A Roadmap for Houston’s (Possible) Future
by Lynn Ashby
You know Houston is on a roll. Boom, boom, boom, with the occasional resounding bust. Our skylines (we have several) are dotted with cranes. Our traffic increases daily. We need more schools, hospitals and animal-control vans. This area is spreading out in every direction. Okay, we all know that, but in the back of our minds is the burning, if not nagging, question: “What’s in it for me? Hey, I didn’t come to Houston from Frost Bite, North Dakota, for the August afternoons or the public school system, not even for the running of the cockroaches. I came to turn a buck, and when that buck quits turning, I’m off like a prom dress.” Good question, and fortunately for you, I have answers. Clip and save so you won’t come sniveling around here in 2030 saying, “But I didn’t know.”
First, a bit of our future depends on other people and events, such as hurricanes, our lawmakers’ ability to feed NASA, the Ship Channel, expressways and light rail, and all those other treats we want from Washington while cursing the federal government. Pollution and anti-pollution laws will affect our future, along with energy prices, cheap labor and, of course, Wang Jing. As for you, buy land. Any land anywhere in these five or 10 counties. Yes, some acres will occasionally be underwater, economically and literally, because Houston was founded by land developers who greatly exaggerated, if not outright lied, about the “abundance of excellent spring water, and enjoying the sea breeze in all its freshness,” and our developers today do love tradition.
Things move quickly around here and so should you. Westheimer Road, which is also State Highway 1093, was named for M.L. Westheimer, an early entrepreneur, who built a five-mile shell road from his home and businesses west of the city into town, then gave the road to Houston in 1894. You can see what it is now. I can remember when R.E. “Bob” Smith had a ranch complete with grazing cattle, just west of the Galleria. Rice University was laid out at the end of the town’s trolley line. The Strake Boy Scout Camp is now in its third location because Houston keeps paving over the wilderness. (If you’re wondering who’s Bob Smith, go back to Newark.)
Invest in food. For reasons that have never been clear, Houstonians eat out all the time. Indeed, Houston residents eat an average of four meals a week outside the home, according to the 2012 America’s Top Restaurants report from Zagat, the bible of eateries. That’s more than any other city in the nation. Ethnic restaurants are hot and will remain so for decades, or until ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) moves in. These restaurants are a reflection of our diversity, said to be the most in the nation. Open an Eskimo-Croatian café, or a pub catering to country boys returning from the Mideast wars, Shucks & Awe. We have created a city where one-third of business owners are foreign-born, where the number of Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus has tripled in the past three decades, where more than 100 languages are spoken by students attending Houston public schools. Our crystal ball shows more of the same.
A BUMPER CROP EVERY SINGLE DAY
We are ever so slowly adding to light rail. Figure out where the next lines will go and buy acreage for cheap housing. (Rich people don’t ride buses or take trams.) Here is Houston’s growing traffic problem in a nutshell: We tear down a one-story strip center with adequate parking and replace it with a 35-story condo. Each condo has owners of one or two vehicles. There are parking places for these cars and pickups in the building, but each morning and each evening, they are trying to crowd into the streets which have added not a lane, nary an overpass, no more space for cars. That two-gallon bucket still holds two gallons, but we are trying to pour three gallons into it. A perfect example is CityCentre, with its new high-rise lofts and apartments, but same streets as before.
More vehicles arrive in the county every day. Eventually gridlock will paralyze the entire Inner Loop, and people will demand mass transit. Bob Lanier is dead, Tom DeLay is paying off legal bills and U.S. Rep. John Culberson has been MIA since 2000, but now is slightly changing his mind (there must have been a new voters poll), so the three amigos who managed to postpone, if not kneecap, mass transit are no longer effective. Houston hasn’t had good mass transit since the mule died. Speaking of transportation, when what is now the George H.W. Bush Intergalactic Airhub & Uber Outpost was built, it was thought that Hobby Airport would be phased out. Hobby is busier than ever. Air traffic will only increase by great numbers. Buy rice fields west of Katy for the Nolan Ryan Airport & Crop Dusting Extravaganza.
Currently Harris County’s air is near the U.S. average in carbon monoxide, but is above the national average in ozone (one hour) and significantly above the U.S. average in ozone (eight hours) and particulate matter. With the continuing onslaught of newcomers and their vehicles, our air pollution is going to get worse. Go to the coal mines and buy canaries. Have you been by the Texas Medical Center lately, and not in the back of a careening EMS ambulance after you brought a knife to a gunfight? The TMC is growing, in good times and bad. It is, as we like to proclaim, the world’s largest medical center. People come from everywhere to die in Houston. We are going to need more hospitals, doctors and rubber gloves. Another medical school is not if, but when.
The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that Texas’ population, currently 34 million, will hit 54 million by 2050 or even double, and we know Houston will get more than its share of newcomers. (Houston gained 35,000 in population this past year, which was more than it gained in the previous year.) Growth estimates for the Houston area in 2020 are everyone who doesn’t live here now. Word of caution: Ever since the very first U.S. Census in 1790, New York City has been the most populous city in America. Every other city has changed places in the pecking order; next, in that first census, came Philadelphia and Boston. No surprises there, but then came Charleston, SC, followed by Baltimore, Northern Liberties, Salem, Newport, Providence and Marblehead. For the next 50 years, Northern Liberties was among our largest populated cities. I have no idea what or where that place was and is, but it doesn’t matter anymore. Where will we rank in 2050?
Claudia Grisales, writing in the Austin American-Statesman, reports that workers will turn more and more to telecommuting. That’s sort of a new term to me, but we all know what it means: work from home. Texas is second only to California in the percentage of telecommuters—5.2 percent for California, 4.1 percent for us. While that might not seem like much, nationally the figure in telecommuting has increased by 80 percent since 2005. At this rate, figure out how it will affect you.
NAMING RITES FOR SALE
Houston is cheap. Putting the average U.S. cost of living at 100 percent, currently the cost of living index in Harris County is 92.7 percent. When you moved here, you got a raise even if you didn’t. This wage gap will close. So keep getting raises. Two-thirds of us (66 percent) earn a private wage or salary. Just under one-third (31 percent) are self-employed or not incorporated. Only 2 percent work for the government. In the future, we shall all work for the government and just think we don’t. We have been called “the nation’s fattest city” by some fatheads somewhere. Yet 73.2 percent of residents exercised in the past month. This is about average.
- 39.9 percent of residents smoked 100-plus cigarettes in their lives. This is less than average.
- 78.6 percent of adult residents drank alcohol in the past 30 days. This is more than average.
- 63.8 percent of residents visited a dentist within the past year. This is less than average.
- Average weight of males is 196 pounds. This is more than average.
- Average weight of females is 169 pounds. This is also more than average. So maybe we are fat.
- 28.6 percent of residents keep firearms around their homes. This is less than average. The others lie.
Forbes magazine rated Houston the “coolest city in America.” That was not due to our sophistication, but to our air conditioning, because we fit A/C on every structure and some places that are outside. This brings us to 2035 and global warming, which will melt the ice caps, causing immense flooding, creating Bellaire Beach and the Montrose Marina. Houston developers, ever the clever, will show properties by using glass-bottom boats. Stay ahead of the crowd and sell flood insurance—or maybe buy it. Your first clue that high tide is coming is when animals at the Houston Zoo start lining up two-by-two.
Forbes also ranked Dallas as second among U.S. cities in the number of billionaires with 17. Houston finished seventh with 11. This shall change, as our billionaires spawn more scions. Houston’s Theater District is second only to New York City with its concentration of seats in one geographic area, and we have a huge and growing museum district. These two facts—billionaires and couth—are connected. The very rich love to see their names on concert halls, theaters and museums. So in 2020, open the Houston Class Act—home for smart performing artists, or just those with funny names, and sell naming rights.
Here are some predictions for Houston’s future (actually have you heard anyone predicting the past?):
2020: Local TV stations will stop breathlessly saying, “Breaking news!” when a Houstonian uses his turn signal.
2028: Opponents of video cameras at major intersections to record red-light runners will get T-boned by a red-light runner. We shall miss them—sort of.
2040: Ed Emmitt, county judge emeritus, announces the perfect solution for the Astrodome: a monumental, covered, all-weather monument to himself.
2050: Houston lands the Summer Olympics, adding a few new sports: the 20-meter marathon; the parking-place race at the Galleria (which will be followed by the 30-minute destruction derby); yacht racing on the Houston Ship Channel, training-wheels category; javelin dodging and manhole-cover discus; synchronized sweating; and the 100-yard pothole obstacle course.
2052: Zoning will be enacted after a majority on the City Council mistakes the vote for “enabling strict ozone.”
2055: The 10,000 children from Central America who arrived in Houston illegally in 2014 will have their court deportation hearings postponed again. Same for their grandchildren.
2060: Every time something goes wrong here, outsiders will stop saying, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”
2070: After 55 years, The Houston Chronicle finally wins its second Pulitzer for its series on: The Pulitzer—Who Needs It?
Oh, about Wang Jing. He is a Chinese billionaire leading a consortium that won approval from the Nicaraguan government to build a $50 billion canal across the country, connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and, we must assume, vice versa. The Panama Canal is about 450 miles south of the proposed route, so the Port of Houston will be closer to West Coast ports and Asia. Not to be outdone, the Panama Canal itself is being vastly widened to accommodate massive Post Panamax container ships. And since the Port of Houston is the closest major East Coast port to these canals, it is already spending hundreds of millions of dollars getting set to receive. In future decades, the already-mighty Port will become even more important to Houston’s economy. Buy water.
Ashby is futuristic at firstname.lastname@example.org.