Earth To Houston: Wake Up And Smell The Greenhouse Gas Emissions

While the American Dream Coalition celebrates the 'freedom and affordability' of Houston -- Robert Steuteville wonders why the group ignores the environmental and financial consequences of such an auto-dependent city.

"I hold no personal grudge against Houston. I'm agnostic about its lack of zoning - I'm no fan of development regulations that have fostered sprawl throughout the US in the last six decades. I applaud compact development in downtown Houston and efforts to build New Urbanism in the city (Duany Plater-Zyberk designed three projects in 2007 and other new urbanists are working in Houston as well).

That said, Houston is no place for the rest of the nation to emulate in terms of land use policies."

"Given the lack of transportation choices, moderate-income families in Houston have little alternative to pouring nearly a third of their pay into automotive expenses. Unlike housing, which can build household equity, transportation dollars go down the gas tank. With rising oil prices during the last eight years, this problem is getting steadily worse."

"I don't mean to pick on Houston. There's sprawl everywhere in America. I have hopes that Houston, like the rest of the US, can change. My problem is with a group bent on perpetuating automobile and oil dependency, and foisting a potentially catastrophic global warming on future generations. That sounds to me like an American nightmare."

Thanks to The Intrepid Staff

Full Story: Houston, we have a problem



Michael Lewyn's picture

even in auto-mobility...

Houston isn't doing all that well.

(showing Houston in top 10 in congestion by most measurements, and getting worse)

Wellness and worse

The statistics you cite (current to 2005) show a city whose "peak travelers" level has risen more than 10% inside of five years. In fact it has done the same thing again since these statistics, and had risen 20% in the five years preceding 2000 - not with a trivial base, either; the '95 population of the area your link is measuring was already in excess of three million. It is clearly very hard for any significantly more stagnant urbanized area to report anything similar, because it is generally impossible for them to experience it in the first place: even a city with substantial empty capacity in its subway and light rail fleet, let alone a Boston, would simply be crippled long before reaching such a point, or prices would spike around the remaining relatively accessible points, or both, and the migration would stop coming either way.

There are two kinds of waste, Mr. Lewyn. Both are the failure to do as much good with a resource as one can. This contemporary energy crunch is resulting in nations performing more work than before with an equal amount of stuff, and in many cases more with less; there was room for them to do that, and through measures like conservation, site design, and alternative energy, there will be room for even more in the future than is already done. The second kind of waste is one which no one has ever mentioned to me, and I would be happy to discuss it at leisure with you or interested parties. This wastage, at any rate, is what occurs when people have gone to the mind-boggling expense of time and resources to establish a thing, and yet it doesn't do what it could. Consider Mexico, a country approx. two-fifths as populous as ours, and a land in probably about the 95th percentile globally when looked at on the basis of total economic wealth in citizens' hands - and yet note how little research and development comes out of Mexico, how little is really added to the world for all that potential. Its economy may be very efficient with respect to the concerns of those who control it, and so was Detroit's as far as the Big Three were concerned in the 1950s and 1960s, but it is sterile in terms of the fruits we might be inspired to hope for by the existence of such an enormous endeavor.

A metropolitan area can be a waste of urbanization if (--after all of the impact it has had on the ecosystem to get there, for all of the opportunity cost plowed into everything established there, and for all of the livelihoods that are staked on it and its internal and external cross-pollination--) its deliberate or indirect economization of resources, as in land use and infrastructure or building-permit policies, result in a reduction of the worthwhile things the place exists to do. Here come quality-of-life tradeoffs about externalities, including transportation ones; but quality of life for the established tenants generally means sending newcomers elsewhere to any place that the built environment is more flexible. Places like Texas, which has put jobs in the hands and roofs over the heads of eight million new residents in the last twenty years, and Hong Kong, where no holds are barred in promoting density, are each less wasteful at the process of growing new civilization than are the East and West Coasts of America, where all of the resources to have an urban core have been committed and yet decisions to pare back the inefficiencies of both quality of life infringement and sprawl mean that the region remains locked in both inflexibility and underuse. I have not lived in Houston, although I have spent several hundred days there throughout my life, but I have lived in environmentally self-conscious Cambridge, and Houston uses its infrastructure more intensively than we do here.

The first kind of elimination of wastage, which you have believed planners and the public ought to expect to see before they think better of Houston, is practically an unalloyed positive, considered ceteris paribus... But nothing does happen with other things remaining equal, and in the end, what our metropolitan areas are worth for the world can be understood better by looking to the Houston coast than to the worldly ones. If we were to espouse a standard like 'work accomplished per btu of energy' and promote only patterns of development that are smart in that ranking, we would overlook the fact that healthy activity - for one, the successful expansion of some enterprise that you do well and would not be able to make viable in a rural area - is hard to accommodate in direct proportion to our attempt to structure community into its physical end-state upon initial design (Vancouver?).
Working-class family business cannot expand when the only eligible space in their neighborhood costs nearly seven figures, and the most efficient urban districts have a massive hidden negative externality (of this kind) on the balance sheet where we consider how worthwhile each city really is as a site for the fulfillment of human potential. This is efficiency rightly understood, or at least it is much richer to understand such a quality than to assign virtue to savings of space and movement as a general principle, although I realize that global warming's trump card status demands of a practitioner's conscience that they hold that principle most highly. As far as emissions and congestion, however, things are easier to streamline or to get around to fixing when local built environment is not being stretched to fill many additional roles for people in the preceding year or generation. Your comment on national ranking occludes the fact that population levels and spatial arrangements are static in most of the preferred cities, especially as compared to Houston. Incorporate a ranking of load increase with time, where Phoenix and Las Vegas lead in percentage growth and Houston leads in physical numbers, and the synopsis that you offer starts to ask for reconsideration. However, I could have said that in the past three sentences. All the rest of it is typed because the important part is to think anew about the purposes for any reconsideration.

I hope that people as thoughtful and caring-about-places as yourself and this site's readers will start latching onto empirical phenomena that didn't appear so important before. I hope that you will apply your skills to build a vision of urban form that becomes more supple than either quick-draw planning contrarianism or conventional density wisdom: because it's quite hard to realize that we must work for better built function and principles that will come to guide it, while in the same breath to realize that perfectionism is quite superficial, and somehow remarkably reconcile a balance in practice as we think about things we encounter. We can say all we want that more pricey cities prove about themselves that people value much more highly what they find there than what they find common elsewhere, but urbanistic best-principles brought to completion must include the principle of radical room for inexpensive change. To approach a fully developed urban implementation of any other set of necessary ideals, lacking that one, would approach death for many of the city's functions that fulfill reasons the middle class needs their city to be there.

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meant to post to the comment.

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