August 23, 2004 - From the August, 2004 issue

Former Mayor Of Houston Touts Los Angeles As A Window Into America's Urban Future

Houston, Texas faces significant challenges with some of the nation's worst traffic and unchecked urban sprawl. TPR is pleased to present this conversation with Bob Lanier, former mayor of Houston, in which he brings to bear his significant experience with transportation and land use policy by discussing how Los Angeles can inform the experiences of Houston and other major American cities.

Bob Lanier

Mayor, with two terms as Mayor of Houston, and having been on the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Highway Commission before that, instruct our readers on what can be expected from a mayor's office re the improvement regional mobility.

Mayors should take a global view of transportation. Mayors can control part of the transportation system-namely transportation management, city streets and sidewalks-and through that, they can impact part of the state highway system. However, with traffic trips increasing at 2-3 percent annually, you're not going solve your mobility problems with new capacity alone, whether it's highways, toll roads, city streets, or transit. You've got to invest your money carefully, making certain that each project has a significant impact. I favor the use of stringent cost-benefit analyses, delivering a cost-per-hour congestion relief dominated formula that promises the most bang for the buck.

When it comes to transportation infrastructure, toll roads have been very effective in Texas. In Texas, you'll be more likely to get your new highway equipment and added capacity out of toll roads than out of provisional federal or state funding. And, the toll roads can often have been built with no or few net tax dollars, funded instead by revenue bonds. Our toll roads are currently running a surplus, which we use to give some money to the highway department to expand the I-10 in Houston.

We made a special effort while I was mayor to reverse the outflow of residents from the inner city, which was losing population at a rate of about 5,000 per year. We stopped that and created an inflow of about 5,000 a year. How? We focused on making neighborhoods near the major employment centers more livable. The result is people moving closer to where they work. It significantly reduces the number of miles traveled on our roads and highways, and requires no transportation money.

You did all of this in a city that shuns zoning. Is there a nexus between zoning and planning and the accomplishments of these livability and mobility goals?

The advantage of having zoning is that the city will look like how the planner thinks it ought to look. Now, I have confidence in planners, but not to visualize 20 years in the future what a parcel of land is going to be. I don't think a developer, the mayor, or planners can do it. I'm satisfied with the system we have in Houston. Not having zoning has not been an impediment to anything we did. In fact, it made it easier. We probably could not have done what we did in cities where zoning is restrictive.

For one thing, the absence of zoning cuts down the cost of housing considerably. Our housing costs in Houston are probably half of those in LA. A big part of that difference is the cost of the regulation. If I put up an application to build houses, I can get a permit within 48 hours. I have a friend out here in Malibu who waited over two years to get his permits. That costs money and also deters development. Houston has one of the lowest costs of housing in the country, allowing us to build new housing and new low-income housing in the inner city. Having no zoning also makes it easier to revitalize an area . There is enough political resistance to change as it is. If you added zoning, it wouldn't be feasible to change neighborhoods in a positive way.

Houston, like Los Angeles, is a city at the heart of a thriving region. Transportation, air quality, urban runoff, exports and imports through our ports, are blind to municipal boundaries. What then are the regional responsibilities of urban mayors like yourself? Clearly there is nothing in the federal or state constitutions that provide for placemaking in the regions. Who should be the regional steward?

As mayor of Houston, I found that there was enough to do in the 700-800 square miles to keep me busy without overseeing what the other cities did. But generally speaking, it's a lot easier to get cooperation on specific projects than it is have a regional government.

The federal government set up metropolitan planning agencies to address some of these issues at the regional level. The highway programs, which encompass 60% of traffic, have to go through these organizations. If you can just get that part right, you've accomplished an awful lot.

The best thing I've found to do is to work cooperatively with the other cities. We have regional plans that we put together on an informal basis, bringing people together to make a comprehensive notion of what should be working through the regional planning committee. But the real need is for a local political leader who really takes on transportation. They need to be a leader, they need to understand the issue, and they should have a background in transportation, politics, economics, and finance too. Addressing transportation was easier for me because I chaired the Highway Commission for four years and served a term as chair of Houston Metro. Having been a developer, lawyer and banker, for years I watched how things worked and made a living that way.

Help our readers understand how things really work. How can you systematically improve neighborhoods spread out across a region the size of Los Angeles?

There is a political reality, there is a financial reality, and there is a bureaucratic reality related to turf. It's manageable. It's not perfect, it's not easy, but it can be done. On the other hand, you pay a price for all of the smaller cities in the region.

The first key in Houston was to have a plan that covered the entire city. The city upgraded one neighborhood within the jurisdiction of or selected by each councilmember every year. Generally speaking, we started on the inner city first. I'm talking about upgrading sewers, paving roads and sidewalks, and providing all of the needed investment to make a neighborhood livable. By tearing down dangerous buildings and adding street lights, you're making life better for people who already live in these areas, improving their everyday experiences. And the goodwill established spreads back up to the councilmember. But any systematic approach to neighborhood revitalization needs a leader to make it happen. If I had to choose a system or a leader, I'd choose the leader.

What should the public look for in choosing their public leaders? What are the characteristics of a good public servant?


People often ask me of my impressions of the mayor's job in retrospect. I tell them, "There was more to do than I had anticipated, it was easier to get things done than I thought, and the job is more important than I realized." A leader needs to be a visionary beyond the nuts and bolts. He needs to have ideals that bring out the best of people, enabling people to look beyond their own self-interest.

A leader has to be someone with whom the voters identify. The issues that are important to an elected official must also be important to the people he serves. He needs to respect the different ethnic roots of his constituency and gain the confidence of all of them so that they can work together. If you can't do that, it's almost impossible to manage a city. A mayor should not be someone who is divisive, but someone who can bring people together. It helps to have prior political and business experience. And, he ought to understand finances.

You cannot do this job well if you do not understand finances. We came in with a structural $50 million deficit and balanced the budget every year for six years with a one-percent surplus every year. A city budget is not intellectually hard to balance, it's politically hard. Managing costs requires managing the units of service. As a city leader, if you cut, you need to pick the ones you think are least important. Our unifying ideal was that every adult and child should have the chance, without discrimination, to realize their dreams.

A decade ago, you, Mayor Goldsmith, Mayor Rendell and others were on covers of national magazines as examples of a new breed of business savvy, moderate mayors. A decade later, after 9/11, and even with the importance of first responders to cities self evident, there is much less interest in the mayors of our biggest cities. Why?

Leadership in cities is not off the template. However, urban revitalization is not the Republican Party's dream. Cities generally vote Democratic. The city should be a focus-cities are the most important economic unit in our civilized world. There should be a focus on maintaining the city as a whole, and heart of the city in particular. At the same time, you should not have programs that coerce people to live there. The market should decide.

Let's talk about post-9/11, focusing on terrorism and homeland security. What would be your pitch, your goals if you were mayor in a post-9/11 world?

I would get my folks together and consult the experts in security as to what the city needed to be as secure as possible. Then, I would determine what the federal government would contribute and figure out how to go about financing the balance. If that required a tax increase to do it, I'd submit that for approval. I believe you can get tax increases for things that are worthwhile. People aren't going to put money into a black hole, but public safety is something people are willing to pay for. If the city had a big problem in terms of airport security, I'd look and see what the federal could contribute and I'd fill in the blanks. If the federal government wasn't helping, I don't think I'd wait for them to do it. The same goes for the port, the refineries, and the chemical plants-the companies that operate those facilities need to have a security system that works for them.

You are doing this interview in Malibu, you are in the Los Angeles area, you've come here many times before. You say it helps predict the future of Houston because of the size, density and diversity. What do you see here and what lessons and messages do you take back when you return to Houston and talk to your friends there?

Los Angeles is one of the greatest cities in the world. I used to keep a house in Hawaii and I would go out that way quite a bit. It was a long trip, so I often would stop here in Los Angeles to break up the travel. I got to liking it so much I just quit going to Hawaii and began coming to LA and Southern California instead. Right now, where I'm sitting is as nice as any place I've been.

The eastern press tends to criticize LA, but Los Angeles is growing while most eastern cities are either stagnant or losing population. Los Angeles serves as a laboratory of where much of the nation might be in another 20 years and there is a great deal here to learn from. For example, your freeway system by and large doesn't have feeder roads. As a result you can move twice as much traffic compared to freeways with feeder roads. It's kind of fun for some to pick on LA, but there are reasons it's the biggest city in the nation. I'm a fan.

So if you were enticed to run for Mayor of Los Angeles, what would be your platform?

I'd need to see what the situation is here to decide to upon a platform and narrow the campaign to two or three items. But, the basic theory that I ran on in Houston was that I had an agenda, and if I couldn't accomplish those things on my agenda I didn't care about getting elected In developing my agenda, I studied for years why people were leaving the inner city. I developed subdivisions outside of the city and, listened to the reasons people moved. After a while, I became convinced that if you fixed those things, or most of them, people would quit leaving central Houston, leading to reinvestment in the city.

Generally speaking, I would bring the infrastructure up to standard, particularly in neighborhoods. I would look at the law enforcement situation and focus on safety. A city is chartered to protect its citizens as best it can. That mandate includes police, fire, and now homeland security. On transportation, I'd focus on traffic management, capacity utilization, and first class maintenance. I would work on fiscal responsibility and balancing the budget. I'd focus on equal opportunity. I'd focus on trying to bring people together, rather than looking at differences. You really need to work to bring people together to provide opportunities for everyone, for a reasonable hope for young people. If you can't do that none of this works.


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