Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Thoroughfare Plans and the Downward Spiral of (un)intended Consequences

The delay in the bike plan has raised the rabble from the woodwork and apparently really touched a nerve within those active, engaged, occasionally hopeful and sometimes cynical towards Dallas' efforts. Certainly this is partially due to the popularity and interest the bike plan had going into it. There must also be a growing sentiment that all plans, those that the citizenry really want and need, or perhaps only feel deep within their bones of intuition, are the ones that always fizzle. That only sit on shelves as plans for planning's sake.

Meanwhile, the world's ugliest building is finishing out. Soon to eclipse the previous holder of the title. Both local. All of that gets done because it's easy. It sort of strikes me like the South Park episode about Magic Johnson curing AIDS. "Just inject it with $250,000 worth of liquified, concentrated cash." It's not the city's money (for the most part), at least not yet. Until they start getting the maintenance bill or wish they had preserved some land for actual tax generated private property.

The map of downtown Dallas when you black out parking lots or garages, vacant buildings/structures/lots, as well as non-taxable entities (churches and civic facilities) is not pretty. There is a distinct imbalance between tax base, what might be called the vanilla ice cream in the sundae, i.e. the foundation the cherries sit upon and those cherries. All the big wow projects we get and then just sit.

There are a few abstract, generalized formulae I like to point to in order to explain how urban dynamics and morphology work. The first is that any place, area, city, or neighborhood exists within a continuum:

Macro Level:
Viable ---> Livable ---> Memorable or Lovable

and...

Micro Level:
Integration begets Accommodation (usable land uses, entrepreneurial opportunites, ie demand) begets Decoration (detailed design improvements)

Of course, there is a degree below viable which is not viable for concentrated human habitation. There is no opportunity there other than agriculture or nature. The degree which a place sits on that continuum is defined by its level of integration, locally, regionally, and globally. How connected it is to everything else. What we find is that often the infrastructure for global and regional connectivity often disrupts local connectivity, reducing overall integration and thereby dropping the level perhaps from Livable to merely viable. These include airports, shipping ports, rail hubs, highways, large arterials, etc. Likely as some kind of shipping depot, light industrial that wants to be by an airport, or gas stations/strip centers that want to be on regionally connective freeways.

What happened to many of the downtowns in the U.S., particularly in the Sun Belt was the fervor with which they pursued regional connections at the expense of local integration, that which can be safely and enjoyably walked, if one so chooses. There is an extremely high degree of mobility. After spending some time in Barcelona this summer, I'm not sure I can point to a better example. You can get to just about anywhere in the city, to all of your needs, near or far, quickly and expediently. Only on the rarest of occasions do the regional connections disrupt the local:

Notice the development around it has been ripped to pieces. Sure, things will infill, but the character is so poorly defined and integrated that it will never hold up to the rest of Barcelona. The eternal cooperation and competition between and within cities. It should also be noted the other Norman Foster phallic high-rise is right there. It's a common response to failures in the network to overcome them with extravagant buildings. Sometimes you even make it super shiny and glowy to cover up the degraded ground plane. Sound familiar at all?

Often times those destinations are close. You can walk across the street to them. Because I live in one of the few places in all of DFW where it is possible to get to everything I need within a few blocks including transit, my velocity is quite slow. Much slower than suburbanites getting to a their local Appleby's or whatnot. However, I can get there more predictably, more quickly, and while expending much less energy. The average Barcelona resident burns one-twelfth of the gasoline than does the typical Sun Belt resident. Little side note for you.

There are two problems here. One is the way we measure traffic efficiency and rate roadways, which is entirely by speed of movement. This is essentially coded in a way to always, ALWAYS favor car traffic and thereby sprawl as well as dangerous roadways. Why sprawl? Because the formulae used will always say that only more lanes are necessary, widening of all roads in order to improve traffic flow. The reason is because it is a broken system with an impossible end game. The optimal condition is NO cars on the road. Every other car is the enemy and an impediment to your and everybody else's trip. Hence, why you hate them, flick them off, curse them, and get out of your car miserable. Or was that just me?

Because the solution to every question is bigger roads, and the cities happily take the federal money, the cities end up gutting their own tax base. For every percentage increase in lane miles, ie size of roads, there exists a 1 to 1 increase in the VMTs driven by the citizenry. Meaning, the more roads that are built, the further afield everyone lives, the more everyone drives. Bigger roads invariably lead to a further spread out population, with increased infrastructural burden, lower density to pay for that infrastructure, and thus it is all failing. Every part of the system, from the financing and budget to the physical integrity of the actual structures themselves:

Because all cities and metro areas are required by federal law to create thoroughfare plans they must categorize every road. Furthermore, because of the way fed/state money is prioritized towards the bigger roads (highways and arterials) there is an incentive for cities chasing money like crack fiends to upgrade, reclassify, or "improve" roads towards the bigger and badder. These interupt the fine-grained local connective tissue of neighborhoods. It decreases downtowns steadily, with each new road from Memorable down to Livable and eventually down to barely Viable.

Meanwhile, land formerly out in the boonies, in places we now know as McKinney, Plano, Allen, Frisco, etc., went from not viable, to Viable, to Livable in some cases. It remains to be seen how many can remain livable and/or viable on into an increasing unclear energy future. I've written before how cities are always defined by the newly emergent transportation technology and how that technology is now the internet, smart phones, etc. The ability to be connected long distances (regionally and globally) somewhat effectively reduces the demand for regional and global connections. Sure, they're sometimes still necessary, but not to prioritize them while de-emphasizing the local. The local is density. The local is where people collaborate, innovate, interact, and invent. The local is what we must prioritize.

For a brief read on spatial integration, the math and measure of it, and how we decreased the level of downtown Dallas integration and connectivity, thus undermining demand while adding supply of speculative office towers, much of which have emptied out, please see here.