The Overhead Wire Daily | May 9th, 2024 | Changing Trajectories

May 9, 2024

An interesting paper about growth in big cities compares housing construction and prices between Texas and California. What researchers found is that housing construction costs are much cheaper as cities continue to sprawl, as California did up until the 90’s and Texas continues to do now, but once that is constrained either by distance to jobs and amenities or build out, construction of infill makes up for more units constructed. But that infill construction is also more expensive on a per unit basis.

The story the paper authors seem to be telling is that Texas and California aren’t really that different, it’s rather Texas is finally catching up to the constraints that California had already reached regardless of regulatory environment.

Another interesting finding is that areas now tend to ossify.  Before, land tended to transition from rural to suburban to more urban densities over time, but have now become fixed and don’t transition. People don’t like change, and it’s harder to change the suburban structure.

What this current housing crisis seems to be highlighting for me is that cities around the country are starting to come to limits on available land for cheaper housing and thus expanding supply is becoming harder. What this also tells me is that our transportation policies such as building and expanding highways to accommodate the demand for sprawl have even more diminishing returns than they did the first time around.

Today we released an Mpact podcast (back episodes here) with Tracy Hadden Loh discussing work Brookings has done mapping all activity centers in regions, not just downtowns, and what the pandemic has done to transit ridership. She noted the areas where work from home and transit ridership pre-pandemic are the highest were places that had longer commutes for workers getting into employment and activity centers.

We also released a Talking Headways podcast episode with Megan Kimble (full archive) discussing her book City Limits on highway fighters in Texas. TXDOT is spending tens of billions of dollars on highways in Austin and Houston to serve this symbiotic sprawling development pattern that’s dying out because of constraints discussed in the paper mentioned above. And in Dallas, they are fighting to change the calculus on transportation investment to create valuable infill rather than double down on a housing and transportation system that will slowly grind regional growth to a halt.

These two discussions in particular highlight that our transportation investments need to change in order to start seeing more returns. This may be why we’re starting to see more interest in high speed rail as faster connections will change the transportation access calculations once again. Interestingly enough, South Korea sees 6 high speed regional lines as a part of a national birth rate plan in this way. The land available a driveable distance from amenities for cheap housing is gone, and the infill is getting more expensive.

We probably don’t want a type of easily commodified single family sprawl again, so there are other changes we need to make to support lowering costs of infill and cracking open the amber that has so many areas stuck in time. But our discussions on this matter should evolve. Transit and 15 minute cities and accessibility need to be a part of that discussion. The question is whether people can see it happening and change directions.




For this intro post and more news in your inbox every morning, sign up for a two week free trial of The Overhead Wire Daily, our popular newsletter established in 2006.

Listen to the Talking Headways Podcast


…the first thing I read every morning is the newsletter to see what’s been out there. It’s great to have an aggregator that pulls everything together so nicely.

Joe Cortright, City Observatory

I think that the email newsletter that you do every morning is the best one that I get, and I get a lot of them.

Mary Newsom, The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Really is the best daily urban newsletter out there.

Eric Jaffe, Editorial Director Sidewalk Labs


To Receive The Overhead Wire in Your Inbox Daily

Premium Daily Subscription

The Premium Daily Subscription is our most information packed offering, chock full of over 30 pieces of news every single day. Included are popular features such as the quote of the day and the most read article from the previous day. Also included is our weekly roundup for times when you are strapped for time but need to know what’s going on.

Premium Weekly Subscription

The Premium Weekly Subscription is for professionals constantly under a time crunch. We take the most read items from the week before and share them with subscribers along with more in depth analysis of a single popular topic.

Learn More and Subscribe

Video of the Day

Friends of The Overhead Wire

Back To Top

Welcome to The Overhead Wire

What Can We Help You Find?

Try Our Newsletter For Free