Houston versus Chicago redux

Apparently, The Economist interviewed some Social Systems Architect and Houston booster by the name of Tory Gattis who claimed that Houston’s metropolitan area would soon surpass Chicago’s metropolitan area, but Mr. Gattis goofed, and really meant to say Philly. Cecil Adams corrects him in his usual manner:

Crowne Plaza at Night

My aim here isn’t to run down Houston (well, not my main aim), but simply to point out that it’s in a different stage of development from Chicago. Chicago was a boom town a hundred years ago; Houston is a boom town now. Like a lot of other Sunbelt cities, Houston is currently experiencing double-digit population growth; metropolitan Chicago, like many more established urban areas, is growing at single-digit rates. That’s not a problem; it’s what you’d expect. The real issue in Chicago and other older urban areas in the century just past was whether the central city would be able to stabilize once the fat years ended. For a long time in Chicago that was in doubt — between 1950 and 1990 the city proper lost almost a quarter of its population. After that things leveled off. Although some parts of town continued to decline, others boomed, downtown in particular — its population increased almost 40 percent between 1970 and 2000 and is now around 165,000, larger than any other Illinois city except Aurora. So I wouldn’t worry too much about Chicago’s lack of dynamism.

The more interesting question now is how well Chicago, Houston, and other U.S. cities are preparing for the future, when life is going to be way different due to rising energy costs. This is a vast topic I won’t attempt to explore now; I’ll just say you’re probably going to have an easier time of it in Chicago — at least in the city proper. That’s because the central city is becoming more densely built up, and thus supports better (if still inadequate) public transit. Chicago’s density as of 2000 was about 13,000 per square mile, and many neighborhoods are much higher — the Near North Side is approaching 50,000 per square mile. Houston’s density in contrast is about 4,400 per square mile. When gas prices were low that didn’t matter much (although traffic congestion in Houston is notoriously bad). But prices have increased sharply and will rise more due to growing worldwide demand once the economy recovers. Largely for that reason, U.S. transit usage in 2008 rose to its highest level in 52 years, while driving declined. Some cities are better equipped to handle this shift than others. However dismal you may think CTA service is, transit in Houston is worse. The city is belatedly attempting to rectify matters by building light-rail lines, but it’s so spread out there are limits to what can be done. Suburban Chicago is also thinly populated and faces a similar dilemma. Infill housing construction in the city of Chicago, on the other hand, has become a growth industry — city residential building permits accounted for just 7 percent of the metro total in 1990-1995 but 40 percent in 2007. Greater density will make it easier (not easy) to improve Chicago transit, which Lord knows could use it. Houston? Good luck.

[Click to continue reading Straight Dope Chicago: Will Houston soon make Chicago the fourth city?]

I’ve never resided in Houston, but I have spent enough time there over the years to know that it would never1 be on my list of top 1000 cities to live in. Chicago has its problems and weaknesses, but they are piddling compared to the weaknesses of Houston.

From Mr. Gattis’s blog:

Housing repossessions are still very rare; the state budget is still in surplus even as California and New York teeter on the edge of bankruptcy. Unlike those fellow states with large populations, Texas levies no personal income tax, and with almost unlimited space on which to build, its houses are big and affordable.

All this has brought people flooding in and made Texas America’s fastest-growing state. Net domestic inflows have been running at around 150,000 people in recent years, whereas California and New York have seen net outflows. Next year’s national census is expected to show that flourishing Houston has replaced struggling Chicago as America’s third city (an unfortunate error, as we are expected pass the Philadelphia metro in 2010, but it could be decades before we pass Chicago as either a city or metrosee here). Of the ten largest cities in America, three are in Texas.

[Click to continue reading Houston Strategies: The Economist special report on Texas and TX vs. CA]

What More Can I Say

Again, fast growth is not always a plus2, and living in a city where one can walk or take public transit to places is infinitely better than having to drive a car3 everywhere.

  1. at least in its current state []
  2. just ask former Wall Street darlings like Enron and Global Crossing []
  3. and get stuck in traffic []

7 thoughts on “Houston versus Chicago redux

  1. Tory says:

    Just to clarify, the error was on The Economist side. I may have mentioned passing the Philly metro in my interview (thus the confusion), but I am well aware we are not passing Chicago as either a city or a metro anytime soon. I have edited my blog post to clarify.

    If I have some time later I may get back here and post a bit of a defense of Houston.

  2. ahh, thanks, that was unclear. And everyone has different expectations for what a city should be, Houston just isn’t for me. I have a good friend who has lived there for over 20 years, she’s happy in Houston, so live-and-let-live, right?

  3. Tory says:

    No problem. You might be surprised about the Houston stereotypes vs. reality. Here’s one of my older posts on Chicago-Houston similarities:

  4. brian theriot says:

    I don’t know about Houston passing Chicago in population, but it did pass Philadelphia years ago.

  5. Houstonian says:

    Each preceding assessment promulgates fear. It is palpable the crescent of Houston, and its rise above Chicago is imminent and inevitable. Economy is flourishing, and is second in the nation as home to most Fortune 500 companies. 25 percent of all the nation’s energy emanates from Texas, primarily Houston. Chicago is incompetent to emulate the size and style of Houston–which submits city life without inconvenient density, housing in which is vastly superior and far less inexpensive, pre-eminent health care facilities and a cost of living index 12 percent below the national average. Houston is attracting more individuals, because it has more to offer. Everything is bigger and better in Texas; Houston is the epitome of this. Chicago. You had a good run

  6. “Chicago is incompetent to emulate the size and style of House” – I have no idea what you mean by this. I’ve driven in Houston during rush-hour, and that isn’t something I’d wish on my enemy, much less suggest this as a goal for other cities to emulate.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.