Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bullet Points

I just wrote these down in my notes to help clarify my thoughts a bit, so I might as well post them.  I accept them as defensible and acceptable truisms

  • A city is an economy embodied
  • An economy is social and financial exchange
  • In-person exchange is encoded in our DNA
  • In-person exchange is always more beneficial than digital, but not always more necessary
  • The internet is better as a tool aiding in-person exchange than it is a substitute.
  • Car-dependent exchange networks and movement is effectively a tax of distance, infrastructure, and energy. Qualitatively and quantitatively.
  • There is very little chance any economy can sustain itself willfully taxing itself unnecessarily.
  • These dynamics take a generation or two to play themselves out, hence Mumford's quote: "necropolis is near yet no stone has yet crumbled."

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.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why Grids Matter and We Should Recreate Them At All Cost (Strictly for the ROI)

I have written before about the difference between dendritic and reticulated grids.  However, that was highly theoretical and still lacking in real world justification.  Here I'm going to try and provide further justification for the grid in a more applicable manner.

First, we have to revisit the differences between reticulated networks and dendritic ones:

A dendritic system is defined by a branching structure that funnels movement in one direction.  Whereas a conventional grid provides a multiplicity of routes.  The key defining factor is choice.  Think about this from where you live and you're on your way to work or to pick up the kids or to get a gallon of milk.  How many routes can you take?  What if there is a wreck along the way?  How many different modes of travel are quick and convenient?

There is quite a bit of talk about the emergent nature of cities as complex systems, but few really understand the applicability to how we design our cities and the dynamics of the process.  What we have to understand is that emergence implies a second level of organization that is largely beyond our control.  Why? Because we can only 'design' the first level of organization, whether it is a building or a road.  Because designers are only one person or group working on one problem.  The second order of 'design' happens when everybody else decides how to use the system.  That can't be designed en masse, only nudged in certain directions depending upon how well we understand the dynamics of this emergence.

For example, the wave in a stadium is simply the act of standing up, waving your arms, and sitting down.  Whether everyone else decides to do it or not is entirely up to them.  Now amplify that a few million times in complexity for all the actions or inactions involved in every citizens daily life.  All of those actions then determine the form of the city, organized loosely around the first order of things that we can actually design.  You might say the first order is the infrastructure of the city and the second order is the real estate market.  The market can't really be 'designed' per se, but it can be shaped and given order.  Those that try to fully design the second order, whether it's Radiant City, Brasilia, Masdar, or any masterplanned community, rather than simply designing the platform for life to exist on its own, invariably fall short.

It can be nudged in one of two directions by the two systems I've illustrated above, dendritic or reticulated.  Here is the difference that I've described before:  dendritic systems spread everything out while grids concentrate.  The reason is because dendritic systems concentrate the bad and disperse the good.  On the other hand, complex highly interconnected grids concentrate the good (the sociopetal) and disperse the bad (sociofugal).  Why?

It all comes down to choice.  Grids, due to the multiplicity of routes available, empower choice.  You can go many different routes depending upon the needs of the individual trip and can calibrate each trip then to the dynamics at the time.  An accident in one area, re-route.

Amplifying this aspect, is that in dendritic systems the roads get bigger and bigger and bigger, funneling more traffic into certain corridors while emptying out all of the other.  It makes these 'trunk' roads even more undesirable.  Unfortunately, business needs the traffic of those roads.  
The grid, by being meritocratic, concentrates real estate value at the most desirable places.  Value is indicated by and proportional to traffic (of all modes).

Dendritic systems disperse and discourage both choice of route and mode of travel.  By dispersing people and concentrating traffic it becomes a fundamentally car-dependent system whether it is intended or not.

With the grid, because the capacity is shared throughout, it allows all the individual roads to be smaller and therefore be less car-oriented.  By being less car-oriented it allows even more choice, not just of route, but also of mode.  The citizen is even more empowered, thus making for a smarter, more adaptable system and city.  Density of movement and population is an indicator of desirability and thereby even more attractive, comprising the third multiplier effect.

Because the grid empowers choice, it becomes fundamentally meritocratic by place.  We are drawn to the more desirable places and repelled from the less desirable places, thereby 1) bringing a complex self-organizing order to the real estate market, density and value go where they want to and 2) provide an upward impetus to the real estate market.  Want your land to be more valuable?  You have to make it more desirable.  Whereas in the dendritic system the fundamental dynamic is about being less bad, less sociofugal. The design response is then all about ameliorating and buffering the bad things rather than multiplying, amplifying and accentuating the good.

An admittedly imperfect grid of downtown Dallas (blocks are too big as are the thoroughfare plan-coerced arterials), still concentrates and centralizes the desirable along Main Street.

Arterials that clip the grid and concentrate vehicular traffic instill a tension.  It draws businesses due to the traffic which then have to defend or buffer themselves from the undesirability of place.  The dispersing tendency this has on the real estate market then drops land value, which in turn drops the impetus to put any money or design quality into place, while further empowering cannibalization and decay, destabilizing places.

Same effect only larger with highways, the trunk which arterial feed.  At first the real estate market was attracted to the traffic counts only to realize their access and interconnectivity is poor.  What was first office high-rises and hotels eventually degrades to find its true level, often gas stations, drive thrus, roadside motels, etc.

In conclusion, due to the lack of choice inherent in the hierarchical road classification system and their standards, the real estate market is put into a perpetual race to the bottom.  Those that dare create something urban-esque, end up failing if they don't recreate and restructure a complex grid of highly interconnected movement that empowers choice of mode and route.  See: Victory for a development that provided urban supply with suburban demand (via its infrastructural interconnectivity).  Vertical cul-de-sacs set on horizontal cul-de-sacs.  And now you know why it's mostly empty.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

East Atlanta Renaissance: All due to East Lake Golf Club

There has been quite a bit of debate in twitter-verse and media world regarding the proposed Trinity Forest golf course.  I'm on record as saying, it's a perfectly fine idea for land that isn't terribly useful for much else.  And, more importantly, it is great to swipe the Byron Nelson, which seems to be inevitable.  I hesitate to use the second worst phrase in Dallas development lexicon, "game changer" (behind "world class"), but it is the Byron Nelson that makes this deal even worthwhile.

However, the cheerleading for economic development as the next magic bullet for South Dallas is over the top, politically cynical, and disingenuous.  Even the mayor has been backing away from the "hundreds of millions" rhetoric.  Instead, the Morning News editorial page doubled down, citing pretty superficial census data.  "Hey look. Income is up around it."

Here are the facts.  East Lake Golf Club is over one hundred years old.  It's four miles from downtown Atlanta.  East Atlanta had fallen into decay and blight through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, like every downtown adjacent area in the Sun Belt.  The golf course was then renovated in the 90s.  After which, the course began landing more PGA tournaments.

The kind of money needed to renovate a golf course to those standards certainly creates some spin-off development, but is it really responsible for the rise of East Atlanta?

To better make the analogy of Atlanta to Dallas, the downtowns are fairly similar, but Atlanta's then grows directly into Midtown, which is their equivalent to uptown.  Both of which have seen quite a resurgance over the last twenty years.  The major difference however is that downtown and midtown Atlanta then both blend into neighborhoods toward the east without barrier, ie freeways, making investment moving eastward from downtown and midtown the obvious direction for the next generation of investment and development.

On the map, you can see downtown to the left (middle) and midtown to the top left.  East Lake Golf Club has the google earth pointer.  I have then circled five areas of East Atlanta that have seen a resurgence in the last ten years:  Atkins Park, Little Five Points, Kirkwood, East Atlanta Village, and Downtown Decatur.  Each of these serve as neighborhood centers of gravity for commercial services, amenities, and primarily social exchange (particularly for younger people, ie bars, restaurants, and cafes).

It is important to note that all of these areas (except for Decatur, which is a large historic downtown that Atlanta's growth absorbed long ago) are west of East Lake.  Despite the City of Atlantas efforts to revitalize areas East of East Lake, with significant streetscape expenditures (particularly along Candler Road) it really hasn't happened.  If East Lake was the driver, the revitalization would likely revolve around it rather than what it does, which is expand from downtown and coalesce around streetcar sub-centers.

It is critical to note that the rise and investment in these areas has mostly occurred in the last ten years, in that the development model is significantly different than what occurred around East Lake, which is more conventional suburban in nature.  Meanwhile, these historic streetcar suburbs are more about small-scale infill of existing areas.  The development is much more walkable and urban and it blends into the surrounding areas.  They are very similar to Greenville and Bishop Arts, both in their scale and feel, but also the young professional / hipster demographic they've attracted.  A demographic which is drawn to these places both for the character, towards their similar peer cohort, and the cheap land and attractive, small 30's-ish housing stock left behind by the hollowing out of Sun Belt cities.

Furthermore, when looking at the census data, the median income cited by the Morning News around East Lake is indeed in the 40K range all around the golf course.  However, the census data shows greater improvement around these revitalized neighborhood centers, mostly in the 50s and 60s.  Furthermore, the range of historic and new housing stock is similar throughout the area, between 200,000 and 350,000 with no discernible difference by location or proximity to the golf course, but rather by size of the individual dwelling and its condition.  It is also important to note that these areas actually serve the demographic of the area.  A private golf course isn't an amenity for the demographic that the Morning News is suggesting it is responsible for.  However, these walkable centers do serve the demographic.

Timing and location suggests that the rise of East Atlanta had more to do with broader demographic patterns favoring a shift back towards cities than re-investment in a golf course.  And because of that, we have to relate these lessons back to Dallas and the Trinity Forest course, which is 8 miles away and not set within existing neighborhood fabric.  Instead, as with East Lake, there will be some auxiliary and spin-off development associated, however we can not attribute broader regional gains to any singular investment such as a golf course.

HIVEMIND: ACTIVATE. Do we need an option 10?

World, you tell me.  Does option number 9 sound like a tear-down and reconstruction of the grid?  The language is so vague that I interpreted it to be a tear-down and rebuild of another highway, "but to modern standards."  And to modern standards, that surely means 1980's finest.  Modern standards to me also might be interpreted as, "complex grid of high quality, walkable, urban streets."

Also, "Purchase Right-of-way" could mean land sales of right-of-way to private investment (possibly through an intermediary like City of Dallas or a to-be-established Development Corporation, focused strictly on the redevelopment of the area (preferred).  Or, it could mean that in order to bring the "facility up to modern standards," requires further ROW purchase from TxDOT to widen and expand the capacity of the highway, in order to "improve level of service for the 160,000 cars/day.  As we know, that will simply mean that it will move 200,000+ per day instead and we're all worse off for it.

People are telling me this is the option I'm looking for, but I don't buy it.  There is still a lot left to be determined, but we must ensure that the scenarios properly factor all possible solutions and benefits for the city of Dallas and the nearby neighborhoods including potential private investment and new tax base.  To which, there is only one option that would incent any new investment.  And that requires the removal of the highway and the replacement with a legitimate grid of streets and blocks.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Planners Planning to Whisper Sweet Nothings

So I was at the IH-345 soiree where I was able to hobnob with bigwigs like Wilonsky.  I was hoping/expecting it to be more like the Trinity Toll Road public hearing, though far less contentious.  The whole highway through a park thing tends to rile people/politicians up a bit more than the rebuild of an existing highway (even though the potential economic impacts are much greater with 345...but I'll get to that).

At the Trinity hearing, the engineers
bored everyone into tears/submission gave a presentation after which point they then opened the microphone up for public comment.  Two minutes each.  Instead, tonight there were nine options suggested for further study with little to no real information on any of them other than none were a complete tear-out and restoration of the historic grid (or something like it -- as the DART tracks and other various considerations make a perfect restoration impossible -- not saying a perfect restoration would be desirable).  There was no presentation nor open mic, just a scrolling powerpoint and a phalanx of uncomfortable engineers standing about, outnumbering the concerned citizens present.  I'd guess nearly 2 to 1.

Alas, I'll leave this with one little tidbit of a study I hope to expand with time.  The City of Dallas has 40.3 times the amount of highway lane miles per capita than does London.

Automated Trading

You know how one of the major causes of the economic collapse on Wall Street rippling throughout the globe came from the high-frequency trading by computerized algorithms repeated over and over and over and over and over and over and millions of more times over, each time siphoning off fractions of wealth but creating no new or real wealth, but instead a hyper-inflated global balloon of helium filled fake wealth?

Well, that's sort of how transportation engineers, albeit much more slowly are steadily but surely running our cities off a cliff in the pursuit of the flying purple dragon, "congestion relief."  They have formulas and standards repeated for every single roadway across the country and invariably the formula always says, "widen it."  Unfortunately, the formula takes very little into account let alone what then happens to urban form via the real estate market due to the ever-widening and funneling of cars into particular state-owned corridors. And more particularly, the very purpose of cities.  What they do is run the formula over and over and over and over again until there is no city left.  No city? No congestion.  Problem solved.

Lewis Mumford wrote, "the purpose of transportation is to bring people and goods to places where they are needed, an\d to concentrate the greatest variety of goods and people within that limited area, in order to widen the possibility of choice without making it necessary to travel.  A good transportation system minimizes unnecessary transportation, and in any event, it offers change of speed and mode to fit a diversity of human purposes."

What he's saying is that transportation has to be subservient to the purpose of the city and to do so it must maximize efficiency.  Efficiency of course isn't through speed, which spreads us out as Ivan Ilich noted, but proximity and propinquity, the arrangement of our daily needs for social and economic exchange around us.  Because the city is an extension of us.  A tool facilitating our need for social and economic exchange to better quality of life.   But social and economic exchange cannot occur without convergence, aka coming together, aka congestion.  Even if you were home sick or a recluse, to get food or water or have friends stop by, somebody still has to move, to deliver, to drop by.

Coming together is what the city enables.  It's only congestion if it's entirely by car.  We think it's our choice but the infrastructure that separates and divides allows not for choice, but coercion.  The smart, efficient, livable city of which Mumford speaks brings us together by our very own choice.  It empowers us.  TxDOT is fighting against congestion and by extension fighting against human nature and the nature of cities as machines of convergence, exchange, and opportunity.  At some point, cities have to stand up for themselves.  And as it turns out, IH345 through downtown Dallas is the perfect time to do so.

Coincidentally, there just so happens to be a public hearing tonight on that very stretch of highway at 6 pm.  If you care about Dallas, and ya know, its ability to attract talent and cultivate a true tax base without the burden of TxDOT's unnecessary infrastructure, I recommend you attend:

Wyndham Dallas Love Field Hotel, 3300 W. Mockingbird Lane, Dallas, TX 75235