Friday, November 30, 2012

Road Diets: Still Winning

Awards that is (in this case, a California planning group Moule & Polyzoides won the EPA's top award), but far, FAR more importantly, the areas that implement them are experience significant triple bottom line gains.  The latest example is the BLVD project in Lancaster, CA, which transformed a five lane arterial (which had bulldozed its way through the historic Main Street to make way for more traffic and only ended up killing the place) consisting of 2 travel lanes in each direction and a central turn lane into one travel lane in each direction, one row of parallel parking on each side, and a central parking median for angled head-in parking with special plaza-like pavement.

More importantly, is the data (which really, should be what drives awards rather than the ideology that typically does), which comes directly from the City of Lancaster itself:

·         The BLVD has attracted 49 businesses since late 2009. 

·         Revenue from the downtown area is up 96% compared to the same period in 2007, the year before revitalization efforts began.  (The Downtown Lancaster Specific Plan was adopted in 2008.)

·         The project cost was approximately $11.5 million for a per-block cost of approximately $1.27 million.

·         While Lancaster’s assessed property valuation fell 1.25% overall from 2011 to 2012, property values in the downtown area rose 9.53%. 

·         Private investment is estimated at $130 million.

·         Over 800 permanent jobs have been created, in addition to approximately 1,100 temporary construction jobs.*

·         The project has generated an estimated $273 million in economic output.*

·         Just over 800 housing units have been constructed or rehabilitated.

·         Over 116,000 square feet of commercial space has been constructed or rehabilitated.

·         New public amenities include American Heroes Park, a 13.5-acre, $7 million facility, and the Lancaster Museum of Art & History (MOAH), a three-story, 19,246-square-foot complex.

·         The overall number of traffic collisions has been cut in half, while injury-related collisions have plummeted 85% as a result of the new streetscape and traffic pattern.  (These figures compare the two-year history prior to the transformation with the two years following.)

"Shutup with your observable statistics! We've got PROJECTIONS that say we gotta move cars and we gotta move'em quickly.  Or Else!"

"Or else what?"


"Well, yeah.  That's what we want and need for businesses to thrive and attract investment."

All that private investment from simple urbanization of inappropriate and disconnective suburbanized infrastructure.  A novel concept indeed.  Maybe some day they'll learn that magic bullets of high cost/low yield ventures are the way to go.

Here is some imagery:

That's obviously during a special event and I hate being disingenuous, suggesting, like an architectural rendering all of these people actually exist on a normal day (because after all, true urbanism is about the every day, not event planning):

This looks like a typical day and I wonder the nature of the parking.  Is it free?  Do employees take up all the best spots forcing visitors to circle?  Either way, the amenitized central planning median in conjunction with narrowed travel lanes and pedestrian refuges at the crosswalks make it a more tethered, and therefore better interconnected, street.

The Before:
Existing conditions, 2009

The After:

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Spinning in Circles at the End of a Long Metaphorical Cul-de-Sac

Not to be naive, but now I know why politicians distill their message into carefully engineered empty soundbites.

As you may or may not have seen, WFAA did a bit on the pending IH-345 feasibility study and our version that removes the elevated freeway that TxDOT in their infinite wisdom (and debt) will ignore.  I'd post the video but it's not worth it.  You can find it here with the much better written portion.  I usually don't watch myself on TV because the entire time I think about what I could've or should've said differently. This time I did however watch it and was disappointed the fifteen minutes of dialogue was reduced to a seemingly reactionary, "tear it down!"

Here is what I hoped would be conveyed:

How did you get started on this?

Well, a developer friend and I were talking about the various downtown initiatives and critiquing what was happening, that the underlying problem of downtown wasn't being addressed in the downtown revitalization efforts.  And that is that the real estate market of downtown was upside-down, that demand was too low and land costs were too high as landowners of these surface parking and vacant lots all around us (the highest and best use specifically because of the freeway) look for a Museum Tower, skewed-market kind of payday.  So we have to address the core problem which is dropping land costs while increasing demand.  Demand is low precisely because of this road that is effectively publicly owned land by an institution drowning in debt that should be looking to offload assets rather than increase cost burdens.


We, as a city, have to ask ourselves what is the purpose of the city?  What is the purpose of transportation within a city? What do we want it to be?  And does TxDOT's mission align or contradict with that?  Cities are a machine for interaction. They facilitate social and economic exchange.  And do so as safely and efficiently as possible with regard to the mode of transportation, the degree of connectivity, and the spatial effect transportation has on real estate (urban form).

And to do so it's necessary to come together, to converge, to create congestion.  Congestion that TxDOT tries to fight in their costly Sisyphean War.  You can't defeat congestion because congestion is inherent to city processes.  You can only determine what kind of congestion you want, which is like cholesterol, the good kind that makes the system more healthy, or the bad kind that slowly kills.  Car congestion or diversified transportation, which is ultimately (as long as densities aren't too extreme) not really congested at all.

When you look at this highway what do you see?

I see a crumbling artifact of 1950's and 60s era planning that, it too, is crumbling.  There is really no point to repairing it or rebuilding it.  There is no more economic development to be garnered from just rebuilding it.  What economic development did occur, happened mostly outside of downtown anyway.  What I see is a giant barrier to downtown and Dallas as a whole's next step in evolution to a better, more livable, more fiscally stable and sustainable 21st century city.

You know people are going to say, "that's crazy," right?

It's actually crazy that it was even built in the first place when you consider that everything downtown leaders want in downtown (housing, streetcar, theaters, etc) were removed to make way for it.  And since then it has simply corroded the urban fabric all around it.  Which is ironic because the structure of this highway is literally corroding from within.  Good luck to all those driving on it right now.

Why wouldn't they do this?

Because TxDOT will tell you that they need to move the 160,000 vehicles a day through this corridor. But that's the funny part, those cars are only there and in those numbers precisely because of the highway being here.  The real estate market adapted to the highway by moving further out and becoming more car dependent.  In turn, it helped gut the tax base locally, in downtown and in Dallas in general.

The thing is most of the cars on that road above us aren't coming into downtown, it's regional traffic conflicts with the local movement patterns, causes "congestion," pollutes the air, and generally makes it intolerable and undesirable to live or be near.  Meanwhile, much of East Dallas is crippled by disinvestment and decay precisely because the street grid is 250,000 cars per day UNDER capacity.  That excess capacity combined with moving regional trips to loops 12, 635, and 190, increased DART ridership, and ample opportunity for more walkable urban neighborhoods absorbs more than the entirety of the 160,000 trips per day.

So if you could boil it down to one statement, what would you say?

I'm interested to see the costs of the various TxDOT plans, because we calculated that for less money than the cost of the Klyde Warren Park, we could open up 180-acres of land for new development on this 245-acre area which currently only has $19 million in improvements on the entire area and generates only $3 million per year for the city in tax revenue (and that's just property tax revenue as there is little to no economic activity occurring on this land).

Instead, we can spend $60-65 million to remove it, use the 4 TIF districts in place to restitch the urban grid, generate over $4 billion in investment for the city over fifteen years after demolition, and bring in $100 million per year in tax revenue for the city of Dallas.  Money that would build several new parks, streetcar lines from West End to Lower Greenville and downtown to Deep Ellum

This is a no brainer that would be the most important thing Dallas could do to compete as a 21st century city for the next fifty years.  But you tell me if there are any brains at TxDOT or in leadership positions.  We could use some brains, courage, and a heart.  Where's the wizard of Oz when we need him?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

1945 Network Model vs Today: Or How I learned Why Dallas Moved Northward

These were asked for at a similar scale and here they are, the space syntax network integration models for Dallas 1945 (above) and Dallas of today (below).  Note: the Dallas of today isn't finished, nor does it include the entire metroplex, which may or may not effect the model. If you're unfamiliar with these network integration models, they are in effect heat maps of street networks.  The most integrated show up as red areas, which have been statistically shown (in more urban cities) to correlate with increased density, real estate, value, foot traffic, as well as reduced crime.

What is clearly apparent is how the red areas shifted northward with the introduction of the freeways and the effect the freeways then had upon growth towards the "favored quarter," in Chris Leinberger's speak, thus creating a self-fulfilling vicious circle of northern expansion and decentralization.  And that's fine, I suppose, but what's more important is the LOSS of value in and around the core.

As I've said before, highways take land at the edge from a hypothetical value of 1 and improve them to 2.  There is a profit model built-in there. Meanwhile, the intra-city highways take downtown land from a value of 10 to a similar value of 2 (as we saw in our highway 345 study which shows $77,500 in improvements (ie buildings) per acre.  The effort to reduce congestion creates anti-city, by its very purpose.  And we end up with anti-city at the edge (sprawl) and anti-city in the core (except for a few small pockets).  See the walkscore heatmap:

I've also said before the horrible irony is that downtown developers were building the biggest buildings, the downtown high-rises at the same time that state and federal monies were pumped into highways thereby sapping the demand for all that new supply.

Assemble the Troops: IH-345 Feasibility Study

As you may know, a developer friend and I put together a study and plan to tear out IH-345.  This is the section of highway you might consider the extension of Central Expressway past downtown separating downtown from Deep Ellum and the rest of East Dallas.  You can find the presentation for that study here.  The first half or so is all the background theory supporting the concept and you can skip right past that to the juicy details at the end showing what kind of economic development potential exists, where the traffic goes, and all the new opportunities for walkable urban housing (including affordable housing), and new downtown adjacent population and tax base would come of such a plan.

(Also, here are two posts where I show what happens to the lost traffic that 345 currently moves:
part 1
part 2)

What's funny is, we submitted several FOIA requests to see if TxDOT had anything in the works regarding this section of highway as we knew it was structurally deficient, the things that happen when elevated, reinforced concrete structures hit about 40 years old, as this road is.  However, we never received any responses until Gabe, the creator of the facebook page on Tearing out 345 came across the public meeting announcement for a feasibility study of IH-345.  It's December 11th out near Love Field, which is kind of bizarre, in that you'd think you would have it on-site or nearby (unless of course they don't want a big turn-out, which is my cynical side talking).

At this point, we have no idea what options are under consideration.  However, we can be pretty confident in two things: 1) that the viaduct is structurally unsound, and 2) this will be used as an opportunity to "improve" the section of highway and "reduce congestion," which as you know is utter bunk.  The very nature of a city is about congestion, of people coming together for social and economic exchange.  Attempting to reduce congestion is 1) throwing the baby out with the bathwater (the city as a platform of economic growth and improved quality of life), and 2) chasing your tail, due to our very nature as humans and cities as a human investion to facilitate the above.  We want to come together.  We need to come together.

The only real question to ask is, what kind of congestion do we want?  The good kind, which provides tax base and populates businesses and is desirable to live near, thus turning the real estate market inward?  Or the kind that is entirely car-based, is on highways, sucks the life from neighborhood streets, is unsafe, and moves the real estate market ever outward?

There is no downside to a tear-out that not only pays for itself, but through land sales from opening up right-of-way and increased tax base, can pay for just about every other pet project in the city.  There is however, downside to presumably every other option that will be presented.
Oh, and here's a fun/stupid study from the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank showing that federal highway grants are good for short-term economic growth.  Wow! Who'da thunk dumping free money into an area as well as temporary jobs and short-term real estate deals wouldn't?  Of course, as we know nothing is more expensive than free.  Hence, their leaving out any long-term implications (note the graph stops at year 10)

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Invisible Hand, Invisible Arm, and Invisible Brain of Cities

(image of the two walls lining the highway exit ramp I witnessed two little kids climbing as they moved from parked car to the playground at the deck park yesterday.)

I've been wanting to post this for a while since it is the most succinct way/analogy I can think of to explain the nature and dynamics of cities.  It involves the invisible hand (the real estate market), the invisible arm (transportation), and the invisible brain (government/policy) behind it all.

There is a direct correlation here with systems theory I often cite (as cities are little more than highly fractalized complex systems), in terms of the three primary components of complex systems: elements (the most visible and least important), connections (kinda like transportation, huh?), and purpose (it's reason for being).

It is common when examining systems to focus on what is most tangible, the elements, because they're the simplest to understand.  It's also how to get cities entirely wrong.  This is what I call cosmetic urbanism.  It confuses labels and things with the actual process of urban dynamics, morphology, and emergence, i.e. saying we need "mixed-use" without having the proper soil to cultivate into existence as the natural by-product of rational choice.

What results is potemkin villages and failed real estate deals.  There are plenty of examples all over the city.  Shopping sprees for jewelry buildings and bridges, nor plastic surgery of deck parks solve the underlying problems.  Those lay within the invisible arm and invisible brain.  The connections and purpose of the system.

And today, I got the perfect opportunity when a friend posed a question via email about the latest news that the "Horseshoe" project, a $750 million dollar highway rebuild of the downtown mixmaster, has been greenlit.  It was actually more of a comment than a question, in that he mentioned the news to his significant other who was astonished when he told her that highway expansion only solves traffic temporarily and that it will inevitably become congestion.

There is no expanding our way out of the mess, because in effect (and in addition to what is written below) the intra-city highway network actually reduces overall system capacity.  More streets are left empty as it fills up and the movement patterns become more regional, more highway-based.  And an empty street is far more pernicious than a congested one.

But I was fascinated, not so much by her disbelief, but rather the successful of the rhetoric surrounding highway building.  Listen to any transportation person.  They conflate widening with "improvement."  And we assume these people are experts so we trust them.  Of course, their only expertise lies in road building.  The question remains, "to what end?"

Here is an edited version of my response for popular consumption (with some relevant quotes from Mumford sprinkled in):

Yes, I did see the news.  Wick Allison retweeted my joke yesterday that we're spending $750 million to "improve" this highway and move 450,000 cars per day, meanwhile Champs Elysees moves that many pedestrians per day yet THEY'RE the socialists.  I went on to add that the real estate value along the two roads in relation to the infrastructure spent is probably close to inverse, ie if real estate value to infrastructural costs along Champs Elysees is 10:1 or whatever, then along [insert any highway] it's 1:10.  Over time, this ratio becomes exponential.  In both directions.

Point being, of both this specific example and of transportation policy/design/funding in general, is that real estate is the invisible hand but transportation is the invisible arm that shapes it.  

The simple concept is induced demand and it is pretty well understood at this point, but ignored by politicians who want to bring in "jobs" aka federal spending (because THAT's sustainable - bringing in temporary jobs locally to move people out of your city.  See: Detroit).  A study from Brown University showed that for every highway that is built in a city (aka intracity as opposed to intercity, ie Autobahn) there is an 18% population loss associated to the core city.  Similarly, a study from University of Toronto proved a 1 to 1 relationship in highway lane miles to average citizen vehicle miles traveled.  Meaning, if you double freeway lane miles in a city over a 20 year span, the average citizen will drive double the amount.  You're driving more, thus the induced demand from the very construction of the transportation network.  We're 'nudged' into 'loving our cars' unwittingly, or what I call dependence, which isn't really love within any metaphor.

"By pushing all forms of traffic onto high speed motor ways, we burden them with a load guaranteed to slow down peak traffic to a crawl; and if we try to correct this by multiplying motor ways, we only add to the total urban wreckage by flinging parts of the city ever farther away in a formless mass of thinly spread semi-urban tissue."

The specific numbers aren't as important as the implication, that as intracity highway networks grow, population settlement patterns are displaced outwards, further apart and less efficiently.  Compare all of your trips for daily needs to say, somebody in Barcelona. Whose is safer? Whose is more enjoyable?  Whose is shorter and more efficient thereby exerting less energy and in turn, placing less of a 'tax' on the citizen to meet their needs (and that's before even getting into the actual cost of building and maintaining the infrastructure).

The reason is because highways fundamentally shift the real estate market outward, they subsidize driving (no tolls, user fees ie gas taxes cover only half the cost, artificially deflated gas prices) as well as real estate onto ever cheaper (further out) land by making driving temporarily easier.  Then everybody moves further out and the roads fill up as more and more people are driving more and further.  They're effectively 'induced' into it.   That's only one half of the equation, the other half is that freeways deflate real estate values along them because they're unsafe, noisy, smelly, and disconnective to local movement patterns.  The highest and best use is parking lots, gas stations, and drive thrus. 

"Under the present suburban regime, every urban function follows the example of the motor road; it devours space and consumes time with increasing friction and frustration, while, under the plausible pretext of increasing the range of speed and communication, it actually obstructs it and denies the possibility of easy meetings and encounters by scattering the fragments of a city at random over a whole region."

Intracity highways take land outside of town that has a value of 1 and makes it a 2. There is a profit margin for developers, but comes at a steep price to taxpayers by way of infrastructure to dispersed population.  On the other hand, it takes in town land that has a value of 10 and similarly transforms it into a 2, disinvestment.  See virtually every downtown in America.  And to bring our downtown's "back" we're heavily subsidizing any and every magic bullet we can think of, until finally settling on the right one, which is to bring people back, residential, by also heavily subsidizing it.  But that did nothing for the actual demand equation which is still at a 2.  If there isn't a profit in it (as the public's ability to subsidize infill diminishes), infill development, ie urbanism, won't be the modus operandi for the real estate market. 

"For when one conquers space one also increases the populations to whom that distant space is accessible.  The prospective net gain is considerably less than zero."

Deflate the core, inflate the bleeding edge and you get sprawl.  Nearly everything else related to sprawl is irrelevant and an outgrowth of this fundamental problem (which we aren't treating).  Until we get the policy directives straightened out governing the invisible arm, we'll never have sustainable, enjoyable, empowering cities that are engines of economic opportunity (for everyone), improved quality of life (for everyone), and conveyor belts of civilization advancement.  And that means getting the invisible brain controlling the invisible arm on the right path.  What's the point of government?  What's the point of cities?  At present, the only discernible direction seems to be wanton and profligate spending that devalues cities, which are the greatest achievement and invention of humankind.

"Human purpose should govern the choice of the means of transportation. That is why we need a better transportation system, not just more highways."

I'd like to think the point of government and in turn cities follows closely with Maslow's hierarchy of needs, so 1) safety, both short (not dying in car crashes) and long- (not embroiled in wars over oil) term, and 2) maximum economic development and opportunity for all in order to improve quality of life at minimal expense and infrastructure. Why spend money on highways when they don't fundamentally alter the demand equation driven by human need, but instead only how they move between the various day to day origins and destinations?  Instead, we can spend on things like education, healthcare, etc.  But those are my biases.  The political process, of an educated body politic ideally could figure out what they want. Which brings me back to the original point, how do we want our cities to be defined?  What do we want to expend public coffers towards?  Expensive highways lined with chuck e cheese's, triple x drive thrus, and gas stations?  Or, Walkable boulevards lined with highest real estate value in the world (which is simply a product of demand, desirability). 

*Mumford wrote the book I'm quoting from more than fifty years ago.  They still apply today because he saw the pattern, the inevitability of the system at work, rather than focusing on the elements or details (though he used those elements to draw the picture).