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Houston Stepping Up Its Walkability Factor; Dallas a Few Strides Behind

The Market Square Tower, an apartment tower under construction in downtown Houston rises near Treebeard's, a restaurant with a colorful mural. Photo credit: Ralph Bivins. Copyright 2016.

The Market Square Tower, an apartment tower under construction in downtown Houston rises near Treebeard’s, a restaurant with a colorful mural. Photo credit: Ralph Bivins. Copyright 2016.

(By Dale King) HOUSTON – It’s getting easier for Houstonians to walk to work, to their homes, to restaurants, retail shops, entertainment venues, parks and other places of interest.

And while the city’s walkability factor still lags behind foot-friendlier metropolitan areas such as New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and the like, a pretty bright future is in store for those who’d rather hoof than drive, says a new study called “Foot Traffic Ahead 2016.”

The report was issued by LOCUS: Responsible Real Estate Developers and Investors, a program of Smart Growth America, in conjunction with the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at the George Washington University School of Business. The study – an update of a 2014 report – says walkable urban places (called WalkUPs) in 30 of the nation’s largest metros – including Houston and Dallas — are gaining market share over their suburban competitors where cars are de rigueur. Residents of cities with the highest levels of walkable urbanism are also the most educated and financially well off, based on per capita GDP, the report says.

Of the 30 cities examined in the survey, Houston ranked No. 20 while Dallas came a shade behind at 25. The 30 metros represent 46% of the US population (145 million out of 314 million) and 54% of the national GDP.

“Rankings of Sunbelt communities are currently not that high,” said Chris Leinberger, Charles Bendit Distinguished Scholar and research professor of Urban Real Estate, chair of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at the GWSB and co-author of the report. Big cities in the north and west did better, but southern communities are catching up – some faster than others.

“Given the histories of Houston and Dallas as oil- and gas-based metro economies, their moderate-to-low walkable urbanism rankings are fitting,” Leinberger said. He noted, however, that “the recent influx of major corporate headquarters locations and high-tech firms have helped Houston and Dallas generate the sixth- and seventh-highest real GDP per capita of the largest 30 metros in the county.”

The WalkUPs report says Houston’s per capita GDP in 2014 was $70,097, some $10,000 behind San Francisco, the walkable city with the highest per capital income of the 30 communities studied, $80,643. So, while Houston ranks 20th in the overall walkability department, it comes in 6th on the basis of income. Dallas ranks 7th with a per capita average wage (in 2014) of $66,168.

The study links wealth with education, but the northern and western cities seem to have the edge there. In Houston, 30% of residents age 25 and older have bachelor’s degrees. Dallas outdistances its fellow Texas community, coming in at 32% percent for BA degrees among residents age 25 and older.

Washington, D.C. outscores them all with 51% of age 25-plus residents holding a BA. Rankings of others include San Francisco Bay, 2, Boston, 3, Denver, 4 and Minneapolis-St. Paul, 5. The city with the fewest BA degree holders is also the one with largest number of gamblers, Las Vegas, at 22%.

The “Foot Traffic Ahead 2016” report, Leinberger said, shows “a continuous growth and expansion of walkable urban places across the country. In fact, the WalkUPs in each of the 30 metros examined were found to have gained office, retail and rental multifamily market share against drivable suburban competition in the current real estate cycle, the first time we have seen this in almost 60 years.”

But seven metros have experienced a decline in the size of their premiums during the last five years. The rent premium in Houston has dropped 7%, the report says.

The survey notes that communities lagging behind in the walkable urbanism department include Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Detroit and Sacramento. All, said Leinberger, are suffering from a “historic lack of rail transit infrastructure.”

On this same track, Houston, Los Angeles and Miami – three cities that are “nearly synonymous with drivable sub-urbanism – show some particularly interesting trends,” the report’s co-author noted.

“It is not a coincidence that these three metros have made substantial investments in rail transit over the past decade – in particular, Los Angeles, which has made the largest investment in new rail transit in the county.”

Houston operates a light rail system that runs from the northern part of the city through the downtown and eventually to the Texas Medical Center, said Leinberger. “Most of the major walkable places in Houston are served by light rail.”

The report points out that “metro Dallas has been building one of the largest new light rail systems in the country, second only to metro Los Angeles – a solid effort toward future walkable urban development.”

Noting the current excess of office space in downtown Houston, the researcher said a lot of suburban office locations are becoming obsolete. “What are we going to do with all these drivable suburban parks? They are going vacant.”

He offered three possible futures. “Some of the business parks are becoming fundamentalist churches, day care centers or nursery schools at 20 cents on the dollar. Others can be converted to high-density walkable places. The others are bulldozer bait.”

July 4, 2016


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