Wednesday, October 1, 2014


If perhaps today at some point you type in and it pings you somewhere else, that's because for the foreseeable future this blog will be on a new home:   It also means that I was successful figuring out the backend coding for redirecting.  The kind of stuff I have little patience for, but here goes anyway.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Road Rage and Regaining our Humanity

I feel certain I posted it before, but here goes again:

"I am the worst person I can be when I'm behind the wheel...when you should be the most compassionate you can be...because you are driving a weapon."

The great comics have deep insights into the human condition.  We laugh because we know it as well, but just haven't been able to express it as well.  Fortunately, writers are looking at the exact same issue, which is why I can't recommend the book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt strongly enough.

One of Vanderbilt's key insights in his examination of the psychology of drivers is that cars dehumanize us, usually due to speed or tint of windows or distance.  Everyone else is the enemy and we're competing for the same space in the rat race.  But not always, we are re-humanized when we can make eye contact.  This is why blinking reds work so well from a safety standpoint.  We are forced to make eye contact with other drivers.  "You go." "No, by all means, you go."  And people work it out.  No one gets killed.

Funny thing about traffic signals, they seem to do their job best when they fail.  Would you ever hire a person who routinely fails at their job?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Quick Note on Downtown Demolition

I was as sad and perturbed as anybody by the news of more hundred-plus year old buildings getting the wrecking ball treatment this week.  I am also perfectly aware of the occasional need to erase some history in order to progress.  However, in Dallas, particularly downtown, rarely has demolition led to a better outcome.  Dallas isn't alone in this impulse.  Corbu wanted to raze the entire Left Bank of Paris.  That would be like flattening Brooklyn for more projects (oh, we did a lot of that?).  Or Robert Moses wishing to plow highways to erase the 'blight' of SoHo and the West Village, some of the most desirable real estate in the world today.  For that reason as much as any, I think there is such distraught over losing a few more memories as we march towards collective senility.  We're just not terribly good at this thing called progress and we have all the evidence to prove it.  Just look around.

Now look at 1939 Dallas:

Sorry to depress  you so early.

There is also the issue of process.  I can actually see some logical defense for knocking down some historic buildings.  They are as follows:

1) You're going to replace it with something truly kickass (that doesn't involve a parking garage).  If you publicize that ahead of time, you certainly calm the fear and loathing.

2) Downtown is out of land to develop.  However, we know that not to be true.  Half of downtown is parking or vacant.  There are plenty of sites to develop.  The real problem is that we shipped the demand (value) out to Oklahoma on a highway.  Thus, we can't fill the buildings we do have and thus the 'market' impulse is to build a new suburbia with high parking counts in order to compete with the suburbs.  This is a suckers/losers' game and it has failed every downtown in this country.  Downtown's must operate on an entirely different logic.

3)  It's purely profit motivated.  I've seen this accusation around.  Two problems herein, the profit motive is how cities get built.  As I mentioned earlier, because land costs are high (because of the expectation of 'downtown') and demand is low (sprawl and highways), developing downtown isn't profitable without subsidy or charity.  We NEED it to be profitable.  Most of what is going on in downtown is through subsidy.  Some is charity, like the Arts District.  I suspect, considering the rumored costs of the Joule Hotel, this is a form of charity and/or legacy building.  That suggests to me, the intent is something 'kickass.'  If so, why not publicize it ahead of time?

State-Thomas Neighborhood 1989

I just purchased a half dozen historic aerials focusing on uptown ranging from the 1930's up to 2001.  That's what I do.

I want to take a bit more time with this when I actually have more time, but for the moment I want to focus on the 1989 aerial.  There is a bit of oversimplified mythology floating around that the high density, high cost current iteration of uptown was a pure instance of gentrification.  Greedy developers evicting the vibrant, historic African-American neighborhood that existed there since it was established as a 'freedman's town'.

The assumption is that when the first buildings started going vertical in State-Thomas in 1990, that the neighborhood was still stable as it had always been.  The historic aerials show it was still intact and stable up to about 1979.  The story as I know it from those who were involved in the early planning and design process aligns with the image shown above.  The first developers found vacant land that was leftover after the S&L banks bought up most of the land, cleared the neighborhood to make way for what they expected to be new bank skyscrapers.

Those plans fell the way of the S&L banks.  Somewhere in my office I have a picture of the foundation being poured for the very first building, Post Meridian.  It looks like it is going into the middle of Detroit.  A house here, a house there.  Few in good shape.  Barely more than one per block, if that.  People who worked on the initial plans said the community was devastated and the carcass that was left behind after it had been picked apart by the truly greedy.

The first developers saw the husk of what was and a vision for the future and it wasn't easy.  Lending had to be found over seas because nobody here believed in it.  Apartments had to be filled with friends at deeply discounted rates just so the place look populated.  That was 25 years ago and it is just now filling out fully.  Rather than blame uptown for being uptown and try to prevent any kind of investment from happening in similarly devastated South Dallas, we should be more honest and aware of the chain of events that brought its fall and rise.  Maybe we can do the same elsewhere so that we have a greater supply of walkable neighborhoods that provide opportunity for a wider demographic to enjoy and find opportunity.

Between a Rockwall and a Hard Place

1500. Fifteen HUNDRED people showed up to a Rockwall public meeting, mostly angry and vociferous, to hear about the eminent domain process for a planned new toll road through land where very little currently exists and NCTCOG traffic projections suggest one bazillion cars will someday want to go.  They'll want to go there if and only if the road goes there and if and only if it is not tolled, meaning, in all likelihood it will not generate the traffic it is expected to and potentially default much like 130 in Austin is expected to.  I don't know the particulars, but usually that means the taxpayers end up on the hook either way.

Here is the deal, we sprawled out on free highways.  Turns out, jokes on us, they aren't so free after all.  Because we sprawled, we are now slave to cars in order to get us around, held captive by the illusion that cheap land and cheap highways and cheap gas will subsidize our utopia.  The American Dream will only get darker the longer you believe it's about a two car garage rather than upward mobility at a time when costs of transportation are going up while median wages are going down.

But the road builders only know one solution to (often only perceived) traffic problems:  more roads.  Except there is no money for new roads.  The public, particularly way out in the exurbs might actually be ok with a free road.   We've grown accustomed to the entitlement.  It's also bankrupted us so that if the solution is more highways, they must be tolled in order to finance it (and bond rating agencies need to start looking very closely at these deals - of course they'll get lending if they're backed by the state...but what of the state's rating?).  It doesn't help that it was dreamed up in secret apparently over 18 months with no public meeting until the two this month when an entire host of accoutrements are lipsticked onto this pig so as to make it palatable.  It still isn't.

I suppose we're going to have to get much smarter about transportation and our community design.  Old dogs and new tricks and all that. Considering walking and biking are still the reigning champs of cost effective means of transportation, that means designing infrastructure in support of more compact development patterns.  In such a place, you need no tolls because the property taxes cover the infrastructure.  We're building net negative environments that over the lifespan make us all poorer even though at first it seems like shiny new growth and tax base.  Such is the fate of all of the suburbs if they don't get smarter.  Suburbs that sucked the life out of the core cities through the straws of highways straight into the jugular (when you suck through a straw it only goes in one direction - in this case, north), which also need a new approach.  It's remarkably similar.  Change is hard.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Hour Long Commute and Institutionalized Failure

click to embiggen.

The above map his a heat map by census tract illustrating percentages of populations that commute more than an hour each way to work.  The deepest, darkest purple shows areas where more than 12.42% of the population must commute more than an hour to work.  The nationwide average is high 20 minutes and virtually every city falls within a 25-30 minute range for average commute.  NYC and San Jose have longer average commutes, but they also have higher incomes.

Appropriately, this is graphic is listed under quality of life on  Because no one wants to spend that much time simply in transit between two points unless it is really, really worth it.  However, the deepest darkest purple here isn't for higher incomes.  It's for the lowest incomes in the city, where it is not uncommon to find median household incomes in the low to mid-teens of thousands of dollars per year.

The more infrastructure we build northward, the more we cater to the inertia of the 'favored quarter' creep.  Investment follows investment.  And it keeps heading in one direction as long as you allow it rather than re-orienting investment and growth around large employment centers like downtown...lest you completely kill those large employment centers.

The answer to this problem isn't highways to get to jobs more than an hour away.  All that does is force more cost issues upon the people that can least afford it.  The answer is creating investment opportunities back towards the core so the jobs stop flowing northward in the name of predatory regionalism.  (We need qualifiers with the word regionalism because there is a good kind and bad kind.  It can't possibly be a positive form of regionalism when policies undermine the urban core, because ultimately that hurts the entire region.  Your first clue is when Dallas County loses 266,000 jobs while the region gains 1.2 million people.)

It's thus not surprising that this same area of South Dallas, bounded by I-45, I-30, and the Trinity Forest (note the presence of two highways), has lost 40% of its population since 1990.  That number is far worse when looking further back in time.  Unfortunately, the exact data is hard to come by.  But when all economic opportunity has been stripped from a community, wouldn't you leave as well?  That is, if you had the means?  And those with means did.

We have cut off opportunity from entire parts of the city, specifically with the notion of trying to connect people with highways.  We've done the opposite.  It's obvious that highways disconnect across them, but the constant job and population creep northward is indicative of a deeper, systemic, and more pernicious form of disconnection: distance.  Traversing that distance is not the answer, particularly when our solutions to traversing that distance, more highways, only serves to exacerbate the problem, by moving things further and further away.

The highway builders, thinking they're serving populations as they exist, don't realize that they themselves are the scientist with their finger in the petri dish stirring it around and affecting the very results they're supposedly objective about.

The real solution is a change in proximity.  However, that brings to bear the fear of gentrification.  So we build highways to access cheaper land at the edge and further depress land values in the core, which only puts more pressure on the poorest among us to get cars and get on the road.  Or just drop out of a society that has failed them altogether.  A clumsy, facile understanding of gentrification as entirely bad is what seems to be undermining progress and any ability to grow south.

Gentrification, by another name is investment.  It's increased land value and thus increased opportunity.  In the against the conventional wisdom nature of urbanism, it is actually higher land value (demand) which allows the market to deliver more affordable housing in more affordable locations (near transit and near jobs).  It's also the new investment and the new residents with money moving in to an area that create the market for local entrepreneurs to benefit by starting up new services or restaurants.

What's needed is targeted investment and land values that are worth investing in coupled with training programs for the locals in order to empower them to participate in a new burgeoning local economy.  All of that is far cheaper and more beneficial than a new highway.  And more than a new highway, what is really needed is a new mindset that actually understands how cities work.

How Every DOT Ought to be Thinking

CalTrans, the equivalent of TxDOT that you may remember from such entertaining stories as why they couldn't figure out how their productions of gridlock, doom, and pestilence never besieged San Francisco when the Central Artery wasn't replaced by another highway, may very well now be the nation's most progressive state transpo authority.

Not only have they just completely scrapped the disastrous Level of Service as a metric (engineer's A = Economist's F, and vice versa), but they now have an entirely new constitution.  A memo detailing their sweeping top down change in protocol (my highlights):

"Adopting a new mission, vision and goals is a critical step toward aligning Caltrans with state transportation planning and policy goals and better serving all Californians," said Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty. "This key change helps focus everyone at Caltrans on improved department performance, employee accountability and communications. The next step will be to set specific performance metrics to communicate honestly and transparently about our progress in meeting our goals."
In coordination with the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA), and on the heels of an external review that called for bold reforms and a more modern department, Caltrans crafted a new mission and vision that is fully consistent with California's planning and policy objectives. Caltrans' old mission was to "improve mobility," which did not capture state efforts to clean up the environment, improve quality of life and strengthen California's economy:
MISSION: Provide a safe, sustainable, integrated and efficient transportation system to enhance California's economy and livabilityVISION: A performance-driven, transparent and accountable organization that values its people, resources and partners, and meets new challenges through leadership, innovation and teamwork 
"Caltrans is embracing reform and transforming into a modern transportation agency, equipped to handle today's challenges and those of tomorrow," said CalSTA Secretary Brian P. Kelly in a recent letter notifying the California State Legislature of the new mission at Caltrans. "Next, we will develop new performance measures, which will objectively measure progress toward achieving our goal of transforming into the transportation department we envision for the future."  
In order to achieve this mission and vision and give Californians the most efficient transportation system possible, Caltrans also laid out five new goals:
  • SAFETY AND HEALTH: Provide a safe transportation system for workers and users, and promote health through active transportation and reduced pollution in communities.
  • STEWARDSHIP AND EFFICIENCY: Money counts. Responsibly manage California's transportation-related assets. 
  • SUSTAINABILITY, LIVABILITY AND ECONOMY: Make long-lasting, smart mobility decisions that improve the environment, support a vibrant economy, and build communities, not sprawl
  • SYSTEM PERFORMANCE: Utilize leadership, collaboration and strategic partnerships to develop an integrated transportation system that provides reliable and accessible mobility for travelers.
  • ORGANIZATIONAL EXCELLENCE: Be a national leader in delivering quality service through excellent employee performance, public communication, and accountability.
Adopting a new mission, vision and goals for Caltrans concludes the department's implementation of four "early action" recommendations made by the State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI) in January, when it called for bold reform and a more modern department:
  1. Develop a new mission consistent with state planning and policy goals;
  1. Organize teams to develop implementation plans;
  1. Work toward successful implementation of SB 743; and
  1. Modernize state transportation design guidance.
Caltrans will now work with the CalSTA to develop new performance measures, which will objectively measure progress toward achieving state goals.

Implicit in the last highlight is the admission of the state agency's culpability in building sprawl.  Land can't be developed as sprawl if there is no car-dependent infrastructure out to reach it.  In other words, it's not necessarily that sprawl is the end result of market forces, and informed choice (as we know even if land costs are cheaper in sprawl, cost of living is actually more expensive when all else is factored), but rather that the market is tilted by the DOT's finger on the scale effectively subsidizing bad behavior and more cost on both the public and private sector.

I should also note that any state DOT can make for an easy target, particularly when it comes to the current debt they're running up or the unmitigated disaster of the communities that have been negatively effected (or are dying and they don't even know it yet).

[temporarily puts on ANewDallas hat] We have only heard encouraging things from TxDOT recently.  Bill Hale, is now head of all metro divisions, has recently said, 1) "highways were never intended to go through the middle of cities.  It was the local politicians who wanted them."  This is true.  It's a critical statement which coincides with what else he has said specifically regarding issues like 345, 2) "We're here to do what the local city wants."  

But with limited resources and increasing debt, somebody also has to be the adult in the room, both then and now, when local politicians come clamoring for new highways with the false assumption that it will bring economic development or reduce congestion.  Ideally, that would be those that control the purse strings, but it also needs to be the local politicians taking on responsibility for educating themselves on how transportation is integral with city function, value, quality of life, and economic development.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Monday Linkages

It's been a while since I posted (at all), but fortunately that means plenty of good stuff to link to.  Such as...

You must read Mark Lamster in the DMN today.  This is not optional.
One of the more vexing problems with this scenario, as residents throughout the region are learning, is that they have too little franchise in this conversation. In The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s  magisterial examination of the life and career of New York planner Robert Moses, Caro painstakingly illustrates how Moses, the preeminent urban highway builder of his era, consolidated a bureaucratic empire with vast financial resources that remained virtually unaccountable to voters for decades. Dallas has its own Robert Moses, if on a somewhat reduced scale. Michael Morris has served as the Director of Transportation for the North Texas Council of Governments (NTCOG) since, if you can believe it, 1990. 
It is through Morris that many of the region’s transportation decisions are made. Because the board that oversees those decisions at NTCOG is comprised of representatives with divergent imperatives from across the region, it is a body particularly susceptible to arguments made from the “neutral” perspective of the traffic engineer. But decisions about where highways should go  (nevermind how to regulate services like Uber and Lyft) are neither neutral nor objective.

And relatedly, the latest published figure on the debt that the state of Texas has racked up chasing its own tail on the traffic problem where the solution has been little more than to make more drivers out of all of us is now $23 billion.  A few years ago that number was more like 15 to 18.  I hear that when deferred maintenance of existing roads is included, you can double that number.  You'd think we might want to build infrastructure that is not net negative in terms of tax base to the cost of the infrastructure for its life span.  That's about $1000 per person in Texas trying to fix the $400 per year that congestion costs us.  The real thief is car dependence.  It steals your freedom of choice (in travel mode and neighborhood type) as well as your money.

Salon writes that we have to make a choice:  the earth or more roads.  It's a bit hyperbolic and we shouldn't think about this in terms of roads or no roads.  It's the right kind of road design that yields productive livable places for all.

Similarly, Kaid Benfield writes that cities are the way to save nature, essentially from anti-city sprawl since, besides just the fact that cities are more compact and we're not building on nature, but also because cities perform better than sprawl on just about every environmental metric there is.

Looks like Chuck Marohn is up to some new and interesting stuff taking his fireside chats and producing short videos conveying the message.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Author Ben Ross in Dallas Thursday

Ben Ross, author of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, will be in Dallas tomorrow, Thursday night at 7 pm.  Some books will be available to buy and have signed.  He will be discussing the past, present, and future of sprawl and the city.

The event will be held at Wild Detectives at 314 W. 8th in Oak Cliff, right around the corner from Bishop Arts.

He will also be on Think with Krys Boyd today at noon on KERA.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Complex Systems: Hierarchies vs Networks

President of the New England Complex Systems Institute, Yaneer Bar-Yam, gives a talk to Wikimania conference in London recently.

From about 25:00 to 35:00 he talks about the contrast between hierarchical systems and complex networks and how/when hierarchical systems fail.  It took me about five listens to fully grasp what was going on, but when listening think about the way we design road networks, particularly hierarchical, dendritic systems, which funnel traffic to bigger and bigger roads (the modernist approach and the predominant paradigm for past 80 years, still clinging to life in Texas) vs multiply interconnected, reticulated grid networks.

The hierarchy fails when the bigger system overwhelms the highest order in the hierarchy, the largest individual.  In transportation, that's the biggest highway and thus, when thinking within this outdated logic the response is to expand the capacity of that individual rather than thinking within the frame of a complex system, the capacity of the network, of multiple routes, and multiple modes of transportation.

It's why center cities don't fail when they shed themselves of their inner-city highways, but rather upgrade to 2.0, a new more adaptable, more complex, smarter system.

Monday, August 11, 2014

First Priority of Public Sector: Public Safety or Fast Cars?

This is the big joker.  If you've ever played Spades, which is the greatest card game ever invented -- because theoretically you always have a playable hand, every card matters, and there is just something about the synergieeeees between you and your teammate when you get on the same wavelength as you shift tactics mid-hand -- the big joker trumps all.  That is, of course, if your opponents aren't playing towards a nil bid or saddling you with bags.

OK that was a tangent.  The real point being is that "congestion" and "level of service" are used as trump cards for any and all argument over how to design and build cities.  We must widen all roads because god forbid you might have to wait in traffic for another minute on your morning commute because we've effectively told you via our infrastructure that it's the logical thing to do, to live outside the city, take your property taxes with you, and commute in daily, expecting free flowing traffic.  Because those outsiders are more important than residents.  So goes the logic.  Or at least the illogic and the resultant inertia that 'who could've ever predicted?' Well, Lewis Mumford predicted exactly that.  In 1961.  Yet, we're still ignoring him being exactly correct.

With that said, uptown Dallas is the hottest real estate submarket in North Texas.  Population density is pouring in as developers can't get buildings out of the ground fast enough to keep up with demand.  It's important to note the history of uptown.  It was once the thriving middle class African American neighborhood until the 70s and 80s, our Harlem so to speak for a geographical analogy, when suburbanized infrastructure ripped apart the social and economic fabric, which of course led to neighborhood decay, and then the S&L banks bought up huge swaths of State Thomas neighborhood expecting to build bank high-rises.  That all went kerplooey along with the banks themselves and the neighborhood sat as broken crockery, a house here a house there.  Huge fields sat within the historic street and block structure.

Long story short, developers saw an opportunity to deliver legitimate urban housing near where most people worked, downtown.  They had to fight the city to maintain the historic scale of streets.  They won and then uptown was born.  It's value expanding beyond the borders of State Thomas to CityPlace, now down towards Lower McKinney and Victory and eventually even across the dam that is Central Expressway to East Dallas.

However, it's important to note that other than State Thomas maintaining the historic street and block structure, the demand for uptown real estate is larely demographically driven.  Not place or infrastructurally induced.  We now see urban density conflicting with the suburbanized infrastructure that was imposed upon the original neighborhood.  The conflict is increasing demand for pedestrian activity and fast moving traffic.  The cars move fast, dangerously so, because the streets allow them to.  Nay, practically invite them to.

I took a ride around with a DPD patrol officer recently, asking him to show me all of the problem areas as he sees them from public safety standpoint.  This was after I spent a day walking around with a radar gun shooting average speeds.  He showed me the spots where he typically sits to catch speeders.  All of his spots converged with those same places where I observed speeds tipping past 35 mph, the speed at which pedestrians start dying when they're hit.  One of those spots, seems to be particularly problematic.  To wit, reddit:

So I'm walking my dog this morning and two Audi R8s come roaring down the street in front of my house around 8:00am. Two seconds later, there is a huge BOOM at the end of block. Myself and a few others go down wall someone calls the police. The black R8 had run a red light at the end of the block and had been t-boned by a Prius headed West. It appeared that the silver R8 was un-damaged, but shortly after I snapped the first pic, the driver of the silver car jumped in his car and drove off. First thing we checked was for injuries, but miraculously everyone appeared to be ok. The police did not show up for 45 minutes which is where things got interesting.
At the crash scene are 4 males 19-20 years old at best driving cars that cost well over 6 figures each. They have managed to total one and almost kill some people in the process. Instead of keeping quiet and waiting for the police to arrive, they start running their mouths and insulting some witnesses who had seen the accident and at one point trying to start a fight with a couple guys who had also seen the accident and called them out for racing. One witness had seen them hide a red cooler right after the accident. When the police arrived, he showed them the hiding spot where the found a bunch of liquor. Again, at this point you'd think logic would somehow step into the heads of these clearly busted drivers before the situation gets worse. Nope. At least 6 officers are now on the scene and two of suspects are yelling insults/threats at witnesses and flipping them off while one of the other suspects sits in wet grass in handcuffs...also running his mouth. At a couple points we heard officers tell them to shut their "punk mouths." You always here these crazy stories of entitled rich shitheads, but this is the first I've ever witnessed firsthand to such a degree.

Some redditors seem to agree:

I used to live right there! I saw three different accidents at that light, every single one there was a really expensive car that got smashed. Always heard lots of screeching brakes from midnight to 3 on the weekends too.

As does twitter:

  1. We have already had one guy end up dead in our fence. It's only a matter of time before someone plows into a group of peds.
  2. McKinney Ave is just as bad, I live at McKinney & Oak Grove and that stop light is used as a drag strip.

There are even pics.

Perhaps it's only my experience, but whenever I've witnessed drag racing around town, it's always on one-way streets:  Elm, Commerce, Carlisle, McKinney.  Perhaps, the risk averse personality types that are drawn to this kind of behavior, find driving in a lane of oncoming traffic a bridge too far.

Fortunately, this particular incident wasn't nearly as tragic as it could've been, as jmckee's tweets suggest.  But why is it even happening here in the first place?  What are our priorities?  If it was really public safety, would we even allow streets to be design in the middle of neighborhoods encouraging people to drive at unsafe speeds?  It's all about the rules of game we're playing.  Maybe the joker of congestion and traffic flow is actually the little joker and we have a bigger trump card.  The one where we prioritize public safety, economic development, and improved quality of life.  If and when we do, the traffic will take care of itself.  So why let it be the trump card?

Peter Hall: Life and Lessons

If you're a professional urbanist, there's a good chance this book sits upon your shelf.  The title is a bit misleading in that it's not necessarily about future cities, but the history of city planning.  And of course, embedded in the idea of planning is the fourth dimension of time, the dynamic of ever changing places and the tantalizing possibility of something better.  Unfortunately, city planners throughout history have a history of misunderstanding where the magic and vitality comes from.  Too often leaning towards the overly prescriptive, restrictive, and controlling rather than focusing on the framework for life to evolve by and for those that live it.

It's a lesson Hall learned during his career as his obituary from the Economist spells out.

At first, Mr Hall was an enthusiastic supporter of that top-down, rational approach. One of his early books, “London 2000”, published in 1963, argued that London and the south-east should be comprehensively rebuilt, with vast areas of the inner cities bulldozed and replaced by blocks of flats, winding streets by a rectilinear system of motorways and on-ramps, and pedestrians segregated from traffic by walkways in the sky. Detroit, the spiritual home of the motor car, was his guiding light. The planners, in their patrician wisdom, would determine where the people would live, where they would work, and how they would spend their leisure time. 
He soon changed his mind. Wherever that approach was tried—in Birmingham, or Glasgow, or around the elevated Westway in north-west London—it caused exactly the sort of ugliness and alienation he had hoped to banish. In the 1970s he began arguing that one way to deal with urban decay might be a bonfire of regulations; the idea, he said, was to “recreate the Hong Kong of the 1950s and 1960s inside inner Liverpool or inner Glasgow”. That sort of fertile chaos, he came to believe, was exactly what made cities so important, and such exciting places to live. He was an early advocate of the view—these days the received wisdom—that by allowing people to form connections with like-minded colleagues, cities are the engines of a country’s economic, cultural and artistic life.
Those sentences.  Re-read them.  It's an important lesson that what he witnessed was far different from the theoretical visions of the leading urbanists of his day, of which he was one.  The empiricist is always a better urbanist than the theorist.  Today, we've ceded this authority and top-down control to the traffic engineers in pursuit of the theory that if we just build a few more travel lanes, congestion will be cured.  Thine eyes on the street say differently.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Dallas AIA / GDPC Transportation Summit

Some interesting names listed. Tumlin will be worth seeing, as well as Monte Anderson who is doing some revolutionary stuff in the finance/development world for small-scale incremental development in the southern sector. I have no idea the format of the presentations yet.

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Monday, August 4, 2014

News, Notes, and Newts

First, the city of Dallas seems to think they need more park space and replacing a ten year old parks masterplan for 500k seems like a good idea.

Here's a link to the 'old' masterplan.

A critical aspect seems to be the amount of park space per capita and the expenditures per resident.  It plays well politically to say, "we need more parks and to spend more for parks."  But the reality is that we have 1) too much park space that we can't afford (city has been selling off park space) 2) they are individually too large and 3) are poorly located (are primarily drive-to), disembodied from their surroundings, ie the parks aren't integral to their neighborhoods nor the city (for the most part).  Those that were, like Fair Park, have been fenced, surrounded by exceedingly larger roads, and ringed by parking.  "Park."  

If the masterplan is to be replaced, it ought to be done for far cheaper.  No study of that scale can get into all of the details worthy of 500k.  It ought to remain at an overarching strategic level, outlining goals and best practices, and how to leverage development/investment in order to finance maintenance, ie sustain what we have.  Then proceed with more detailed studies on an area by area basis.


That brings us to everybody's favorite topic.  Say it with me, "How. COG. Doesn't. Get. Urbanism!!!"

First, a quote by 'transportation czar' Michael Morris from a 2007 article by Robert Wilonsky to whet your appetite:
"Most states are in the maintenance business," he says, "but thanks to this innovative approach in Dallas-Fort Worth, we're in the capacity-building business."
Bon appetit.

So adding capacity is the goal.  The only goal.  There is no larger purpose of infrastructure, such as long-term economic viability, ability to maintain infrastructure, allocated goods, services, skills, markets in an cost and energy efficient manner, choice to the consumer, etc.  Nope.  Just building bigger roads for the sake of building.

Let's also recall that the head of NCTCOG recently said, "we can't afford to expand our road system."
Let's stay in the way back machine to examine the 2009 NCTCOG sustainability grant call for projects.  Remember the words, "sustainability grants."

First, notice the focus areas consist of two types of areas, highway adjacencies and depressed areas of southeast Fort Worth and South Dallas.  The former ought to speak for itself, the latter makes some sense...for now.  We'll get back to that.

Okey doke.  Sounds great.  Let's shrink some of those horrifically overscaled roads that have plowed through South Dallas, destroyed neighborhoods, and made it downright deadly to live there... We can recapture that unnecessary, wasted land in the ROW and use it to leverage new investment, better housing opportunities, and new jobs in downmarket areas...

Reducing roadway capacity is ineligible for something called a sustainability grant.  Furthermore, when a transportation planner uses "capacity," keep in mind they are ONLY talking about cars.  They don't count pedestrians or bikes.  They don't care about pedestrians or bikes or getting people onto what is far more efficient, or building in ways that encourage other, more sustainable and economically productive forms of travel.  No broader understanding or discussion about capacity of networks or capacity of multiple modality.  Just more cars.  "Sustainability."  In a cup.

Ok.  So what is eligible?

Item 1.

Given that their focus areas are 1) highways, so entirely car oriented and 2) poor areas, what kind of projects would the private sector bring to those poor areas?  The answer is none.  So the only way to bring "investment" into those downtrodden areas is to just spend on infrastructure that doesn't leverage any kind of real investment or improved anything.  If anything, expanded roads will just exacerbate the problem.  Hooray!

And then if you try to argue the opposite of this little swindle, you too can be called a racist!

That brings us to the final point, which was a discussion on twitter:

Had a convo w/NCTCOG staffer once, raised several green txport ideas. Told me would lead to gentrification; bad.

Strong proponent of keeping housing prices low and avoiding death spiral by ubiquitous tolling.

I think staffer had very static view of zoning. I didn't understand. Cars depreciate, houses appreciate.

Paying more tolls from cheaper housing seems to lead to lower household net worths at aggregate level.

Did you catch that? A policy of actively trying to depress value. In theory, the idea of affordable housing sounds grand, but in reality housing is pegged to incomes (at least until foreign cash money floods in, but only a select few cities deal with that kind of outside inflationary pressure). CityBeautiful21 is also right in pointing out

Furthermore, why would an MPO concern themselves with what is a local issue? Gentrification is far more complicated a subject than "eww, bad" /sprays mace at it. In fact, another term of gentrification is demand and investment. At its core, gentrification is defined by the 'gilded gentry' moving into an area, housing stock improving due to the investment and demands of the upper classes, which often pushes the poor to move out. That's the simplest of understandings, the reality is that when done right, the locals are actually positioned to benefit the most from gentrification.  With investment comes demand for goods and services, that's job opportunities and the opportunity to start businesses. Half the problem in depressed areas is there is no local market. Locals have to leave to participate in the local economy. In NCTCOG-land, which really ought to be the new name of DFW, that means driving and paying tolls, which the poor can afford the least.

Nothing stays the same. Things either get better or worse. Without investment, even the Mona Lisa falls apart. NCTCOG, whether they're aware of it or not, is actively further depressing places if this is really the kind of policy to which they adhere.

Cities require an entirely different logic than the one that "was trained" into transportation engineers 40 years ago. Some, the good ones, have evolved, learned. If our core cities are to survive and once again thrive, it's clear we need transportation planners and officials that understand that cities require a different mindset, that urban design isn't a sideshow for decorating the side of highways with some planting, but integral to the form, function, and resultant behavior of cities.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Starting a Public Dialogue. Achievement: UNLOCKED

So August 7th will be a busy day.  I'll be on panels for both the Urban Land Institute (breakfast) and the Dallas BAR Association (lunch) discussing the present and future of infrastructure in cities with quite a distinguished panel.  See the links below for registration information:

One of the primary goals of ANewDallas was to start a public dialogue about the appropriate infrastructure spending for the appropriate infrastructure types/modes/designs for appropriate locations.  I think we're getting to that point of heightened awareness, of what was once considered banal and something to leave to the "experts."  However, transportation is one of, if not, the most critical elements in the equation of city building.  It is the branch structure which dictates what kind of and where the leaves go.  Yet, for too long the experts have been building branches to reach the fallen leaves scattered on the ground.  All we've been left with is a lot of dead or dying branches lying around like litter.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Bad Intx Catablog: Perhaps the Worst, Expo/Canton/Main

This is fundamentally about transforming sociofugal space to sociopetal spaces.  Intersections are inevitable in street networks.  In fact, when designed right, they are amplifiers of value around them.  After all, the intersection is the atom of the city.  Or alternatively, they can be subtractors of value as they create disorienting, unsafe experience that repels people and investment rather than attracting both.

A couple points of note.  An intersection is by nature a convergence point that concentrates activity.  Furthermore, a city by nature is about social and economic exchange, which is friction.  However, in urban areas, where we want to maximize activity in proportion to the infrastructure that facilitates it, we can't design for free flow and fast moving traffic.  This is the fire hose.  It erodes friction.

Today's example for the bad intersection catablog is my favorite/least favorite.  The clusterf of a centerfuge where Canton, Exposition, Main, and Commerce somehow come together and nobody comes out of the black hole formed by it alive.

I've used this intersection countless times in my 12 years in the area as a driver, a passenger, a bicyclist, and a pedestrian and I never, ever know on what side I'll be coming out of this intersection.  Or what road for that matter.  It actually looks quite logical in plan in the way that most oversimplified suburbanized intersections look in plan.  However, like this kind of engineering in general, it works for worse in practice than it does in theory.  One ways turn into two-ways, road names change, flying right turns facilitate high speed movements and scare pedestrians away, while visibility and overall intuition in how to move about in it is poor. I'm not sure there is a metric that this succeeds wait!  There is one.

The traffic counts are incredibly, shockingly low on all sides.  Listed above are the rough counts/capacities the roads are built for.  In our race to avoid the bogeyman of congestion, there is something worse:  traffic counts that are too low if not downright negligible.  The result is economic activity can't occur, businesses, close, and thus it can't support the wait of the infrastructure built to facilitate it.

Places for cars first become invaded, then they become abandoned.  On a long enough time line the survival rate of all things drops to zero.  Suburbanized logic tends to expedite that time line as it externalized complexity and similar elements that can't effectively be quantified, like quality of place, comfort, and thus the impact on real estate value, which is in effect, a measure of demand and the socio-economic potential of a place.

However, those concerns are quickly erased when you prioritize the firehose for the sake of free and easy traffic flow, which is always a myth except for on rural roads.  Damn those human needs for socio-economic exchange getting in the way of the engineered ideal that Detroit and South Dallas have achieved, fully ruralized urban places.  Or as everybody else calls them: failed places.

However, if we were to re-work this network into a re-urbanized grid, we're able to recapture much of this leftover space that has been decorated but not activated as well as the adjacent vacant lands that are a reaction to the repellent nature of traffic flow.  Density is energy condensed into a slow vibration.  Compare the atomic energy of pedestrian oriented places to high speed car flow.  This is the difference between a diamond and methane gas.  People are attracted to one and repelled by the other.

When you successfully focus these convergence points into pedestrianized spaces, you can create great spaces that attract development and thus reposition all of the surrounding underdevelopment.  When the suburbanized street network based on ruralized logic is the reason for the evacuation of investment, the network must be re-worked.  There is no tactical solution outside of tactical drone strike that can fix it.  Rather, it takes a fundamental reworking of the street block structure.  A re-urbanization in order to re-colonize abandoned places.

Why the Sam's Fight Matters to the Entire City

The crux of the fight over the proposed Sam's Club site at CityPlace to date has centered around whether 100,000+ square feet big box retail is appropriate within a transit-oriented development, whether it's compatible with the neighborhood (and whether that neighborhood was properly informed), the entirely car-dependent traffic it will generate, and whether it adheres to the city's comprehensive plan.  Those are all important debates, however in this post I'm going to examine the potential value of Sam's club on this particular piece of land in relation to other Sam's Club sites as well as nearby other forms of development, the mixed-use CityVille development as well as the multi-family Residences at CityPlace.

First, some assumptions and acknowledgements.  I don't have sales tax data.  Nor am I able to project the amount of sales and sales tax revenue from a hypothetical future Sam's.  I'm sure it will be astronomical.  However, 1) the majority of sales tax revenue leaves the city for state coffers and 2) the city's primary source of revenue is not these slivers of sales taxes but rather property tax revenue, which is distributed to the city's general fund as well as to city services such as DISD and public hospitals.  Therefore, from the city's perspective, property taxes are the holy grail and more importantly, we need to be thinking about them on a per acre and lifespan viewpoint.

Second, I don't have job data for a Sam's or a mixed-use building.  So in absence that specific data, see Joe Minnicozzi's chart comparing a walmart to a mixed-use building on a per acre basis.  The take away from this is that if you can fill the same amount of land on the full walmart site with mixed-use type development, you will blow away the walmart with smarter, more compact, more vibrant form of development.  With that said, there is little reason to expect that even the huge potential for sales tax revenue from the Sam's or any big box, wouldn't be matched by a mixed-use development (if not surpassed).  After all, retail sales will happen either way as a product of demand.  We might as well control the form.

I looked up each site in DCAD for land value, total value (improved + land), land area, and annual tax revenue.  Then I let excel spit out each of these data points on a per acre basis.  Lastly, I took these per acre numbers and applied each of these development prototypes to the proposed site for the new Sam's Club.

The comparables I'm using are the CityVille at CityPlace mixed use development, the nearby Residences at CityPlace, the existing site which is largely vacant, the Sam's Club at Loop 12 and its satellite pad sites, and the vacant Sam's Club at Five Points/Park Lane.  I felt it was important to compare an active Sam's to the existing condition as well as some future condition, because after all, how long is the life span of a big box?

MultiFam Comp: Residences at CityPlace:

Mixed-Use Comp:

Proposed Sam's Development (which shows a bit of the Residences in the foreground and CityVille in background):


The critical notes from the table are:
 - Mixed-Use comp has a total value double of the active Sam's
 - Multi-Fam comp has a similar total value of the active Sam's
 - Thus the ratios for total tax revenue are similarly 2:1 for the former and roughly 1:1 for the latter, respectively

However, on a per acre basis these numbers begin to change quite a bit:
 - Value and Tax revenue per acre for the Mixed Use rise to 4.91x that of the active Sam's Club at Loop 12
 - Value and Tax revenue per acre for the Multi-Fam rises to 3.5x that of the Loop 12 Sam's.


Above, we can see the significant jump in total value per acre as well as property tax revenue per acre once the residential component is added, essentially density.  For more on the economic productivity of building a walkable, mixed use city, see Joe Minicozzi's presentation to downtown Austin below:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Round-up in DOT Reform

So not only has the new executive director of TxDOT said some encouraging things displaying his understanding of the broader issues he and we face in dealing with issues of traffic congestion, the weaknesses of current supply-side measures in dealing with it, and the negative outcome of traffic fatalities and road safety due to car-dependence, but other states are also demonstrating the capacity for reform.

Arizona DOT commissioned a study a few years back showing that compact, mixed-use development actually reduces demand for driving and thus reducing congestion.

And that's only showing up to 10 people per acre, which is barely dense at all.  Real gains start to reveal themselves at around 30 to 40.

California is dumping Level of Service as a metric because you know there is a problem when engineers give a grade A or F and economists give the exact opposite grade.  Something is clearly amiss.

Tennessee, hardly the bastion of progress, says they will only be about building projects that are community-based and needed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Lesson in Capacity and Mobility

Too often transportation planning externalizes far too much information.  In fact, it always does.  Furthermore, the focus is always far too narrow, thinking about singular corridors rather than the network, only cars rather than all forms of transportation, a static land use form and density rather than a dynamic market that reacts to any changes to the transportation network, and rarely does it account for trip length, which is largely a by-product of the previous point.

Transportation is currently reactive rather than proactive when we should be treating it proactively in order to nudge the real estate market to respond favorably to a better city form.  Developers will always be profitable.  They're just playing by the rules of the game we establish.  Build transportation to instill and incentive to sprawl, they'll respond that way because the market seeks the cheaper, freer good.  Even though in this case, it is actually quite expensive...all because we have the transportation / land use equation backwards.  Helluva price to pay for an entire generation of transportation planners that were trained with no concept of how their work negatively impacts city form and human behavior.

Today (and often), I lament how much easier it is to make much longer trips in DFW than short trips.  This is subsidization of bad behavior and puts more cost on both the private sector (longer trips) as well as the public sector (bigger, more, ever new infrastructure) because the real estate market responds to this perceived advantage by stretching out along the hierarchical dendritic network that funnels you to ever bigger roads, eliminating route choice and adaptability by disconnecting the grid...because intersections are friction that slows flow.

Unfortunately for this logic, friction is also social and economic exchange occurring.  City, in action.  Precisely why this logic is fundamentally anti-urban, anti-social, anti-economic and is failing the world over.  It just takes 2 to 3 generations to play out as it takes a generation to build the system, a generation to test the system, and the third generation to say, "hey, wait a minute!"

Here's a critical point.  In the arterial/highway network, the hierarchy is imposed by central planners.  Therefore, it's more often than not going to fail.  On the other hand, through a highly interconnected gridded or grid-like system, hierarchy of place emerges based on accessibility.  The market responds to the most attractive, most accessible, most compelling places.  It HAS to be attractive and pedestrian friendly.

This is why the great public spaces in the world are at convergence points in the network.  Look no further than Campus Martius in Detroit how a convergence point can be redesigned for people rather than flow, a place to go to rather than thru (though you can still go through), to drive exponential value.

There has been no shortage of research about the advantages of reticulated (multiply interconnected) grids vs dendritic hierarchical networks.  You can glean a bit of that from these graphics:

Before even getting into the impact on real estate, the instilled demand for more parking, the widening throughout the hierarchy which then makes places pedestrian unfriendly and repulsive where commercial areas need to be attractive, in the physical sense of the world (compelling), this graphic illustrates how each trip is lengthened by the funneling and minimization of route choice.

I have no idea why the above image skipped so much space.  Deal.

Transportation planners love to talk about mobility.  However, you can see how much more mobile a pedestrian is in the grid network vs. the disconnected, hierarchical system.  A 1-mile walk on the loopy doopy streets barely gets you a quarter of a mile.  Incredibly inefficient.  Similar for a car.  And even worse, because of the inherent, imposed hierarchy, all trips must funnel to bigger and bigger roads, which means the traffic will inherently be worse and more congested on the higher ordered road, thus compelling transpo dinosaurs to further widen.  And on it goes.  Until it dies.

I'm going to take the remainder of this post to compare generic versions of the two systems to show how notions of capacity and mobility from the conventional, 20th century perspective fail.  And fail even to their own standards and priorities.
Before we compare the two road networks, a couple of assumptions.  First, we're going to approach it statically rather than dynamically.  In other words, we won't factor that a more highly interconnected network will generate more accessibility thus more demand thus higher density and greater commercial activity.  That's space syntax in action and I've covered that ad nauseum.  For this post, we'll approach it in the narrow-sighted, static approach that nothing changes after road widenings, but instead road widenings are a response to what we may conceive as demand.  Wrongly, because it is shaped by the network.  Tally ho...

First, we're going to assume these two squares are each exactly a square mile.  I drew them in CAD at 5280 x 5280.  The internal streets have roughly the same linear distance, ie roughly the same amount of total infrastructure.  For now, until some of the behavioral dynamics start to compel changes to the system, depending on the logic you use to approach the design.

As for further assumptions, let's use Dallas average population density of 3,645 people per square mile.  Let's also use FHWA data suggesting each person makes 3.79 average trips per day.  So below, we have two square miles each with 3,645 people living, for a combined total of 7,290.  Each square produces 13,814 trips.  Our starting point is that every street is two lanes, and the central spine is four lanes.

Moving North-South for the purposes of this analysis you see there are two totally different capacities.  First, the gridded side would have 12 total lanes getting you north-south.  The less connected, hierarchical system (with less intersections so you can go faster, yay flow!  Kids, out of the street!  Pedestrians, dive for cover!) only has 6 lanes.  So more of the traffic has to funnel over to the central spine.

However, no system exists in such a bubble.  We're dealing with 7,000 people total which is enough for a few neighborhood services like a small convenience store and a dry cleaners.  It can't support a grocery and all of the other daily needs we have, so we have to expand the system.  Let's say we extrude these two blocks into eight:

On the left, we remain connected.  On the right, because the logic is one of isolation and minimized "friction"/maximized flow we even further disconnect.  So the middle north-south road is no longer connected between neighborhoods.  All traffic must funnel to the central spine road.  Let's see what that looks like.

If we're just adding up the right side of the spine road, we now have 14,580 people.  Enough to start supporting far more commercial and recreational amenities, particularly if we add the two sides for 29,000 people.  From just the right side, that's 55,200 trips that MUST funnel to the spine road.  That means the formulas and standards will suggest we need to widen the east-west connectors to 4 to 6 lanes and the spine road to 8 lanes plus however many protected left turns.  The intersections get huge and we have to condemn all sorts of private property all because of the terrible road network (another disinvestment and displacement dynamic that we're not focused on here).

Total capacity is only 8 lanes and it is always congested with primarily only cars, travel speeds are likely much higher due to widened roads, reduced intersection density, and in all likelihood density/tax base diminishes and thus the area can no longer support it's own infrastructure.

On the flipside, because the entire left side remains connected north south, we still have 12 lanes linking north-south, more capacity than the 8 lane road has because we have multiple streets.

Also, similar to the analyses at the beginning, if you pick any random point on one side, mirror it on the other, the distance to get to the commercial spine would always be much longer, less convenient, and less adaptable on the right than on the more interconnected left.  Thus, there will likely be more pedestrian activity on the left.

Remember, the daily 3.79 trips doesn't necessarily mean vehicular trips.  That's how many times we're leaving the house.  If you don't need or want a car to make a specific trip, and you don't have to, that won't count against the vehicular capacity of the road network.

That allows us to reduce the 4 lane spine road to 2 lanes with more sidewalk space for the increased pedestrian activity, increased space for programming and activities like cafes, public art, bike lanes, etc etc.  All of which is even higher capacity because people obviously take up far less space than does a car.  Speaking of, since these trips can be made conveniently by foot or bike, that's less necessary parking space which maintains higher quality of space, less cost on the developer/business to provide the parking, and less cost on the consumer/residents since those costs will get past through to them.

Transportation planners from the modernist 20th century like to city "their training" says this or their training dictates that.  What if their training was wrong all along?  Should they be making the most important decisions that dictate urban form and market behavior?  That is precisely why the require increased oversight and communities and their elected officials must stand up to them in order to achieve the goals of better neighborhoods, better communities, and a better city.