Urbanism in Colorado: An Introduction

The 16th St. Transit Mall in Denver is just one example of the outstanding urban design which I encountered in Colorado

The 16th St. Transit Mall in Denver is just one example of the outstanding urban design which I encountered in Colorado

Colorado is not always a state that comes to mind when you think of progressive urban policies, but having spent the past week exploring the cities of Fort Collins, Boulder, and Denver, Colorado has become one of the most cutting edge states when it comes to urbanism.  Granted, I am by no means saying that Colorado cities are even near perfect; in fact, cities on the Front Range have experienced a tremendous amount of sprawling growth over the past few decades which now threatens to consume a significant portion of the farmland and open space along the I-25 corridor.  But while urbanist projects in the Bay Area have been caught up in political battles and bureaucratic red tape, cities across Colorado have managed to accomplish numerous recent projects which have put them at the forefront of livability and sustainability.

Most of Colorado’s population lies along the Front Range urban corridor, with 3.1 million of the state’s 4.9 million people living along the 75 mile stretch of I-25 between the Denver Metro area and Fort Collins, and an additional 1.1 million in the adjacent 100 miles (including Colorado Springs and Cheyenne, Wyoming).

Three overarching aspects of Fort Collins, Boulder, and Denver put these cities years ahead of the Bay Area: pedestrian malls and public spaces, bicycle friendliness, and smart redevelopment.  I plan on discussing each of these topics in the following days, as well as their implications for Colorado’s future and what the Bay Area can learn from them.

Also, I would like to draw your attention to the new 21st Century Urban Solutions Flickr, in which you can view pictures from my trip to Colorado along with other photos as they come.  Enjoy!

Boulder, along with Fort Collins and Denver, has an extensive network of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure which helps foster an active and green populace

Boulder, along with Fort Collins and Denver, has an extensive network of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure which helps foster an active and green populace

Also See:

Pedestrian Malls as a Vital Element of Colorado’s Cities

Colorado’s Culture of Activity

Incorperating Nature into Colorado’s Cities

Denver’s Urban Design Masterpiece

Colorado’s Urbanist Future

Last Lessons from the Centennial State

Bay Area Transit Efficiency: How Bart, Caltrain, VTA Light Rail, and Muni Metro Stack Up

Over the past few decades, the Bay Area’s four major rail systems–Bart, Caltrain, Muni Metro, and VTA Light Rail–have competed for transit funding on the federal, state, and regional levels.  Overall, Bart and VTA have been the overwhelming winners with numerous new extensions, Muni Metro has received some improvements and one extension, and little has changed for Caltrain.  Yet, Caltrain will receive the most dramatic makeover in the next decade with grade separations and electrification from HSR.  How do these systems stack up against one another and their peers nationwide?  This post will attempt to come up with an answer.

Comparing Nationwide Transit Efficiency

Obviously there are many criteria to judge a rail system by, such as initial cost per passenger, initial cost per mile, farebox recovery, TOD impact, etc., but I will focus on one of the most telling metrics of the efficiency of a mass transit system: the ridership per mile of a given transit line.  Ridership per mile allows for easy comparisons between the ridership of like transit systems regardless of the size of a system–rather than just showing total ridership, it shows the ridership density on a given line or system.  Rapid transit (often subway) systems have the highest ridership per mile, since surrounding population density leads to a highly concentrated ridership base and justifies the higher capital costs.  Compact streetcar systems have the next highest ridership per mile, followed by more spread out light rail systems, and finally commuter rail systems.

Let’s take a look at some comparisons between rapid transit, light rail, commuter rail, and streetcar systems nationwide:

Rapid Transit Systems

System                                                 Ridership      Route Miles    Ridership per Mile
1    NYC Subway                                7,624,300              229                    33,294
2    PATH (NYC)                                   242,000               13.8                    17,572
3    SEPTA (Philadelphia)                 326,300                 25                      13,052
4    MBTA (Boston)                             470,200                38                       12,374
5    WMATA (Washington D.C.)      987,100             106.3                     9,286
6    Los Angeles Metro                       144,400              17.4                       8,299
7    Chicago ‘L’                                       622,400              107.5                    5,790
8    MARTA (Atlanta)                         254,800               47.6                      5,353
9    BART                                   363,100           104                  3,491
10    Baltimore Metro                           50,900              15.5                        3,284

What’s interesting here is that while Bart has the 5th highest ridership for nationwide rapid transit systems, its efficiency is only 9th as a result of its sprawling suburban lines, meaning for every one mile of rail for WMATA in Washinton D.C. or MBTA in Boston, Bart needs almost three and four miles, respectively.  Bart’s low ridership per mile also means that Bart extensions are generally not nearly as cost-effective as many of its peer systems.

Commuter Rail Systems

System                                                                 Ridership    Route Miles    Ridership per Mile
1    Metro-North Railroad (NYC)                   265,000              384                    690
2    Metra (Chicago)                                          316,000               495                    638
3    Long Island Railroad (NY)                     367,500              700                    511
4    Caltrain                                            39,100            77             508
5    SEPTA Regional Rail (Philadelphia)     118,600               291                   408
6    MBTA Commuter Rail (Boston)             149,900               368                   407
7    Trinity Railway (Dallas-Fort Worth)     10,000                 34                    294
8    New Jersey Rail                                           276,000               951                   290

So, while Caltrain’s ridership is noticeably lower than other commuter rail systems, it is still the (just barely) 4th most efficient system in the nation.  However, if you take away the 6 trains to Gilroy (which add 25 miles but only about 500 riders), Caltrain’s efficiency becomes 752 passengers per mile, making it the most efficient system in the nation.  Caltrain’s extremely high efficiency speaks to the fact that Caltrain operates more like a single light rail line than a sprawling commuter rail system (even though Caltrain has never had the capital investment that a light rail line would have).  Electrification, grade separations, TOD, and the Downtown SF extension should more than double Caltrain’s ridership by 2025, putting it on par with other light rail systems:

Light Rail Systems

System                                                        Ridership    Route Miles    Ridership per Mile
1    Boston                                                   222,400             25.4                     7,943

Muni Metro                                154,300        29               5,321

3    METRORail  (Houston)                     38,800               7.5                      5,173
4    Buffalo Metro Rail                               23,200               6.4                      3,625
5    Los Angeles Light Rail                     135,800             55.7                     2,438
6    MAX Light Rail (Portland)             103,500               44                       2,352
7    UTA TRAX (Salt Lake City)               43,200               19                       2,274
8    Hiawatha Line (Minneapolis)          26,500               12                       2,208
9    LYNX Rapid Transit (Charlotte)     19,700             9.6                       2,052
10    Denver RTD                                             68,800             35                      1,966
11    Newark Light Rail                               19,050             9.9                        1,924

24    VTA Light Rail                         37,500          42.2            780

Ironically, even with the millions of dollars invested into VTA’s Light Rail system, it is still just as efficient as Caltrain.  Muni Metro’s efficiency is extremely high, and could be higher if not for the routes which originally had light rail but were changed to buses back in the 1950s–the Geary and Mission corridors have 100,000+ daily riders (including adjacent lines), but are stuck with buses, while all Muni Metro lines (except the N-Judah) have less than 30,000 daily riders.  These lines were saved in the early postwar era because of their tunnel infrastructure (to travel to more suburban areas) while lines along Geary, Mission, and Columbus were scrapped.

Streetcar Systems

System                                                                    Ridership    Route Miles    Ridership per Mile

1    F Line (San Francisco)                   20,000          5.1               3,884
2    Portland Streetcar                                           12,000              3.9                     3,000
3    Tacoma Link                                                         3,100              1.6                      1,938
4    South Lake Union Streetcar (Seattle)         1,780              1.3                     1,369

5    RTA Streetcar (New Orleans)                      13,900             21.5                    647

6   TECO Line Streetcar System (Tampa)         1,082              2.3                     470

Comparing Transit Efficiency in the Bay Area

So we’ve got that Caltrain is very efficient for a commuter rail system, Muni Metro and Bart are mediocre, and VTA light rail is pretty bad.  But, the biggest variable in this analysis is cost–Bart costs more than more than Muni Metro, which costs more than VTA Light Rail, which costs more than Caltrain.  Would it be possible to eliminate cost as a variable?  Here are some estimates of cost per mile for some recent and future projects to get a feel for what it would cost to build a brand new line in each of the four systems:

Project                                          Length               Cost            Cost per Mile

Bart to San Jose                            21              $7 billion       $333 million

T-Third Muni Metro Line         5.1           $648 million     $127 million

VTA extensions*                        15.6             $334 million    $69 million

Caltrain Upgrades**                  53.2         $3.378 billion    $63.5 million

*Vasona, Capitol, Tasman East, Capitol Expy extensions

**To be shared about evenly with HSR, which applied for $1.647 billion worth of HSR stimulus funds.  Caltrain’s share could be viewed as $1.731 billion, or $32.5 million per mile.

Now, here’s where the calculations get a little shaky, and highly theoretical.  Let’s establish an arbitrary base cost of $100 million per mile, and adjust ridership for each of the four systems accordingly.

(Base cost per mile/actual cost per mile) x (riders per mile)=adjusted riders per mile

Bart: (100/333) x (3491)=1048.3

Muni Metro: (100/127) x (5321)=4190

VTA Light Rail: (100/69) x (780)=1130.4

Caltrain: (100/63.5) x (752)=1184

Before I discuss what thse calculations mean, there are many ways in which this analysis comes waaaay short:

1. Different types of projects: I am comparing apples to oranges with some new future ROW aquisitions (Bart), existing past ROW but new rail (Muni Metro and VTA Light Rail), heavy future modifications with some ROW aquisition (Caltrain), future subway vs. past surface costs (some for Bart and Caltrain vs. hardly none for VTA and Muni), and different years of completion (all).

2. Ridership impact: the T-Third line and three of the four VTA lines have already had their ridership impact.  While these new lines are more or less consistent overall with the system’s ridership per mile, new ridership from Caltrain’s improvements has not even been factored in (as I’ve said, likely doubling ridership and perhaps putting the adjusted figure in the 2300s, and assuming half the cost goes to HSR puts the adjusted figure in the 4600s!).  While Bart to San Jose’s ridership numbers are questionable, either way both the system impact and the impact of the individual line wouldn’t affect Bart’s numbers very much.

3. Frequency of trains: Of the four systems here, Caltrain is currently at a major disadvantage when it comes to frequency of trains, which has a significant impact on ridership.  Systems with greater frequency hands down get more riders.

4. Operating cost: this analysis ignores operating cost, which for rail systems is fairly low compared to initial capital costs, but can add up over time.

Is this post just a bunch of wild estimates and speculations? Yes, but I think this is about as good of a comparison as is possible under a multitude of constraints.

So what on earth can this comparison tell us?  Well, in spite of the murky details, it appears that Muni Metro blows other Bay Area transit agencies away when it comes to cost-effectiveness, and Caltrain will probably be on par with Muni Metro’s efficiency within the next decade.  VTA Light Rail and Bart are the least efficient systems in the Bay Area for their price (only 1/4th as efficient as Muni Metr0) and therefore are using inappropriate transit modes for the ridership needs.  Nationwide, Muni Metro is extraordinary, and Caltrain performs extremely well for a commuter rail system.  Investments in the next ten years will put Caltrain on par with many light rail systems at a fraction of the cost.  Bart performs poorly nationwide compared with its peers, and spends a lot more money to get its riders than other rapid transit systems as well as other rail systems in the Bay Area.  This means that for Bart to become more efficient, it must look at improving station capacity (such as the horrible configurations at the 16th & Mission and 24th & Mission stations) and infill stations (30th & Mission, San Antonio, and Albany)  rather than the fringe eBart and Livermore extensions and the questionable and very costly San Jose extension (please check out Bart Boardmember and Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich’s article for more on improving transit sustainability).

A History of Bayview-Hunters Point, Part 3: Redevelopment or Renewal

The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and Candlestick Point will be redeveloped into two new neighborhoods over the next 10-15 years, adding 20,000-25,000 people at minimum

The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and Candlestick Point will be redeveloped into two new neighborhoods over the next 10-15 years, adding a minimum of 25,000 new residents

Walking down Third Street in Bayview, one cannot help but notice the rapid changes occuring–construction of new apartments and the opening of new businesses line the streets–yet, this is only the beginning for Bayview-Hunters Point.  After decades of disinvestment that left Bayview-Hunters Point an impoverished ghetto, two current projects—the Third Street light rail line and the Hunters Point/Candlestick Point Redevelopment projects—are poised to completely remake the district.

The relatively-new T-Third Muni Metro line in Bayview

The relatively-new T-Third Muni Metro line along Third St.

Opened in 2007, the T-Third Street Muni Metro line has brought much-needed transit access to Bayview-Hunters Point, re-integrating the district with the rest of the city and inducing residential and commercial development along the corridor.  The T-Third line has provided an excellent opportunity for smart growth and economic revitilization in Bayview and finally shows that City Hall is beginning to take notice of Bayview-Hunters Point.

Condos under construction in Bayview

Condos under construction in Bayview

This process of reintegration and reinvestment will be augmented by the redevelopment of the Hunters Point Shipyard and Candlestick Point stadium area.  Encompassing nearly 3% of San Francisco’s total land area, the Shipyard and stadium redevelopment is projected to bring at least 10,500 new residential units to Bayview-Hunters Point with 1/3 below market rate, likely amounting to 25,000 new residents over the next decade (and potentially more if/when the 49ers move to Santa Clara).  While these projects generally follow sound urbanist and smart growth principles and will expedite the environmental cleanup of the area, many residents view this transformation as the final attempt to push Black and low-income residents out of San Francisco.

Even before the latest redevelopment, San Francisco’s Black population has been decreasing at an alarming rate, a phenomonon that many label the “Black Exodus.”  San Francisco’s Black population has decreased 46% since 1970, from 96,018 to 51,795 (2007 ACS), in large part due to urban renewal, rising cost of living, and the opening of the suburbs to Blacks as housing discrimination decreased.  While cities like Richmond, Oakland, and East Palo Alto, and more recently Vallejo, Pittsburg, Antioch, and Stockton have seen their Black populations soar, San Francisco now has a lower proportion of Blacks than cities with traditionally low Black populations such as Seattle, Portland, and San Diego.  This general trend is also true for Bayview-Hunters Point, which has seen its Black population decrease 22% since 1970, and Blacks currently account for less than half of the population.

Once again, a look at racial trends in Bayview-Hunters Point.  Notice the recent decline in the district's Black popluation coupled with a large increase in the Asian/Pacific Islander population

Once again, a look at racial trends in Bayview-Hunters Point. Notice the recent decline in the district's Black popluation coupled with a large increase in the Asian/Pacific Islander population.

Some hope still exists in preventing wholescale gentrification and preserving the diversity and Black character of Bayview-Hunters Point.  Recently, Bayview-Hunters Point has been targeted for reindustrialization as “green industries” move into the area–including the recycling, biodiesel, and solar panel industries.  In addition, Hunters View, one of the worst housing projects in Hunters Point, just received 6 million dollars from the Stimulus package to finally be torn down and completely redeveloped, going from 250 public housing units to 800 mixed-income units.  In general, the city has tried to reach out to the community in the redevelopment process and ensure the availability of affordable housing, but these efforts have not healed the anti-government sentiments in the district.

Bayview-Hunters Point is San Francisco's new center for "Green Jobs"

Bayview-Hunters Point is San Francisco's new center for "Green Jobs"

Sign reads: "Were you displaced from Bayview or Fillmore in the 1960s and 1970s? You may qualify for buyers priority" -SF Housing Development Corporation

"Were you displaced from Bayview or Fillmore in the 1960s and 1970s? You may qualify for buyers priority" -SF Housing Development Corporation

"No government money of any kind built or maintains this facility" -Community Awareness in Action, conveneintly located next to Bayview Liquors

"No government money of any kind built or maintains this facility" -Community Awareness in Action, conveneintly located next to Bayview Liquors

All in all, this project left me feeling conflicted.  On the one hand, Bayview-Hunters Point could very well add 35,000-45,000 new residents by 2030 in an environmentally-friendly and energy-conscious manner.  On the other hand, it will without question be the most changed district in San Francisco, and gentrification will inevitably occur.  Situations like this pose some of the most complex and conflicting choices for me as someone who supports infill projects and Smart Growth while at the same time wanting to aid neglected low-income communities in economic development while preventing gentrification.  But then again, the only thing that’s been constant in Bayview-Hunters Point the past 100 years is change.  Hopefully, redevelopment will not be as destructive as postwar urban renewal, and finally stabilize the district while allowing it to remain diverse and affordable.  Whether or not this can actually occur is yet to be seen.

Don’t be afraid to read my paper!

A History of Bayview-Hunters Point, Part 2: Crime, Contamination, and Crisis

The decommissioning of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in 1974 signified the collapse of the economic monoculture which the Navy had imposed upon Bayview-Hunters Point, resulting in widespread unemployment and poverty.  Unemployment in the district is consistently the highest in San Francisco, peaking at 13.3% in the 1990 census (although I’d speculate that the current figure is even higher).  In addition, in tract 231.03, which contains the Hunters Point housing projects and is 74% Black, unemployment in the 2000 census was a whopping 22.2%, with 53.4% of the population beneath the poverty level and 79.3% classified as “poor or struggling” by having an income less than two times the poverty level.  Even more concerning, this tract has San Francisco’s highest concentration of children, with 44% of the population under 18 (compared with 14.6% in SF as a whole), yet 57.6 of households have no father present.  Granted, Bayview-Hunters Point is an extremely diverse district, with a sizeable base of middle class homeowners, but exploring the Hunters Point housing projects makes you feel like you’re in a Third-World country, even though you’re just minutes away from wealthy districts such as Bernal Heights.

The layers of isolation of the Hunters Point housing projects--steep terrain, lack of traditional street grid, poor sidewalks, and lack of public transportation access--all help to perpetuate the highest rate of unemployment in San Francisco 25%

The layers of isolation of the Hunters Point housing projects--steep terrain, lack of traditional street grid, poor sidewalks, and lack of public transportation access--all help to perpetuate the highest rate of unemployment in San Francisco 22% (2000 Census)

A number of wartime housing projects are now abandoned, yet a large number of San Franciscans still remain trapped in this terrible public housing.

A number of wartime housing projects are now abandoned, yet a large number of San Franciscans still remain trapped in this terrible public housing.

Many early attempts were made to encourage reinvestment in Bayview-Hunters Point even before the Shipyard’s closure, but ultimately these measures failed.  In the late 1960s, Mayor Joseph Alioto designated Bayview-Hunters Point to participate in the Model Cities program to develop a community-based redevelopment plan to rehabilitate dilapidated housing projects, create new community facilities, and attract new business to the area.  However, Mayor Alioto failed to obtain adequate funding, and the proposal died.  Similarly, in the early 1980s, Mayor Dianne Feinstein sought to reinvigorate the Naval Shipyard and attract investment to the area by stationing the USS Missouri there and turining it into a tourist attraction, but this plan also failed.  Therefore, San Francisco government provided little assistance to clean up the economic mess that the Navy left behind.

In addition to an economic mess, the Navy left behind an environmental mess that only recently has started to be cleaned up.  The district is littered with toxic waste, including a filthy power plant, one of California’s largest radioactive sites (the National Radiological Defense Laboratory), and of course the highly polluted shipyard.  It’s no coincidence that Bayview-Hunters Point has the highest infant mortality rate in California, as well as an extremely high rate of athsma and cancer.  While these examples of environmental racism were only a small part of my research, it could make up an entire project in itself.

35 years after its closure, the Naval Shipyard remains a highly-contaminated ghost town

35 years after its closure, the Naval Shipyard remains a contaminated ghost town

As if the unemployment, poverty, disinvestment, and contamination weren’t enough, since the 1980s Bayview-Hunters Point has been overrun with gangs, drugs, and violence.  With extreme isolation and few other opportunities, youth in Bayview-Hunters Point often turn to gangs and crime and cannot escape the culture of poverty and segregation which has consumed the area.  The district has one of the highest crime rates in San Francisco, and despite having less than 5% of San Francisco’s population, the district consistently accounts for 20-30% of San Francisco’s homicides, peaking at 50% in 2004.  A two year gang rivalry in 2000-2001 resulted in 20 homicides alone.

Bayview-Hunters Point has suffered from decades of crime, poverty, and disinvestment.  Yet, demographic changes, combined with redevelopment, are poised to completely change the district.

A History of Bayview-Hunters Point, Part. 1: The Making of San Francisco’s Ghetto

Shipyard WWII

Hunters Point Shipyard during WWII

San Francisco is a city known for its iconic neighborhoods which have been strongly shaped by their residents—the Chinese in Chinatown, Italians in North Beach, Latinos in the Mission, gays in the Castro, and hippies in Haight-Ashbury.  These neighborhoods enjoy thriving business districts built around both strong internal consumer bases and considerable external investment and tourism.  Their success, therefore, has rested upon their ability to forge their own destinies while at the same time integrate themselves into San Francisco’s prosperous and growing economy.  On the other hand, the story of Bayview-Hunters Point is very different from that of these successful neighborhoods, marred by its inability to control the erratic growth and changes of the area.

Bayview-Hunters Point before WWII (1939, right) and after (1947, left)

Bayview-Hunters Point before WWII (1939, right) and after (1947, left)

While Bayview-Hunters Point originally had a diverse, self-sufficient economy of shrimping, shipbuilding, and manufacturing like others districts in San Francisco, its history since 1941 has been driven by the presence of the Naval Shipyard.  The Navy effectively coopted Bayview-Hunters Point to support the wartime demand for battleships, pushing out other industries and creating a economic dependence which still haunts Bayview-Hunters Point today.  As many as 18,000 people worked at the bustling shipyard during the war, and the district’s population swelled from 14,011 in 1940 to 51,406 in 1950 (which included a substantial increase in the areas Black population, from just 7 in 1940 to 11,080 in 1950).  Nevertheless, the wartime economic boom was not sustainable, leading to a slow decline as the Shipyard deindustrialized and ultimately was decomissioned in 1974.

Population Trends

Population Trends in Bayview-Hunters Point and San Francisco

As jobs left Bayview-Hunters Point, the Black population increased dramatically.  While Blacks made up just 21.6% of the area’s population in 1950 (11,080), in 1970 the proportion increased to 69.1% (20,554).  Meanwhile, as Whites moved to more-attractive suburbs, the White population dropped dramatically from 38,822 (75.5%) in 1950 to 7,312 (24.6%) in 1970, to just 3,453 (9.9%) in 2000.  Much of this increase is due to displacement by the urban renewal of the Fillmore District, which essentially bulldozed a thriving Black neighborhood labeled the “Harlem of the West.”  Because of discriminatory housing policies–in which discrimination by banks and realtors (backed by FHA policies) severly limited Black housing choices–Blacks from the Fillmore went to one of the few places that was deemed acceptable: Bayview-Hunters Point (for more on the history of institutional segregation and discrimination, Massey and Denton’s American Aparteid is a great read).  Yet, even after Civil Rights and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (a considerable failure), much of the same systems of segregation remained in place in the 70s and 80s, concentrating Blacks within the district.

Racial Trends in Bayview-Hunters Point

Racial Trends in Bayview-Hunters Point

San Francisco's Black Popluation (2000 Census)

San Francisco's Black Population (2000 Census).

At the same time, Bayview-Hunters Point became increasingly isolated from the rest of San Francisco.   Apart from the aforementioned housing discrimination, deindustrialization, and ‘White Flight’, Bayview-Hunters Point was cut off by freeway construction (both 101 and 280), poor public transportation, and urban renewal, leading most San Franciscans to never visit the district.  While Bayview-Hunters Point was sustained by the Naval Shipyard and managed to cope with these challenges into the 1960s, the joblessness which resulted from the shipyard’s closure posed an insurmountable challenge to the district.  Like other segregated, jobless Black districts across the nation, Bayview-Hunters Point would become a ghetto.

Coming up, Part 2: Crime, Contamination, and Crisis

A Three-Part History of Bayview-Hunters Point

Bayview-Hunters Point

Recently, I completed a history of Bayview-Hunters Point, historically San Francisco’s forgotten ghetto.  The area’s history mirrors that of Richmond, West Oakland, Marin City, and other wartime industrial boomtowns, and sheds light on the Bay Area’s history of discrimination toward Blacks.  Over the next few days, I will post a three part series which examines the complex history of the area.

Part 1: The Making of San Francisco’s Ghetto

Part 2: Crime, Contamination, and Crisis

Part 3: Redevelopment or Renewal?

Enjoy!

The Relationship Between the Housing Bubble, the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, and Land Use Regulation: What Houston Can Tell Us

Downtown Houston

Houston is often looked down upon by urban planners for the reason that it essentially lacks land use and planning regulations altogether.  Many will (justifiably) argue that Houston is the epitome of unsustainable urban sprawl, with its endless suburbs and expansive freeway system that makes the region almost completely dependent on driving.  Yet, Houston has a lot that it can teach us as well; in fact, over the past few decades it has enjoyed one of the most dynamic and affordable housing markets even with massive demand and growth, earning the city the title of the “Capital of the Middle Class.”  I examined this dichotomy last December in a paper entitled Houston and Deregulation: Can a Truly Free Market City Suceed?

While the subprime mortgage crisis and the housing crash have wreaked havoc on the national economy, Houston’s housing market has remained stable and it’s economy relatively strong.  In spite of it’s GDP growing as much as 40% faster than the Bay Area, coupled with an influx of 150,000 Katrina refugees in 2005, Houston’s housing prices have remained stable and low over the past decade because housing supply had consistently met demand.  At the time of my research (going by October 2007-2008 housing prices), Houston’s median housing price had declined from $146,000 to $142,000, a mere 2.7%.  Prices have dropped since then as credit markets have frozen up, yet still, Houston’s median home price for March 2009 is $138,000, or about 2.25 times the median family income, making housing still very affordable even in hard times.

In contrast, the Bay Area housing market has completely plummeted in the past year and a half.  The Bay Area saw prices skyrocket over the past decade as demand for housing outpaced supply (in Arizona, Nevada, and Florida, the opposite occurred– housing supply outpaced economic growth).  In late 2007, the bubble finally burst, and median housing prices dropped from $631,000 in October 2007 to 375,000 in October 2008 to 299,000 in March 2009, a total of 53%.  Yet, compared to Houston’s housing market, Bay Area homes remain much less affordable, at around 3.25 times the median family income (not too bad considering in 2007 a family would have to spend 7 times their income to buy a house).  With these overinflated prices, it’s no coincidence that government-subsidized housing and subprime mortages (essentially affordable housing loans) were much more popular in the Bay Area than Houston.

Yet, Houston is by no means free of problems.  It leads the nation in highest daily vehicle passenger mileage (1st), highest individual transportation cost (1st), lowest public transportation ridership (1st), worst traffic (7th), worst ozone pollution (4th), worst smog (2nd), most traffic fatalities (1st), and most pedestrian fatalities (5th: keep in mind nobody walks!).  Thus, Houston is among the most unlivable, unsustainable, and unhealthy cities to live in.

Can you have a city that is both affordable and sustainable?  Believe it or not, the solution for Houston might not lie in more land use regulation, but less.  Houston’s biggest public works expenses come from massive investments in automobile infrastructure.  This sprawling transportation model manifests itself in the city’s parking, street and lot size regulations, which effectively prevent high density development and limit Houston from becoming a truly urban environment (even bars must provide 10 parking space from every 1000 square feet!).  By liberalizing these requirements and shifting investments to transit (which is slowly but steadily occurring), Houston’s adaptive housing market could very well be one of America’s most transit oriented cities in 2030.

Of course, this last point is just speculation, but if there’s one thing I took away from this project, it is that when regulations are minimized and developers can quickly respond to shifts in the housing market, anything is possible.  If there’s one thing the Bay Area can learn from Houston, it is that no-growth policies will wreak havoc on the economies and citizens of a region.  We must make it easier for smart growth to occur, and speed up projects like Treasure Island, Alameda Point, and Hunter’s Point as long as they provide transit options and do not displace current residents.  Otherwise, our housing market will end up just how it was before: unaffordable and unstable.

Want to learn more? Read my paper here