Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Column: Planes, Trains, & Automobiles (and the Paths Less Travelled)

Laboring a bit through my next column for D, so in the way that ADHD inevitably takes hold and the mind wanders adrift, here is the first draft version of my upcoming column for ahem Columns Magazine. The final will have the inevitable edits and cleaning up around the edges, but I'm told the final layout in the print edition looks quite good. It is vodka, refined. Here you get the whiskey, distilled in the two days between getting the assignment and the deadline:

Planes, Trains, & Automobiles (and the Paths Less Travelled): A look at the past, present, and future of Transportation in Texas and what it means for Architecture.

These days it seems you can’t throw a rock without hitting an architect who hasn’t succumbed to some measure of idolatry for Le Corbusier. Famous for his idea that a “building should function as a machine,” which in itself was little more than snappy marketeering, Corbu accidentally set off a string of dominoes in the architectural design and city building industries, ultimately resulting in something rather un-city-like and without a future.

Corbu, like many of his generation, was influenced by (and inspired to find a solution to) the problem of the city as they saw it. The industrial era city was a dirty, disease-infested, poverty-stricken, polluted place. Rather than correctly diagnosing and remedying the economic and political machinations responsible, the patient was blamed for being sick, the city itself. Around the same time, Henry Ford helped usher in a new era of industrialization, one that offered so much promise. Ford’s assembly line embodied the paragon of modern efficiency, churning out freedom-mobiles to the less wealthy and a much-needed breather from the early 20th century American city.

While other sects of the design world pursued the concept more literally, Corbu sought a similar efficiency in both building and city. If the city (in theory) needed to be a simple equation, the actual city was a mess chalkboard that needed erasing. Thus begot Robert Moses and a world where Could? was asked and answered far more than Should?. Whether it was his intention or not, Corbu’s influence and limited abstract metaphorically ideal city prioritized the individual building at the expense of the overall system. The resulting real estate industry became rather machine-like as well. The checklist approach allowed expansive physical growth unprecedented throughout the history of human civilization.

The Sun Belt jumped into the idea of car as freedom with both feet. The remnant city was something to be erased in the name of progress, a dirty reminder of that backwards time. However, the city is a far more complex organism than a factory floor. The Sun Belt as if ordered by catalogue very much resembles an assembly line, automatons communicating through beeps, blinks, and the occasional finger. Drivers are told when to stop, when to go. There really isn’t much intelligence built into the system, where a healthy, thriving city needs us all acting intelligently. In fact, individual intelligence is specifically intended to be turned off, externalized from the equation.

Only recently has Corbu’s equation been flipped on its head by a relatively obscure professor of urban morphology at the University College in London named Bill Hillier. In his career magnum opus, Space is the Machine, Hillier argued that the building is not the machine, but the spaces between the building. The city is the system. How we move about between our destinations contributes to the relative desirability and productivity of the place (or lack thereof). The connections between things is the essence of a city, facilitating our ability to live and improve our lives, thereby making our transportation networks the most critical part of cities.

Hillier suggested that the assembly line nature of cities and narrow-minded pursuit of “efficiency” corrupted the purposeful function of cities. Using statistical metrics measuring the relative spatial integration within cities, his work is the necessary objective counterpart to historian and critic Lewis Mumford who, in his book The City in History, theorized that “an effective network requires the largest number of alternative modes of transportation, at varying speeds and volumes, for different functions and purposes.”

And further that, “what our experts in transportation are kept by their own stultifying axioms from realizing is that an adequate transportation system cannot be created in terms of any single limited means of locomotion however fast its theoretic speed.” However, since we all tend to act rationally, the transportation equation has been tipped almost entirely in one direction through various policies and subsidies.

Our task today is in many ways to re-complicate the city into balanced and competing needs and speeds. What began in the Rust Belt and produced for the Sun Belt, actually produced today’s Detroit and Dallas. The lag time from the start of production to the delivery of the finished product will mirror the lag time in current and future economic busts. Detroit and the Rust Belt failed because of a homogeny of industry. While there have been several contributing factors to the Sun Belt’s homogeny of place, without significant and extraordinary measures taken to diversify the transportation “bones,” Sun Belt cities will face a bleak future.

Fortunately, many Texas cities have the necessary foresight (if not the necessary paralleled political backing). They understand the competition among cities and see the future increasingly defined by quality of life factors. Our cities are learning that job creators are the creative individuals who choose a city to live, work, and prosper in because of a diversity of place and experiences. They are who must be wooed rather than the captains of industry with the promise of healthy tax breaks and various other “smokestack chases.” A new economy brings entirely new thought processes and solutions as its carry-on luggage.

Economic development is a product of demand. And, demand is a product of demographics. Baby boomers are the largest population bubble in the history of this country and are beginning to hit retirement age. Many are looking to downsize houses and maybe even give up a car as their abilities and desires to operate it wane.

Millennials, those aged approximately 30 and down, have been called the “echo-boom,” but they resemble Baby Boomers only in sheer numbers. In many ways, the off-spring of Baby Boomers, Millennials grew up in car-dependent suburbia. Where cars meant freedom to one generation (as symbolized by James Dean – ironically, considering his demise), they meant something entirely different to another. Millennials spent their formative years dependent upon mom, dad, or the school bus driver to get anywhere. Their bicycle was their salvation; their independence entirely dependent upon how far their little legs could pedal. As the fat part in the bell curve of the Millennial population bubble begins to graduate college, cities must diversify to accommodate differing preferences, and that includes transportation mode.

Initiative:
Around the state new projects and policies are materializing to transform our cities long into the future. Within the last two decades, Dallas, Houston, and Austin citizens voted to construct rail lines, all now materialized to varying degrees. With the recent opening of the Green Line, Dallas now has 72 miles of light rail, making it the largest system in the country. However, as always, biggest does not necessarily translate immediately into bestest (sic). The DFW area is notoriously decentralized, lacking the density in order to properly support a mass transit system. The urban form lags in adapting to its new bones, which is not unexpected.

Where the Dallas system has managed to expand despite funding hiccups, the Houston Metro rail system’s expansion plans have been derailed. Having hit ridership goals several years ahead of schedule, the construction of additional lines has fallen behind specified target dates. In 2010, the City of Austin opened their one and only commuter rail line. However, its ridership has been well below expected levels. Where the Houston system was phased to first serve high employment areas, the Capital MetroRail in Austin was built to utilize existing freight rails and while helping to leverage development by specifically locating transit stations where there was little to no existing development that wasn’t already suited to the necessary denser transit-oriented style of development.

All of the aforementioned transit agencies also operate a vast network of bus routes. However, the intention to serve a decentralized private automobile-oriented city becomes a barrier to ridership and its ability as a mode of transportation to leverage organized city form around it much like the tension between the Houston and Austin rail lines, bus network planning is caught in a catch-22. While it makes for lousy 2nd rate car, buses in the form of Bus Rapid Transit can be pretty cost-effective 2nd rate rail lines (without the rails of course). In order to best serve both citizens (short-term) and city (long-term), the systems need the predictability of (relatively) fixed alignments linking a prioritized hierarchy of destinations.

With the rise in bicycling around the state and country, several cities have completed or begun work on city-wide bike plans placating the influx of millennials-turned-taxpayers and constituents. This, despite critics’ suggestions that there is not enough ridership and would never be to support the amount of investment in the plan nor the infrastructure, understands the nature of elasticities in transportation. There is no predicting what the usership would be without having the infrastructure to support it. Some critics see cyclists as nuisances while even some supporters of cycling initiatives believed the problem was simply a matter of education. However, having to dress like Lance Armstrong and be an expert to safely navigate the dangerously fast-moving and sometimes hostile traffic is an enormous barrier to bicycling for commuting purposes or recreation.

Fort Worth recently completed a comprehensive bike plan called Bike Fort Worth. The plan included provisions for individual bike trails, shared lanes between cars and bikes, as well as segregated bike-specific lanes within the street right-of-way. A critical component is the simple, straight-forward, and measurable goals established in order to construct the plan around and then used as afterwards as key measurable indicators of success, something too many plans, planning in general, and initiatives lack, a success/failure metric. Perhaps, we are afraid of that kind of transparency. These include decreasing the number of bicycle-related crashes by 10% and tripling the amount of bicycle commuters (from 0.2% to 0.6% which is 1/10th of Portland’s current bicycle commuting ratio and 1/50th of Copenhagen’s, incidentally).

Bike culture has also spawned a new phenomenon, one that could be known as Do-It-Yourself, guerilla, or vigilante urbanism where citizens reclaimed their streets, closing traffic lanes, adding parking lanes and/or outdoor seating, and painting in bike lanes in the street. When each executed well, in the right location, and with the right measure of brazenness, the entire neighborhood showed up, enjoyed their day, played in the street, met new friends, and local businesses had banner days as car traffic slowed.

Some similarly related efforts haven’t produced similar results. Usually, when vehicular travel lanes were not sufficiently reduced and/or narrowed to calm traffic allowing pedestrian activity to flourish. Or they were set up in a dead zone where not enough people lived to build a critical mass. It is not complicated stuff, yet we complicate it with rigid adherence to abstract, arcane, and often useless policies and standards.

Furthermore, none of the labels for the movement could be deemed inappropriate either as the actions of citizens arose out of the dereliction of the city’s duty to provide safe, context appropriate transportation as an integral component to high quality “complete” neighborhoods where residents can access all of their needs within a reasonable time, distance, and effort.
With the rise in interest and availability of various modes transportation, a Complete streets bill has made its way into the Texas state legislature (SB 513 & HB 1105). The bill, if passed into law, stipulates that all road construction projects using public monies must consider providing adequate infrastructure for all appropriate forms of transportation. However, to date widespread political support and understanding of the relationship between movement, balance and prioritization of mode, and resultant urban form is extremely limited.

The equation is quite simple. In a free market economy, there is a direct relationship between desirability and density. And density equals tax base, yet moving cars remains the number one priority dictating all transportation decisions. As an example to illustrate the backwards relationship, in the past 20 years, Main Street in Dallas has seen its average daily vehicle counts drop by 50%. The residential population has more than doubled, numerous businesses have opened and thrived, and it has once again become a popular regional destination.

They key matter in the transportation equation is choice. Allowing all to get to where they need or want to go how they want to, safely, enjoyably if desired, and at what speed they deem appropriate without imposing a danger or restriction upon others. Cars impose their will upon cities with free reign to squelch out other forms of transportation. This limits overall mobility at the detriment of cities, quality and character of urban development, and economic stability and prosperity.

Back to the Future?
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of today’s transportation dilemma is that for the first time in history, a new form of technology may not become the primary mode of movement, thus dictating the emergent urban form. High-speed rail would likely be the only mode or technology that might apply, but those efforts have gained little traction state-wide. What is clear is that the predominant technology, its speed, and the interface between use and movement always formed the limit to growth, an informal growth boundary, if you will.

Since transportation and development are inextricably linked, in terms of economic development sometimes transportation technology was used as the cart. Sometimes it was the horse. New forms of transportation allowed the value of land to be “unlocked” from zero to viable, intensified from agricultural or natural land to neighborhoods. First, it was the trolleys and streetcars, and then it was highways. The demand was created by a desire to get away from filthy cities.

Some of this was true growth. Some measure of it however was cannibalization. Highways were built into cities to deliver newly minted suburban residents into jobs downtown further increasing the motivation to get as far away as possible. Except, as is always the case, the jobs followed rooftops leaving behind empty shells of the original city, further exaggerating the problem. Some portion of this was a true desire to help, pursuant of some intangible idea of progress. Some was a bastardized version of Eisenhower’s Interstate system; Keynesian economic policies run amok despite Ike’s explicit intent to not disrupt existing urban fabric, neighborhoods.

Advancing technology historically allowed growth outwards, but if we’re heading back to feet, bikes, and trains, perhaps the next wave of growth and development will be back inward, towards central cores revitalizing depressed, underdeveloped, and left behind areas because of their locational efficiency. The modern city (not modernist) is or can be a pleasant, safe, and desirable place. Dirty industries have long since left and if not they will be quarantined as “Locally Undesirable Land Uses” (LULUs) so as to not negatively affect quality of life. Value is re-orienting to where “location, location, location” once again trumps “if you build it (anywhere) they will come.”

One of those LULUs often brushed aside as a necessary evil are those intra-city highways Ike lamented. As heavily subsidized, decentralizing forces, highways through our core cities, have flipped the equation so that it only made sense to live further and further out. However, the economic equation has shifted. When the highways were new, they leveraged new investment further and further out as cars allowed more and more land to become viable. However, we’ve overextended ourselves and we’ve hit and quite probably exceeded our limits of growth via the automobile. Exurban neighborhoods sit half-finished or barely begun. Our highways are literally crumbling, graded D- by the American Society of Civil Engineers in terms of their structural integrity due to deferred maintenance.

Perhaps it is time to unwind some of that progress from the 20th century that has left our cities bankrupt and bereft. We simply can’t pay to maintain them because there is no return on that investment. Furthermore, any investment in increased supply of roads only leads to a temporary reprieve of traffic. Remember that concept of transportation elasticity? If you build more roads, you get more cars, and in turn a less desirable place, therefore less density and tax base. When you remove lanes, not only does some of the traffic find alternate routes, some of it disappears entirely.

Then again, maybe there is a new technology that will transform cities. One that is partially responsible for that disappearing car traffic. The internet has the potential to be a parallel and interconnected infrastructure to our city. They are remarkably similar in that they have developers, designers, sites, network hubs, traffic, and interfaces. The web is the conduit and our smart phones and portable devices are our vehicles. The web allows us to increase our global interconnectivity because of the speed and cost at which data and information can travel. Social networking has proven to be an effective platform for clustering, improving local connectivity, as well as digital interfaces with transit schedules. We can be where we want, with who we want, when we want to be there. And by getting there by any form of transportation we deem appropriate and cost effective, it is a smarter system.

In Dallas, we like to refer to things as “world class.” Truly world class cities are already ahead of the curve, removing costly and destructive freeways, improving the overall quality of place as well as the economics of their cities. Citizens are no longer beholden to the expense of car payments, maintenance, and fluctuating gas prices. Transit agencies aren’t having to beg and borrow money just to survive because we’re afraid to make cars, roads, and driving pay the full cost of doing so. Cities aren’t behind on maintenance or without tax base. Police departments aren’t overextended and underactive, stuck in cars monitoring speed limits. Schools aren’t laying off teachers in order to pay for busing.

In the case of transportation and cities, bigger is not better. Better is better. And more profitable economically, environmentally, and socially.