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  In transportation, that's the biggest highway and thus, when thinking within this outdated logic the response is to expand the capacity of that individual rather than thinking within the frame of a complex system, the capacity of the network, of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.

Monday, July 7, 2014

False Dichotomies

Because we're American and apparently stupid, every discussion within the public sphere and virtual town hall/rabble rallies that are online comment sections is distilled into two, often false, choices.  Apparently we like things black and white.  Right and wrong.  My side is right.  Your side is wrong.  When the reality is there are many ways, often better when further examining with nuance and a creative eye.

Take for example two pieces of news this week.  First, Texas GOP is backing away from policies supporting public money to build private toll roads.  Then this morning Diane Rehm had a panel discussion similar infrastructure problems / infrastructure funding problems.  The panel understood and conveyed the issues as if there are only two sides:  either you generate revenue via new taxes/tolls or you don't build or repair roads.  At the bottom of the article you get a vague sense of that from the two gubernatorial planks.  One says they'll raise more money (for maybe more of the same?  We don't know).  The other says the magical fairy dust (presumably of more debt) will keep us truckin'.

These false dichotomies tend to occur as civilization sheds one skin for another.  People are still too hung up on past models.  I imagine this is how the Catholic Church might have seen the emerging reformation: "do we punish these people with new and more tithes or ignore their gripes entirely?"  The key word in there is of course the root of reformation, reform.  Those in charge often fail to see it coming because they're too set in their ways to adapt with changing needs and circumstance.  Such is the thesis of Barbara Tuchman's book.

This isn't a raise money vs cut spending problem, although there might be some nuance therein.  It is that precise debate that obscures the real problem and solution.  What are we designing, financing, and building, and is it generating the greatest possible return on our public investment?  Considering half of TxDOT's budget goes to debt service, I'd say we're not doing a terribly good job of that at the moment.

The false simple choice debate also obscures another issue, whether public infrastructure is a public good.  One side says, "Yes!" emphatically.  The other side very well might presume it is best achieved and cared for entirely through private investment, but are unable to reconcile the privatization mantra from the public adherence to their entitlement of free roads.

I see infrastructure as a public good, when it is designed and built appropriately to maximize both the public and private good.  Unfortunately, we've gone off the deep end building something that is and ultimately will fail while projecting future growth will somehow save everything as we run faster and faster on the ponzi scheme hamster wheel.  When you over-build certain kinds of infrastructure (we have a habit of overbuilding every single kind of infrastructure in Dallas from streetcars to rail to light rail to highways) it is no longer a public good but a public burden.  It stretches private land use so thin that we can support the amount of infrastructure we've built.  More of the same only exacerbates the problem.

Worse politically, is the expectation that the Regionalism! approach that is sprawling towards Oklahoma will somehow continue to be willing to bail out the failing areas they cannibalized from.  The erosion of the ponzi starts at the center and slowly works its way outwards.
The other big news story to my mind was the Bexar Street development in South Dallas.  The debate I'm seeing emerge is also the wrong one.  Some seem to be saying it's too much money shoveled into an area.  Others might say, it takes a lot of money, time, and investment to revitalize impoverished areas.  The bigger issue at hand is appropriate uses in appropriate places.

Every subsidized, affordable housing development in the world will attract the desperate to their hallways.  They always have.  That doesn't make them successful.  In fact, more often than not, they're pernicious.  Because the indigent are moving in because they have fewer to no better options doesn't give them access to markets, skills, transit, and everything else they need.

We tried to create a top down affordable housing/mixed use neighborhood in an area that will never be able to support the kind of retail square footage that was allotted.  Never.  The area is an extreme edge, a border vacuum.  Almost three-quarters of a 1-mile radius around the area will and always will be floodplain.  Where will retail traffic come from?  Retail needs energy.  You create it at nodes, at convergence points in networks.  It needs to be the center of gravity, where the commercial component is appropriately in balance with transportation accessibility and for lack of a better term, gravitational pull.

I don't necessarily blame the effort, but rather the execution.  It was inappropriately sited for the scale of what was proposed.  Malcolm X and MLK would've probably been a better place to start.  If the land doesn't work from there, start radiating outward until it does.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

High Cost of Big Books err Free Parking

I have The High Cost of Free Parking, the book this article is based on.  You probably don't need to buy it.  It's huge and expensive.  You really only need the various articles like this one that summarize it because you couldn't nor wouldn't possibly sit down to casually read it.
"When you have people driving around looking for parking, this adds to traffic congestion and carbon emissions," Shoup says. This effect isn't trivial: Shoup has estimated that in a 15-block area in Los Angeles' Westwood Village alone, cars travel about 950,000 miles annually just cruising for parking, burning 47,000 gallons of gasoline and emitting 730 tons of carbon dioxide.

Friday, June 27, 2014

What Exactly Do You Do Here?

You should know, if you don't already, that I keep some pretty big databases.  Mostly because all of the various metro and city rankings that are released (that have some legitimate metrics to them) exist in a bubble.  There isn't a way to compare potentially correlated data.  So in that vacuum do metrics like Texas Transportation Institute's Mobility Index, of which, the congestion ranking is used as the be all and end all of transportation policy.  And it's horribly flawed to the point that it's adherence and adoption of policy based on it is downright pernicious to cities and economies.

So far I had been keeping up with metro metrics for things like highway capacity, population, gdp, commuting patterns, etc.  This morning while waiting for security installation at home I began including things like educational attainment (% of college degrees), walkability (using Leinberger's WalkUP measurement for commercial real estate % in walkable neighborhoods), and TTI's time lost to 'congestion' delays as well as their monetary value for said lost time.  This is where things start to get interesting.

The transportation dinosaurs of the 20th century love to substantiate their insatiable thirst for new highway capacity for two primary reasons:  congestion relief and economic growth.  However, highway capacity does neither.  In fact, considering what does yield (or at the very least correlate with) economic growth, new highway capacity very well might actually hinder these things.

(Note: some of these have far fewer data points as metrics occasionally only keep track of largest 10, 15, or 20 metros.  This is always a work in are cities...and policy.)

We'll start with the only oldie, but goodie:  Vehicle Miles Traveled to Highway Capacity.  It's pretty obvious the more and bigger roads you build, the more people drive.  The common mistake we make here is thinking that the tail of the real estate market wags the dog, when in fact it is the dog of transportation policy that wags the tail of behavior and development patterns.

The significance of this chart is that there are metros largely ranging from 20 miles per day per person to 40 miles per day per person.  For those 40 miles/day metros, people are driving twice as far, which means you need twice the road capacity to accommodate it.  Since people are already driving more because of past road building, we end up chasing our tail trying to keep up with the inertia of our own creation, hence, sprawl.

Think of it this way, if you take a traffic count on 635 in Dallas, you're probably counting the same car over and over again along several miles of it.  However, if you take traffic counts along Champs Elysees or a typical high density urban spine, you are likely seeing many different cars at each check point.  80k, 80k, 80k and very well might be 240k total cars.  You get double or triple the capacity simply by shortening trips without adding a single bit of actual physical capacity.
Now, let's get into some of TTI's numbers that have the power to shift policy all over the country.  Below is their average hours per year lost to congestion in relation to average metro commute times.  It isn't terribly surprising here that places with greater delay tend to have higher commute times.  However, it's also important to note that almost every city falls within the 25-30 minute commute time.  This holds true when you expand the chart to include many more metros.  The two outliers off to the right, below, are also the highest incomes of the metros charted (NY and DC - where median metro income is 26% and 40% greater than median large metro income).  People are willing to tolerate longer commutes for significantly increased cash money.

Since that last chart made sense that means we absolutely have to add more highway capacity, right?  Not so fast.  Let's compare highway capacity (lane miles per capita) to delay...

Huh.  So, you're telling me that adding lanes does nothing to eliminate delays?

Earlier I referenced that people will spend a bit more time commuting in order to make more money.  However, as the above chart shows, the correlation between commute time and income is fairly weak since all cities tend to exist in this half-hour radius tension.  Notice again, most cities fall within that 25-30 zone that all cities throughout the history of time have also.  Infrastructure moves the market more than the market moves the infrastructure.  So why do we design our infrastructure where origins and destinations currently are if they're ever shifting based on the infrastructure we build?

/raises hand.  "I know! I know!  It's because we let dinosaurs with blinders on determine the outcome of the most important and complex invention in the history of civilization."

When you think of congestion (when it's framed simply as a traffic engineering problem), you think of traffic jams.  When I think about it from an urban point of view, I think of it as commerce, friction, people getting around creating social and economic exchange (which is precisely why funneling people INTO cars then INTO narrow highway corridors in the densest, most active part of town is terribly misguided and short-sighted).  Instead of traffic jams, think of Jane Jacobs' sidewalk ballet or Ben H. Baillie's public ice skating rink (same idea).

The point of the previous paragraph was to provide context for the preceding chart showing that delays are greater in areas of higher GDP.  There is simply more friction, more economic activity happening, thus more delays...particularly if you're trying to drive through it.  I have very little delays walking around (provided there is ample choice and availability of things to walk to).

Not a dissimilar graphic above, since TTI uses their delay metric to calculate the cost per person congestion costs residents of each metro.  And then we're all supposed to think, "OMG, we better invest in bigger roads because it's costing me money," when they trot out their $120 billion per year lost due to congestion.  But there is a catch that isn't mentioned.  It isn't even what is visible above that more economically vibrant places tend to be more congested.  Nope, more critically...

Those places that make more money, despite having 'greater congestion', actually spend a lower percentage of their income due to these supposed congestion delays.  So, what exactly are we 1) measuring and 2) trying to ameliorate?

So when we compare walkability via Leinberger's WalkUP metric of percentage of commercial real estate (the places of social and economic exchange) within walkable neighborhoods to TTI's congestion cost, we see that, yes, indeed there is congestion (by TTI's metric) is related to the amount of walkability.  Those darn pedestrians (who aren't in cars and causing vehicular congestion) are getting in the way and keeping me from driving 60 mph, which is how TTI measures congestion (whether cars are going fast).  This is one of the fundamental flaws of TTI's mobility index.  They aren't measuring mobility at all.

So when we compare to delays, it's basically the same chart except it is compressed (and I'm unable to delete it from the formatting so here it is).

Now sticking with Walkability metric, let's compare WalkUPs to education rates.  Pretty strong correlation.  The question is, does a more highly educated populace demand and create more walkable places or do the more walkable places attract more highly educated people?  Save your "correlation =/= causation" regurgitation.  Cities are complex systems and within complexity is feedback loops.  They feed into each other in a positive reinforcing circle.  It's how all cities work.  In the opposite direction, when you unwind any thread, say disconnect urban fabric with more highway capacity, you'll lose people and see disinvestment which then creates a negative feedback loop driving more people away, etc. etc.

This last one is my favorite because it includes walkability to both education and income.  We already know that higher education = higher income, but when do we start talking about higher walkability = higher income (growth!) and a better educated citizenry?  What exactly are we measuring?  What do we care about as a body politic?  They say you measure what you care about and given TTI's metrics and the amount of attention they get and policy they shift, you'd think all we care about is congestion.  However, there are far better places of investment...even ones that see returns on investment, unlike new highway capacity.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Kubler-Ross Model on Line 3, err Stage 3

We did it!  We made it everyone!  We have finally advanced the fossils of the 20th century beyond the first two stages of grief as we read an op-ed firmly planted in the bargaining stage:  Keep the Faith on Trinity Parkway's Benefits to All of Dallas.

You remember the first two stages don't you?  Denial, "it's funded and approved.  Nothing you can do.  Get over it."  Anger, "nothing but no good hipsters and rich people trying to punish the poor."  Forget for a moment that the op-ed linked above is utter nonsense or that car-dependence actually punishes the poor more than anybody else (and that's who you claim to protect? Yay, paternalism!) or that Dallas county is bleeding jobs outward, primarily to the north so that South Dallas residents must either drive further or leave altogether (both of which are happening).  No.  Instead, what I love most is the picture accompanying the piece:

"Here are some wildflowers.  Aren't they pretty.  They're inside the levee.  Now imagine this replaced with a highway?  Ain't it grand?!" ...k...

That was fun.  Now for my real point: the nonsensical drivel that propels the dinosaurs to write that "new highway capacity eases congestion and drives growth."  Both are incorrect.  Dramatically so.  "But if we just repeat it ad nauseum people will believe it!"  Or, "if we don't even question that assumption ourselves, then we can believe what we write!"

Here's the real problem with the assertion.  We know that as you increase highway capacity, the amount everyone drives goes up.  What traffic engineers don't realize, is that they think they're chasing the market, where origins and destinations are.  But in fact, they're pushing the market, shifting where those origins and destinations are.  We don't blame the leaves for their location on the tree, it's the branches.

If driving goes up (increased private sector cost to get around) because of increased highway capacity (increased public sector cost), what are we actually trying to achieve?  Just more spending?

While there is a less strong correlation between the various GDP per capita data and amount of miles driven, it still appears to be negative.  Regardless, we know for a fact that it isn't a positive correlation.  The more people drive, the economy doesn't improve because driving around is but the means.  It is waste.  Hence, my point about Copenhagen (54% of trips by cars, 4% of gdp spent on transpo) and Houston (95% of trips by cars, 14% of GDP spent on transpo).  The 10% gap is waste simply to do all the exact same things while not agglomerating economies in an efficient, profitable, sustainable, and resilient manner.  The inertia is like the tides eating away at the foundation beneath the beach house.

Because there is no new wealth to be gained simply by spending public dollars in frivolous manner.  Ultimately, transportation is about allocation of goods and services in the cheapest and most expedient way possible.  High cost of infrastructure and high cost of getting around is literally the worst idea we've ever adhered to...luckily for most cities around the world, they've learned this lesson far more quickly than Dallas or NCTCOG or TxDOT.  Though there seems to be some new blood in TxDOT.  Severe debt and no sign of new revenue tends to shake up the thought processes.