April 20, 2007

The fire of 1666 - and how London looks the way it does today.

The summer of 1666 was long, hot and dry. In retrospect it is easy to see how it must of reduced a city of wooden buildings to the condition of a tinderbox.

For the last several weeks I have been picking my way through London - A Traveller's History. The book is a solid general history of London as it has developed over the past 2,000 years. Perhaps the biggest lesson I have discovered is that changes in how a city is laid out come from catastrophes, often man made ones, which allow those those who have ideas to partially reshape the future when most people are busy trying to deal with the uncertainties and contingencies of the present. In recent centuries, the two biggest tragedies which have shaped modern day London are the visits which the Luftwaffe paid London during WWII and the fire of 1666.

The idea that a fire might sweep through London and reduce the city to ashes had been an issue which had worried the Crown for several generations and some attempts had been made to pass building regulations which would reduce the probability that a fire induced catastrophe would engulf the city. Alas, none of them passed.

The fire of 1666, which had its start in an neglected fire in a royal baker located off of Pudding Lane, ended up consuming over 13,000 houses and left scores of thousands of people homeless. Firefighting in those days largely consisted of attempting to create firebreaks in order to stop the spread of blazes. Unfortunately, the Lord Mayor hesitated in ordering such breaks and the narrowness of the streets inhibited escaping the inferno and fire fighting efforts.

Mr. Tames falls into the camp which believes that a beneficial side effect of the fire was that London was never touched by the Plague again. However a competing view on this matter is that the fire itself might not have been the reason for this. Other historians and epidemiologists have noted that the Plague was beginning to disappear from other European cities around this time as well.

In the aftermath of the fire, Tames notes that a rebuilding along long straight wide streets and avenues and creating a new order to the city ran into the issue of property rights, a concept which had already been rooted in centuries of English common law. This would have led to long and very costly negotiations over property ownership and property values. The Crown, which had only recently regained its place in English society in the aftermath of the English Civil War, probably did not have enough money to compensate all of the owners for their losses and was only recently reestablished in the minds and hearts of the public. A wholesale reworking of the city would have probably been much resented. The Crown itself, fearful of another potential rebellion from a restless public, was having to reassure the English people that foreigners or terrorists were not the ones responsible for the disaster. King Charles II did send out for rebuilding plans anyway and indeed was bombed with new plans, but these ideas largely came to naught. People were too much in a hurry to rebuild anyway.

Still, in the decades that followed, London did rebuilt itself with a real face lift. The old city of the Middle Ages was gone forever. Over 100 streets were rebuilt to be at least 14 feet wide. The first raised pavements for pedestrians were introduced. Walls of buildings were mandated to be built of brick or stone. Parliament passed new rules in 1707 and 1709 stipulating that houses which fronted onto main thoroughfares were required to be four stories high, while lanes of note were to have buildings of at least three stories high. Back streets, which often were organized into mews type development, were to be two stories in height. If you walk around London today, you cannot help but notice that most of the city is organized around these stipulations. Curiously, I have also noticed that many structures are built to the four story standard and rise no higher than that. Those buildings fronting major streets that do rise higher than four stories rarely rise more than 1-2 stories above that. Gentle readers of this blog might ask themselves why is that?

The other main lesson is that many people seem to admire this kind of urban development today, but it seems that London's development was largely in response to the safety concerns from 300+ years ago and not because of some master plan. The fact that the London has stuck with this kind of development since that time has led to many of the problems which the city faces today, including apartment type housing (flats) that sometimes is not equipped with all mod cons, traffic speeds (from all forms of transportation) which move along at an average speed of 10-15 miles per hour and having to stipulate that on street parking be charged to non-resident permit holders at a rate of 20 pence every 5 minutes (2.40 pounds per hour) in order to try to deter any further rises in motor vehicle use. These parking charges come with a caveat that vehicles have to move every 4 hours and that they are not allowed to come back to the same parking space within one hour.

Enough for now. Ever since I first came to London on holiday 5 years ago, I have wondered why it is that London looks the way it does. I would not be surprised if many other European cities have similar rules in place, at least for their inner cities (their suburbs might well be a different story). Now I know the answer.


Posted by The Mighty Wizard at 06:51 PM
This entry was posted in the following categories: The World at Large

April 16, 2007

I present for public consumption a Harris County Metro ridership and boardings spreadsheet for 1997-2007.

About six weeks ago, I promised that I would publish a spreadsheet on Metro ridership and boardings. I also made this promise on a BlogHouston subject thread. Well gentle readers, I have completed the task of transcribing Metro's boardings information from the 200+ pages of hard copy which they sent to me and onto a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet can be downloaded here.

Some notes and caveats:

1) You will be asked whether you want to enable the macros or not. Do enable the macros. I only wrote one or two when I first started entering in the data, but found later I didn't need them.

2) I did not actually enter in all of the data which Metro sent me. I didn't enter in data for boardings on Saturdays and Sundays, nor did I enter in data for boardings on holidays. My reason for doing so was that I already had some 20,000 pieces of data from printouts to enter over a period of 10 years and that was taxing enough. Also, I figured that most people would not be terribly interested in weekend data. I will do some commentary in the future on weekend and holiday data, but it is IHMO a minor issue.

3) You will notice that not all of the spreadsheets look quite the same. The 1997 Metro spreadsheet shows patronage and utilization of Metro's Park and Rides, which they apparently quit collecting or noting. The 2004 and later editions of the spreadsheets have Light Rail boardings, but only after 2005 did Metro start keeping track of boardings by station.

One really good item which Metro started doing in 2001 was keeping track of boardings from all sources on an annual basis. This allows for apples to apples comparisons from a year to year basis as to how well the agency is performing.

4) The well known and well trodden arguments over public transit boardings verses trips verses passenger miles will not be covered here. I should say that I did not ask Metro for their passenger mile estimates, only their boardings on all routes (including canceled ones). Instead, if anyone out there wants to rehash those issues, then I refer them to Houston Chronicle transportation beat writer Rad Sallee's well written post on the subject, dated July 17, 2006.

I will say this about linked trips and boardings, especially in the light of the fact that various bus routes have either been truncated and rerouted towards the Light Rail line. Metro itself estimates that 62 percent of its boardings come from work commutes. David Hutzelman, who has a graduate degree in statistics, has estimated from American Community Survey data that the percentage of Metro passengers who transfer while in route to their destination has gone up from 36% to 41% after the building of the Light Rail line.

5) The data I asked for when I made my first TXPIA request was for passenger boarding data through July 2006. Ergo the FY2006 data is complete only through July of last year and is not complete. When I return to Houston I intend to ask Metro for the rest of their data for last year and through this year.

6) Metro's "fiscal year" starts in October of the previous year and runs through September of the current year. Ergo I have followed their convention when creating the spreadsheet.

7) Metro has followed a labor intensive method of collecting passenger survey data for some time now. It involves having people sent on board buses and counting them by head since the agency does not have automatic or electronic means of collecting this data. This should change in the not too far distant future as Metro is looking to implement cameras and other instrumentation to do the job.

8) I am started the long and laborious process of collecting route information from years gone by on all bus routes and schedules. I would really like to compare from a year to year basis the frequency of bus route stops along all bus routes and try to correlate them with bus route patronage. This is of particular interest to this writer as the #18 Kirby route used to run every 15 - 25 minutes during day hours, but was cut back to service once every 30+ minutes after the Light Rail line was built. This has resulted in a loss of patronage level of 1,400+ riders in the late 1990's to 950-1,000 by FY 2005.

No doubt the question that is most important to most people is, what can be inferred from the data?

What clearly stands out is that Metro was on a roll - relatively speaking - when they stuck to a bus only program, bearing in mind that Metro is responsible for only about 4-5 percent of all work commute trips and about 2 percent of all passenger trips in the 1,285 mile service area. Weekday boardings went up from 267,000 in FY 1996 and reached a peak of 334,000 boardings per day in FY 2001 just as the Light Rail line was starting construction. From there, weekday boardings dropped to 312,000 boardings by FY 2005 (the construction period for the Light Rail line was from 2001 - 2004). In terms of annual boardings, Metro's performance dropped about 7 percent from a peak of 101,903,000 boardings in FY 2001 to a low of 94,959,000 in FY 2005. This all happened during a period of time where the population of Houston and of Harris County increased by about 15 percent.

Starting in September 2005 and through FY 2006, there is a noticeable increase in boardings from all service categories, including Light Rail boardings, fixed route passenger buses, Express buses and Park and Rides. This is what I call "the Katrina effect", referring to the matter that this bump in the data occurred at the time when Houston was innundated with an estimated 100,000 - 150,000 evacuees fleeing the flooding of the city of New Orleans. The overall effect of the Hurricane on Metro's patronage seems to have held for a period of about 15 months. In data not yet obtained from Metro, but seen from other sources, Metro's boardings seem to start dropping back to pre - Katrina levels sometime around the period of January 2007.

Other items of interest include what happened to patronage along specific bus routes when Light Rail was built?

1) The #2 Bellaire bus route, which has perennially been the bus route with the largest patronage, fell from an FY 2000 peak of 14,376 riders to a FY 2005 low of 10,238 before recovering in FY 2006 to a level of 11,000+ riders. The Bellaire route was one of those which used to run directly into downtown Houston as far as Congress Street, but was truncated to terminate at the Light Rail line at the TMC transit station.

2) The #14 Hiram Clarke bus route also used to run into downtown Houston as far as Commerce Street. The route, like the Bellaire route, now terminates at the the TMC transit station. This resulted in a drop in boardings along the route from a peak of 7,826 boardings in FY 1999 to a level of 3,155 boardings in FY 2005.

3) The 4 routes along which Metro wants to build out the bus rapid transit / light rail lines have a combined total of about 26,000 passengers. In particular, the #50 Harrisburg route peaked out in patronage in 5,499 boardings in FY 1999, but had fallen to 4,435 boardings by FY 2005.

More later as I have things I have to attend to. This should be more fuel for the transit debate, but the charge that we have spent many hundreds of millions of dollars on Light Rail only to have seen overall transit service suffer is clearly borne out by the data. As a final note, I intend to keep this spreadsheet updated for the future.


Posted by The Mighty Wizard at 05:00 AM
This entry was posted in the following categories: Houston and Texas matters

April 15, 2007

Happenings in Britian: Spring 2007 - Part III

Well, yesterday's Grand National came and went. And how did the Wizard fare? Well gentle readers, I hate to admit that the Crystal Ball was cloudy when it came to viewing this event, but me thinks that many had clouded visions when it came to picking winners yesterday.

A brief rundown on the Grand National yesterday. Of the 40 horses which entered the race, only 13 finished. There were several false starts and the Brits don't start the horses out of a gate when running this race.

I put a total of 200 pounds down on three horses, Point Barrow, Dun Doire, and Le Duc, none of whom finished. Point Barrow was heavily backed, but stumbled jumping over the very first grass fence! There are thirty grass fence jumps in this 4.5 mile race. Dun Doire pulled up at fence 23, while Le Duc unseated his jockey at fence number 6. The winner finished in the 4.5 mile distance in 9 minutes and 12 seconds and had 33-1 odds. The horse who finished fourth had 100-1 odds. In all, I think the bookies went home happy, as did the tiny number of those who actually bet on the long shots.

In other news, Prince William and his longtime beau Kate Middleton have split. How sad. Ms. Middleton has that classic Brit Girl look to her which makes my head turn. Somehow I hope that the two of them will reconsider maybe in another 3-4 years and end up getting married anyway.

Two Tolkien related items of note:

1) Yesterday afternoon I watched a soccer match between Sheffield United and West Ham United on the BBC-1. And guess who happened to be in a private box at the stadium enjoying the match?

The answer: Sean Bean. It seems Mr. Bean had childhood dreams of being a football star and playing for the hometown team.

The first TV shot showed Sean Bean with a bit of an unhappy look on his face, but the score was 0-0. Later after the Sheffielders put in a few through the net and won the game 3-0, Mr. Bean got just as pumped up as the rest of the crowd and went home with a smile on his face.

2) Today I took a long walk this afternoon to Camden Town and happened upon the famous street markets which stretch for many blocks. If any of you ever have a chance to come to London, you really should make an effort to see the Camden markets. These markets are probably the biggest hidden gem that tourists and short time folks like myself should see, but rarely do since they aren't widely advertised as part of touristy London.

Anyway, as I wended my way through the stalls and houses, I found myself walking into a place which advertised lots of old maps. I love looking at old maps (though I rarely buy them), but I so happened to stumble onto a used book store which was right next to where the maps were kept.

I had stumbled upon my own mines of Mithril.

For 30 pounds cash, I will be burdening myself on the trip home with the following books:

1) A 1985 Unicorn / Unwin Paperback version of The Silmarillion.

2) A 1981 copy of The Tolkien Quiz Book, compiled by Nigel Robinson and Linda Wilson.

3) A 1993 copy of The Tolkien Companion by David Day.

4) A 1968 copy of Understanding Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, written by William Ready.

5) Four copies of The Hobbit, including a 1975 edition which had artwork depicting Smaug from Tolkien himself; a 1993 edition which has cover artwork depicting Smaug from John Howe; a 1988 edition with cover artwork depicting Smaug from David Garland; and a 1989 edition which has cover artwork depicting Rivendell from Ted Nasmith.

6) And last by not least, my Precious! I found a 1995 printing of a one book edition of The Lord of the Rings which is none other than the one with the classic John Howe portrait of Gandalf on the cover. I thought I would never find one of these. I fell in love with it on the spot and I already know that this version will become my favorite of all my Tolkien collection. The cover artwork has a dark green tint to it, but I consider this to be priceless.

As it was, I also threw down money on some incense, a City wide map of London, and some t-shirts from British rock bands The Jam, the Cure, and Joy Division which you just can't get back home. I ended up dropping about 100 pounds today, but had a blast doing it!

Ciao for Now.


Posted by The Mighty Wizard at 06:16 PM
This entry was posted in the following categories: Culture , The World at Large , Tolkien / The Classics

April 13, 2007

Happenings in Britian: Spring 2007 - The Grand National Horse race!

You would think that an American, especially a relative Anglophile such as myself, would know a lot of what goes on in a country like the United Kingdom. Wrong! This morning while eating breakfast with my colleagues at VLICA (the Very Large Industrial Corporation of America), I took a look at the television only to discover that tomorrow afternoon is the annual running of The Grand National horse race. The race, held at the Aintree Racecourse, promises to be quite a spectacle for a sometime gambling man such as yours truly. My colleagues told me that the premier race to be held tomorrow will feature 40 horses running in the race over a course of 4.5 miles. Furthermore, the horses have steeplechase type barriers that they have to clear! This ought to be blast to watch.

Clearly a 4.5 mile race with steeplechase barriers thrown in is a major endurance test for horses and predictably the animal rights freaks have come out squealing. Nonetheless, they should realize that nobody wants to see horses come to a nasty end over a mere human passion.

Though I am not in shape, I have done distance running for many years. If there's anything I know, that is that endurance races of all kinds throw the field wide open. There are so many things that can go wrong, especially in a race like this, that it only makes watching the spectacle that much more exciting.

This evening the BBC had a program where the sports writers made their picks as to who was going to win. They did expose spots on famous trainers and jockeys. I discovered that the Brits allow amateurs to race with the pros in the event, though an amateur hasn't won the race in 17 years. All of Britain's major newspapers have Grand National pullouts and guides in tomorrow's editions. I am getting pumped up!

I briefly thought of trying to get to Liverpool in order to see the race in person, but I'm thinking that I'll have to get up pretty early in order to make it up there. On second thought, I think I'll just stay and watch it on the telly.

But watching the Grand National at the hotel doesn't drain all of the excitement out of the event. I just need to make sure that I peer into the Crystal Ball first, take a look at the field, then go to a Ladbrokes and plunk down 50 or 100 quid on a 100-1 horse! Why not? After all, even the horse many think has the best chance of winning, Point Barrow, is being offered 11-1 odds over at Ladbrokes.

The World Awaits!


Posted by The Mighty Wizard at 09:32 PM
This entry was posted in the following categories: Culture , The World at Large

April 12, 2007

Happenings in Britain: Spring 2007

And so it was that I find myself in the Imperial City again. This time the weather is far better than it was during last January. The weather has been in the 60's and 70's during the day, with an occasional sunny day thrown in. I will write an analysis of London's transportation system very soon and hope to have some pictures thrown in of salient points as well. The purpose of this post is to draw attention to city issues which might interest people back home.

1) The 2012 London Olympic Games: Remember when the elites were battling furiously for Houston to be the host city of the 2012 Olympic Games? A former City of Houston council member named John Kelley founded an organization called the Houston 2012 Foundation and raised $6 million to try to foist the games off on Houstonians bring the Games to Houston.

I forgot to write about the London Olympic Games when I was here in January, but the subject should have been something I could have committed to the blog. Briefly, the politics behind the cost of the games got really hot while I was here three months ago. Here are some web sites which discuss the final bill that Britons are facing for the privilege of hosting the Games. You gotta love that possible 9 billion pound final bill - about $17.5 billion at April 2007 exchange rates for a half month of taking in athletic pleasures. That is 4 times the original estimated cost of hosting the games. A combination of constructing new housing, new sports temples, providing security, and some transportation are all contributing to the cost overruns. Residents of London are (as of this writing) being taxed to the tune of 38 pence per week in order to help cough up 625 million pounds of local money to pay for the games.

And to think that all of this could have happened to Houstonians! One of the rationales for building the downtown Light Rail line was that it was mandatory because we were going to host the Olympic Games!

2) The famed London congestion charge: As one might have expected, London Mayor Ken Livingstone and his friends on the London Council both upped the congestion charge in 2005 for entering the City from 5 pounds to 8 pounds. Moreover, the size of the congestion zone was increased, essentially doubling in size. One person has commented that the municipal powers in London have raked in 677 million pounds from the charge as of February 2007, but that only a fraction of the overall monies have been used to improve transportation capacities. That brings into question the entire issue of whether municipal authorities anywhere should be charging for road use, if only on the grounds that the collected monies will not be used for transportation but for - say - paying off the transportation union workers. Apparently money was supposed to be used for improved bus service.

Another matter that cropped up was that motorists were apparently driving right up to the edge of the zone and then driving around to find a parking space. Once they found one they would then jump on the Tube or onto a bus to get the rest of the way to where they were going. This prompted outrage amongst the local residents in those areas who were finding their assigned parking spots being taken by commuters. The general complaint was that congestion was (and is) being shifted around, rather than being slayed.

3) Now a pollution charge is scheduled to come into effect. Motorists who own what are deemed to be heavily polluting vehicles will be slapped with a whopping 25 pound charge.

4) I watched on Saturday as Cambridge beat Oxford in the 153rd annual boat race.

Ciao for now. More later.


Posted by The Mighty Wizard at 03:23 AM
This entry was posted in the following categories: The World at Large , Transportation

April 07, 2007

Wither now, downtown Houston? And how expensive is transportation, really?

There are five of us in our family, and I am sad to say that we own five cars. This costs us over $27,000 a year. I have a car for business and pleasure. My ex-wife works; she has a car. Our son, away at college at Fort Worth, has a car; our eldest daughter has to have a car for college and her part-time job. Our youngest daughter recently got her driver's license and has a car to drive to school and to her music lessons. Cars are essential to my children's social lives. Neither I nor my ex-wife can afford to take time off from work to chauffeur the children, which they don't want or expect anyway. Even more horrifying, we can't afford to buy collision insurance for our children's cars. So if one has a wreck and is at fault, the repair bills will be astronomical; if a car is totaled, it will be need to be replaced somehow.

City of Houston Council Member Peter Brown, writing a note to authors Andres Duany, Elizabath Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck in Suburban Nation, The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream"

There are a horde of things I could write about this book, including claims by people like James Howard Kunstler that modern day suburbanization (notice that I didn't say American suburbanization or sprawl) creates neighborhoods which nobody cares about, but I would suggest that you tell that to the people that actually live in those neighborhoods. I think you would find a very different opinion as to whether the people who actually live in those places care about them or not.

Today is the birthday of your's truly. I happen to be writing this epistle from London where I will be holed up for the next few weeks.

A while back I wrote about that I would try to deal with the issue of development (or the lack of it) in downtown Houston. A number of weeks back, I walked around downtown Houston and surveyed the state of development in downtown. Downtown Houston has been the recipient of a vast amount of public largesse over the past 15+ years. Houstonians have watched as their public elites have built two sports temples located in downtown at the cost of circa $600 million, plus, a light rail line at the publicly stated cost of $325 million (most likely much higher than that), have torn up an array of downtown streets in order to put in fibre optic and other telecommunication lines, as well as a sewer line to Buffalo Bayou, a new County Courthouse, formed a TIRZ and two management districts, and who knows what else, all in an effort to "revitalize downtown! So why was it that after all that effort, the Houston Chronicle carried a story about how seven nightclubs closed within a period of two months, and that the Houston Press carried a story about how is was that three downtown "eyesore" structures, all of which were located right up against the downtown Light Rail line could not be developed? That was even after the effort on the part of "Smart Growth" architect Doug Childers to make an effort to get into one of those structures in order to make Smart Growth development work.

Meanwhile Houston Mayor Bill White has had to give away $14 million in public monies in order to get a commercial development to come to downtown, which itself has no residential development. At the same time, downtown office space in Houston's magnificent skyscraper skyline is getting scarce and vacant space is down below 10 percent. I can testify to this. My company, VLICA (the Very Large Industrial Company of America), which is located downtown and for whom I have been working for over the past 12+ years, is going to take another floor from our landlord and plans to rent two more over the next two years.

So what is going on? Why is it that the commercial market in downtown Houston is booming to the point where developers are thinking of building new skyscrapers while the desperately desired downtown residential market languishes at a few thousand residents and does not attract scores of thousands of "urban pioneers" which would suddenly make Houston's downtown streets blossom like London's?

The answer lies in the cost of measuring how much it costs to transport people, goods, or ideas per mile from one place to another.

As can be seen from Mr. Brown's epistle above, many people in the Smart Growth movement have tried with a frenzied desperation to point out how expensive it is to own and operate a car. I will not contest that owning and operating a car costs real money, but there are two things that the Smart Growth crowd overlook in their analysis of transportation and its costs. The first is asking that if it really is so expensive to own and operate a car, then why is it that people in wealthy developed areas of the world continue to buy and use cars and trucks, even in the face of rising gasoline prices? The second thing they fail to ask is that there has been some movement towards inner cities again, but how much of that can be attributed to Smart Growth type policies?

To answer these questions, I, The Mighty Wizard, as a mere student of urban affairs who does not work in the field of urban issues, had to go back to what the Master taught me while I was in school. And who was that Master? None other than Barton Smith. To answer these riddles, I found myself leafing through my faded and crumbling lecture notes from Smith's courses of ages gone by and from my textbooks. I read Smith's thoughts. They were questions, questions that needed answering.

And so it was that I found my answers.

You see, the Smart Growth types really do have a point. Owning and operating a car really does cost money. Say for just a moment that you have gone out and bought a brand spanking new and shiny car. That car has set you back $24,000, for which you were able to cough up a $4,000 down payment. You have put the remaining $20,000 on a 5 year payment plan at 9% interest. We will add to this picture. You are married. You and your spouse face the prospect that you have a job in downtown Houston and are trying to decide where to live. You have spotted a house in the Heights for $250,000 that is 4 miles away from downtown that is really nice, but there another house in Spring Branch that costs $150,000 that is acceptable, but happens to be another 7 miles away. The schools at least seem similar in quality and so do the neighborhoods.

So what is it that you are going to do? The Smart Growth crowd points to the fact that you are helplessly addicted and enslaved to your automobile, but is that really the case? More to the point, CM Peter Brown complained that he and his family spends $27,000 per year on cars. Surely CM Brown, who happens to be smart enough to have gotten elected to City Council, would not spend $27,000 on anything without getting something in return, wouldn't he? The real question is, what is it that we get when we buy automobiles or trucks? What is CM Brown getting in terms of accessibility and mobility when he wisely spends wastes $27,000 per year on private automobiles?

The answer to that question is... miles. Let us do the math. You have a $250,000 house in the Heights verses a $150,000 house in Spring Branch. The house in the Heights is 4 miles from downtown, while the house in Spring Branch is 11 miles away. What would you prefer to choose?

If we put down at $15,000 down payment on both properties, a 30 year mortgage at 6 percent interest rate works out to $809.39 per month in the case of the $150,000 house, while the mortgage on the $250,000 house works out to $1,408.94. Add to that in that in Houston, the added property taxes usually amount to about 3 percent of the values of property (minus the 30 percent or so in deductions) means that the property taxes on the $250,000 home will be about $1,800 greater than the taxes in the $150,000 home.

What all of this means is that the annual carrying costs of owning that $250,000 home in the Heights will be about $9,000 per year greater than owning the home in Spring Branch. The question facing our prospective Houston residents is whether the added cost and frustration in commuting the extra 7 miles in distance in each direction every work day will be less than or greater than the $9,000 cost per year of living close in? To answer that question, we need to ask what is the cost of owning and operating a private vehicle such that it allows the extra 14 miles per day of commute and what is the prospective cost in time for the commuter to drive that extra 14 miles per day?

To answer these questions, let's take the Smart Growthers at their word. That $24,000 car which has a $4,000 down payment and a $20,000 note for 5 years at 9% interest will have a note of about $415.17 per month. We will throw in that the car will depreciate in value $14,000 over 5 years, so that it is worth only $10,000 5 years later. That means that the depreciation rate is $233 per month. The insurance rate is $150 per month, the $3 per gallon gasoline costs $195 per month if your car gets 20 miles per gallon and you drive it the 13,000 miles per year that Americans drive their cars ("enlightened" Western Europeans who have mass transit drive their cars 8,000 - 10,000 miles per year BTW), and to boot your car repairs cost you an average of $100 per month.

So what is the cost of owning and operating your car? If you add all of those numbers up, it costs a whopping $1,093 per month to own and operate your new and shiny car so that you can drive it the "typical" 13,000 miles per year that your average wasteful, environmentally hating and uncaring, carbon spewing American drives their car every year.

So what is the cost? If you multiply $1,093 x 12 months per year, that adds up to a whopping $13,116 per year to own and operate that evil car! Boy do the Smart Growthers and the train nuts have that straight! Or do they? What if you divide that number by the number of miles you drive your car? Then what kind of math do you get? The answer is that the cost per mile of driving that brand new spanking car is about $1.01 per mile. Bear in mind what happens to the cost per mile of owning and operating that car after you actually pay off that car and if you decide you are going to keep the car.

The second part of our equation is what is the value of commuting that extra 14 miles per day to our prospective Houstonian? Lots of econometric studies have concluded that people tend to value their time in commute at about 30-50 percent of the value of their pay at work. Say that our prospective commuter is an accountant who is getting paid $60,000 per year, which is $30 per hour. If we plug in $15 per hour (50% of his / her pay), then if traffic is moving at 30 miles per hour during his / her commute at 5:00pm rush hour, the value of that commute works out to about $7 per day ( $15 per hour of time valuation * 14 miles extra commute (7 miles back and forth in both directions) / 30 mph travel speed during the commute). So if our new Houston resident is "paying" or valuing his or her commute at $7 per day to travel that extra 14 miles, that means that the annual commute valuation is (at 50 weeks per year, 5 days per week of work), 250 days of work * $7 per day of value in commuting. That equals $1,750 in valuation of sitting in traffic.

We then throw in the fact that it costs $1.01 per mile to own and operate our vehicle (note that this includes the cost of gasoline, depreciation, cost of the monthly note and repairs!) and we are left with the fact that it will cost an extra $14.14 per day for our hapless and helplessly enslaved Houston commuter to commute from Spring Branch instead of making the environmentally friendly commute from the Heights. That means that at 250 commute days per year, the costs of operating that car equal $3,535 per year. Add $3,535 per year and $1,750 in commute times and what do you get? $5,285 in added commute costs for living in Spring Branch verses the $9,000 per year in added costs for buying property for living in close in the Heights.

The answer is that unless there is something really incredible that draws our prospective Houstonians to live in the Heights, our prospective Houstonians will decide live in Spring Branch, all other things being equal. Incredibly, in all 7 of the prominent writings which I have read from the Smart Growth crowd, all of them have wailed about the cost of owning and operating a car, but none of them have made the final step in analyzing that the real decision why it is that urban areas continue to sprawl out, despite the best efforts of planners and Smart Growthers to stop the phenomenon. The real decision lies in what it costs in owning and operating the car and that involves deciding how much is it going to cost to own and operate a car per mile.

Addendum - May 20, 2007: I saw an ad in the Sunday May 13, 2007 edition of the Houston Chronicle. There were two downtown lofts being advertised. I cannot remember the details of one of the lofts, but I do remember that the other was being pitched for $165,000. And what, pray tell, do you get for your $165,000? How about 704 square feet of living space. Isn't paying $230 per square foot for the equivalent of a one bedroom apartment a bargain?

Continuing: I can hear the endless bitching, wailing, objections, and complaints. You are wrong Mr. Mighty Wizard, end of story! What happens if these people don't have kids? What happens if they are buying "quality of life" and "lifestyle" and not housing? What happens if they don't own a car?

Sorry folks! Nice try, but you still are enslaved to these ideas. If you don't have kids, then you are free to be able to devote more of your pay to a mortgage and are able to purchase access closer in. That is the case if you are a 20-something hipster or if you happen to be a 55 year old couple whose kids are now raised and out of the house. However that doesn't necessarily mean that every person in those groups will necessarily decide to move closer in so that they will take advantage of the amenities of being close to town. Some will decide that they like living in rural or suburban areas anyway and not make the move in. As far as the numbers, all you have to do is change the numbers around to any figures you decide to plug in. Do the math and you will start to understand why it is that people decide to live where they decide to live. You can buy access to your job and your desired lifestyle. All you have to do is figure out how much it costs in terms of your time and your money.

It is ideas like these that go a long way to understanding why it is that downtown Houston is not drawing thousands of "urban pioneers" which Duany and Co. so desperately desire. It also goes a long way to understanding why it is that areas like Washington Avenue and Montrose are seeing booms in development while downtown Houston sees pressures in commercial space while few "urban pioneers" decide to move there. Why move downtown and pay downtown real estate prices when you can buy a condo or a house just a few miles away and have a 10 minute commute into downtown and have access to all of its amenities? While you are at it, you Smart Growthers and Peak Oil types might want to figure out what will really happen once the alleged end of petroleum comes and the price of a gallon of gasoline rockets to $10 per gallon or more. You might want to ask yourself what has happened to American driving patterns (and indeed the driving patterns of the rest of the world) in the face of the fact that the price of a barrel of oil has gone up from $25 per barrel to $60 over the past 6 years or so. What is going on with those upscale middle class folks (average income of $70,000 per year) who work in downtown Houston, yet take a subsidized Metro bus ride into downtown Houston to their jobs from 20 miles away via riding in on the HOV canyons which we have carved out just for them? What would happen if we took away those HOV lanes and gave them back to the general public?

Better yet, what is the price of CM Brown's transportation costs of his entire family averages 10,000 miles of driving per year per vehicle? The answer is that his family is spending 54 cents per mile to own and operate their entire fleet of vehicles. That would be a better way of understanding CM Brown's statement of his complaints regarding his purchasing of transportation for his family. Now then gentle readers, I ask you this. What would happen if CM Brown's family decided to drive 60,000 miles per year instead of 50,000 miles? What would be the cost per mile of his family driving that extra 10,000 miles?

Enough for now. This has been a long and tiring epistle. Still, it is one of the most rewarding ones I have ever written. Over the next 2 weeks, I will write about London and why it is that mass transit continues to draw big numbers in the Imperial City.

Ciao for now,


Posted by The Mighty Wizard at 07:38 PM
This entry was posted in the following categories: Transportation