Friday, April 18, 2014

Bilbao Spain Removes an Elevated Inner-city Freeway

I love the tone of optimism in this beautifully shot video of Bilbao Spain deconstructing an elevated inner-city freeway.

And here's your annual reminder that the Bilbao Effect is a myth insofar as you assume it was all due to the Guggenheim.  Instead, their revitalization began 15 years prior to the museum, when they focused on expansion of their port, the airport, and linking those to the city with a new subway network.

Cross-Post: A Reaction to DMN Editorial on 345

The following is a cross-post from anonymous sage, Wylie H. Dallas responding to the DMN editorial board on 345:

Irritating, flawed editorial from DMN:
1) They start with the premise that I-345 is an "invaluable piece of community hardware" without providing any support for that claim... intellecutally lazy. 
2) They say that "other city leaders" support this plan... but the only ones I know that have come out in support are Vonciel Jones Hill and Sheffie Kadane. Neither of their districts are in close proximity to this structure and few of their constituents have any reason to use it. 
3) The falsely characterize TxDOT's plan as a bridge "stabilization," rather than a tear down and rebuild. I'm guessing they call it that because if they accurate describe what's going to happen: they are going to close major sections while tearing the thing down and subsequently rebuilding it, that would allow for a reality in which the thing is going to be closed and gone for a period. They don't want the intellectual "anchor" to be a closed torn-down, under construction highway--- they are trying implying that this is going to be a relatively seamless repair. Very clever on the part of the DMN Editorial Board. 
4) They say this has to be done for the purpose of "safety,"--- but safety for who, exactly, and how is that defined? They say to not do the work would be "irresponsible." But... the City of Dallas urban street grid has BILLIONS of dollars in unfunded needs... the traffic signals are obsolete, roads and sidewalks are crumbling/missing and feature numerous poorly configured, dangerous intersections. 
Given all of the above, wouldn't we being doing more for "safety" if we devoted resources to fixing the City's street grid? Isn't it "irresponsible" to waste money tearing down and rebuilding a redundant link in the City's extensive highway grid rather than addressing more pressing needs?

The only thing that I could add, besides the fact that the DMN is short-sightedly hung up on traffic, origins and destinations (which are malleable), thus forgetting the problem of why South Dallas must commute 15+ miles to jobs, the reality of Dallas County losing jobs and investment, and the long-term financial viability of the current transportation paradigm, is that the new tax base and redevelopment allows us to re-think what infrastructure, mobility, and connectivity means while modernizing it.  What if the tear-out and reconstruction of the grid would also allow us to lay giga-bit fiber networks throughout the area, linking Baylor, downtown, Fair Park, South Dallas, and the Cedars?

I hope the editorial board can find time to show up to the DDI screening of The Human Scale on April 24th at 8 pm in Main Street Garden.

New City Manager Gets Transpo/Land Use Relationship

In an interview with Rudy Bush of the Dallas Morning News, new city manager AC Gonzalez says some smart things about 345:
One thing that is more topical is how transportation plays a role in the development of the city. The recent conversation about I-345 is part of a larger narrative: To what extent can transportation be approached in a way that is not just about moving cars but how the solutions for moving cars can be done in a way that promotes economic development and enhance quality of life?
That’s a tougher question, but it’s not impossible. As it was done before, there was focus on one aspect of the equation — moving cars. That’s something that I’m looking to be more about — a transportation aspect that is not just about cars. It’s about streetcars and high-speed rail. If at the end of the day we’re still talking about more cars, we are not addressing what needs to be addressed. That’s how we design our region so that cities are built in such a way where people don’t need a car.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

345, The Funnel, and The Paths Less Traveled

Peter Simek has a good piece on frontburner yesterday if you haven't yet read it, where he encompasses the bigger picture that I don't often talk about, but is absolutely at stake:
More than tearing down I-345, it is a conversation about rethinking the macro-planning of North Texas. The inertia of suburban growth will continue to incentivize regional planning organizations, supported by their multitude of nodal constituents, to sustain the status quo that supports the continued spread of the “anti-city.” It is incumbent on Dallas to seize this opportunity to take control of its own future.
I would hesitate to say that we're at an impasse, however.  Only publicly.  With that said, I'm often reminded of the time the very first story on 345 was published in D Magazine.  It seems like only yesterday, I was having lunch with Zac and Tim from D in KWPark and pitching them the idea.  They'd heard it a million times already because I'd been harping on it for 3-4 years before we even got to that point.

By the time it was published and I started receiving email/phone call responses to the piece, one stood out.  It was from a friend and former co-worker who still worked downtown.  He mentioned that very day he and another co-worker who both live east of White Rock Lake in the Garland Road area decided to have a race to the office (they must really like their job).  They would leave at the same time.  One would take I-30.  The other would take the city streets.  It might've been Gaston or Live Oak or Columbia.  The grid, as it is, has choice built-in.

The result?  They tied.  The highway, despite its promise of speed and inefficiency, when everybody is trying to take advantage of that same promise, is not actually more efficient (less so when you factor in the delayed land use impact they have).
From about the middle of the 20th century until recently, we've prioritized the presumed efficiency of car travel.  The form is dendritic or branching structure rather than a grid.  Instead of allowing for choice and filtering traffic, it funneled traffic into increasingly large corridors.  It didn't understand the point of the city which is fundamentally about congestion, bringing people together to facilitate social and economic exchange.  So it's been fighting the very nature of the city from the onset of the modernist traffic planners.

The result, as I often and Peter quoted from Mumford, anti-city.  Further, as NCTCOG's own documents have referenced, their models don't understand the impact on land use.  Why do we need models to understand what is as plain as day if you just look around at the impact modern transportation planning has wrought.

In my presentations I've begun comparing the two North American cities that have best 'defeated' the bogeyman of congestion.  They are Vancouver and Detroit.  They've done so in two entirely different manners.  I point to Vancouver and Detroit because Dallas has a predilection for these two ends of the spectrum.  Our planning efforts and visions show imagery of Vancouver, meanwhile we build the infrastructure of Detroit.  You can't have both.  So I take the time to dissect the two.

The conventional, modernist, American version of traffic planning funnels all cars into a single corridor.  Thus, due to the "projections" in denser environments that corridor has to become ever larger.  As it transitions from countryside to city, you can see how it gets bigger and bigger.  Too note, what happens when it enters the city.  It rips apart the area, displaces entire neighborhoods and reduces overall connectivity while favoring the person who lives far away and drives in.

The result in the land use market that transpo models admit they don't understand is that eventually that person who realized it was convenient to live outside the city eventually will realize it's also more convenient to work closer to where they live.  Thus, job sprawl follows the housing sprawl.

Vancouver, which never allowed freeways into the city, and subsequently and to the astonishment of all didn't fall into the sea, approaches traffic in a different way.  They valued their neighborhoods so they decided back in the 60s and 70s to protect them.  Thus, the rural highway as it approaches the city doesn't get larger.  It actually gets smaller, transitioning into a boulevard as it enters the suburbs (true sub-urbs, mind), and eventually as the corridor enters the city, it disappears into the grid.  The grid actually has far FAR more implicit capacity than a single highway corridor (and that's before we actually start calculating the increased trips of alternate forms of transpo and the shorter average trip length).

The job sprawl ultimately displaced the center of the city.  It is a delayed reaction.  The highways shifted the neighborhoods out of Dallas and eventually the jobs followed.  Jobs in Dallas county peaked in 2001.  Since then they've fallen 266,000.  That's an incredibly bad number.  The new center of town is now an amorphous T-shaped blob along 635 and 75 from North Dallas to Plano, based on traffic counts.

One might say, so?  Now let's compare how we build our infrastructure to that of another city center, Champs Elysees.  Champs Elysees moves 80,000 cars per day.  But a third of 635.  However, and this is harder to determine, but those 80,000 are in all likelihood several multipliers of 80,000 because you're not counting the same car over and over again.  More importantly, Champs Elysees accommodates 500,000 pedestrians per day.  They say traffic equals value and they ain't kiddin'.

Champs Elysees moves twice the people (at least) in half the right of way, on less costly infrastructure, and has 10x the real estate value per square foot.  And you thought Dallas was a smart business town.  Well, it could be if we started thinking about infrastructure from an economic standpoint.  But maybe that's why TxDOT is so broke.  It's not their spending that's the problem, it's how they spend it and what they build generates no value.
I think of this each time we hear about the moving target that is just exactly who uses 345.  First, it was how do people of South Dallas get to jobs in Far North Dallas.  Then it was Pleasant Grove.  It seems logical.  They could cruise Cole Haan to SM Wright around Dead Man's Curve to 45 to 345 to 75.  Only problem, that's not the most convenient way to get from Pleasant Grove to the job sprawl up 75 once Braess' Paradox takes effect.

Now, after receiving the origin-destination study from NCTCOG, the new belief is that 64% of travel is from Dallas to Dallas, from the Pleasant Grove area to jobs in downtown, uptown, and Parkland area.  We'll get back to that.  It should be noted is theoretical based on census data and suburban transportation patterns rather than real world, thus making it a self-reinforcing, self-fulfilling agent of entropy, continued inertia, and increased car-dependence.

First of all, during peak times, when 345 is typically moving at barely more than a crawl due to Braess Paradox in action (the funnel sucking up all the traffic from the area), google maps will tell you that there are very few destinations where 345 is the most convenient route.

Going to Richardson or points north due to the job sprawl that we've subsidized and incentivized, best to take 635:

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As shown in the variety of options, even taking loop 12 is often more convenient than taking 345.  However, because 345 is most convenient when driving is at its optimal condition (when no other cars are on the road), we wrongly assume it will always be the most convenient route, thus clogging and congesting the system.

Then we're told, hey people have to get to Parkland.

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Google maps suggests not even getting onto 45, but taking 175 to Cesar Chavez to Pearl to Harry Hines, ie city streets.

So I started to wonder, where exactly is the threshold where 345 is optimal during peak periods?

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Turns out that 345 isn't even convenient for going to Central Market at Lovers Lane and Greenville.  Instead, Loop 12 is preferred.

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SMU appears to be the tipping point where it takes equal amount of time to reach whether by city streets or the highway.  We can assume that 345 is really only most convenient, as it currently exists, to reach points between CityPlace and SMU, areas that are already some of the most walkable in the city, want to become more so, and are so valuable BECAUSE of the value premium of walkability.  An improved grid could reach these destinations just as well as a highway.  Hardly worth the cost of exporting 266,195 jobs in a 10-year span when we could re-build the grid, recapture some of the lost jobs, people, and tax base.

Finally, as we fret, "what about the traffic," we must realize that there are a variety of forms of traffic.  Because of the highways through the core of the city, we end up having different types of traffic competing for the same space.  Voila, congestion.  We have to better design our city for the appropriate type of traffic.  When we think about 345 and traffic, think about differentiating types of traffic.

They are:
1) long haul/interstate/NAFTA freight - as Mayor Rawlings rightly said, this traffic only serves to pollute and congest areas we're trying to densify as people space.  This shouldnt be cutting through downtown, but instead ought to be taking 635 and the eventual loop 9 connection to 190.  We believe this to be about 10% of the traffic.

2) long commute (15+ miles) - the key statistic here is that according to census data Dallas County lost 266,000 jobs from 2001-2011 (latest available data).  We shouldn't be asking how to accommodate this traffic but instead asking how we reverse this northward job spillage and bring jobs back to the center of the city.  This is where the land use impact of transportation investment and subsidies are misapplied to incentivizing the wrong thing.

3) short commute - the latest models from COG show the majority of the traffic demand is Dallas to Dallas (64%).  If this is indeed the case, then this shouldnt be under the jurisdiction of USDOT, TxDOT, nor NCTCOG.  Furthermore, the grid in the area is 250,000 cars/day below the capacity it's built for. During peak times, the grid is just as if not more convenient because it provides route choice and adaptability.  In long term, an improved grid also shorten trips by stimulating economic development, relocalizing destinations and making alternate, and more business friendly, modes of travel more convenient.

Congrats.  If you made it to the end of all that you care enough about this city (or your city wherever that may be) to make a difference.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Meat Ax and the Evisceration of Cities

Robert Moses planned two cross-town expressways through Manhattan that were never built in large part due to neighborhood opposition.  One of those proposed highways was the Lower Manhattan expressway through SoHo and West Village area of Manhattan, essentially isolating the financial district from its surrounding neighborhoods (much like 345 did to Dallas).

In support of his proposed highway he wrote:
You can draw any kind of pictures you like on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness in laying out a New Delhi, Canberra and Brasilia, but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis you have to hack your way with a meat ax. 
First, you can see his vision of modernist utopias: Canberra and Brasilia, both of which are soulless, lifeless places.  Second, you see what he thinks of cities, that they're in need of a meat axe, which is appropriate considering that true cities achieve a higher order of complexity, essentially a consciousness, due to their high degree of local connectivity, much like the human brain.  Imagine if you took an axe to a brain.  This is your brain on traffic engineers.

Key opponent of Robert Moses and godmother of cities and a lot of complexity science and mathematics today, Jane Jacobs responded:
Expressways...eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Seoul, SK - 16th Freeway Removal

The Forgotten Cities of the "Texas Miracle"

There has been plenty of talk promoting more highway investment so those in South Dallas can get to jobs in North Dallas, a long commute indeed.  The question is, "are those expenditures worth it?"  And won't they actually exacerbate the inertia built-in to the system of subsidizing long commutes?

I just looked into Dallas county job data from 2001 to 2011, a similar time period from the 2000 to 2011 census data that shows while the DFW metro grew by 1.2 million people, the city of Dallas gained only 9,000.  Or less than 1% of regional growth.  And it ain't because of lack of land either.  That is the least the city of Dallas has grown since 1880 when it grew from 3,000 to 10,000 people.

In terms of percentages, it's the least Dallas has ever grown and in all likelihood would be in complete freefall if it wasn't for the changing demographics favoring walkability and the investment and people pouring into uptown.

I've heard some that don't care about the loss of people.  "People just require services," they grumble.  We want jobs.  The problem is that jobs follow people.  Retail follows rooftops as the saying goes.  We need rooftops.  We create rooftops, we create jobs.

Even if we bought into the residential loss being 'ain't no thing', let's look into job numbers for Dallas County from the US Census

Year              Jobs             
2001              1,505,640
2011              1,239,445

Yikes.  That's a net job loss of -266,195.  You can't claim recession either.  Even though there was a minor blip in 2001/02, the economy picked right back up until 2008 when it crashed.  2001 was the job peak for Dallas County and it has been bleeding ever since.

How about total companies:

Year              Biz             
2001              63,613
2011              61,034

Double yikes.  That's a loss of 2,579 businesses or almost 260 per year, shuttering or moving out of Dallas County.

How about payroll:

Year              Payroll             
2001              $63,999,089
2011              $68,003,484

Aha!  We've got it now.  Payrolls are up!  Until we calculate inflation. /sad trombone

Year              Payroll per job     Inflation       2014 $            
2001             42,506                 1.3257        56,350
2011             54,866                  1.0438        57,269

A 1% difference in average salaries.  And given the way the highest salaries have risen, we might infer that the majority of jobs are in all likelihood paying less.

How about Jobs per Business

Year              Jobs/Biz             
2001              23.66
2011              20.03

In summary, total job numbers in Dallas are plummeting:

  • near 20% drop in jobs over 10 year span. 
  • A 4% drop in total businesses. And 
  • a 14% drop in jobs per company.  So those that have remained are shrinking.
Keep in mind, these losses are all while the region has GROWN more than 20%, making the net differentials look even worse.  All because we're subsidizing the exportation of jobs from the urban core, which we need to be healthy, to distances increasingly far apart.  The 21st century city needs the efficiency of agglomeration economies and employers big and small know it.  In fact, my company sat in a meeting where office brokers representing major corporations explicitly stated, "they want office space in vibrant, mixed-use communities."  

The market values bear that out as well.  There is a premium strictly because of the lack of supply.  Everybody wants walkable communities.  Shouldn't we be building and investing in them for everybody?  That's growth I can believe in.

Grow South Dallas, Local Banks, and Stimulating Opportunity

You've undoubtedly seen TimmyTyper's excellent piece on Frontburner where he interviewed long-time South Dallas leader, Reverend Peter Johnson.  If you haven't, let me point you in the direction and you can do the clicking, reading, and learning:
“The solution to unemployment and underemployment in the black community is not jobs in Frisco, hear? If you really want to address that problem, build a TI over here that employs people. People driving 60 miles to work and making $30,000 a year? That’s stupid. Why do we have so many people in the black community going to Plano and Frisco at 5 and 6 o’clock in the morning? Because there are no jobs in our community. If you have jobs in our community, with people making a living wage, economic development is going to happen around those jobs.” 
Johnson didn’t have kind words for the city’s efforts to this point. “To show you how stupid the city of Dallas is, they gave a black man who fries chicken over here $200,000. Rudy’s Chicken. [Ed: it was actually $890,000.] I’m not mad at Rudy. But the black community is not suffering from a lack of fried-chicken places. You know? For the city to think that that’s economic development, they ain’t got a clue.”
Preach, Reverend.  Of course, this article has stimulated some discussion on the A New Dallas facebook page about stimulating jobs, growth, and opportunity, all of which A New Dallas is focused on.  Our bylaws specifically state "promote economic development and transportation alternatives in and around downtown Dallas."  345 is just the start.

Dallas May, which is his actual name rather than a fragment of a sentence that could simply be finished with "or may not," added that we need local businesses and entrepreneurs in South Dallas.  That sounds great and is correct, but it is more difficult than that.  In my conversations with various South Dallas leaders, the problem is the banks.  The banks are only as smart as their computerized criteria, which is to say very, very dumb.

The result is unofficial redlining based on demographic data and socio-economics.  The neighborhoods can't get loans because the incomes aren't there for the computer to say, "yes.  Loan approved."  It's no different than grocery stores pouring over census data for incomes and seeing high incomes and saying, "yes, let's open a store there."  Then certain parts of the city are so incredibly over-burdened with grocery stores while other parts of the city have none.  It's all inertia, man.

If the Mayor is serious about Grow South Dallas and from what I understand, he is, hoping to raise $100 million for investment.  The problem is what to do with all that money.  The modus operandi for too long has been about throwing money at the problem the only way the status quo knew how, big unnecessary infrastructure and suburban schools, community centers, and the like.  Not real places of activity and opportunity.  A community center without being a center of community is no community center.

Instead, I propose we take whatever money is raised for Grow South Dallas and create a local investment bank for 1) small scale infrastructure re-knitting of neighborhoods that the big infrastructure tore apart and 2) low-interest and/or micro-loans for start-up local business and entrepreneurship in conjunction with those targeted infrastructure investment areas.  However, the key is the design of that infrastructure.  Is it to unite and facilitate social and economic exchange or to divide and disperse?  That is the key.  It is necessary to coordinate the infrastructure with the economic development component in a positive manner.  In other words, you can't let the city of Dallas, NCTCOG, or TxDOT have anything to do with it based on their track record.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A New Dallas DMN Op-Ed Response

Brandon Hancock, co-founder of ANewDallas along with yours truly, has penned an excellent op-ed in response to the recent quotes by Michael Morris about Morris' incorrect top-down, rich, white, and privileged perception of A New Dallas. A snippet:

The whole idea for A New Dallas started as a way to bring investment to areas that have long been neglected; removing I-345 would allow East and South Dallas to be sewn back into the fabric of downtown. 
The people most affected by a car-dependent society are those who can’t afford — or are overburdened — by the cost of owning and maintaining a car. By adding 20,000 residents to the east side of downtown, there are more opportunities for people to live closer to jobs and public transportation infrastructure. Residents in all areas of the city, especially in the southern portion, with no other option but to own a car, will benefit most from Dallas taking a step to a less car-dependent society. 
A New Dallas welcomes the opportunity for the citizens of Dallas to determine the fate of I-345, and not the bureaucrats in Austin or Arlington.
I'll be responding to Morris and Hale's own op-ed in the next day or two.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Shape-Shifting Rhetoric of Convenience

Earlier today I posted a memo from NCTCOG about the urgent need for the Trinity Toll Road written in 2007.  Interestingly, the world has not collapsed into chaos and anarchy in the subsequent seven years.  However, in this post I will discuss why this 2007 memo is relevant to the 345 discussion as well as why it is factually incorrect on a point-by-point basis which ought to call into question the competence of those planning our infrastructure and spending the $$ to build it.

First thing's first.  Nowhere does it suggest there will be an impact on 345 if we were to build the Trinity Toll Road or if we were to not.  However, it is interesting that today NCTCOG is claiming that if IH-345 were to be removed, it can't possibly be done without a Trinity Toll Road in place.  They are highway builders, plain and simple, that are stuck in the 1960's not understanding the complexities of the 21st century city.  Let this document (and another we'll publish this week) serve as exhibits A and B as to why we need new, competent leadership and direction of our transportation officials that understand the differing needs of and for mobility in the urban cores from that of the region.

The explicit suggestion in this memo is that if we don't build the Toll Road immediately, $5 billion worth of "improved" highway projects couldn't go forward.  Why exactly, is beyond me.  Apparently, we can only add more highway capacity when we add more capacity so that we can add more capacity.  It's circular logic intended to scare with the bogeyman word of "congestion" all in pursuit of more unnecessary spending and construction through our urban core, which has since and continues to decimate the vitality of the most important economic asset in DFW, which is the Dallas urban core.

First, let's talk about the need to add capacity in order to do any kind of other work.  This is a threat.  However, it's a hollow threat when presented with all evidence that reduction in capacity (both temporary - such as with Carmageddon (LA's 405 work) and permanent - highway removals around the country and world) doesn't in fact lead to carmageddon.  People adapt.  Behavior patterns change.  Carmageddon never materialized on the 405, which is the busiest highway segment in the country.  Something our transportation officials will make happen with our highway corridors if we let them.  More highway capacity simply means more driving on highways.  They never calculate other forms of travel nor properly activate the inherent capacity of the grid.  Vancouver, which never allowed highways, has more capacity in its intact grid than all the highways that were proposed for Vancouver could've managed.

Now, onto the bullet points:

1.  Mobility benefits - $66 million reduction in cost of congestion delays

You're telling me we need to spend $5 billion in order to save $66 million?  And that's just to build the roads, let alone the life cycle costs.  This math and logic is why TxDOT is $35 billion in the hole right now.  Congestion can't be fought with more highway capacity.  It can only be diminished by getting people out of cars and building more walkable communities.  DFW is tied with Detroit for most car-dependent major city in the country.  Meanwhile, cost of congestion for the entire country is $120 billion.  That seems like a big number until you look at that on a per capita basis, $400.  That's it.  $400.  And it really can't be reduced that much.  So we spend and spend and spend countless billions on a number that is the cost of doing business.  Meanwhile, the cost of car-dependence is $2 trillion nationally.  In Houston, they spend $33 billion unnecessarily on making the exact same trips that occur in Copenhagen.  But in Copenhagen, they're far more efficient and cost effective.

2.  Included in Regional Plan Since 1974

So that makes it a good idea?  Bell bottoms and butterfly collars were the rage in 1974, but were they a good idea?  We should totally get rid of all modern technology and go back to the good old days of 1974.

3.  Project Unlocks Downtown Congestion Nightmare - Third Most Congested Bottleneck in US

NIGHTMARE!  This is the fear mongering and rhetoric that is typical and highly inappropriate for what ought to be technical language.  However, once you start down the path of making shit up, when do you stop?    This bottleneck is precisely because we built so many highways to intersect so closely together.  It's a "nightmare" of their own creation.  NCTCOG is Freddy Kruger.  Lastly, it's worth pointing out that congestion is inevitable in cities.  The fundamental point of cities is to bring people together.  That, in a manner of speaking, is congestion.  We get to decide whether we want the good kind (people on foot, bike, transit) or the bad kind, when everyone is induced into cars because there is no other way around it.  Follow me to freedom.

4.  Safety Benefits - Downgrade SM Wright

Linear thinkers operating only at the highest level of the transportation hierarchy (highways) can only see a simple world of 1 to 1 trade-offs.  SM Wright downgrading to surface street from elevated highway means it's no longer part of the system that they have to worry about.  Therefore, every bit of lane and traffic must be replaced by another highway.  That doesn't take into account the capacity of the grid, nor the demographic demand-shift towards density and other modes of travel.

Lastly, what the hell does that have to do with safety?  More speed, more cars only means less safety.

5.  Creates Opportunity to Re-Build Canyon/Mixmaster

Well, that's going ahead already without the Tollroad.  A ding to the ol' credibility.

6.  Air Quality Benefits - Trinity Parkway will reduce approximately 84 tons of nitrogen oxide, a 10 percent reduction.

Ok.  Bullshit.  More cars and more driving never means less pollution or airborne particulate matter.  They arrive at this number assuming increased capacity means reduced congestion.  They problem with that line of thinking is the fact that for every 10% increase in highway capacity 4% is usurped immediately with new cars and the entire 10% gain is gone within 10 years, with what?  That's right, new cars and trips that otherwise might not have been in cars and therefore not polluting.  So this is, in fact, a lie.

7.  Reliability Benefits

Whatever.  This is basically stating that sometimes highways are backed up and unreliable.  So what could be more unreliable than one highway?  Two highways!

8.  Regional Project for Dallas Residents - 44% of road users live in city of Dallas

So?  And our grid is 1) tragically under-utilized leading to unmet potential economic development opportunities for local businesses 2) is irreparably fractured and fragmented by the regional transportation system, leading to disinvestment and decay of the urban core, and 3) doesn't allow for the kind of density Dallas needs to survive and thrive.  We're equally disconnected as the suburbs through one-track minded regional transportation that is destructive and inappropriate for urban development, which is what the market desperately wants.

9.  Recreation + Flood Control + Mobility = Dallas Economic Development Winner

1 + 1 + 1 equals eleventy bazillion and free ponies for all.  Do they think we're children?

10.  Appropriate Need for Appropriate Facility/Thoroughfare Street Near the Park Would be a Disaster

This isn't even in English.  Really had to stretch to get a top 10 list I suppose.  I think I found Letterman's replacement.

2007 NCTCOG Memo Really Wants Trinity Toll Road, Cares Not About 345

More comment coming to embiggen

Braess' Paradox Might As Well State 'Why Do We Listen To The Same People That Caused The Problem?"

A common refrain from the opponents of 345 has been that the majority of the traffic represents drivers going from southeast Dallas to jobs in far north Dallas.  This is undoubtedly true.  Mostly because the presence of 345 subsidizes and induces that behavior.  It appears to be a straight line connection and thus many people end up competing for the same space.  This is Braess' Paradox in action, where people acting in their own perceived self-interest (free road, straight line) end up reducing the overall performance and capacity of the road.

However, despite the patronizing, father knows best tone of the 345 opponents pretending to be looking out for the common man, when in actuality they're mere defenders of the status quo, it turns out that 345 is not, nor is ever, the most convenient route from the Pleasant Grove area to Richardson and points north, the direction of the job spillage and inertia out of Dallas.

The above shows a typical google maps suggested routing.  Using 345 at this particular time did also have some "normal traffic" at the time where 635 loop had light traffic.  However, that doesn't change things significantly when there is even light traffic on 345 as the distance is in fact longer.  Further, when is 345 ever actually light traffic?  345 itself is the segment between two choke points next to downtown Dallas where we've induced local and regional traffic to compete for the same space, therefore it's nearly always congested.

Of course, it's also worth noting why that job spillage and inertia is occurring in the first place.  Why there aren't jobs closer to downtown and thus closer to South Dallas.  Because we subsidize the long trip and the congestion it brings.  And we're really listening to the same people that created this inertia and entropy?

Patriot Crossing

Hooray!  I'm going to write a quick little ditty on something other than 345.  Today, it's the presumptive dead deal that is Patriot Crossing, a proposed affordable housing/mixed-use project on Lancaster Boulevard across from the VA Hospital.  What I'm not going to write about is what everybody else is writing about, the details of the financials that are murky, mysterious, and ultimately doomed the project (which I presume was HUD's concern).  Instead, I'm going to write about the design of the proposed development and how that plays into the economics of the deal.


Also, I'm going to judge everything from this singular conceptual rendering.  Because it seems there were several ways to save money.  Based on this rendering, it seems costs might have been unnecessarily inflated.
The first and most obvious thing that jumps out is the sky bridge.  Based on the depth of the hospital from the right-of-way and the depth to which it extends into the Patriot Crossing site (then cants to link directly to both projects), there might be 500 to 600 feet of span.  Obviously, spanning such distances is exceptionally expensive.  The first question however isn't whether the span is necessary, but instead is the sky bridge necessary.  That answer gets a bit murkier because often hospitals need that universal accessibility.  However, when I see them I can't help but see them as a clumsy necessity borne out of our inability to design a halfway decent street, let alone transit boulevard.  We end up with a rube-goldberg style urbanism that is high on cost and low on elegance AND accessibility.

Second, is the structured parking for what is affordable housing on a transit line.  Not only is there one garage, but two garages.  Having two separate garages is expensive enough, let alone having the structure in the first place.  This is a low density area that can't support structure parked building at market rates let alone at affordable rates.  In low density projects, we should be designing urban projects without structure parking in order to keep costs under control.

On the other hand, for affordable housing projects in higher density areas (and with transit access), we very well might need to use structure parking.  The market-rated apartment components can help pay for that extra cost for structure parking, however we should also be looking to drastically reduce the parking minimums because 1) high density areas have less need for car trips 2) transit and 3) low-income people have less ability to own and maintain a car (provided they still have access to jobs and transit, which is half the point of high density areas.  Availability and access).

The last thing I mean to point out is the curb cuts.  All those curb cuts.  I think I count 8 curb cuts on Lancaster alone, serving the garage (from every conceivable angle possible), the off-street parking bays in front of the retail (which appears to only be single loaded parking - meaning it's better off just being on-street parking), some catastrophically over scaled porte cochere/turn-around/drop-off thing with a giant presumed fountain in the middle (more cost), and then repeat all of that again for the mirrored phase.

Rather than 8 curb cuts and a tray of parking off Lancaster, the site should've been broken up into two sites with a mid-block street or alley with access off the alley and side streets.  All of those curb cuts create unnecessary, pedestrian-unfriendly breaks in the sidewalk and too many conflict points on Lancaster itself, reducing its efficiency.

Not only has this project failed from a deal/partnership/financing standpoint, perhaps that's for the best, because it also fails miserably from a walkable urbanistic standpoint as well.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Brief Study in Costs, Will & Power

As you've undoubtedly seen, Mayor Rawlings announced that the plan to remove IH-345 in order to bring much needed investment to downtown and expand the urban core through market-oriented investment has to be put on hold for a time.  The reasoning is suspicious however.  Sure, safety is most definitely an issue.  As it should always be.  The road is literally falling down as I write/you read this.  Red flag one.  Keep in mind that this area is in the 2nd deadliest US congressional district (TX-30 in the entire country).  I'm not sure NCTCOG nor TxDOT are experts in safety.  Killing people while on spending sprees, sure.

Speaking of spending sprees, the other reason given is that it's just too expensive.  Which is rather absurd when you start looking at comparable costs.  The floated number plucked from thin air is $1.9 billion.  It's not completely out of the realm of possibility when you listen to Michael Morris ramble on about how it would require multiple, complete interchange redesigns, plus city street reconstruction (which 1) shouldn't be of their concern anyway, 2) is pennies on the $ compared to the numbers they're used to, and 3) can be financed via future development, ie TIF or TIRZ).  It's a question of will.  And this is designed to mislead.

Let's look at some recent comparable costs.  345 is 1.4 miles of elevated freeway.  635 completely reconstructed more than 10 miles of the busiest highway in DFW for $2.6 billion (probably under some entirely Orwellian name like Super Happy Freedom Trail).  How is a project several times the size only cost slightly more?

Remember Lee Myung Bak?  He was CEO of Hyundai who ran for mayor of Seoul on the platform of removing the Cheonggye expressway through the heart of that city.  He won the race and they had a groundbreaking the first day he took office.  After 4 years of work, they replaced an 8 mile stretch of elevated freeway and completely restored a stream and linear park for $350 million in today's dollars.  Not only that, but for that cost, they replaced 160,000 cars belching and wheezing through their city with 113,000 new jobs, 500,000 new visitors to the park each week, 7 degree lower ambient temperatures, 21% less airborne carcinogens, and an expected return of $25 billion in created value for the city and its citizenry.  Not bad.  Maybe that's why South Korea elected in president.

TxDOT's words through Mayor Rawlings are a sign of one of two things.  Either it's a number designed to deter.  People don't like doing what they don't know how to do.  And frankly, they're still in the 1960s.  In that sense, they're not working in the public interest.  On the other hand, if that's the number they think it would really take, then it's clear that NCTCOG and TxDOT have no control over their own costs.  $35 billion in debt can attest to that.  Don't worry about TxDOT.  Ultimately that's not their debt.  That's YOUR debt.  Maybe it's time for an audit of their practices, procedures, and procurement.  As long as you're aware of the revolving door between DOTs and their consultants, then we at least have some level of transparency revealing what's really going on here.

Lastly, expensive is relative.  It takes money to make money.  And if there is a return, then it isn't a cost.  It's an investment.  It can be financed, cost is of little concern.  It just means a bigger windfall.  When there is no return, it's all cost.  So what exactly does it mean to be costly?  Remember, cities only exist throughout the course of civilized history because they're profitable.  For the short-time being, we'll continue to listen to anti-urbanists who, for the last fifty years have been systematically working to the detriment of the city.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Definition of Insanity

Small. Petty.  Cynical.  Tiresome.  Another day, another DMN blog piece seemingly spoon-fed from our very own Machiavellian Robert Moses attempting to drive a riff between various anti-highway groups in Dallas.  No worries, Dallas has fought every single highway ever proposed with varying degrees of success.  Further, we will all have long careers undoing all the harm he's inflicted upon this city.  I look forward to erasing history to build a prosperous future.  Every urbanist in Dallas should be excited by the possibility.

Speaking of urbanists, the particularly blog post in question rhetorically posits, "why oh why hasn't the SM Wright/Dead Man's Curve highway tear-out received similar publicity in urbanist circles as 345?"  The answer they're looking for is race.  However, that isn't the correct answer.

Their false assumption is that those of use behind the 345 tear-out had nothing to do with fighting SM Wright.  And that the well-heeled money left the poor black community out to dry while 'heroic TxDOT and NCTCOG saved the day with a "grassroots" campaign to remove a highway from South Dallas.'  The reality is that the neighborhood fought the re-design.  There was nothing grass roots about it.  There was also nothing urban about the design either, which is why it wasn't cheered from coast to coast.  It's yet another suburban six-lane arterial.  Urbanist circles aren't very fond of suburban design when urban design is called for.  I guess the opposite of an urbanist is an anti-urbanist.  Are those really who we should be listening to, especially as we're trying to steer investment back towards the core and then points south?

Here is some of what I provided to local neighborhood fighting against the proposed "Turtle Creek-ing" of the road:
First, if 175 (SM Wright) carries at its highest 78K vehicles per day, and a 4-lane boulevard could handle 31K, that leaves 47K we have to find a home for (nevermind the principle of induced demand and real world data suggesting up to 25% just disappears to other forms of transportation). Adding up how far under capacity I-45, Lamar, RB Cullum, Malcolm X, 2nd Ave equals a shortage of 132,000 cars per day in relation to capacity or 281% more than we need (if we calculate the 25% of reduced demand, that's 374% more than we need). In other words, you could say South Dallas is vastly "over-infrastructured" and there is plenty of room for the excess theoretical vehicles to find other routes. 
And I'm not counting all of the perpendicular routes like Grand, MLK, Pennsy, Metropolitan, Pine, or Hatcher. Throw those into the mix and that's another 161,000 of empty capacity, 293,000 in total that the area's arterial grid is able to absorb." 
So that puts us up net +258,000 vehicles per day, still not being utilized in South Dallas after we take SM Wright down to 4 lanes. Of the map above (I forgot to show Pine), that's roughly 32 excess lanes more than we need. That means every single one of the eleven roads used in this study could afford to have two lanes removed (one in each direction). Time to get dieting. 
Ultimately, TxDOT was quoted saying they would re-visit their plan to do six lanes if the city backed the neighborhood.  The city did not.  Traffic won out over economic development, which is a failing up and down the political food chain.  Hilariously, the blog post mentions that TxDOT isn't in the business of "tooting their own horn."  But that's exactly what they're doing feeding these pieces to the DMN, disingenuously posing as working with 'grass roots' groups to promote economic development, but they've done and are doing nothing of the sort.  They don't even know what or how economic development works.  And by all evidence nor do they understand the role of transportation within a city.  Instead of serving the needs of the city, the city has to contort itself to bend around transportation.

The best politician is the one who gains the most power without ever running in an election.  In DFW, the most power shaping the form and function of our cities lies in transportation policy.  Maybe Dallas ought to threaten to withdraw from NCTCOG for its own sake, if NCTCOG only shows the capacity for suburban transportation thinking where an entirely different mindset is called for.  We're letting the same people and logic that created the disintegration and disinvestment of South Dallas try to fix it with the exact same conclusions.

I've joked about various plans around the city that if you let an architect plan a city you'll get proposals for buildings.  Landscape architect?  You'll get nothing but parks.  Well, we've handed the keys to the future of our city to a traffic engineer.  Guess what we get...

Guess what every decision revolves around...

The Thirty Minute City and the Futility(or Stupidity) of Endless Highway Building

The following are a series of graphics from the recent presentation I gave at the Texas Trails and Active Transportation Conference in Fort Worth.  This is just a sub-set of the 100 slides and hour long talk I gave about "Breaking the Cycle of Auto-Dependence," but I think the crux of the argument is found in the following graphics and parallel narrative.

First, is the now infamous graphic from the USDOT showing how every two years or so, despite all evidence to the contrary, they project a return to rising national Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT).  Unless they are truly insane (possible), there has to be some kind of underlying logic (which may very well lead to this demonstrable version of insanity).  What could that underlying logic be?  I for one believe it's more about inertia than corruption.  Though, like all forms of infrastructural overshoot, there is certainly some of that to be found as well.

I think the primary reason that we keep projecting higher VMT is that we believe that VMT is tied to GDP.   Rising VMT means rising GDP and vice versa.  In fact, the two have risen in lockstep since the advent of the automobile age.  It makes some sense, buying cars, building roads, paying for gas, killing and maiming each other on the road, all is some form or fashion of economic activity happening.  Therefore, if we're optimistic (and this is a political process, which it is), we like to make the numbers look good.  Back to growth!

Unless it isn't needed of course.  What if it actually makes us less mobile?  What if more big road money actually hurts us economically?

Two problems with the above theory that a Back to the Future of GDP growth = VMT growth...

First, is that despite the 08-09 recession, GDP has begun to climb again, completely independent of VMT, which has peaked and is beginning to fall (for a number of easily explainable reasons).  Furthermore, if you look at NYC or Copenhagen or Vancouver, their specific citywide GDPs continue to spike despite reducing VMT far more quickly than nationwide statistics.  Which leads to the second problem with this logic:

It only deals with nation-wide trends, not city by city.  Find me the pattern above comparing VMT per capita to GDP per capita of the top 25 US metros.  There is zero pattern.  In other words, the amount people drive has ZERO to do with GDP.  There is even some evidence that GDP per capita is growing fastest where they've spent the least on highways in the last 10-15 years.

What is becoming evident is that the value created by more highway capacity is approaching an ROI of 0 to 1.  In other words, there is literally no gain from any highway spending, a tell-tale sign of systemic overshoot, ie infrastructural over-build.  We're simply investing in future relics that we can't maintain, don't need, don't alleviate capacity, but only serve to disconnect us further.

The reason for this is rooted in Prof Peter Newman's theory of the hour-wide city, which states, in effect, that every city throughout time is rooted to half-hour commutes from edge to core as residential patterns orbit polycentric employment centers.  Thus, the velocity of the transportation infrastructure and technology we build dictates the form and density of the resulting city.  In other words, form does follow function as long as that function is movement.  Fast travel just spreads us out, thus re-inforcing the cycle of car-dependence.

However, not every can afford a car.  Not everyone can drive a car.  Not everyone is of age.  In other words, car-dependence that is rooted in transportation policy is highly inequitable, punishing the poor, the old, and the young, particularly.  The invisible brain of policy moves the invisible arm of infrastructure, which then moves the invisible hand of the real estate market.  Unfortunately, our policy is antiquated and frankly, malicious.

Above shows Average Commute Time by city across the US in relation to the amount of highway lane miles built per capita.  This shows irrefutably that highway capacity through the city is ultimately meaningless.  Build more highways, land use and city form adapts by spreading out.

Density also doesn't make a different.  People like a certain amount of space between where they live and work.  Call it preparation/decompression space, the push/pull tension inherent in groups of people hold all cities throughout time in equilibrium.  After all, the one constant in all cities is people.

Meanwhile, as we chase the bogeyman of congestion because it costs the country $120 billion a year, we're inducing car-dependence, which costs a mere (don't look behind the curtain) $2 trillion per year.  I said don't look behind the curtain.  The interesting side of this is that on a per capita basis, congestion costs $400/year and is remarkably consistent across cities large and small.  This is the cost of doing business.  Spending hundreds of billions to save a billion or two is flawed policy.

Meanwhile, we should be getting more mobile and more economically empowered by investing in reducing that $2 trillion number, investing in unleashing citizens from car-dependence.  That's where the ROI is.  That's where the successful cities of today and the future are investing.  Because cost of infrastructure is relative to returns.  But we're investing in zero returns, thus, it seems expensive.  Takes money to make money.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

I'm Not a Smart Troll, Jenny

Yet another useless, speculative piece in the DMN posing the suggestion that 345 is a ploy to pay for the Trinity Toll Road.  I suppose it's not entirely useless.  What it is, is cynical.  And desperate.  It's attempting to pit political factions against each other.  The reality is, both issues are independent of each other within a broader, longer-term subset of what the real vision is for the best Dallas that Dallas can be.  The most livable, the most advantageous, the most opportunity for all, that offers the greatest amount of choice, and quality of life.

It's interesting to see that the readily apparent other opportunity is only another highway, useful for the cynical argument, but narrow-minded nonetheless as 20th century transportation planning  The regional trip creates congestion and reduces quality of life while the short trip is good for business.  Keep that in mind.

Again, I point to the issue that we show renderings of Vancouver while building the infrastructure of Detroit.  Those visions of Vancouver real estate investment require Vancouver infrastructure, which favors choice of mode and proximity for efficient trip-making.  That's what the rest of the DMN piece doesn't get.  Infrastructure and real estate are intertwined.  Downtown bottomed out because of what we wrought over 50 years of poor decision-making.  It should be noted that Dallas has a history of fighting every freeway through the city that TxDOT has proposed.  The real estate market of downtown "not having enough jobs," is a by-product of the subsidization of sprawl and job spillage ever northwards.

Then the kicker, the economic injustice angle, is a beauty.  The implication is the ever so cynical, patronizing tone that we're suggesting poor people should pay tolls, which is funny because the last thing the poor can do is afford a car, an hour long commute to those jobs in North Dallas, or four hour bus trips with three transfers.

Economic injustice is forcing people into car ownership whether they like it or not, whether they can afford it or not, just to participate in the local economy.  Economic injustice is tearing apart neighborhoods, particularly poor neighborhoods to build anti-urban highways that have proved a failure in every city they've been built.

I know.  These people can't understand the difference between intra-city and inter-city highways - so all highways are painted the same, and thus, all people are either for highways or against highways.  Cynical.  The reality is we're for appropriate, efficient, sustainable, affordable infrastructure in the appropriate places to make the best Dallas that Dallas can be.  We're also for choice in lifestyle, housing, neighborhood, and mode of transportation.  That's what we're missing in Texas.  Choice.  That's what smart, adaptable, resilient cities have.

Let's briefly look at 345 and the proposed toll road from strictly independent, economic standpoint.  It will cost TxDOT $100 million to maintain 345 til 2040.  The 64 acres of land within the right-of-way alone are worth a minimum of $170 million.  Maybe more given the way the uptown submarket is going bonkers for semi-walkable neighborhoods.  In other words, the infrastructure is totaled.

As for the Tollroad, every group thought to be potential builder/financier of it have backed off.  They've had to re-evaluate their pro-formas which inherently underestimated the pigovian nature of tolls.  They tend to underperform as we're seeing across the country with toll roads defaulting on their debts.  Their simply not getting the revenue they originally projected when tollroads were the next big thing.  It turns out people like free travel.  I do to.  But the only way we can allow (somewhat) free, efficient economic exchange is through increased walkability and a real estate market that favors proximity...which it wants to as evidenced by the pent-up demand in uptown.

It's amazing to me that people get paid to write or think and can do neither.

I'm not suggesting we use the huge value/revenue gains of 345 to pay for the Trinity Toll Road.  If I were king for the day and could decide such things, I would put that expected revenue towards D2.  Towards a world class city.  But I'm not king.  And neither are the antiquated transportation planners.  That's why we have to debate the issues.  Even if those most desperately short on ammo resort to overt cynicism.

Does Form Follow Function? And When?

There's a commonly heard and easily digested axiom in the world of architecture, Form Follows Function.  It's nonsense.  Sometimes.  I'm going to explore when it's appropriate and why.  Certainly not the way it's currently understood.

First, we have to understand what is being talked about with the terms Form and Function.  Then we have to understand there are two different scales at work when we're talking about buildings and cities.  Cities are the higher order of complexity that many buildings come together to form.  Much like a tree is a complex organism that is part of a forest that is also its own organism at a higher order, with its own purposes and processes.

At the building scale, form is the shape of a building and the function is the use.  This is a dangerous phrase to base building design on.  Fundamentally, it makes some sense in the understanding that modernism was about creating maximum efficiency and utilization of space for the purposes of executing a specific use.  However, buildings last longer than uses.  And cities last longer than buildings.

So within this hierarchy, we have to ask what is better prioritization of efficiency?  If a building's design is tethered to a specific use and the use becomes defunct, the building then becomes defunct as well.  That is incredibly wasteful when the adaptive re-use of buildings is one of the greatest commonwealths we pass on between generation.  Adaptability.

In other words at the scale of the individual building or block (a minor sub-set of the complex city), function should actually follow form.  But what does form follow?

It's becoming increasingly clear to me as interest in the city rises, that architectural thinking focused strictly on form is getting applied to the city at large.  That form of not just the building, but the city is the single most important consideration.  However, that is also incorrect to put form over function of the city.  Form must be a subset of function.

In order to correctly prioritize the design and building of cities we have to know what the function of cities actually is.  Given that civilization and cities have grown hand-in-hand throughout the history of mankind, I would argue that function of cities is improved quality of life via social and economic exchange.  That is what a city is, a machine for efficient exchange and improved quality of life that we can pass on to future generations to advance as well.

This gets back to basic systemics, or understanding cities, within the science of complex systems thinking.  To understand complex systems, like an ecology, an individual organism, or entire populations, we have to know what the components of complex systems are, being: PURPOSE, CONNECTIONS, and ELEMENTS.  Purpose is the most important, connections second, elements third.  However, the common mistake is to take the most apparent, the visible, tangible elements of complex systems and focus on those.  We spend most of our efforts, resources, and attention to the least critical elements, literally.

When it comes to cities, this is also apparent, as we too often focus on things like land uses, building forms, specific object buildings, or indeed, the idea that landscape can drive form.  Landscapes and open spaces have many functionalities, such as food production, natural space, water filtration, habitat, rest, respite, and recreation, but they also shouldn't be the single driving 'form creator.'  It's a subset.  That's putting the cart before the horse of the real purpose of cities, again, which is social and economic exchange, value creation.

So what drives form?  Let's detail what those components of the complex city system is:

PURPOSE:  The Function of the city.  Social and Economic exchange towards improved quality of life and expanded opportunity for all.  This can also be understood as policy.  The invisible brain.

CONNECTIONS:  Transportation infrastructure.  These are the links, that in system provide the platform for efficient exchange and opportunity, while providing means of communication within systems, feedback loops.  The invisible arm.

ELEMENTS:  Land uses, open spaces, buildings, businesses, design, etc.  All of those things we as designers and regular old folk tend to focus too much on rather than getting what is more important towards efficient, sustainable, elegant, lovable, and livable cities.  Yes, the invisible hand of the market.  But it's controlled, by degree, of the components above.  Function, the land uses and buildings, follow the form of our infrastructure.

Purpose is not physical.  It's political.  However, it is from there that all physical embodiments are derived.  From that policy we design our movement infrastructure.  That is the key to defining form.  Our infrastructure design and the policy that determines it, is the single more important factor in city building and function.  The network.  This is why I've maintained that IT types inherently get urbanism better than most physical designers.  The first and most critical physical design element is the movement network.  All else within the realm of physical design springs from there.

So, yes.  Form does indeed follow function, at the city scale.  But at the subset scale of individual building blocks, function follows form.  The hierarchy of this way of understanding cities is as follows:

1.  Function of the city - it's purpose and policy

2.  Form of movement - infrastructure, which then shapes...

3.  Form of blocks and buildings within that framework, which then shapes...

3.  Function of land uses and buildings.  This is where the real estate market, building, and open space design resides.  So yes, putting form of landscape and buildings ahead of the needs of the city is to get this entire equation backwards, and thus, incorrect.  It's effective rhetorically, though, which is another way of saying it sounds good, but is ultimately rather pernicious at worst and ignorant at best.

Putting secondary and tertiary concerns above the functionality of the city begets superficial, pseudo-intellectual nonsense.  But, it looks pretty.  I guess.  As long as you're only looking at a picture and not trying to live your life within it.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A New Dallas Petition

If unaware, we've started a petition page on the site.  The primary purpose is that we need a way to compile email addresses and facebook isn't good enough.  Some people don't use facebook.  As you may know, a study is imminent to explore potential options surrounding 345.  I say imminent, I mean within the next year.  There will in all likelihood be public meetings.

We want to invite you to those meetings since at the end of the day this is a political decision about economic realities, costs and benefits, not merely an engineering decision.  We can design and build any kind of city we want.  So please, sign the petition.  Verify your email address.  And come out to be a part of the public discourse.  Because that was the original intent of this effort, a real public dialogue about the future course of Dallas.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Your One-Stop Shop for 345 Talking Points

Thesis: Dallas is exporting tax base via subsidized long trip infrastructure while eroding what makes cities great, the power of proximity and agglomeration economies. Over-built automobile infrastructure has led to tax burden / tax base imbalance.

1 – This is not an engineering problem but a political and economic one. We can design and engineer any city we want. What can we afford and how to maximize the returns on our public investments?

2 – City can’t afford to subsidize every development in downtown. Downtown, Deep Ellum, and Baylor area all need housing but can’t deliver because of upside down economics. Must correct the market so infill development can occur w/o 30% city participation.

3 - Great cities of the world don’t allow big infrastructure to disrupt local economies. Common complaint is about peak hour trips. Avg speed peak hours is about 27mph. Is it better or worse to be stuck on elevated expressway with no other route or have 4-5 routes on high quality walkable boulevards going 25mph. What's better for the city?

4 - Demographics are changing. 68% of Dallasites want more walkability. If we build big, expensive infrastructure that younger generations don't want, we're stuck with the infrastructure til 2050 but we could lose the people. Density cannot work without walkable infrastructure.

5 – Most car-dependent major city in the U.S. – 96% of trips are by car. The only way to accommodate demand for increased density is shortening trips and getting people out of cars. Most car-dependent cities waste 10% more of GDP than the least car-dependent cities.

6 - If we want to grow South Dallas we have to undo the infrastructure that killed it. We must re-orient downtown as the center of real estate investment and job creation. Make it a place to go to, not drive-thru. Investment is risk-averse. It oozes. It doesn’t jump. Therefore, we must steer it by giving it an outlet near downtown and South Dallas.

7 – Affordable Housing Opportunities – Shifting failing public infrastructure and right-of-way to private investment for private gain and public good allows for 17,000 new housing units and potentially 2,000 new affordable housing units near jobs and convenient transit.

8 – Public Safety – Dallas is routinely ranked as one of the least pedestrian friendly cities in the country. You are 51.41x more likely to be killed as a pedestrian in Dallas than in Manhattan. TX-30 (home of IH-345) is the 2nd deadliest US congressional district in the country based on 10-year traffic fatalities.

9 - Dallas is losing jobs and would be losing people if it wasn't for the minor sub-market of uptown, the most walkable place in DFW. From 2000-2010, DFW gained 1.2 million, Dallas captured less than 1% or 9,000 people.

10 – Regional Trips are Bad for Business – Designing infrastructure that rewards long distance, car-based travel only creates the bad kind of congestion, regional traffic, that erodes quality of life, whereas high degree of local traffic is good for business.

The Destructive Fiscal Irresponsibility of Inertia or Doing Nothing

Idiocracy, filmed in future Texas.

There is an important new study out from Smart Growth America about how state DOT's are using their increasingly under pressure budgets.  The full study is linked here.  I'll call out a few points from it in a bit.  It is also linked to at the Dallas Morning News Transpo blog here.  The key point is that Texas is happily building and expanding roads while letting others fall into disrepair.  I'm going to discuss the reasons for this as well as the repercussions.

Before we dig into it, let's recall that city staff just presented a report to Dallas city council that $900 million is required to get existing city roads up to acceptable standards.  The state, apparently, is $35 billion in the hole when adding up debts and deferred maintenance (from the kind of source that would know these things).  The state is planning on letting rural roads, the historic farm-to-market roads, go back to gravel.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the state is trying to push maintenance of state roads within city boundaries onto the cities.  To which I say, let's have 'em.  But we also want the land too.  If cities take on the maintenance they should be able to take on the control of the design and scale of the roads so that they can leverage the highest and best use along them.

Do you see how it's all unraveling?

Let me help a bit more.  The key data point from the SGA study is that from 2009-20011, TxDOT spent $3.377 billion in total.  Of that money, $2.765 went to road expansion, new roads and widenings.  82%.  Conversely, that means 18% went to maintenance of existing facilities.

Also, in the document it shows that Texas is not in nearly as bad of shape regarding the percentage of roads in poor condition.  That's because so many are so new because Texas is so young.  However, we're sewing the seeds of future failure into the system by building roads we can't even maintain today.  I suspect most of the new highways and interchanges we've built recently will have but one generation life span.

Here's a key line from the DMN piece:
TxDOT typically expands highways to keep ahead of projected population growth. That’s expected to change as the agency continues to work with lackluster funding for its needs. Yet Texas’ population is expected to double in coming decades, meaning more people will be driving state roads and highways.

That's a typical line of defense that is used to justify the expansions.  However, it has many flaws within it.  One of which is that it's dependent upon hypothetical future growth statistics.  It is founded upon a formula of unconstrained supply and unconstrained demand, making it truly insane policy.

The unconstrained supply comes from that hypothetical new tax base to pay for the current debt.  However, the question is can that population growth continue in perpetuity without hitting carrying capacity, like how much water do we actually have?  How many people can we feed with loss of arable soils?  How many homes can we power?  Further, will that growth continue when the bills for all of these debts come due?  Those are all supply limits to growth.

On the other hand, their model follows unconstrained demand.  96% of trips in DFW are by car currently.  Similarly, 95% of trips in Houston are by car.  These are two of the most car-dependent metros in the entire country.  The projection models used, don't foresee any changes to that number.  They ignore demographic shifts showing less demand for driving as well as whether any city can even afford (or want) that kind of car-dependence.

It's the exsanguination of cities, their wealth, and their ability to create new wealth.  It's happening right before our eyes when we see the increasingly common news of our inability to maintain the antiquated infrastructure we've created.
So the question remains, why this March of Folly?  Why do we continue following policies despite all evidence to the contrary that it's a good idea?

I have one theory and its rooted in the way we tie road building with economic growth.  And it's also fatally flawed.

I was watching a presentation the other day by a pre-eminent economist who used VMT as an indicator of rising GDP.  GDP is used as an indicator for economic growth as it measures economic activity (without actually measuring whether it's good economic activity or not.  It's merely just a measure of spending, rather than creating.  Sometimes it's both, but there is no measurement within that quantifies the waste leaving the local economy.

Therefore, if VMT = GDP and GDP = economic growth than VMT = GDP.  That's the line of thinking.  One reason is because we also equate VMT with increased mobility.  But that's also incredibly flawed thinking as it externalizes all other forms of travel.  What if I'm far more mobile on foot in a city based on proximity than if I have to drive everywhere?  Shouldn't the goal be to maximize everyone's mobility while minimizing the costs to do so?

It makes sense however that VMT up = GDP up.  Because that means more spending on gas and insurance and cars and traffic accidents, which means more hospital bills and thus more economic activity.  Even if it's horrifying.  However, and I hate this overused phrase, correlation is not causation.  Driving more does not mean a healthier economy.

Both GDP and the traffic models measuring mobility and used to justify new construction have significant externalities that might be subjective or even entirely incalculable.  Can't compute? Don't compute.  It's a bit of a crisis that both financial markets and transportation forecasting rely so heavily on models that don't or won't calculate.  That's what we're seeing play out before our eyes.

So let's look at this an entirely different way.  How can we be more mobile while reducing car-dependence and that 96% of trips by car.  That should be GOAL NUMERO UNO.  First, I've found that car-dependence costs the national economy 2 trillion dollars a year.  Pro-rating that to the Dallas area, that's $7.25 billion per year.  What if we could cut car-dependence in half, keeping 3 to 4 billion in the local economy, while improving mobility via proximity and more walkable, bikeable communities?

Another example.  As we discussed, 95% of trips in Houston are by car.  96% in DFW, so we're using Houston as a proxy here since on the global scale, the statistical behavior patterns of Hou and DFW are virtually identical.  I believe this is the case because of statewide policy rather than Houston and DFW independently arriving at the exact same conclusions.

On the other hand, 54% of trips in metro Copenhagen are by car.  Why does that matter?  Well, CPH also only uses 4% of its local GDP on transportation.  Houston uses 14%.  CPH is making all of the same trips to the store, to jobs, to parks, facilitating social and economic exchange.  Therefore, that 10% difference is all waste.  In Houston's economy, 10% of GDP is about $40 billion (!!!).  Wasted.

Cities are machines of exchange.  CPH runs much more efficiently than our Sun Belt cities.  CPH is also approaching zero traffic fatalities (their stated measurable goal) for a calendar year.  Texas' traffic fatalities are over 3,000 and rising in a calendar year.

CPH is a well oiled machine.  A bicycle, which just so happens to be the single most efficient form of travel ever invented.  Shouldn't we be building cities of safety AND prosperity?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Nothin' More Expensive than Free

"I'll take any [insert expletive]'s money if he givin' it away." Senator Clay Davis, The Wire.

I don't have much time today, but wanted to pop onto the blog to say a few things about TxDOT's money.  A recent concern about anewdallas is that if TxDOT has money, we should take it.  Well, they don't have money.  What money they do is future money, in that it is 1) hypothetical and 2) largely ours from future taxes.  Based on the way their financing works, we would need to add a multiplier on our tax dollars that go towards the way we currently build transportation simply to manage the debt we have already accrued through over-building the wrong kind of anti-urban infrastructure.

In other words, this is about the worst case scenario for how to spend our tax dollars for public good.

The cost of the proposed 345 repair is $100 million for 20 years to keep the thing standing, that nobody wants, from 2020 to 2040.  Yay?  Some believe if that $100 million is there we should take it.  Because why not?  Free money.

Well, free money is also what tore apart the functionality and desirability of our core cities by the way of an interstate system never intended to cut through existing neighborhoods.  The long-term cost of doing so, while it added to meaningless statistics such as GDP, is virtually incalculable.  How would you even calculate replacing an entire city with an entirely new and less sustainable and maintainable city?

Now, let's get back to that $100 million.  If we were to take the $100 million what is our return on that investment?  Preventing catastrophe.  That is it.

On the other hand, removing the road also prevents catastrophe.  It also prevents us from facing the exact same scenario in twenty years.

On top of that it immediately opens 65 acres of public right-of-way underneath an antiquated failing structure for private investment for public good and private gain.  Remember, developers are our city builders.  We just have to set up a system where they're delivering the kind of neighborhoods and city we want, in a way they can make profit.  Right now, that is not possible with the highways subsidizing the exportation of jobs and tax base further afield.

So let's take that 65 acres instead of TxDOT's $100 million.  It's far more valuable.  We think the land could easily fetch $60 per square foot.  That works out to $170 million for raw, unimproved land.  Now which is more valuable?  $100 million just to preserve a status quo that is not meeting the market, or $170 million in land value, ripe for $5 billion in investment?

Perhaps, that's the basis for how we think about whether to preserve inner-city freeways.  When the land beneath the freeway is worth more than the cost of maintaining it, perhaps we should consider it "totaled" and it's time to cash in on it.