Monday, February 1, 2010

No No No No No No No No No No No No 1000x No

Pic from KERA article here.

How does the supposedly ancient Chinese saying go? "May you live in interesting times?" I'm going to expand that to may you live in interesting places, attribute it to myself, and call it a day. Dallas is an interesting place, if only for its bipolarity.

Saying two: "Everything in moderation, even moderation." At least we know who to attribute that one to, even if we only get half of it right. We boom and bust with the best of them don't we? A perfectly arched swan dive into a pool sans H2O or otherwise.

I've often talked and written about this phenomenon and that while Dallas possesses great energy and spirit it, sometimes it's gatling gun needs a little bit of direction so we stop killin' friendlies.

In this particular case, I'm actually talking about traffic, transportation, and street planning as I came across this news tweeted from the Observer, interrupting my perfectly happy workout:

Natinsky: Make Sure New Downtown Plan Remains Open to Closing Main Street to Cars

While I question how serious the City would really investigate this option, I think it would be a mistake. You might think, "hey, you're a carless guy. You should love it." Well, you would also be as wrong as TO on the Cowboys...again.

You would be wrong, because of the hundreds of pedestrian plazas attempted in the US, as Copenhagen successfully implemented the same idea, maybe three or four total were successful.

You would be wrong as William Whyte once said, "show me a pedestrian mall and I'll show you one that should be two blocks shorter."

You would be wrong because downtown Dallas already lacks as dense of a grid or street network as it needs. Density of intersections per area is proving to be a successful, valuable metric for both traffic and pedestrian safety, critical for anthropocentric places. Eliminating traffic on Main permanently would have the opposite effect than is intended.

You would be wrong because it requires density to support pedestrian-only streets or precincts. While based on percentage growth, Downtown Dallas going from 3,000 residents to 5,000 is impressive over the last decade. However, a smaller area of lower Manhattan went from 25,000 to 50,000 even after several of the buildings fell on the city and it was mostly young families with children.

You would be wrong as it violates the concept that I call convergence, necessary for economic development. It is necessary because it concentrates energy into clustered points, "nodes," or districts (depending on the size, scale, and intensity of the convergence). The highest value areas want to be in the highest traffic areas if and only if the design is humane and of quality (i.e. the traffic is comprehensive: foot, bike, car, bus, train, etc.).

The above represents a map of Downtown Dallas. The green lines are two-way streets and the yellow are one-way. I'm of the opinion that two-way are generally preferred for walkable, pedestrian friendly areas. While it is not a singular either/or defining criteria, it also supports increased convergence as later diagrams will illustrate.

This is the overlay of the Downtown Portland grid (everybody's favorite these days) at the same scale; rotated to match the orientation of the Dallas grid. You will probably notice two things immediately:

1) it is much much more dense and intricate than is the Dallas grid. From a pedestrian point of view, more regular intersections creates for more visual interest, thus providing the perception of foreshortening distances between destinations. For the driver (and preferrably two-way), creates for increased flexibility to react to traffic interruptions or predictability for wayfinding (I can't tell you how many cars I have seen turn down the wrong way of one-way streets in Downtown Dallas).

2) That's an awful lot of one-way roads, I thought you said...

Yes, Portland contradicts two things I typically advise. And those are that two-way streets are generally preferred (but not required) and an overly regular grid can be a little too relentless and unpredictable. Eventually, people (aka "the market") will work out where the best locations for various uses are, but it takes time for a hierarchy to emerge as the city adapts to various amenities, high quality businesses, etc. As I pointed out in the West 7th post, some form of a regular grid hybridized with a more Baroque form pinpoint areas of strong convergence or monument.

It just makes intuitive sense that two two-ways will create more convergence than two one-ways.

Here is some serious convergence. This is DC. As I've written, this was the hybridization of L'Enfant's original plan and Jefferson's ideal grid as agent of Democracy (There is 2-D convergence in the grid, 3-D in the mix and proximity of uses, and 4-D with a Metro station below). I'm suggesting that an imposed hierarchy is ok, as it provides predictability for investment. Once again, those places of high concentration can only reach that "highest and best," i.e. private investment if the public realm is designed particularly well. Furthermore, the inefficient block sizes/shapes particularly close to the areas of convergence is often offset by location (near convergence) and unique if not curious building form. Think Flatiron building.
In the case of Main Street in downtown Dallas, it has convergence for approximately a three-block stretch where all of its feeder roads are tamed into a pedestrian-scaled, two-way street. Even at its busiest, typically on a Friday or Saturday night, pedestrians own the street. This is a good thing, but it doesn't mean we need to completely turn the street over to pedestrians.

Cars are still contributive to convergence that helps make Main Street successful today. They move slowly. Narrowness of the street and the "friction" created by pedestrian activity, parking, valets, etc. force cars to move very slowly. There is nothing wrong with slow moving cars. As traffic engineer Hans Monderman once said:
They also found, in surveys, that residents, despite the measurable increase in safety, perceived the place to be more dangerous. This was music to Monderman’s ears. If they had not felt less secure, he said, he “would have changed it immediately.”
And, where would bachelor parties parade their limos???

If we can get the population of downtown up to 30K-plus, then it might be realistic to make a pedestrian only street work. Until the time, when there is enough density to provide day/night life to a car-free district, it would be a ghost town.

Lastly, we already close it down for special occasions. We should keep it that way. What's the point of closing it when no one is on it anyway (for the record, I just walked down Main Street immediately before writing this and I counted four pedestrians and two cars).

This isn't to say that the idea might not have merit down the road, but now is certainly not the time. By down the road, I'm guessing at least twenty years. Temporary closings for special events is still preferred. That is what Austin does on 6th street for weekend nights and special events and it is the right thing to continue to do.

  • No need to rush. This is one of those things that will be demand driven. First, create the demand for a pedestrian-only district through increased density spurred by the following recommendations (and those in the parking post from last Thursday). Don't supply it and expect it to happen. This was why American cities failed the first time around..
  • Main Street is WORKING. It is the most authentically urban piece of all of Dallas (with apologies to McKinney, parts of Oak Lawn, Lakewood, and Jefferson, yes Jefferson). Focus on livability of downtown to create density. Think of downtown as a new model of neighborhood that just so happens to have a hundred thousand day time jobs.
  • Which brings me to the this (which the Downtown 360 plan is already focusing on to some extent), tame the streets that are causing the problems. Right now, as I said there is a three block stretch of Main Street that is functional. It is Livable. Incrementally and systematically expand outwards with what is working, narrow two-way streets with parking and adequate and attractive pedestrian space where drivers have to be smart. Treat drivers like they're stupid and they will turn their brains off. Works with people too, not just drivers. Yes, I distinguish between the two.
  • A better move than screwing with Main Street would be taming Elm and Commerce**. In an ideal world (even with the inner freeway loop), exactly none of the internal downtown streets would be feeder roads as Elm and Commerce function as for Main. The feeder roads should stop the moment they enter downtown. And by stop, I don't mean stop, but become Livable, ie Jaywalk friendly - the context-sensitive and complete streets movements offer plenty of guidance.
  • Needs more thought about where and to what extent, but one thing that might be fun would be to go full on Woonerf in some places rather than pedestrian-only with chicanes to slow traffic and create numerous little pocket parks or otherwise points of intrigue.
** Last week I witnessed two cars drag racing on Commerce at 11 am on a Monday. I was amazed. Of course, this only occurs because of the street design. People will always drive the speed they feel comfortable. I informed a city official, and coincidentally or not, there was a cop stationed there this week at the same time of morning.