Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Catering to Entropy and Inertia, , Expecting Something Different, Continues Entropy and Inertia

The DMN has been running a series this week on the history and shortcomings of DART. I suppose the most worthwhile nugget is that the town of Addison has provided $200 million to DART in sales taxes, but has received no LRT.

I'm on the record of saying that DART has been one of the best things to happen to Dallas since striking oil in Texas, but I'm also not against ever pointing out the shortcomings. However, when doing so we (and by we I mean the DMN, no check that, I suppose I mean me) we have to provide more context for why the shortcomings and what we can do to solve it.

The real story here is that The Longest Light Rail System in the Country boast holds a clue within its very words for the shortcomings. Long doesn't necessary mean efficient. In fact, in the case of DART it means stretched too thin, brittle, in the effort to serve a region not built of, by, or for rail, in the ambitious and noble hopes that development patterns will adapt to it. And to a very minor extent they have. The TODs that are mentioned are, by a ridiculous sum, just a miniscule fraction of the regional housing starts. The reason is the region is still built for the car, and thus, the regional housing market is responsive to the car.

First, we have to understand timelines here. DART was always going to be a struggle. Building heavy infrastructure is generational (in a number of manners). A highway alters a city, its behaviors, movement patterns, and real estate markets for the forty years it exists and then well beyond. A rail network is a hundred year endeavor. The region and the city has to be given time to adapt and we have to continue to strengthen this system and with that mobility choices. Like in most regards with cities, bigger isn't better. Better is better.

Furthermore, there are only a few TODs (transit-oriented development) worth talking about. Even some of those mentioned in the articles aren't particularly walkable themselves. One problem is that we got the order backwards. Walkability delivers tax base which delivers rail better than rail delivers tax base which brings walkability. The reality is that rail has brought very little walkability.

In fact, rail often disconnects more than it connects. This is the whole point of subways, but those only make sense in high density areas where the costs work out. In other words, you have to build an infrastructure for density to support an infrastructure of density. Car-dependent networks separate, divide, and disperse rather than bringing people together, which is at the heart of an stable, resilient, desirable city.

On top of that, transit station areas have been like steroids injected into real estate speculation, inflating prices around station areas to the point that affordable development (both for the developer and the end user, the resident) makes deals largely untenable. So they often sit as parking and park n rides, exacerbated by that LONGEST SYSTEM issue because that kind of density doesn't want to be so far away from the city unless you can achieve a critical mass of density.

In other words, the city (defined not by political body but as a physical body of the economy, the region)has been slower to adapt than expected. Because we got everything else wrong and without dramatic structural change (starting with leadership less tied to antiquated ways of city and transportation building) we will continue to do so.

The deeper issue is the city, regional, state, and federal transportation agencies try to have their cake and eat it too, like having a choo choo train is some kind of novelty act, a trinket to be displayed for all to see as if it's but a symbol of a "world class city" yet nothing more. Which is pretty emblematic of where most of the money towards a variety forms of development has gone towards. All hat, no cattle.

The answer of course is to increase grid connectivity and decrease highway capacity, the subsidy towards driving inherent, and the embedded car dependence and captive market that is instilled, costing tax payers twice. First, at the car dealership, then the pump, and then doubled down for the maintenance of roads that users only pay for half of, creating hyper-inefficiency in the city as a system of social and economic exchange. Too far apart to meet and greet, too far apart to do business, without paying the transportation fees of car dependence.

By reducing highway capacity, we remove the dams placed in the way of the demographic tidal wave towards walkable, infill housing. Recall, if you will, that from 2000-2009 only 17% of housing starts in the metropolitan area were in infill locations during the time span that the metro area added 1.3 million people. Nearly all at the bleeding edge, in a place where no train or bus could possibly reach without exacting a huge loss in time and money.

Cities are adaptive systems. The people within them adapt, thus altering their surroundings. However, by catering to the outward sprawling system and trying to shoehorn alternative systems into one built by and for the car are unlikely to instill significant change without fundamentally addressing the root problem. The answer is A New Dallas.