cannot kill a city — only residents can do that. I saw this in Los Angeles, which in the early 1990s suffered a Pharaonic series of disasters — riots, fires, floods and a huge earthquake in 1994. The city rebuilt smartly after all of them, but only one, the 1992 riots, left a residual toll on the civic spirit, or led to an exodus of residents. Los Angeles may look spiffier than it did before the riots, but its enterprising spirit, and its allure to newcomers, never recovered fully.

Internal collapse, the lack of a civic spirit, occurs most often when a city’s elite and its population no longer see a common future. Detroit’s 1967 riots created a morass that devastated the city for the next half century. Earlier on conflict between Boston Brahmins and the Irish under Mayor James Curley ushered in a period of stagnation that went from the 1920s to the late 1950s.

More recently, Katrina revealed how a collapsed civic culture can make a disaster worse. Corrupt politicians, an ineffective business community and poor emergency services turned a Harvey-like natural disaster into a massive human one, with much greater loss of life. Some blame the city’s entrenched, often multi-generational lower-income population but perhaps more critical to failure was the city’s often elegantly appointed and comfortable upper echelon.

In the decades before Katrina, as southern cities like Houston and Atlanta were burgeoning, New Orleans stagnated. Joel Garreau in his Nine Nations of North America described the Crescent City as a “marvelous collection of sleaziness and peeling paint.” The aristocracy enjoyed the city’s unparalleled culture while many ambitious people from its neighborhoods migrated elsewhere. Without a strong, engaged business community and middle class, there was little attempt to fix the infrastructure. This weak civic culture has left a city with huge economic challenges that a regenerated local business community is now gamely trying to address.

Houston performed very differently during Harvey. Mayor Turner and the Harris County Judge, Ed Emmett, epitomized level-headed leadership. Gov. Abbot, unlike Louisiana’s dithering Gov. Kathleen Blanco, swung immediately to action. Local volunteers pitched in, so much so, notes Houston-based analyst Tory Gattis, that many found themselves unable to participate because each Facebook call for help spurred more volunteers than could be accommodated. Houston can also count on something New Orleans lacked: a strong, and philanthropically inclined business establishment who are pouring millions into recovery efforts.

Houston will come back, albeit with some modifications, not because it’s a charity case, but because its people want to stay and rebuild their neighborhoods. They have been putting their shoulders to the wheel personally, with special emphasis on those most in need; rather than rugged individualists they are, in the words of one prominent Houston businessperson “rugged communitarians.”

In the coming months, Houstonians will seek aid from Washington, as all hard-hit areas do, but most understand that the challenge is basically for them to solve, whether through mutual self-help, or new infrastructure; their city is an engineering marvel that needs a new upgrade.

Ultimately, the power of human agency at the grassroots level remains the “secret sauce” overcoming almost any disaster, whether it’s London, New York or Houston. Great cities are not about buildings but great people. By that standard, Houston will likely come back better than before, a testament to the greatness of the urban ideal.

This piece originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Photo: Jill Carlson (jillcarlson.org) from Roman Forest, Texas, USA (Hurricane Harvey Flooding and Damage) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Spotlight on Infrastructure After Harvey

This article first appeared at Real Clear Politics

The recent tragic events in Houston and across the Gulf Coast once again demonstrated the woeful inadequacy of our infrastructure. Hopefully, some good will come of Hurricane Harvey. Hopefully, it will jump-start the long-awaited Trump initiative on infrastructure, which may be the one issue that could unite this country.

Northeastern University’s post-disaster resiliency expert Daniel Aldrich notes the need for better storm water drainage systems and for fortifying existing infrastructure — and not just in Houston. Helping promote such investments represents perhaps the last best chance for creating a significant Trump legacy.

Once a leader in world infrastructure, the United States now ranks 11th in the overall quality of its infrastructure, according to the latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index. This decline has consequences. In California, for example, the lack of investment in water storage both worsened the recent drought and reduced the state’s ability to take advantage of heavy rains when they arrived.

A concerted effort to restore our nation’s bridges, roads, harbors and other critical infrastructure would also mark a significant break from the Obama era stimulus which focused more on propping up renewable energy and often underused mass transit systems. Meanwhile, our overall infrastructure continued to deteriorate during the Great Recession, even with the stimulus, with spending in decline from over $300 billion in 2008 to under $250 billion in 2013.

Spending Smartly

“Efficiency is doing things right,” legendary management guru Peter F. Drucker once proclaimed. “Effectiveness is doing the right things.” In the context of infrastructure, being effective means placing our bets on things that are really needed, and could reward our society with greater productivity, wealth and new employment.

Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism recently published a report , and article “Doing the Right Things Right,” which lays out what an infrastructure strategy would look like given current budget constraints. The United States faces a national debt of $20 trillion, while the federal government deficit was projected to reach $693 billion for fiscal year 2017.

A strong U.S. transportation infrastructure system facilitates economic growth, job creation, a better standard of living and less poverty by minimizing travel times and improving labor market efficiency. Yet, as “Doing the Right Things Right” makes clear, not all investments are the same, or should receive federal subsidies, whether for direct expenditures or to issue infrastructure bonds to support private investment. There have been too many examples of spending on lower priority infrastructure because politicians were more interested in securing pork, or votes, than accelerating economic growth or reducing constituents’ travel times.

To be sure, America’s infrastructure has performed well enough to provide the highest standard of living for the largest number of people in the world. The legacy of earlier infrastructure decisions, such as the completion of the interstate highway system, is still evident. Overall, the amount of time America’s commuters spend in peak period traffic congestion is generally better than that of international competitors.

Yet traffic problems are increasing in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. A recent study found that traffic congestion imposed $132 billion in excess fuel and time costs for automobile drivers and $28 billion in freight costs annually — all ultimately absorbed by consumers.

The key question is how we meet these challenges. One proposed solution is to increase spending on traditional mass transit. This works well largely in “legacy cities” such as Washington, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and New York. The city of New York alone represents a remarkable 36 percent of all U.S. transit commuting, yet has only 3 percent of the jobs. Outside of these cities, the new transit projects, principally rail lines, have done little or nothing, as a recent report on transit from Chapman University demonstrates, to slow congestion or attract significant ridership.

Among 19 metropolitan areas that added high-capacity transit systems since 1980, both bus and rail, transit’s market share has fallen from 4.7 to 4.6 percent compared to the last data before the systems opened. Transit has not, on balance, reduced solo driving, which increased from an average of 73.0 percent to 76.6 percent.

The cities with rail systems opening after the 1990 Census experienced a modest decline in transit work trip market share, from 3.8 percent in 1990 to 3.7 percent in 2013.

Take the absurd example of Los Angeles, which has spent over $15 billion trying to become what some mass transit enthusiasts call the “next great transit city.” Yet, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority system ridership stands at least 15 percent below 1985 levels, when there was only bus service, at a time when the population of Los Angeles County was 20 percent lower. Since 1990, transit’s work trip market share in the Los Angeles metropolitan area has dropped from 5.6 percent to 5.1 percent. No surprise, then, that according to a recent USC study, the new lines have done little or nothing to lessen congestion.

Doing Your Homework

The irony is that billions are being spent on these ineffective systems, when the places that depend on transit, like New York and Washington, are seeing their systems become less reliable and even dangerous. We are dumping money in some locations that don’t work all that well, but can’t find funds to fix systems that remain essential to “legacy cities” with large downtowns ideal for transit ridership.

With the expense and ineffectiveness of new rail systems, it seems that the time has arrived for transit services that focus on less expensive bus systems, including those run by private companies, which can carry so many more riders for so much less in taxpayer subsidies. There are also opportunities to make lightly used but highly subsidized services more cost-effective by adding ride-hailing systems, like Uber and Lyft, cited as a factor in recent ridership declines in Los Angeles and even New York. In suburban San Francisco, a local transit operator has established a pilot program to extend service through ride-hailing and cancelled a lightly patronized bus route, reducing costs while providing quicker door-to-door service.

One of the most promising alternatives, virtually ignored by transit advocates, is to encourage options for working at home. In many metropolitan areas, more people already telecommute than take transit. Since 1980, the number of people working at home has grown three times that of transit riders. All this, at virtually no cost to taxpayers.

In the future, rapidly evolving autonomous technologies could make our present transit systems archaic in most cities. Under any circumstance, these advances seem likely to further weaken conventional transit. Given these trends, why base our transit policy on 19th century technologies when we are about to enter the third decade of the 21st?

Back to the Gulf: Resiliency, not Hysteria

“Smart growth” advocates have been quick to argue that Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented damage can be traced to Houston’s freewheeling, free-market approach to real estate development. Sure, the area got 50 inches of rain, but it fell both on communities that eschew strict zoning and those which embrace it. They somehow forget that a lesser storm, Hurricane Sandy, devastated the highly planned communities of greater New York just a few years ago, causing $19 billion in damage in the city alone – and with far less rain.

Rather than imitate Portland or San Francisco, Houston and other Gulf communities need to maintain policies that have allowed it to avoid the kind of insane price hikes one sees on the West Coast and some Northeastern housing markets. To force Houston to act like San Francisco would kill its economy. If Texas real estate prices approach California’s, people will simply move elsewhere, where prices are lower.

Some changes may be necessary, including “coastal restoration” efforts that limit the impact of storms like Harvey. Major engineering challenges, like building more water storage facilities and improved drainage, need to be imposed, as well.

What Houston needs, and would naturally adopt, is a kind of enlightened free market approach. After the devastation of Galveston in 1900 hurricane, Houston famously built a ship channel while Galveston built an elaborate sea wall; Houston is no less a creation of private innovation and government than New York or Los Angeles. Like America itself, Houston thrives by combining good public investment with a maximum of economic flexibility.

The more these decisions are made locally, by people who are directly impacted, the better. My colleague Tory Gattis, based in Houston, suggests that new developments and older ones “should be required to have adequate rainwater retention, either with ponds, tanks, or permeable surfaces.” There are already examples of some of this kind of planning, particularly in exurban communities such as the Woodlands. This may mitigate the ill effects of such storms, but not likely to prevent disasters like Harvey from inflicting huge damage.

These policies could mean, over time, that Houston and other Gulf communities might build an infrastructure more reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, scattered communities with ample open land around them. But the vision must be a localized one, not drawn from example of generally slower-growing, older regions facing very different natural challenges. The benefits to customizing local infrastructure is go beyond economic reality and even disaster mitigation. With enough focus on local needs, we need not wait for natural disasters to witness the heartwarming sights of multi-cultural first responders – and ordinary citizens – all pulling together. “Social networks and cohesion are an important part of recovery and survival,” professor Aldrich suggests. “Houston should be investing in bringing neighborhoods together.”

This is the real secret sauce for resiliency, as Houston has been showing throughout this crisis. The more that people who are impacted control the till, whether repairing levees, imposing regulations or planning transit systems, the better. Rather than let Leviathan rule and impose conformity, we should let regions — whether in Texas or elsewhere — figure out how to meet infrastructure challenges that effect every community differently.

Joel Kotkin is a presidential fellow at Chapman University and the executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His latest book is “The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us.”

Wendell Cox is the principal of Demographia, a public-policy consultancy, and a senior fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, based in Houston.

U.S. Cities Have a Glut of High-Rises and Still Lack Affordable Housing

This piece originally appeared at Forbes.

Perhaps nothing thrills mayors and urban boosters like the notion of endless high-rise towers rising above their city centers. And to be sure, new high-rise residential construction has been among the hottest areas for real estate investors, particularly those from abroad, with high-end products accounting for 8o% of all new construction.

Yet this is not an entirely high-end country, and these products, particularly the luxury high-rises in cities, largely depend on a small segment of the population that can afford such digs.

No surprise, then, that we see reports of declining prices in areas as attractive as New York, Miami and San Francisco, where a weakening tech market is beginning to erode prices, much as occurred in the 2000 tech bust, John Burns Real Estate Consulting notes. There have been big jumps in the number of expired and withdrawn condo listings, particularly at the high end; last year, San Francisco saw a 128% spike in the number of withdrawn or expired listings for condos over $1.5 million.

Several factors suggest the high-rise residential boom is over, including a growing recognition that these structures do little to relieve the housing affordability crisis facing middle-class residents, the inevitable aging of millennials and their shift to suburbs and less expensive cities, and the impending withdrawal of some major foreign investors who have come to dominate the market in many cities.

Cost And Affordability

One common refrain among housing advocates and politicians is that high-rise construction is a solution to the problem of housing affordability. The causes of the problem, however, are principally prohibitions on urban fringe development of starter homes. Critics also note that high-rises in urban neighborhoods often replace older buildings, which are generally more affordable.

One big problem: High-density housing is far more expensive to build. Gerard Mildner, the academic director of the Center for Real Estate at Portland State University, notes that development of a building of more than five stories requires rents approximately two and a half times those from the development of garden apartments. Even higher construction costs are reported in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the cost of townhouse development per square foot can double that of detached houses (excluding land costs) and units in high-rise condominium buildings can cost up to seven and a half times as much.

Almost without exception, then, the most expensive areas are precisely those that have the most high-rise buildings: New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Miami. More to the point, these buildings don’t tend to be occupied by middle-class, much less working-class, families. And in many cases, these units are not people’s actual homes; in New York, as many as 60% of new luxury units are not primary residences, leaving many unoccupied at any given time.

Even worse, a high-density strategy tends to raise the price of surrounding real estate. As Tim Redmond, a veteran San Francisco journalist, points out, luxury apartments often tend to be built in areas with older, more affordable buildings. The notion that simply building more of an expensive product helps keep prices down elsewhere misses the distinction between markets; the high-rises in Washington, DC, are not the affordable units that the vast majority of city residents need.

Other cities favored by luxury developers – like Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle and San Francisco – have also seen deteriorating affordability and, in some cases, a mass exodus of middle- and working-class residents, particularly minorities. San Francisco’s black population, for example, is roughly half of what it was in 1970. In the nation’s whitest major city, Portland, African-Americans are being driven out of the urban core by high-density gentrification, partly supported by city funding. Similar phenomena can be seen in Seattle and Boston, where long-existing black communities are gradually disappearing.

The New Demography Works Against This Trend

It is common in retro-urbanist circles to maintain that more Americans, particularly younger ones, will opt to remain customers for ever-greater density, a preference that could sustain an ever-growing market for high-rises. Yet that notion may be past its sell-by date, with demographic evidence suggesting that most Americans, including younger ones, are looking less for an apartment in the sky than for a house with a little backyard.

Suburbs, consigned to the dustbin of history by many urban boosters, are back. Demographer Jed Kolko, analyzing the most recent Census Bureau numbers, suggests that population growth in most big cities now lags that of their suburbs, which have accounted for more than 80% of metropolitan growth since 2011. Even where the urban core renaissance has been most prominent, there are ominous signs. The population growth rate for Brooklyn and Manhattan fell nearly 90% from 2010-11 to 2015-16.

The real trend in migration is to sprawling, heavily suburbanized areas, particularly in the Sun Belt. To be sure, there are high-rises in most of these markets – quite a gusher of them in Austin, for instance – but the growth in all these regions is overwhelmingly suburban.

The most critical factor over time may be the aging of millennials. Among those under 35 who do buy homes, four-fifths choose single-family detached houses, a form found most often in suburbs. Surveys consistently find that most millennials see suburbs as the ideal place to live in the long run. According to a recent National Homebuilders Association report, more than 66%, including those living in cities, would actually prefer a house in the suburbs.

The largely anecdotal media accounts of millennial lifestyles conflict with reality, Kolko notes. Although younger millennials have tended toward core cities more than previous generations, the website FiveThirtyEight notes that those ages 30-44 are actually moving to suburban locales more than in the past.

The China Syndrome

Given the limits of the domestic market, the luxury high-rise sector depends heavily on foreign investors.

Already, harder times for some traditional investors – Russians and Brazilians, for example – have hurt the Miami market, long attractive to overseas buyers. There is now three years’ worth of inventory of luxury high-rises there, with areas such as Edgewater, Midtown and the A&E District suffering an incredibly high inventory of seven and a half years. Miami Beach is faring a bit better but is still a buyer’s market at a little over two years of inventory.

Still, the greatest threat to the luxury high-rise market may come from the Far East, the region of the world with the most surplus capital and, given the rapidly aging society, often the fewest profitable places to put it. Korea and Japan have lots of money sitting around looking for a home. Japan and its companies, according to World Bank data, are hoarding more than $2 trillion in unused liquid assets.

But as in all things East Asian, China stands apart. Last year, the country had a record $725 billion in capital outflows, according to the Institute of International Finance. China is now the largest foreign investor in US real estate.

But now the Chinese government has placed strong controls on these investments, which could leave some places vulnerable. In Downtown Los Angeles, according to local brokers, many of the new high-rise towers are marketed primarily in China. (LA claims to have the second-highest number of cranes, behind only Seattle.)

These expensive units are far out of reach for the younger people who tend to inhabit the neighborhood, instead serving as what one executive called “vertical safe deposit boxes” for people trying to get their money out of China. If the new crackdown on such investments is strongly enforced, this could leave a lot of expensive units without buyers. Prices have already softened, and with several new luxury buildings coming up, Downtown is likely to experience a glut.

Even in Manhattan, another market long dependent on foreign investment, projects are now stalled, including some once-hot properties in Midtown that are delaying their sales launches. Overall sales of condos over $4 million dropped 18% last year from the high levels of the previous three years. The ultra-premium market for condos over $10 million saw a 5% sales decrease in 2016.

Changes Ahead

The current slowdown, and perhaps longer-term stabilization, could lead to lower rates of migration out of the expensive cores.

Yet this trend is not likely to reverse the movement of younger people to less dense areas. Luxury high-rise units were not built for families, and they are often located in areas with poor schools and limited open space. They may simply become high-priced rentals, attractive no doubt to childless professionals but not to middle- and working-class families.

In the end, the real need is not for more luxury towers. What is needed, particularly in America’s cities, from the urban core to the urban fringe, is the kind of housing middle- and working-class families can afford.

This piece originally appeared at Forbes.

Photo credit: Sharon Mollerus via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

The Great Transit Rip-Off

This article first appeared in The Orange County Register.

Over the past decade, there has been a growing fixation among planners and developers alike for a return to the last century’s monocentric cities served by large-scale train systems. And, to be sure, in a handful of older urban regions, mass transit continues to play an important — and even vital — role in getting commuters to downtown jobs. Overall, a remarkable 40 percent of all transit commuting in the United States takes place in the New York metropolitan area — and just six municipalities make up 55 percent of all transit commuting destinations.

But here’s an overlooked fact: Transit now serves about the same number of riders as it did in 1907, when the urban population was barely 15 percent of what it is today. Most urban regions, such as Southern California, are nothing like New York — and they never will be. Downtown Los Angeles may be a better place in which to hang out and eat than in the past, but it sorely lacks the magnetic appeal of a place like Manhattan, or even downtown San Francisco. Manhattan, the world’s second-largest employment center, represents a little more than 20 percent of the New York metropolitan area’s employment. In Los Angeles, by contrast, the downtown area employs just 2 percent.

Transit is failing in Southern California

As we demonstrate in a new report for Chapman University, our urban form does not work well for conventional mass transit. Too many people go to too many locales to work, and, as housing prices have surged, many have moved farther way, which makes trains less practical, given the lack of a dominant job center. But in its desire to emulate places like New York, Los Angeles has spent some $15 billion trying to evolve into what some East Coast enthusiasts call the “next great transit city.”

The rail lines have earned Mayor Eric Garcetti almost endless plaudits from places like the New York Times. Yet, since 1990, transit’s work trip market share has dropped from 5.6 percent to 5.1 percent. MTA system ridership stands at least 15 percent below 1985 levels, when there was only bus service, and the population of Los Angeles County was about 20 percent lower. In some places, like Orange County, the fall has been even more precipitous, down 30 percent since 2008. It is no surprise, then, that, according to a recent USC study, the new lines have done little or nothing to lessen congestion.

This experience is not limited to L.A. Most of the 19 metropolitan areas with new mass transit rail systems — including big cities like Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and even Portland, Ore. — have experienced a decline in transit market share since the systems began operations.

Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

Photo: Esirgen (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Will Donald Trump Expose America’s Great Mass Transit Hoax?

This piece originally appeared on the Daily Beast.

Whatever you think of President Trump, his claims about the lousy condition of America’s basic infrastructure are widely accepted—even by resisting Democrats grinding their teeth on a L.A. freeway or waiting for a New York or D.C. train to arrive. His call for a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan may be his last best bet for finding bipartisan support.

The question is if he’s at all serious about the urgent need to fix the failing mass-transit systems we have, or if he’ll repeat what Washington’s done to get us in this mess, and offer funds that encourage cities to build shiny new systems few will actually ride even as the existing ones decay.

As we’ve demonstrated in a new paper for Chapman University (PDF), nowhere is the infrastructure deficit more obvious than in urban transit, which last year lost over 3.1 percent of its ridership, according to the American Public Transit Association (PDF). Despite the vast sums spent by the federal government on light rail, subways, and trolleys since 1970, most mass transit systems fail to meet the needs of commuters.

In many cases, as in New York and Washington, vast expenditures on new lines have occurred even as maintenance has been deferred, with overall service deteriorating. Many billions of dollars more have been spent in other cities on new rail systems that haven’t reduced the number of people driving to work.

How the Feds Failed Legacy Cities

Rail transit works best in what might be considered the “legacy cores.” Approximately 55 percent of America’s transit commuters have destinations in the urban cores (and many of those rides to the central business districts) of six older cities (not metropolitan areas)—New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. New York, by itself, has a remarkable 56 percent of its jobs in its urban core.

Between 2006 and 2015, those six metropolitan areas captured 77 percent of the national increase in transit work trip destinations.

These cities were shaped when public transit held a virtual monopoly on both motorized and horse-drawn passenger transport within U.S. cities. Annual transit ridership peaked in the early 1920s, except for the period around the Second World War, the high-water mark for transit nationally. Between 1960 and 2015, transit’s work trip market share dropped more than 50 percent, from 12.1 percent to 5.2 percent. Until very recently, the demographic recovery of legacy cores, notably New York, drove a slight increase in transit share. But this progress is threatened by growing safety and reliability issues. Part of the problem stems from a decision by New York’s political elite, starting with Michael Bloomberg, to build a new, ultra-expensive line—the Second Avenue subway—while maintenance on other lines deteriorated. This decision reflects political realities including federal incentives for new systems, and the greater political rewards for building shiny new things.

The result is that service delays in New York have skyrocketed as antiquated signals break down, with breakdowns now twice as frequently as they were just five years ago. After decades of increases, ridership has declined while the extensive commuter rail system serving Manhattan from the suburbs (the nation’s largest) is experiencing its own substantial difficulties.

The picture is similar in Washington, D.C., where the U.S. secretary of Transportation went so far as to threaten a shutdown of the system due to fatal accidents, attributed to policies that prioritized system expansion over safety. D.C.’s transit ridership, growing for decades, has now declined as well.

The Real Train Robbery

Yet even as cities that depend on transit, such as New York, suffer from under-investment, Washington has poured billions into new rail system in cities created largely in the auto-dominated era. Among 19 metropolitan areas that have opened substantially new urban rail systems since 1980, the share of riders using mass transit remains below the national average while the share of those driving alone has increased.

Nowhere is the power of ideology and entrenched interests over the common good more evident than in Los Angeles, the pioneer for the multi-polar and highly dispersed post-1950 metropolis.

On the surface, L.A. provides the sunbelt’s best case for transit—it once had a robust transit system, is the densest urban area in the country, has a huge poverty population and ideal weather for waiting outside for the train. L.A. has been widely celebrated as “the next great transit city,” and The New York Times and others are continually celebrating its imminent conversion from a car culture to a train one. Some believers, like Los Angeles architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne, envision “a third Los Angeles” that will see the eclipse of the freeways, single family homes, and suburban neighborhoods.

Yet despite this Manhattan envy among its elites, L.A. simply does not follow the “model” of urbanist paragons such as New York, Chicago or San Francisco. Downtown Los Angeles is a relative economic pygmy, accounting for barely 2 percent of regional employment, less than a tenth of lower Manhattan’s share. Transit works best when most commuters are headed to a dominant core destination. The more scattered the destinations, the less likely trains can muster a decent commuter share. The entire Los Angeles MTA system carries fewer riders than New York’s Lexington Avenue line.

Money is not the issue. Since 1990, Los Angeles has opened seven new urban metro and light-rail lines and two exclusive busways at a cost of more than $15 billion. During this period, transit’s work trip market share has dropped from 5.6 percent from 5.1 percent in 2015. Ridership is at least 15 percent below 1985 levels, when there was only bus service and when Los Angeles County had about 20 percent fewer people. No surprise, then, that according to a recent USC study, the new lines have done little or nothing to lessen the area’s infamous congestion.

Rather than hop on the rails, more residents are addressing traffic woes by simply staying home. By 2015, more Los Angeles-area residents were working at home than were taking transit. Since 1990, the number of people working at home increased eight times as rapidly as the number of people using the transit system. The number of people driving increased even more rapidly.

This story is repeated in other sunbelt cities. In Houston, 3.2 of residents commuted to work in 2000, before the city’s $1.5 billion new light-rail system opened. In 2015, the share of commuters had dropped by a third, to 2.2 percent.

It’s Atlanta, though, that most fully epitomizes the futility of conventional transit spending. With the opening of MARTA in 1979, Atlanta built the third largest new metro system (fully grade separated rail) in the U.S. Since then, transit share has plummeted—from 6.8 percent in 1980 to 3.1 percent in 2015, 40 percent below the average national transit market share. Traffic congestion more than doubled over the same time span.

The most recent addition to Atlanta’s rail system is a central city streetcar line some locals have nicknamed it “a streetcar named undesirable” for its low ridership.

Even urban planning model Portland, which opened its MAX light rail system in 1986, has seen its transit market share drop from 7.9 percent in 1980 to 6.9 percent in 2015, only modestly above the national transit-riding average. The percentage of people working at home rose from 2.3 to 6.4 percent, at virtually no cost to the public treasury, compared to the more than $3 billion to build urban rail.

But the award for the country’s most absurd project should go to the Honolulu elevated rail line. In a metropolitan area of barely a million people, the attempt to build a 20-mile elevated train has increased in cost from $5 billion to an estimated $10 to $13 billion, with the feds chipping in $1.6 billion. The impact on state finances—for an estimated 1 percent drop in road traffic—so disturbed former Governor Ben Cayetano, a Democrat, that he’s publicly called on President Trump to cut future funding. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser recently referred to the elevated lines as an “epic fail on rail.”

The Future of Transit

Before President Trump or Congress tackle infrastructure, they should work to remove federal involvement in control of local transit spending. Some experts like David Levinson of the University of Minnesota, blame federal policy for distorting investment to new project that favor “ribbon-cuttings for politicians” while resulting in neglect for local operations.

In most of the country, simply put, localities would be better off not investing in new rail schemes. Americans seem generally happy with their overwhelmingly suburban lifestyle and their ability to reach places of employment faster than most of those in the high-income world can. Today, over 75 percent of jobs are in the suburbs and exurbs combined. Between 2010 and 2015, 81 percent of job growth was in the suburbs and exurbs. Similarly 85 percent of major metropolitan area residents live outside the urban core, in the suburbs and exurbs, where transit service is sparse.

This is not likely to change much in the near or even medium term. Rather than centralizing, the consulting firm Bain envisions evolution toward a “post-urban economy” that will be more localized and home-based. By 2025, it reports, more people could live “beyond the traditional commuting belt” than inside.

These realities suggest that rather than the “one size fits all” model, metropolitan areas should better customize their transportation spending to local needs. To achieve this, we need to jettison the quasi-religious affection for rail transit and explore in most of the country technologically enabled solutions such as telework, which is growing faster than any form of commuting, as well as rideshare technology. This is particularly true in suburbs, such as Dublin, California, which eliminated their local bus system in exchange for providing vouchers for Uber-like services for those unable to afford or drive cars.

Over the longer term, the autonomous car could make even more revolutionary impacts on both the urban form and transit. Automated car proponents claim that the cost of operations will be considerably below that of today’s cars. If that should be achieved, the autonomous car could be used to provide door-to-door mobility not only for the elderly and disabled, but also for people who currently cannot afford their own cars. Under any circumstances, this innovation seems certain to further weaken conventional transit outside the cities with legacy cores.

Ultimately it will take common sense, even more than just money, to fix our transit problems. In dispersed places like southern California, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston, the emphasis may be on using new technologies as well as private express bus service to connect their widely dispersed communities. Monies that go into rail transit, suggest urban analyst Aaron Renn, should be focused on maintaining and improving current service in cities where they make sense. As Renn puts it succinctly: “The priority should be: repairs to existing mission critical rail lines, and helping distressed communities.”

The current trend of wasting billions of dollars to serve a urban theology may be popular among planners, speculators and engineering firms. It hasn’t been particularly helpful to the people who need to get, in appropriate time and without too much stress, from one place to another.

This piece originally appeared on the Daily Beast.

Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr, under CC License.

Want to be green? Forget mass transit. Work at home.

This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Expanding mass-transit systems is a pillar of green and “new urbanist” thinking, but with few exceptions, the idea of ever-larger numbers of people commuting into an urban core ignores a major shift in the labor economy: More people are working from home.

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