Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Two-Ways About It

The plan to two-way several streets in downtown Dallas has been kicking around for a while, so today's news that several are already in process and likely to be fully functional by year's end should come as no surprise.  I'm quite certain I've advocated for the two-way conversion effort in the past on a broader conceptual level, there are simply too many overly wide one-way streets in downtown Dallas that encourage high speed traffic and discourage pedestrian activity.

The typical response is that "NYC, Phl, and other places have one-way streets.  The problem with that response is that it is taking a similarly, overly broad stance towards the one-way vs two-way debate that isn't based on context.  The majority of the one-way streets in NYC are filled with traffic, bikes, pedestrians, cars, and buses.  NYC has one-ways out of density (that Dallas doesn't have), Philly out of history (narrow streets that Dallas rarely has).

Let's take a closer look at the streets in question.

Akard, Field, Federal, and Patterson.  Field is really the only one of much significance, although Akard is quite important as it is the extension of the Tollway into downtown.  Federal and Patterson are little more than alleys.  The decision to extend the two-way north of Elm is a curious one.  Where does all the traffic from the tollway go?  Certainly not onto Pacific nor the DART tracks.

I fully understand this is likely, and appropriately part of a larger strategy to convert more one-way roads to two-way to improve the legibility, navigability, and flexibility of the Dallas grid network.  The incremental strategy is typically predicated on "quick wins," which, in theory, would generate broader support and lead to larger scale interventions.

But what if those "quick wins" don't win?  Are we biting off too little, so little in fact, that there is little gained?  Or worse, what if those streets are so small, that making them two-way actually reduces their efficacy and integration value?  As long as pedestrian and bike traffic can flow two-way on narrow one-way vehicular streets, particularly small residential-scaled streets, the one-way nature isn't too big of a problem (as long as blocks are small enough to not steer people too far out of their way -- which actually is a big problem in certain parts of downtown).

(Akard, which is a hyper-significant road in terms of the broader network, scales down to a very narrow, pedestrian-scaled street once it meets the "main and main" intersection.  In order to go two-way, more parking was carved into the sidewalk, thus reducing overall pedestrian space.  Though, that reduced pedestrian space is rather vile, due to Chophouse burger and Fish Market spewing grease all over it.)

Furthermore, these small, back-alleyish streets are significant for loading, two-hour and less type temporary parking, loading, and pick-up spaces.  They are important interfaces between public movement and private use within the building.  If making tiny one-way roads (like Federal) into two-way with no parking (temporary or otherwise), is the street actually improved without that interface?  Where does the parking, loading, etc. happen that is an intricate part of the web of public realm activity?  It populates the street and does a good job of calming the traffic.

In other words, the pathogen to be treated and extricated isn't simply one-way streets as one-ways.  But rather, it's fast moving vehicles on overly wide streets that are hostile to pedestrians.  It just so happens that these tend to be one-ways downtown because wide one-ways encourage such vehicular behavior. They focus more on through movement rather than cross movement within a more complex interconnected network, acting as a barrier.  Therefore, our quick wins are looking at the wrong streets.

Instead, we should be moving forward with the strategy already proposed for Elm Street in Deep Ellum.  Make both Elm and Commerce two-way.  At five lanes wide and with the vehicular traffic counts of much smaller Main Street, they certainly can accommodate it.  They're the perfect example of these overly wide raceways that hinder pedestrian activity from spilling beyond the Main Street core.  By hindering pedestrian activity, you reduce vitality, and therefore investment.

Harwood would be another possibility for a great quick win.  It has effectively been sacrificed in the name of the Klyde Warren Park, severed from uptown, you can literally walk down it backwards, against traffic at any time of day.  The traffic counts have plummeted.  Traffic = value.  High speed traffic is better than no traffic whatsoever.  We've accelerated the inevitable process of invaded places to abandoned places and the commercial businesses along Harwood have suffered.

It is however a significant connection between Main Street Garden and Klyde Warren Park.  Since it will never regain its vehicular connection to uptown, we can improve its local connectivity factor.  Make it a two-way street with cycle tracks from the Farmer's Market passed MSG and old city hall, up to and thru the Arts District to Klyde Warren Park.

Vancouver cycle tracks, the future of Harwood?

I don't know how these streets nor the uses/investment will respond.  Nobody does until we try.  If it takes these "little wins" to get there, high fives all around.  However, I worry that they won't yield the results we're looking for, ie incremental steps towards something larger.  Though it seems to be part and parcel of the larger epidemic plaguing the city's efforts towards reurbanization, the politically expedient regardless of price masquerading as incrementalism (or economic development).  Usually all we end up with is "big buck, little bang."  Proper urbanism yields the opposite, a more profitable equation.  Lest cities never would've persisted throughout civilization.