Monday, April 23, 2012

Tell'em Angela

Councilperson Angela Hunt was interviewed by DMN transportation reporter Michael Lindenberger where she dropped this dime:

She was asked: If we don't expand highways, how are we going to reduce traffic in downtown?

"That to me is the most important question we can be asking ourselves," she said. "No one involved in transportation in a governmental sense, as far as I can tell, is asking the question or is interested in the answer to the question. But do we want to differentiate Dallas and help it grow into the future or not? We've expanded lots of lanes of road over past decade and yet our city did not grow in the last Census. I think that is significant. That is what we got for our highway money. We've allowed people to move further and further away.

And that is the real question. Why does every single person in transportation governance in DFW mistakenly think that they can build their way out of congestion through additional capacity? It's either incompetence or corruption of the highest order. Here is part of the reason, my piece on the four blind spots of transportation planning that inevitably leads them to supply-side solutions, as in additional supply, more roads, in the folly-fueled pursuit of free-flowing movement.

Know where I was most mobile in the last year? When I visited London and Barcelona. I could get anywhere and everywhere in those cities very cheaply and efficiently. Pedestrians and trains are always free-flowing, even when they're "congested." Because, like cholesterol, there is a good kind and a bad kind of "congestion." Pedestrian congestion nourishes real estate value and quality of place. It fosters authentic places by empowering the citizenry. It ensures long-term health, vitality, and resilience of a place long into an uncertain future of fluctuating gas prices and infrastructural upkeep. Ask Detroit how monotony of car-culture is working out.

While Lindenberger is right to pose the question, the answer really isn't that difficult. Building for regional transportation movement (to the point that it physically encumbers local movement and the value of proximity -- despite gas, operations, and maintenance costs to the private user that cripple the local economy) skews the real estate market towards car-based and regional development, ie sprawl. As cities are highly complex, adaptive systems, we have to understand that people (and in turn the real estate markets) adapt to changing transportation networks.

The real answer is replacing the highways downtown with developable real estate. Condemn them if you have to given the high degree of danger associated with them. The Right of Way (which is significant) can be converted into high quality, livable, walkable urbanism. As we've shown before, the inner city freeways are a drain on population and tax base. In the 245 acres around I-345 in downtown, the city generates only $3 million in tax revenue. When it could generate $100 million per year.

In other words, enough to build a modern streetcar line down Ross Avenue from West End to Lowest Greenville. The 20,000 new residents could walk, bike, and trolley to places of need. Because the value of proximity is restored. Or they could drive. The key factor is choice is restored and intelligence is built into the system via the users. They can choose the most appropriate and desirable form of transportation for their given needs for any given trip. Thus, less vehicle miles traveled and reduced demand. Meaning less cars on the street, less load on crippled, failing infrastructure, more free-flowing traffic (of all forms), and increased efficiency through propinquity.

The reason is that the highest and best use of land is for surface parking...or nothing at all. Vacant. The highways skew the housing and real estate market to favor shipping tax base outside of the city's boundaries while the city bears the infrastructural burden for a region of 6 million. Its rapid growth itself is indicative not of strength in the market, but fragility. It can go away just as fast.

If we're serious about revitalizing downtown, the answer isn't more highways. It's less. I was interviewed late last week by a writer in Baltimore covering the impending tearout of the JFX, I-83, which splits Baltimore in two, west and east, right down the middle. He was very interested in Fort Worth's relocation of I-30. I told him the effect of doing so was negligible and likely would remain so.

Sure, it enlarged downtown some, but it does little to change the movement patterns and demand levels built into the real estate market via transportation network. Capacity remained the same. The effort to move cars freely and easily is what makes it cheaper and easier to live outside the city (with your tax dollars) and commute into the city. It isn't a healthy interdependent relationship cities have with their suburbs (say, like Valencia Sp has), but rather a dependent one of host organism and parasite, sapping the host of its life. Slowly. And surely.