Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wherein Jeff Speck and I Have 99 Agreements, but This Ain't One

It probably doesn't come as a particular surprise to you that I agree with much of what is in Jeff Speck's book, Walkable City.  In fact, much of it reads as if it was two years of this blog distilled into two hundred pages of factoids, statistics, and broader socio-economic points.

In the book, Speck outlines the "ten steps" towards more walkable cities (and the myriad of spinoff benefits).  The first step is the most important, essentially to reign in various departments of transportation.  Eventually, the book gets to step 4, which is "to let transit work."  Speck uses Dallas and DART to convey his thesis that neighborhoods must be geared to be walkable around transit stations (no big surprise there).

However, it's when he gets to solutions for Dallas where it starts to fall flat.  And that isn't a condemnation.  I don't think many people outside of Dallas and DFW really get Dallas and the particulars of the issues.  Rather, "Dallas," "Plano," "Arlington," "DFW," etc. are simply abstractions meaning the exact same thing.  Say "Plano" to somebody in New York or DC and they'll likely think something entirely different than what we might think.  Same with "Dallas."  Though it must be said, I agree that Dallas and DFW are entirely too coercively car-dependent.

Problem 1 is where Speck says, "areas around transit have to be more walkable, more dense, etc." I'm paraphrasing, of course, but the point that this isn't the effort at least misses the broader point that the real estate market here already so favors transit areas that land costs have been so inflated as to price out most development (though all the points Speck cites from Yonah Freemark are right on).

The other issue is that we tend to think of transit as applicable across cities and that all transit is the same, ie a subway is the equivalent of DART, which is mostly elevated or at-grade.  This is a critical point because elevated and at-grade lines disrupt local networks and walkability as much if not moreso than what the stations add.  The real benefit for stations is a few blocks away, not right at stations, which is why I believe we've overvalued station areas, expecting high density, and high end development, yet it has yet to materialize simply because the numbers just don't work.

Problem 2 is the bigger one.  Speck says we have to wait for gas prices to hit $10/gallon, which comes off as particularly magic bullet-y and in my opinion, incorrect.  And the thing is, Speck obviously gets it, as the pages leading up to this point he's making similar points that I have about the need for Pigovian efforts which punish things that take away from the public good, in this case, driving, parking, etc.

However, 1) we can't afford to sit around and do nothing until gas prices become so punitive.  As much as urbanists might like to believe it, there is no guarantee gas prices will hit such levels and in my opinion, no should we want to punish, but rather focus on amplifying the good aspects of urbanism and increasing its  supply and thus affordability.

And 2) gas prices have little to no effect on behavior.  Particularly in DFW.  See the NCTCOG chart below tracking DART ridership with gas prices:



Change the dates on this handy little graphic to whatever you want and there is no discernible causality that rising gas prices lead to more transit ridership.  In fact, it's just the opposite.  When gas prices drop, ridership seems to drop as well, which I would suggest tells a broader tale about economic activity, particularly in relation to jobs.



OK, so gas prices don't affect transit ridership, but do they change vehicle miles traveled?  Of course not as this nationwide chart shows:


There you have it, a 267% increase in gas price and a 5% drop in VMT over the last ten years.  And you could argue pretty persuasively that the drop in VMT had more to do with the recession than any fluctuations in gas prices.  Instead, as gas prices rise, we just pay more to the Saudis and others.

Rising gas prices are and will be particularly punitive to DFW (and I worry they might be utterly, pervasively crippling, as in collapse on the level of Detroit or worse) due to the fact that DFW is a captive market.  It's so overwhelmingly and coercively car-dependent due to the infrastructure that we've built and the mortgages many are trapped in "underwater," that we can't possibly adapt quickly enough to the volatility of gas prices.

The captive nature of the DFW market is only further calcified by the very few walkable areas in relation to demand.  Meaning, it is cost prohibitive for the majority of the city even though being car independent for much of the city would be a massive financial incentive.

If we were to simply "wait for $10/gallon gas, surely there will be a tipping point where it triggers change in behavior.  However, "tipping point" implies quick and sudden change.  However, cities don't evolve nor adapt quickly.  It takes a generation or two and it is always shaped by infrastructure.  As the city won't be able to suddenly adapt to the tipping point, I suspect instead, people will leave, as the effective "tax" on transportation will slowly but surely erode the DFW economy's ability to sustain itself before we even hit that tipping point where price increases become intolerable (and as we lose out on talent looking for precisely these more walkable, and thus more interesting, more self-expressive, self-organized cities).

The bigger issue, and one Speck even points out, is that as long as we have the highway capacity it will be filled.  And also, it is these highways through the center of the city (see the massive 18-wheeler accident on I-30 over the Trinity this morning) that disrupts and reduces the demand and desirability of close-in areas. Highway capacity has to be slowly but surely relegated to the edge of the city.  Starting immediately.

I'd suggest nothing inside Loop 12 by 2040 or so.  Here is where I point out that Paris city limits are nearly identical to I-30 to Loop 12 to the north. We can't simply wait around for gas prices, but instead we have to reduce highway capacity in and around downtown while replacing it with highly desirable supply of walkable urban housing.  It's the only way to reverse the upside down supply-demand dynamic which currently favors the bleeding edge of development.