Monday, April 11, 2011

Deep Ellum Streets

There are a few reports out there about the new Deep Ellum one-way to two-way conversions (here and here), which lean to the overly contrarian and underly informed, however not completely without merit (which I'll get to). First, my initial comments on the reaction to the plan:
The "odd bump-outs" reduce the distance for pedestrians to cross while helping to call out and delineate the parallel parking. State-Thomas is full of them. A little gesture, I know, but when travel lanes begin to exceed 12+ feet and travel speeds often exceed 35, 40, 45 mph, every bit of increased room for pedestrians helps.

Going back to two-way is fundamental to increasing driver choice through the area, overall connectivity, reduced "circling," and greater visibility/access for local businesses.

For the question that "this is a car city, why do we need bike lanes?" Why do we need sidewalks then as well? If we don't provide safe infrastructure for pedestrians or bicyclists, then we will never have them, and they are fundamental to having a vibrant and economically resilient city.

Furthermore, for those suggesting "speed enforcement" or regulation is the answer, I can tell you that it is not. People drive the speed that they feel comfortable driving. If the roads are designed too wide, one-way, and "without friction," things that make drivers naturally slow down, then people will drive as fast as they feel safe doing so.

But, if you like that this city and the state are drowning under the weight and inertia of car-oriented infrastructural costs and the associated maintenance and upkeep (which the roads are literally falling apart because our density and tax base is too low AND a direct response TO that car/speed-centric infrastructure), keep on keepin' on.
Point being, Deep Ellum's streets are too wide. They prioritize moving people through the place over any streets other functions, which includes place for people to spend time (instead of just saving time) as well as crossing streets (for cars and pedestrians alike) as equally important as the point A to point B link that we think of most roads being.

Here is where I think the city is going about things the wrong way, starting with their failed effort at a Better Block in Deep Ellum (see why it failed here). They drop new designs and the construction as if from the sky. It is not incremental. It does not "learn." Nor does the neighborhood slowly learn and adapt. It is expensive, which is the real issue here. But perhaps, more related to these articles and the local responses they represent is that people resist change, no matter whether it is good for them or not, particularly businesses which are adapted specifically to the status quo (even if the status quo of that area will sink all ships).

What they SHOULD do, which is exactly what we proposed when going after the Complete Streets masterplan, was that the designs should be designed and built over a period of time, starting with a Better Block style "reconstruction." Restripe the streets, add new planters, increase amount of pedestrian space, convert to two-way, but don't yet bother with the cost and time of full design and construction. Instead, monitor the usage of the new design. See how people are reacting. Measure things like the amount of pedestrians on the street at given times, travel speeds, number of cyclists using it, number of cafe tables set up and occupied, etc.

Then, slowly but surely, as investment begins to trickle back into Deep Ellum, as it is repedestrianized, begin to make some of the changes permanent, piece by piece, as the tax base is increased.

What must happen for Deep Ellum to "rebound" is not for it to once again become what it was before. It needs to be a neighborhood first. Not merely a going out place. Fortunately, there is a mega-employment center on either side of it. I'm talking about Baylor hospital and downtown. Deep Ellum offers the opportunity for residents that are priced out of uptown and downtown to live near where they work and reduce their transportation costs. The resulting character of the place will reflect the personality of the residents that move in. And right now, nobody knows exactly what that will be, but certainly a certain percentage of people will cry "keep Deep Ellum ___whatever____."

The thing is, cities change. Character of places change. But, they don't last long enough to see another life if it isn't a desirable place to be. And with cars zipping through most days on those one-way roads, it is hardly that. Deep Ellum needs an increased residential base to provide some stability to it and making it safer and more comfortable for pedestrians (to walk to Baylor and/or downtown) is necessary for that to happen.