Monday, September 19, 2011

Freeways to Real Estate, the Circle of Life

Urban Land Institute bumps their head on the road to Damascus, realizing, "hey, there might be opportunity in this," detailing the top 10 (and really, only 10) Highway Removal projects on-going in these here United States. The article even has a Dallas mention as "thinking about it," which I presume is regarding 175 and Dead Man's Curve. The list:

Spivak TOP TEN Highway

Because of this article and arming myself with plenty of defense for the obvious questions to arrive whenever an idea threatens to disrupt everybody's daily lives, I took a look back through comments of larger media outlets when they bring up the very idea of highway removal. The response is typically along the lines of "PREPOSTEROUS!" I won't go so far as to call these people idiots, so ignorant will suffice. And when they point to their reliable gotcha question of "where would the traffic go?" LA Carmageddon was kind enough to provide the answer in a contemporary context. It finds other ways to get around. Or it doesn't at all. And that is for temporary closings.

The highway along with cheap gas prices (which first socialist President Michelle Bachmann promises to set arbitrarily at $2/gallon) allowed for destinations to spread apart, often severing irrevocably the bonds of community. And that was when the cost of road construction was paid back in return thru cannibalistic development. Since building the freeways that made in-town living undesirable and out-of-town living (and commuting) viable, tax base fled to the point where we can't maintain the roads and infrastructure we built. Insult to injury, the elevated freeways of concrete reinforced by steel is literally corroding each other to the point that driving on them much longer is closer to a game of Russian Roulette than it is to a casual Sunday drive.

For long-term closures, like the aforementioned list, what happens is that people will relocate. The city, the state, and particularly the federal government are short on cash and looking to divest assets, particularly land, their largest one. Under highways we have right-of-way, given potential value in its proximity to assets and amenities like downtown. Along highways, but in private hands we have land where demand is low for anything but parking lots. You can thank the freeways. The cars to fill those parking lots pay taxes outside of the City of Dallas. The City is left with infrastructure and no residential base to maintain it. And it gets over-run and overburdened by the mandate of car use upon it. At some point in a downward cycle you can go downward no more until you hit bottom.

There is one consistency in all cities throughout time and therein lies a lesson. The golden rule if cities have one. And that is that they are defined by and created specifically to serve the wants and needs of the humans that build them and are served by them. Where we locate upon them might be defined as a fractal pattern of individualized and interdependent desirability of place organized across the geographic landscape. We need things to survive. We want things to make life better. To get those things require others, who in turn, require their own space. To facilitate these social and economic exchanges cities make various interconnected conduits: roads, sidewalks, interstates, trails, train tracks, bike lanes, etc. etc. Each of these can't compromise the others, but rather would want to enhance them, interconnect with them. They also can't compromise the nested spaces within the lattice-work networks for us to live, warehouse, interconnect, trade: ideas, goods, currencies, genes, etc.

Each city works the exact same. Except the means by which we move between these exchanges varies from city to city, mostly due to the degree of choice that exists for various modes and varying purposes. We've let a certain type of road building corrupt our cities. A Keynesian idea of spending to spur economic growth turned into a Frankenstein monster of a ponzi scheme. Build roads, get spending, get growth. But what if all that growth is specifically because of the spending of that money, a bloated financial and construction sector feeding into itself and then, in turn, upon itself?

Like most large-scale public projects the chance of graft and corruption is a large and opportunistic one. Railroads corrupted federal government. Highway projects replaced railroad ones thanks to the impressive and influential public works of the nazis. And we spread out. Sun Belt cities grew, in numbers and in size. The car and the roads allowed it as transportation technology of the day always dictates size and shape of a city. Except the car is no longer new. It is no longer popular. And we keep the industry afloat simply because. Because that is all we knew and the future seems frightful. No one seems to know what is beyond that curtain.

Count me as one not afraid. That is, because I see a future. One that must be dictated by the choice of travel and transportation. Where we can still achieve all of our wants and needs as a social species without having to spend a day in the soul-crushing conveyor belt of a polluted freeway that offs 40,000 Americans each year and mangles a million of us.

A business that is inefficient and stupid is likely to soon be a failed one. The cities we have built are incredibly cost inefficient in terms of the cost of infrastructure per capita AND the costs imposed on families just to accommodate their lifestyles or participate in the local economy. ie get to a job everyday. Having to own, operate, and maintain a car is like a de facto second income tax, simply because some politicians and road construction companies got fat off of state and federal tax dollars. Walkability is a tax cut.

The city as a machine is also a stupid one in that we have little choice to appropriate our day and direction. There are few routes and modes so we all hop in cars, get on the same freeways and arterials based on a dendritic-model, and get stuck in traffic every time there is a hiccup. And because of human error, inevitably there is an accident or the accordion effect that costs the economy billions every day, year after year, simply because we can't act rationally in our daily lives.

Taking out specific highway segments, and not willy nilly as people who don't understand basic fundamentals of urban structure might suggest to strengthen their own specious arguments, creates opportunity for the private market to get back to work, constructing highly complex, interconnected places. Building cities that will last, not as Richard Sennett writes in The Corrosion of Character:
The classic American suburb was a bedroom community; in the last generation a different kind of suburb has arisen, more economically independent of the urban core, but not really town or village either; a place springs into life with the wave of a developer's wand (ed. note: and the political entities willful desire for its own ponzi-fueled growth via infrastructure), flourishes, and begins to decay all within a generation.
The larger point Sennett is making in his book is that short-term, impatient people, as we have become, armed with short-term, impatient capital, and short-term, impatient investment armatures, can not possibly build a permanent structure, whether that be a physical town, a business, a family, or a community. Sennett laments what it is doing to us in that long-term relationships and structure are no longer seen as amenities but even as hindrances. They tie us down and prevent us from something called freedom, I suppose.

But with regard to cities, building costly infrastructure based on short-term ephemeral technologies is a doomed strategy. Along with Sennett's point, I would argue that the economics that drive our decisions based solely on short-term calculations also give us certain freedom. That is freedom and independence from long-term benefits or that which might be described as invaluable: community, trust, obligation, togetherness.

But there is no such thing as this imagined, unadulterated freedom. We are all tied together as neighbors whether we like it or not. My rent goes to property taxes, which pay for roads so you can live outside the city. Getting along is hard work, but it pays. Democracy is messy and difficult, but in the absence of it, there is no choice. You'll get the roads and you'll like it, because the road builders pay campaign kitties. Then you'll have no choice in how you live and work and commute. Then people stop going to live there, choosing other places around the country and world where there is more opportunity, more actual freedom. Where people want to be. And where people want to be is density (the by-product of desirability). And amongst others, we have to learn to get along, or not, but we find others that we can and want to get along with. Because we have to. It is in our DNA.

Unfortunately, it isn't in the DNA of Sun Belt Cities. There is no built-in adaptability. No choice. It is a dumb, monoculture. Not the people, but the system. The ecosystem if you will. The bees aren't pollenating the flowers. The trees are no longer providing shade and shelter. But merely getting logged because the short-term economics say so. And that is why they'll die much like any single purpose Silver Mining town once it is strip-mined did, without radical repurposing.