Monday, June 11, 2012

You Must Walk Before You Can Run

MP421 - Avatar New Body Clip from Jayvon Rymer on Vimeo.

DMN has run a cover piece regarding how DART can increase ridership now that it's pretty well built out (except for that future line to the airport, which is rather significant).  The first thing we have to understand is that transit requires density to work.  In fact, transit requires a minimum of about 12 residential units per acre for it to work (equivalent approximately of a townhome development).  Ridership really begins to spike at 20 units per acre and begins to flatten out (ie significant ridership gains) at 40 units per acre (multi-family development).

DART serves primarily Dallas, that city being the hub, but it also extends well out into the suburbs, connecting Richardson, Plano, Farmers Branch, etc via fixed rail service (and when we're (DMN) as talking about raising ridership, they're talking about the trains).  The system is often discussed as being the largest (longest) light rail system in the country.  It is that way because it is so extensive, serving a low density, sprawling area.  The average density of the city of Dallas is 5.5 people per acre (keep in mind that isn't residential units as the ridership figures above is using).  And the DFW metroplex (MSA) is slightly under 1 person per acre.

Dallas's physical relationship to DART is very young in terms of city morphology and evolution.  We live day to day.  Or year to year.  Cities live generation to generation.  Sleeping, waking, and rising, with every new generation to take over the reigns of power and applying their vision of a city usefully adapted to their needs of the day.  Whereas now that DART is nearly fully built out, it is rather mature.  In effect, DART and Dallas is like having an infant born with fully grown legs.

Here is where we made a mistake, we overvalued TOD (transit-oriented development) while undervaluing walkability, assuming TOD would create both density and walkability.  And why not?  In every other city in the world where transit is convenient, the real estate is more valuable at transit.  Once again, traffic drives value (particularly of the foot traffic variety).  Except, that density was there before hand.  Density and walkability made transit viable in those places because the tax base was in place (density) and driving wasn't desirable because the infrastructure would tear up said density.

TOD (while I support it) was hyped like the Facebook IPO, at least in terms of its real estate and impact.  This meant the land was overvalued around transit lines (goody for you if you owned the land there), which then trickles thru the real estate delivery market as mixed-use or high density residential and eventually passed on to the consumer in the form of higher rents or condo prices.

Within the local market, we're talking like uptown prices.  The irony is many of the most successful urban developments aren't well served by transit: State-Thomas, Addison Circle, Legacy Town Center.  Even the densest area of the city according to the 2010 census, the emerging Fitzhugh/Henderson area east of 75 has no rail access within a mile.

Why would I want to live at Brick Row in Richardson when I could live uptown or downtown or Deep Ellum or even way out in Legacy (if I worked up there) at a similar price?  Places large enough to support a critical and necessary mass of residents to support and patronize neighborhood support retail and other amenities.  Many TOD sites aren't large enough to be complete neighborhoods yet are priced like they are.

And it shouldn't be underestimated that rail, by nature is also disconnective except at station locations.  And even then, it is usually grade separated, mitigating one problem (disconnecting street networks) while creating another (removing visual integration, "eyes on the street").  Because of rail's divisive nature, it is extremely difficult to make immediate station areas act as centers, when the rail makes an edge.  This is why the sweet spot for neighborhood retail near transit is more likely 3 to 4 blocks away (hypothetically) at the local center of gravity.

However, those are precisely the points where TOD and attempts at urbanism bump directly into suburban arterials rather than high streets and low density neighborhoods full of NIMBY activists.  And therein lies the issue at its most fundamental level, the tension between urbanism and sprawl in form, psychology, and le

What these places have is walkability.  Much like the older cities we revere for their transit systems.  They too first had walkability (density + proximity), which then spawned the need and want for transit to link them with other emerging areas of their growing city, safely, conveniently, and efficiently.  In other words, like a young infant, we have to walk before we can run (or ride in this case).

Does that mean we should demonize DART for raising prices and trying to survive.  No more than demonize a baby bird that fell out of its nest.  It isn't being given a fair shake while it raises fares to cover costs.  Meanwhile, no thought is being given to tolling existing highways.  It is the road and highway network that spreads the real estate market so thin, that it can't possibly support DART.

Returning to DMN's initial question, what should DART do to raise ridership?  Well, there are no simple solutions, no magic pills, for immediate solutions to the underlying logic and DNA of our city which is sprawling and car-based.  Most answers are superficial, rather than repositioning the policy to get the intended results.  Changing the genotype to get the desired phenotype.  Otherwise, we're playing Mr. Potato head to change ourselves rather than examine why we're a freakin' potato in the first place.

Like historic cities that evolved gradually into having transit systems, we have to walk first.  Which means amenity + proximity = desirability.  Desirability and affordability (living without a car if you so choose) = density.  Density = transit.  A start would be for DART to start advocating (strenuously) for all highways to go to tolls for two reasons, 1) so that these roads have to begin to pay their full cost (including environmental externalities) and 2) to shift the real estate market to favor proximity.  And if that is too politically difficult (which it likely is), have a fall back, compromise position for highway capacity 1)moratorium, then 2) reduction.