June 19, 2023

There is No Population Boom Coming

There is No Population Boom Coming

It seems that hardly a day goes by that I do not see some media article or advertisement touting a population boom coming to Houston. Invariably, the claim of the coming boom is used to justify spending taxpayers’ money on some project. The most recent has been Metro’s ongoing campaign to support its massive $7 billion “Metro Next” plan.  In the lead up to the 2019 referendum, and continuing even now, Metro claims the “investment” is needed because “the Region’s population will grow to more than 10 million people by 2040.”

I hate to break the news, but the heyday of Houston’s booming population is over.  To be sure, the Houston region will continue to grow at a reasonable pace for the next couple of decades but after that population growth will level out to almost nothing. At least, that is the projection of the Texas Demographic Center.  According to its projections, between now and 2060 (the last year of its projections) Harris County will grow its current population of 4.9 million to something in the 6 million range.1  In other words, the average population increase over the next four decades in Harris County will be about 30,000 people per year, a growth rate of less than 1% annually. Most of the growth will come in this decade and then slow even more dramatically.

The TDC is projecting that the population of the entire Houston MSA2 will grow from its current 7.4 million to about 9.5 million by 2060. About half of that growth will take place outside of Harris County, primarily in Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties.

Houston will not be particularly unique in this population growth slowdown.  It is actually a global phenomenon tied to much lower fertility rates across the entire world.  Current UN population projections show that global population will top out at around 10 billion toward the end of the century and then begin a long-term, slow decline.

But population growth will slow more rapidly in some places than others. For example, the City of Houston population has basically been unchanged since 2017 . . . which brings me back to Metro’s claim that it needs to spend $7 billion on projects because the region’s population will exceed 10 million by 2040.

First, I cannot find any legitimate projection of the “region’s” population that is anywhere close to 10 million by 2040. The TDC projects that the Houston MSA will grow from its current 7.4 million to about 8.8 million by 2040.

But even at that, the population of the entire Houston MSA is irrelevant to Metro’s planning because its boundaries only cover about 13% of the total square miles in the MSA. Its actual service area is even smaller. But here is the real catch. Most of the population growth in the Houston region will take place outside of Metro. It would be a colossal waste of resources (i.e., taxpayer dollars) to build a $7 billion transit system to serve what will mostly be a stagnant population base.

By the way, the same is true for other infrastructure projects. I seriously question the need to spend $10 billion on reworking the downtown interchange system.  It certainly needs some a major overhaul because it is grossly undersized for its current traffic. But like every other infrastructure investment we consider, it should be right-sized for the population growth we can reasonably expect.

It is often said that hope is not a strategy. It should also not be the basis for planning. We have generations of urban planners who have grown up in a time when exponential population growth, especially in cities, was a given. Those days are over, and they are especially over for cities. We need to begin planning our future infrastructure investments on the population growth we can reasonably expect, not what some urban planner hopes for.

Note 1 – The Texas Demographic Center does two sets of projections. One is based on a .5% in-migration rate and the other is based on a 1% rate. I have used the average of the two scenarios for the the numbers have cited this post. The two dotted redlines on the chart indicate the two scenarios for Harris County.

Note 2 - The Houston MSA covers a nine-county area including Harris, Galveston, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Liberty, Waller, Chambers, Brazoria and Austin Counties.

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