Comment of the Day: The Problems Sprawl Solves

COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE PROBLEMS SPRAWL SOLVES Some Tubes or Something“. . . the concern about cities expanding out into the suburbs is about worker mobility and our ability to fund adequate infrastructure. That’s great if the woodlands, katy, and sugarland could become real functioning cities comparable to that of Houston. However, it’s unsustainable if you have poor transportation options affecting the supply of qualified labor and an undiversified industry base that leads to boom and bust cycles. We can barely afford Metro’s reach in central Houston and with more low-income workers being pushed further from the city’s core we will continue to lose workers from our supply of labor. I love Houston the way it’s always been though. having multiple office centers spread across town helps keep housing demand distributed across a wider area rather than turning the central part of town into an enclave for well paid dual income families only. Allowing land to continue being gobbled up further and further out allows for affordable housing for new residents increasing our supply of labor. Anything that helps cities expand, even if endless suburban sprawl, and make better use of their existing resources and infrastructure is a positive to me.” [joel, commenting on Comment of the Day: West Houston’s Plan for Suburban Domination] Illustration: Lulu

35 Comment

  • Less retail, restaurant workers in town = higher pay for those workers who keep working in town

    More development in burbs = easier commute and affordable living for retail, restaurant workers to offer competition to in town employers

    The development in burbs drives up pay for minimum wage and tip employees in town.

  • As a Civil engineering major I completely agree…I always thought that Houstons sprawl would be its demise! At least without a better transit system

  • The multi-suburban-center model worked great in the 1950s. Back then, jobs were careers, and families could live on one income. Those days are gone.
    Imagine the following scenario: My office is twelve miles from my wife’s job. Following the multi-suburban-center model, we buy a house equidistant from our jobs. But two years later, I am laid off. Luckily I find another job, but this one is clear across town: twenty five miles from our house. We can’t afford to sell the house we bought two years earlier, so now I’m commuting fifty miles a day.
    My grandfather didn’t have this problem. He and my grandmother bought a house two miles from his office, and he kept the house and the job for fifty years.

  • NOPE, I’m bigtime against forever getting larger suburbs as if they’re a city annexing their own land and taking country pure areas. I don’t want the naturalness of this state to go away and not being able to live in it or driving even further to get to it or a lot of other reasons. People are already now ignoring certain suburban areas to move into because of them becoming similar to urban areas and don’t fit the new suburban life look that the master planned suburbs have become. You might not want to be centralized, but a lot of people can love a place enough to not have to be suburbanized and won’t have a problem with living in Houston where the best of everything is.

  • Where does it stop? ” Anything that helps cities expand, even if endless suburban sprawl, and make better use of their existing resources and infrastructure is a positive to me.” This is exceedingly gross. When do the natural spaces begin to become valuable? It seems that they only become valuable when the citizenry become wealthy enough to value them for themselves. Those spaces have inherent value that we disregard in the face of rampant consumerism. I love capitalism but an emerging, if not glaringly apparent, flaw in it is that it does not put a price on the world that sustains us!

  • Yes, C and Duston.
    Country, small town, city: these were the places the Americans of the “American century” were built. That was real diversity, so much more significant than the meaningless way the word is used now.
    The shift — to most of the burgeoning population being raised amid sprawl; regional differences, with the exception of weather, effaced; nature at a farther and farther remove — is an experiment, and definitely not one guaranteed of success — whether you are an environmentalist, like me, or the very opposite, a humanist.

  • It WILL stop, Duston. Eventually new suburbs are too far from the City center. The City reaches a natural limit based on how long average people are willing to commute. The multi-center Edge City model is a nice thought, but it doesn’t seem to really change this natural limit.
    Our largest Metro areas, New York and Los Angeles, are at their limits. You don’t see a lot of suburban development past New Haven in Connecticut, or Poughkeepsie in New York, and there are good reasons for this. People just don’t want to drive that far. Instead they crowd in older neighborhoods, and housing prices there skyrocket.

  • For me, it’s a conflict of approach. Cities are for humans, of course – that’s a given.
    Should a city be efficient?
    Should a city be sustainable?
    Does government manage, or does it plan?

  • Cannot disagree more. The people who love Houston’s sprawl aren’t the ones who have to bear the real costs of their ‘convenience.’

    For one thing, sprawl requires a level of wealth distribution that a socialist would be proud of. Huge amounts of tax money are distributed on building roads and infrastructure to nowhere, which subsidises inefficient development. At the same time, inner city streets go unpaved.

    The car culture is also another example of this. People who talk about how ‘convenient’ Houston is are never the one’s who have to live with the consequences. Their communities are never bulldozed to make a new highway or road extension, nor are their neighbourhoods turned into ghettoes as neighbouring buildings are demolished for parking lots.

    Then there comes safety, which is my biggest issue. Not everyone can have the physical skills and reflexes to be good drivers, but without pedestrian or mass transit oriented development, they get on the roads. More importantly, it offers no alternatives for those who should not be driving, due to drinking or illness. Whenever I have to drive late, I am shocked by the amount of drunk driving I see and it scares me. Like it or not, people are going to go out and have a good time. And by the same token, some people are going to inadvertently have a bit more than they should. Unless they want their car towed and to wind up paying for a taxi, these people get into their cars since there is little other alternative. What follows is tragic. I lived in London for several years, and had too much more than once. However, there was always the ability to get to the venue by mass transit, and a safe pedestrian-friendly environment to ensure you got from the tube station to your door. I think this is the most important point.

    Finally, there is the issue of health. Houston has had the dubious distinction of being fattest city more than once. When people have to get into their cars for every journey, including to the gym, how can we be surprised by the results.

    Sorry for the rant, but it does get my goat when people ignore the very high price of the ‘convenience’ and sprawl that they praise.

  • All houses and offices need to be mobile. Then we can relocate them whenever people change jobs to produce optimal commute times.
    Alternatively, more people can telecommute. I know a bunch of people doing this now. I hate telecommuting, but my commute is against traffic.

  • @NewHoustonian: you raise some good points. But I’m not sure what you mean by “convenience.” I don’t see anyone sprawling for convenience. It doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone think it’s convenient to move miles away from their jobs? No. People sprawl for one reason: their quality of life. They sprawl for better schools, bigger houses at lower prices, and safer feeling neighborhoods. They sprawl so that hey don’t have to look at blight every day. Talk to them, and they’ll tell you.
    This is why I get so angry when people stand in defense of urban blight. They do so in the name of “property rights,” and they like to use noble words, like “freedom,” to defend themselves – but really they’re just guarding slum lords’ wealth and protecting the status quo. They’re helping to drive sprawl, too – because the easy answer to blight for most people is to simply move away from it.

  • ever expanding suburbs… so long as Houston continues to have ever expanding centers of employment (energy corridor) people will keep moving out.
    Katy to downtown is not so outrageous of a drive (well, at least, some people are willing to do it).
    So why would Sealy to hwy6 be outrageous? same distance. Hell, at that point, it would be just as crazy to live in downtown and commute to hwy6 as it would be to live in Sealy and commute to hwy6.

  • The real problem with multi-centric development is that it limits the network effects of a large city with lots of people working nearby. If you balkanize workers, it’s much harder for them to exchange ideas, and it limits the mobility of workers between jobs. A second problem, as mentioned above, is that more and more households are now dual income. If one spouse works in the oil industry, but the other spouse does not, living out by the energy corridor is only convenient for one spouse. Even in a single-income earner household, if you have a job in one center, but get offered a much better job in another, you are faced with either moving or a long commute. In the end, it’s extremely inefficient.

  • Sprawl costs everybody a huge amount of money. Maintaining massive freeways and tons of roads is extremely expensive and the government subsidizes roads heavily compared to other transit options. Today, many families are dual income and there is nobody home during the day; I don’t see how this makes the suburbs safer than the city when nobody is around during the day. Cities tend to at least offer more pedestrian traffic (perhaps not Houston). Even if people are home in the burbs, there is no where to walk to. Everybody drives. The closest thing you might walk to (big IF) is a park, but many people still drive there.
    Sprawl negatively impacts lower income and elderly people greatly because these two populations have a difficult time moving around a city due to lack of vehicles (or lack of ability to safely drive said vehicles). A mixed-use model with transit (i.e., bus/rail) opportunities allows these individuals to still get to work or retain their mobility as they lose their ability to drive (speaking of seniors, specifically). In the burbs, it’s extremely inconvenient to walk anywhere. Nobody does it.
    Living in the city need not be expensive. Unfortunately, little effort is made to have developers build moderately priced apartments for lower income resident–they also need not be ugly. Increasing density and allowing for people to “trade up” within their neighborhood should be something Houston more seriously considers. One shouldn’t have to move clear out to the burbs to upgrade their home.
    I know many who commute an hour each way, that’s ~500 hours spent on the road each year. This doesn’t even factor in the huge costs associated with owning a vehicle. Having lived in the city for the past 6 years has been wonderful. I can walk to restaurants, parks, museums, the zoo, etc. I have even gotten to know my neighbors. Imagine that.

  • I think Houston is moving towards the inner-ring, middle-ring, outer-ring model. Ideally inner-ring (basically inner-loop) Houston will have an Exurban quality of life but would just happen to have a big cluster of tall buildings at its center. The reverse commute, due to the centralized location, will become significant and has great potential to even become a selling point in terms of attracting workers from out of state.
    So in this model the affordable housing will be in the middle-ring, which I am guessing would be larger than, but still include for the most part, the area(s) between Hwy 6/1960 and Beltway 8. These workers would commute either into the inner-ring or out to the outer-ring, and would have the shortest commute of the three rings, and due to work schedules not necessarily being 9 to 5 would all in all spend the least time in traffic. One medium-term option to assist with traffic is to put HOV lanes (possibly even tolled, though ideally not) on city streets that either are known for high-volume traffic getting onto freeways or which are major spoke streets towards a local hub. BRT would also be a good option for the middle-ring.
    None of the “suburbs” have the political wherewithal to create an Exurban ambience, despite that being the best possible option for them, so they will just be stereotypical corporatist post-capitalist suburbia albeit still pretty nice. These guys will spend either very little time driving in traffic (if they live near their job) or a great amount of time on commuter buses heading towards the downtown Exurb.

  • @Fernando: Do you have kids?
    We have sprawl because we want sprawl. It isn’t something being forced on us by an outside entity. If we wanted to live with fewer square feet per person we could. I loved living where I could walk to everything, but that was in my 20s. Now I’ve got a family, a pool, some cars and a bunch of stuff. I like all of that and am willing to live farther out so I can afford it.

  • @ZAW. The convenience I mention is the common line that Houston sprawl is great because it makes it more convenient for automobiles. More parking spots and wider roads make it more convenient for drivers, unless they are dealing with high traffic corridors.

    It is interesting you mention blight, but I think you have it the wrong way around. Blight is created by suburbanisation. Blight happens when great older neighbourhoods are wrecked to make way for the highway to nowhere. Blight happens when a freeway overpass is the newest neighbour, and the city doesn’t renew deed restrictions because they need your houses and businesses to become parking lots for suburbanites.

    Just look at the photos of Houston before and after the freeways were built from the late 50s to the late 60s. Mid-town and Downtown were beautiful, with lots of small businesses and covered walkways on sidewalks for pedestrians in the summer heat. There were plenty of beautiful old houses in both neighbourhoods as well. Within a decade the inner loop was made up of decaying ghettoes and surface parking lots. This was the wilful destruction of a city where the working class had nice neighbourhoods, decent transportation and a high standard of living.

    @Fernando. I cannot agree more.

  • There are lots of ways to create blight, NewHoustonian. You can do it by plowing freeways through older neighborhoods – like Robert Moses did in New York (if I remember from reading “The Power Broker” 20 years ago). But there are other ways, too. Most of Houston’s blight is the result of overbuilding during the boom years, and deterioration of the built environment during the bust years. And rest assured, suburbs decline and become blighted, too. Look at the FM1960 corridor and Northwest Harris County. 2008 and the credit crunch was not a good thing for that area. This had nothing to do with anyone ramming a freeway through it.
    If we want to control sprawl, we need to stop thinking of it purely as an accessibility and roads versus transit problem. We have to do the market research, and ask: why do people want to sprawl? Then we need to act on the results.

  • Fernando, sounds like Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! is the socialist/swedish motto of anti-suburbanites. I mean, if i wanted to live next to Dancing Queens in Montrose, why are you trying to force me!? Why don’t you take a chance on living outside the loop, where things are full of Money Money Money, and The Winner Takes It All. The Day Before You Came no one had a problem with the suburbs. I mean, Mamma Mia! Can’t you inner loopers stop hating on the suburbs and be One of Us!

  • @Memebag: Yes, I have 3 small children, own a couple of cars, a moderately sized townhouse, etc. Our current compromise includes a small yard with vertical living, but adds close proximity to many cultural institutions, parks, etc. Perhaps this will change over time, but for now, neither I nor do my children feel like they are missing out on the offerings of suburbia.

  • Of course you are missing out Fernando.
    A chili’s in every target parking lot, which occurs every 2.434732 miles or less.
    A gas station on every corner. A bank on every corner (I’m waiting for the genius to invent the gas station bank, you pull up to the remote teller station and someone comes and fuels you up while you’re withdrawing money!).
    Super mega chain outlets.
    Malls so big they have to have 4 foot courts, and there are two different Banana Republic stores, but no one knows because they are so far apart from each other.
    You have your zoo, and your museums, but what are those when compared with the majesty of what I just laid out?

  • @Fernando: Then it sounds like you have a lot of money to spend on housing. That’s nice for you, but keep in mind that most of us can’t afford a townhouse big enough for 3 kids in a dense area.
    Last night Mrs. Bag and I went for a walk. I know, we were doing in Westbury, which is by any reasonable definition suburban. But somehow we were able to walk there. The streets were quiet, the yards were big, there was very little traffic. We saw other families out walking as well. I know, I know, it sounds impossible, but I swear it happened.

  • @Toasty: Yeah, we just drive over to Montrose, The Heights, Midtown, Greenway, Downtown, the Mahatma Gandhi District, etc. when we need something less suburban. We’re 20 minutes or less from any of those places.
    It’s great to live close to cultural attractions, but it’s also nice to have room for our stuff. For instance, we have our own pool. When I come home from a bike ride in the summer I can skinny dip in it and no one can stop me. There’s no way I could afford that luxury if I needed to live 10 minutes closer to a museum.

  • It’s worth noting that many suburban families choose to spend a whole bunch MORE for their house in the outermost suburbs, in terms of purchase price, than what they would pay to have a house in the middle suburbs – even for a new house in the middle suburbs. But then, they would have to put their kids in a public school shared with lower income and working class kids, or go private ($$$), so I guess that’s unacceptable. As those lower income populations creep towards the outer suburbs, it’s important to keep sprawling so that kids from educated families can stay separated from lesser educated ones. Or so most educated consumers seem to think.

  • @Fernando, and do your small kids go to school yet, and if so, are they private schools? Because my two-income household can’t afford to live in a townhouse big enough for 5 people (and I don’t need a big place) close to cultural centers and good schools, and we certainly couldn’t afford private school in that situation. Sure, Houston has school choice, but that’s up to the the luck of the draw, not to mention that some folks want their kids to go to school with the neighbor kids.

  • I’m not sure that it will ever be possible to completely stop the outward sprawl of new homes given the region’s growth. The real sticky issue is employment sprawl. The leadership in Harris County and at Metro seem to have this idea that we still live in Houston circa 1990 and no rail is ever or will be needed. If you press any of them it always comes down to begging the question. Houston is a DRIVING city, that’s why there is no need for rail but people have no choice to drive because there is no rail.

    Sometimes I think we have some of the stupidest leaders in the world running our transportation. We solve our traffic problems by hiring off duty police to block off streets at rush hour, or put their hopes in elaborate carpooling schemes. Even when we vote for rail, we get nothing for ten years then they proudly announce their new BUS that looks like a train. NEWS FLASH: If someone gets a job downtown but lives in Cinco Ranch, they have to cross FOUR business districts (that would give most large US CBDs a run for their money) at rush hour. It’s up to 90 minutes each way. I don’t care how cheap your house was, you spend close to three hours a day riding your brake pedal in heavy traffic, your quality of life SUCKS.

    The city of Houston may go down in history as the city that kills itself by refusing to acknowledge that it is actually a very big city. Some of these guys running Harris County act like this is Jacksonville or OKC.

  • @Memebag: I have know several people who live in Westbury and love it. It’s a nice place to live from what I hear. I’m not saying everybody has to live in townhouses or condos in an ultra dense environment. The suburbia I’m referring to is more akin to Spring, Katy or something else 30-60 minutes outside the city. I do believe there is much Westbury could do to urbanize itself a bit, though. As for housing costs, I did argue for more affordable options; the city seems to only encourage luxury apartments, though.
    @Val: No private school for my children. We’re not a dual income family. There are plenty of good options within HISD for us to choose from. We’re OK with the lottery system.

  • Memebag, fair enough, and when the worlds first gastarbanks (imagine it, you can order a latte at the drive up teller, while making a deposit, while they fill your tank with some good old unleaded), I’m sure Fernando can take his family out to the suburbs and bask in the glory of it and get there in 20 minutes.

  • @Memebag:

    Again, I think you are missing an important point: The conveniences, like the pool & space that you describe, have a very high cost born by others. The only way to bring these luxuries into your price range is to pour plenty of money into inefficient infrastructures to support even more inefficient land and space usages.

  • @Fernando: The difference between Westbury and Katy is only a matter of degree. The lifestyles are largely the same. We get to have big yards, pools, quiet streets. In other words, nice places for kids to play. I lived in Montrose until I got tired of finding people sleeping/urinating/vomiting in my yard or stair well. I lived in the Heights until I couldn’t afford it. I don’t want Westbury to be any more “urbanized”.
    @NewHoustonian: Who are these “others” bearing the very high cost of my pool and space? These luxuries are in my price range because I bought in a ghetto adjacent area, not because of inefficient infrastructure.

  • not sure I agree with the idea that large freeways are inefficient or heavily subsidized and certainly not when compared against mass transit. what is heavily subsidized is energy extraction in the US and the net effects of carbon burning. we all know full well the effect of carbon resources on our health and environment, yet we refuse to adequately tax gasoline (leaving diesel out of this because diesel taxes are far higher, and i drive a TDI) to compensate for the damage it bears. the good thing for us is poorer population groups throughout the world will end up bearing this burden and not americans. respiratory issues are already a very serious issue in emerging markets (that ones not on us though). perhaps they should change the old adage to “go to america before it’s pollution comes to you”.

  • @Memebag:

    I do not mean this personally. Having spent some time growing up in the suburbs, I have been the beneficiary of this largesse.

    Your home may be affordable because your bought in a lower price area, but you are still not bearing the real costs. Extra money to build longer stretches of road to accommodate more space between houses is one example. More money on longer water pipes is another. The fact is that higher property taxes come from homes in the urban core, and they rarely see their money come back to them. In the meantime, there seems to be ample funding for highways and grand parkway, while roads go unrepaired in central Houston. Those are the ‘others’ who pay for sprawl.

    City taxes go to fund more roads which facilitate sprawl in suburbs through federal and state funding. The same goes for water, and the maintenance of more infrastructure that covers more space. Sprawl isn’t natural, and you need only look at tax and expenditure reports to see how much it costs.

  • @ NewHoustonian: you’re missing the fact that new suburban roads generate income. They cause land values, and the tax base around them to skyrocket, which benefits towns. They generate new commerce in the area, which directly pays into Texas State government which in turn pays for a lot of the roads through TXDOT. So yes, they are subsidized to boot, but it’s more an investment over e long term. Urban transit doesn’t do that.
    @ Fernando: re: HISD lottery: some people are blessed with shitty luck, and you can count me and my wife as those people. We’d much rather hedge our bets by buying a house zoned to quality schools that our son will be guaranteed to attend. Most people are like that. This is impossible in HISD, for less than $350k. But in the suburbs you can do it for $200k.
    @ Planner: I don’t think people are consciously fleeing the poor. They are fleeing the negative things that are associated with poor neighborhoods: food deserts, lousy schools, crime, urban blight, a lack of green space, pollution from industrial uses…. If you fix those problems in neighborhoods that are on the decline, you can get middle class people to stay who might have otherwise left. You could even bring back people who already left. If done properly, the end result is socio-economically mixed neighborhoods, AND less sprawl.
    Unfortunately, and I’m speaking from personal experience here, there’s a tremendous amount of inertia against doing this.

  • @NewHoustonian: “Extra” money for “longer” roads assumes there is a correct shorter length of roads. That’s absurd. What authority dictates this correct road length? The answer is “no one”. We, all of us collectively, get to decide how we want to live. Here in Houston, and many other places, in many other times, we have decided that most of us will live in houses with yards. If you don’t like that you are free to live some other way, but you need to accept that the rest of us want it and will have it. And we pay for it. I pay all of the property taxes for my house, not just a percentage of the taxes on an apartment block.
    Sprawl is not only natural, it’s inevitable. Look at any large city throughout history where sprawl was physically possible and you’ll find it.

  • @New Houstonian, the infrastructure in new developments around Houston is paid for by the developer, or via a municipal utility district funded by the new property owners. If houses are farther apart, the developer has to charge more for houses. Once everything is complete, the roads are deeded to the Count or city. There’s very little tax money spend on the new infrastructure.

    I am not quite sure where you think all of the new arrivals to the area are going to live. Are you going to take my house and neighborhood to build arcologies for new comers?