Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Music Left in the Broken Record

It's time to trot this simple diagram back out for a quick run around.  If you don't remember it, it shows the "inner-loops" of both downtown Dallas and Manhattan, which despite terminologies of the various sub-centers within downtown, is effectively the equivalent of "downtown" in context of the multi-scaled city, in this case, all of NYC.  That's why inner loops matter.  Point stated is that within this point, heavy, long-trip infrastructure WILL NOT disrupt the local networks that make the city functional, efficient, and desirable in its core purpose as a platform for social and economic exchange.

I'm using this again, because recently I've been counting up the highway lane miles per capita (actually, per 100,000) of just the core cities.  All other data I've assembled, uses metropolitan areas because that's how you find it in census data and TTI and various other aggregators, as you can find here and here..  It matters from this perspective, because the core cities often bear the infrastructural burden for larger areas, hence often the need for metropolitan governing bodies to help offset the cost burden of the core city.  However, using the region to help fund the infrastructure at the core, doesn't offset the negative impact that the large scale, long-trip infrastructure still has on the local networks necessary for 1) daily life and 2) real estate value.  The disruption of networks creates edges that deflate land value.

The core is still bearing that burden while the highway infrastructure subsidizes the commute and in turn the real estate to live outside the city.  Meanwhile, the city then has to deal with the congestion, the pollution, the traffic accidents, and the deflated land values at the core.  This goes for trains too.  Rail lines also disrupt local, short trip networks when they are at grade.  This is why subway lines are buried, why heavy rail lines only enter cities like Paris and London to a certain point, and why Milan has moved one of their major rail stations a few blocks further away from the core to create more high density, local network derived real estate.  The high density and the local network part are related, provided "reach" is still high.  Reach is all the destinations that you can get to or can get to you, often meaning there is a high density context around.

Above is Paris. Highways are in red, rail lines in black.  Notice the rail lines only get so far before they either go underground or reach a Gare.

All of this brings me to the actual data I've assembled by actually measuring the length of highways within city boundaries, counting the widths at every mile or so interval (the lane totals tend to be pretty predictable when the shift wider or narrower, usually at other highway/major road interchanges).  Then I compared these to the latest population numbers for the specific cities.

Here is what I've accrued thus far, the city by city data tends to find their way into categories, as you'll see:

City      |       Lane Miles per 100,000

London:  2.37
Vancouver:  3.13
Barcelona:  5.38
Paris: 8.15
Stockholm: 13. 72

Manhattan:   10.83

Portland: 38,84

Detroit: 59.31
Austin: 66.53
St. Louis: 67.54

Houston:  91.40
Dallas: 96.38

That seems pretty bad.  Really bad.  Until...

Kansas City: 147.74

This is interesting because KC and StL are far and away the worst from a metro standpoint.  However, KC's metro actually drops their city number and StL the greater burden is actually exterior to the city proper.  Some of this has to do with StL's boundaries being quite small.

But this is bad, why?  The simple equation is cost burden over tax base, a burden which will become increasingly localized as taxpayers become less interested in bailing out people elsewhere.  This is Thatcher's America and you're on your own.  However, the scariest part is that the majority of these roads (on the extreme end of the list) are still on their first life span, funded primarily by federal government.  What happens when the bill is due to replace them?  While there is some federal money to be had, they won't kick in the 90% which is pretty typical of new highways/interstates.

Making matters worse is that the CBO projects the federal highway account will have a shortfall of $92 billion by 2023.

So what about state money?  TxDOT is already swimming in $14-18 billion in debt depending upon whose numbers you read.  Add to that TxDOT says they need $1 billion in additional funds just for maintenance on top of their current $10 billion yearly budget.  And (!), TxDOT says they need another $3 billion a year to fight the bogeyman of congestion.  The result is more taxes with lower tax base.

And all of these people in charge see the only problem as CONGESTION and the only solution is MORE CAPACITY, which then feeds itself, further disconnecting people from destinations all but ensuring more driving, more costs on both individuals and public coffers, and MORE CONGESTION thus the need for MORE CAPACITY.

How do we stop the cycle of stupid?

Well, for starters we don't listen to certain planners who are stuck in the 1980s despite whatever credentials they possess.  Jane Jacobs wrote about credentialism in her final book.  I suggest you give that a read.  Also,  we shouldn't listen to tiresome fools like Joel Kotkin who want you to live in their particular vision of the world.  Or Robert Bruegman.  Yet these people keep finding themselves on panels.

Which brings me to my final point.  I was at the Resilient City forum put on by Dallas Institute for the Humanities.  The keynote speakers were very good as I was live tweeting the event.  Particularly Eric Klinenberg.  The local panelists with the keynotes were not terribly informative.  Not at all actually.

One of the reasons is that the issue of resilience being dependent upon connections came up, yet only once did the issue of infrastructure get brought up and that was in the Q&A period by someone in the very back who asked, "have any cities ever tried to move traffic away from the core to make more room for people and parks?"  I'm paraphrasing based on a hazy memory, but the key points are there, particularly the part about "any cities," ie he was asking for specifics and lessons.

So naturally the panel turned to the nominal city planner on the panel (because they would know!), who then did not mention any cities(!!) but then said if we did that all of the vitality would move out to 635.  Wha?  That's it.  That was the entirety of the expertise provided.  Little more than antiquated conventional wisdom.  There was no mention different kinds of traffic, regional and local.  There was no differentiating intracity roads from intercity roads.

There was no mention of the cities around the country that HAVE differentiated the bad traffic from good traffic, that have found various ways to improve their cars while nudging down demand for vehicular travel in the core.  There are the congestion charges of London and Stockholm.  There are the highway removals in San Francisco and Seoul and a variety of other places.  None of which have ever regretted the move.  None.  Instead, we got a shovel full of the conventional wisdom that blamed (and apparently continues to blame) beltways on the death of Main Street, which is quite oversimplified.

This is why I, as a planner, and the general public has so little faith left in the profession of planning and city building.  Their hopes are inflated by pretty pictures and 9 month public processes and books that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and then, what?  And then nothing.  Or some bond package proposals that add some superficial decoration masquerading as urban design.  Nothing about actually shifting real estate markets, opportunity areas for investment, how broke public agencies can leverage assets to do so, or how to increase general livability and opportunity for the citizenry.

Instead, nope.  "We have to be worried about pushing traffic and vitality outwards.  That cow is well out of the barn.  The retail has followed the rooftops of pushing it out already.  If we want a resilient city, we need a connected city, like was mentioned.  Or a network city, like was mentioned at the simultaneous panel, which also unfortunately thought network only in the most superficial, digital sort of way.  We can't make connections unless we're closer to each other.  That means we need an infrastructure of resilience, that favors the short trip, that doesn't mandate every person buy and maintain a car, that doesn't bankrupt our treasuries simply to build MORE CAPACITY, that actually looks more like the cities at the top of the list.  It's time for some actual vision and leadership Dallas.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Depth and Complexity of the Bottom-Up vs. the Facile, Over-(Under-)Planned, Top-Down

One of these gets it:


EuropaCity (Courtesy BIG)

You can't control the uncontrollable.  But that apparently won't stop designers from trying to design every detail of things they can never fully grasp.  Everyone else is the expert of their lives and surroundings.  Cities are about a platform for that and empowering choice.  Or photoshopping heavy agricultural uses on top of a city, nevermind the structures necessary to support the weight of soil, nor the need for depth of soil and crop rotation necessary to sustain fertile soil chemistry, nor the dirty rainwater run-off.  Will just capture it.  And shower with it or something.  Techno!

Mark Gorton Droppin' Knowledge

Some tweets coming out of an Active Transportation conference in Oregon so I don't lose them.  (Yes, this blog is my filing cabinet. Why do you ask?)
Houston: 95% of trips by motor vehicle; 14% of metro GDP spent on transpo. Copenhagen: 54%/4%. Let's save GDP!  
Portland's net benefits from bike investments since 1991: 8.3:1 ROI. Would you invest in that return rate?
US=wealthy society but if we waste enough getting 20-30 cents on the $ in autocentric transpo, we will bankrupt ourselves. -Mark Gorton
Powerful segments of society love large infrastructure projects. Use that: Call for separated bike/walk infrastructure. -Gorton  
"Traffic is a form of pollution. We need to recognize it as such.... Explicitly seek to reduce it." -Mark Gorton/
He's summing it up pretty neatly.
Follow along that hashtag or @barbchamberlain

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Policy Coerced Car Ownership > Congestion Costs

Yet oddly, we don't bat an eye that the former feeds the latter:

Keep this in mind when highway builders or politicians trot out the fear tactic of the congestion bogeyman.

*Data from Tod Litman of VTPI.  I simply rearranged it to pile up all of the related costs necessitated by our current supply-side road building policies.  I'm even being generous and not included Roadway Construction Costs or Traffic Services in the sum, suggesting they are basic infrastructural costs of doing business for cities as facilitators of social and economic exchange.  Though, I do suspect that they'd be significantly lower per capita with halfway decent policy.

The Fatal Flaw in the Trinity Business Plan

The other day, Jim Schutze of the Dallas Observer wrote another piece on the Trinity River Corridor speculating that the Toll Road and everything else to do with the Trinity is a land deal.  He's absolutely right.  All of city building is at some root level an exercise in uplift.  Except when it fails.

And that the real problem with what all of the planners and business owners focused on the Trinity are getting wrong.  That the potential for high-rise exists simply because of the existence of a plan for some kind of waterfront-ish type of park.

Here are the words:

But some people who are experts in those areas think at least some of the Halff concept was right. For example, their renderings showed dense high-rise development along the river. Last week I talked to Larry Beasley of Vancouver, the international city designer who is working on our Trinity River questions in between other things like helping redesignMoscow. In some ways Beasley's vision of a redeveloped Stemmons corridor mirrored what I saw all those years ago on the conference room walls at Halff. 
Beasley said the big thing is being up high enough to be able to see the river over the tops of the levees. Otherwise the river and the greenbelt don't exist as far as adjacent development is concerned. 
"There's one thing that seems absolutely evident to me," he said. "The sites near the Trinity need very high density. We need to get buildings up beyond the levees so that from a market point of view you can really enjoy the added value of being adjacent to the Trinity recreation corridor, particularly as it's further developed."

What Beasley doesn't seem to get is that:

  1. you have to have enough demand to get buildings that tall, 
  2. the economics have to work to finance buildings to construct them that tall (primarily due to point 1, 
  3. the ground plane has to be pleasant enough to help drive demand, 
  4. for the ground plane to be active and pleasant enough, (this is the key point) there has to be enough land available to create a critical mass suitable for a full neighborhood unfractured and fragmented by barriers, and 
  5. rivers are also barriers, though not as destructive to the nearby fabric as highways and railroads.

This is not Vancouver, which made the conscious decision to never allow highways into the city back in the 60's.  Instead, this is a hollowed out Sun Belt city whose fractured and fragmented core provided the chutes and ladders for people to escape the dessicated urban core.  This is why I'm particularly and increasingly skeptical of "experts" from out of town, unfamiliar with Sun Belt real estate dynamics.  I suspect this contributes to the general supply-side thinking that undermines our efforts towards building a truly vibrant, interconnected city.

"Just build some high-rises like Vancouver (which didn't have freeways, never hollowed out its core, has amazing urban fabric, a variety of transportation options, and ridiculously beautiful topography) and they will come."  This unfortunately, is the same flawed thinking that fueled Victory, entirely unwitting of its own structural flaws.

All rivers are barriers.  This is why we, the royal and historic we, celebrate besting these barriers with bridges and ceremonious architecture.  However, even with those bridges, urban rivers still create border vacuums and the vibrancy, density, and demand tends to be on the perpendiculars (those roads linking cores of neighborhoods), not the linears (running along the border vacuum).

The nicer the amenity, the less negative effect this border vacuum will have plus how will connected development will be to said amenity.  Unfortunately, all we have is hopes and promises for the Trinity, but even worse than it not being an amenity, is that the areas around it are preposterously fragmented.  The single most fragmented area in the city.

Between the existing, proposed, and soon to be underconstruction highways and railroads that carve the city up into little pieces, unable and too small to support life, all of the land on the northeast side of the Trinity is far less valuable than people seem to think it is.  No matter what the competition "to connect to the Trinity" thinks is possible.  These areas have more global connectivity than they could ever need, but what they lack is local connectivity.

Also, there is the pernicious, deleterious effect of not just the edge condition created by overscaled barriers of "long-trip" infrastructure.  It is simply undesirable to be next to highways due to noise, smell, pollution, and unsafety of the physical environment.  Furthermore, because the movement patterns are all necessarily car-based, there is intense pressure on the land to support spatially inefficient cars in the way of parking.  So you get the eroded edges as shown above.

So let's compare these areas to Victory, which despite its myriad of flaws and improper planning, its biggest and most decisive was that it was and is, in effect, an island within a sea of cars.  Again, it has all the global connectivity any place could ever want, but very little local connectivity.  The kind of connectivity that creates the multiplier effect of proximity and clustering.  It is entirely drive-to, even for office workers 1/4 mile away in the Crescent.  All places need the stabilizing supportive tissue of surrounding neighborhood residential, which is far less susceptible to cannibalization, particularly in outward-pressurized dendritic street networks.

Again, Victory delivered high-rises and density, supply.  But, no demand.  Why?  It has all the same amenities as everywhere else that is near downtown with plenty of "long-trip" infrastructure.  What's missing is the critical mass of area without barrier, the multiplier effect of local connectivity, which makes for desirable places to live, and for others to visit.  And thus, stability and demand.

Plopping towers into areas even more fragmented and less connected is flawed from the start.  It is strictly supply-sided and as we should have learned, that does nothing for filling up the buildings.  Hopefully lenders will realize this soon.

Instead, the future value is in areas of greater critical mass, primarily West and East Dallas, and to a lesser extent, the Cedars.  This is why I don't particularly care about the road.  The potential simply doesn't exist for a Vancouver built along side it.  At least not the downtown side.

On the other hand, if we look at the success of uptown, we can see that even though it has a number of barriers (75, the cemetery, Cedar Springs and Turtle Creek) there is still a critical mass where multiple neighborhoods, each with their own center can combine and make something greater than the some of the parts, which in this case, we could deem a district.  Or, "uptown."  McKinney, helpfully calmed by the slow moving but lovable MATA trolley, provides the seam, rather than the barrier, which it easily could be.

Urbanism is fundamentally about connectivity.  It is the multiplier that drives value and amplifies potential synergies.  Two or more buildings can come together and interact with a street or plaza and become a "place."  Something greater than the sum of parts.  Multiple places come together and make neighborhoods.  Or we can put a wall between them and both suffer.  Two or more neighborhoods can seamlessly interface and become something greater than the sum of their parts and be a district.  Districts come together and make a town.  And on goes the hierarchy.

Urbanism at its core IS connectivity.  Not density.  Density is merely the response to high degrees of connectivity, ie which creates opportunity and thus demand.  However, what is missing is local connectivity, we sacrifice it for the long-trip infrastructure and global connectivity, which fractures rather than unites.  It also proves to be unwieldy to maintain to maintain, physically and fiscally, while subtracting from value rather than adding.  We let it undermine local connectivity because the business interests of the area are too stuck in their ways that made a fortune at the edge, which needed regional connectivity.  But that only raised its value from 0 to 2.  To fill high-rises, we need demand levels of 10 out of 10.

Without it, we can never have neighborhoods and in turn, we can't have magical high-rises plopped from the sky or the wild imagination of planners utterly disconnected from realities of the market and actual urbanism (or from bad business deals).

Thursday, April 18, 2013

DFW Job Growth and Sprawl-sided Transportation Agencies

Brookings has a new study entitled Job Sprawl.  It's about where job growth (or loss) has occurred between the 2000 and 2010 census.  More specifically, whether the gain/loss happened within 3 miles of Central Business Districts (what we once called downtowns before they became increasingly single-purpose glorified office parks, a city's swan song), whether they happened between 3 and 10 miles, or greater than 10 miles from CBDs.

Here is the interactive feature.

Here is DFW's cut sheet.

And here is the full PDF report.

And here is a quick map I made to show the critical information:

In the full report, you'll see that nationally, DFW is the 5th most sprawling metropolitan area (MSA) in the country.  Trailing Phoenix, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston.  Do any of those places have anything in common?  Besides stupid people calling this "growth."

Brookings only considered Fort Worth and Dallas (primary) as the only two CBDs.  DFW lost 215,165 jobs within 10 miles of those respective downtowns, illustrated by the little circles I made.  For Dallas, that's basically everything within 635.  Everything else gained 162,731 jobs.  This is a bad sign.  As I have said, echoing what Jeff Speck wrote in his book, Walkable City, urban cores are competing against their suburbs moreso than they compete against each other.  This is what killed Detroit.

Jobs follow housing.  Real Estate markets are the invisible hand following the invisible arm of transportation network design.  Our transportation agencies actively decentralize our cores.  All of them.  Even the smaller ones that Brookings didn't recognize.  Yet the market WANTS increased walkability and to reconcentrate for the very purpose humans created cities, for social and economic exchange.  To improve quality of life.  To experience life and share it with each other.  To create wealth.  Our transportation planning undermines all of that.  ALL. OF. IT.

The result is that everything is further and further apart, requiring people to own cars just to get to work.  That's a tax which sends money out of the local economy, much of it overseas.  Then we have to further tax ourselves to build the excessive infrastructure to keep up with the outward expansion and dispersal.  Eventually the local economies implode.  Again, ask Detroit.

At some point, Dallas and Fort Worth have to stand up to the regional and statewide transportation agencies actively working against them, against main streets, against walkability, and our downtowns.  There is a tension between what the market wants and the transportation planning and design working against the market.  They're fighting against each other.

City form follows the prime directive.

*Addendum: I've sent an email to the author asking to clarify the methodology.  The data shows DFW losing 71,000 jobs, but we've gained 1.2 million over that period.  This doesn't make sense unless jobs in relation to population is factored.  I'm not exactly sure how that math plays out, but theoretically it seems to make some sense.  I'll post what explanation I receive.

Cousins, Chaos, and Roundabouts

Late the other night I happened to catch Louis C.K.'s recent HBO special.  This part in particular about drivers transforming into horrible people had me in tears from laughter and truthbombs.  "You are driving a weapon."

It's an entirely competitive environment, to the point of sociopathology, that dehumanizes every other thing behind those other windshields and boxes of steel, aluminum, and carbon fiber.  Honk honk.

And then there is this:

Order out of chaos.  You have to make eye contact.  With pedestrians, with other drivers.  You have to drive slowly enough to not be dangerous.  To yourself and others.  Because what an insurance bill that would be amirite?  You have to behave like a human.  And people do.

With that said, that brings up a topic that arose last night.  Can a roundabout be bike friendly?  They're generally not particularly pedestrian friendly, but when designed right and for more pedestrian-friendly environments the speeds are slow enough that the conflict points aren't too bad.

The general issue is that cars never stop at roundabouts.  So while safer than many types of intersections (though not safer than four-way stops), I only like using roundabouts at punctuation points where the design character must shift from car-centric to pedestrian-centric or when odd geometries need some orderly device to make the development to public realm interface work better.

But that doesn't answer the question of how to bikes interact with roundabouts in a safe and comfortable manner?  There seems to be two general solutions since the dedicated lane adds more conflict points than subtracts them when entering these types of intersections.  One is to either share with cars or share with pedestrians.  I think I like the share with pedestrians strategy the most as long as it suitably calms the traffic via engineering and calming devices:

However, this isn't even the best possible image.  It's rather suburban and creates a secondary roundabout for bikes linking various trails together, not actual bike lanes.  Though that can be accomplished simply by tightening up the diagram.

In any case, the logical conclusion is that roundabouts just aren't that urban and should be used sparingly.  But progressive traffic engineers love them because they don't stop traffic.  Cars remain the priority.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Crowdsourcing Real Estate and Chickens and Eggs

I kicked around this idea a few years ago with somebody, but neither of us were/are on the frontlines of investment and development while maintaining our day jobs.  I think we were talking about how to get permanent infill retail structures into some of the modernist downtown buildings with barren 60's brutalist groundfloor arcades (or arcade type things).  Like a lot of brainstorming it simply died on the vine because we were merely kicking around ideas quite tangential to our daily efforts.

So today I came across a site called fundrise.com which is like a kickstarter or kiva, but for profit and for assembling real estate investment, which is kind of great for people a little hesitant to jump on the ebbs and flows of the market or more currently, gold.  Rather than sitting on the sidelines with cash on hand, the idea to put it into improving your neighborhood seems to me like a great one, one that I'm quite interested in.  They also have another site, popularise, which crowdsources ideas for what to do with various properties.

All of which brings me to a recent blog entry of theirs which I wanted to explore a bit (and did in their comments) on anchors, specialty grocers, and the inevitable chicken/egg question of residential and rooftops:

The first issue is that chicken/egg is inescapable.  Because these things are in cities, and cities are complex, and like all complex systems, they are built upon interdependencies, it's not really that one must be before the other, but both need each other and then help push the other forward.

From my experience, stores like Whole Foods have begun to look at a mashup of data that I call, "dollar density."  It's not as important for them, what median income is, but how many households there are that each need their daily and weekly groceries.  Only then does it matter what the median incomes are, so they know there is a market immediately available that can afford their prices.

For me, I look at dollar density as an indicator of desirability.  These are people that can afford to live just about anywhere in the city, but choose that particular census tract/neighborhood because they want to be there, in the self-selection and self-organization sense that then gives neighborhoods their expression of character.

When grocers are looking at these numbers for dollar density, they see areas on the rise, where people are moving-in, that fit their demographic, they're clearly a follower.  As well they should.  If they were to move in first, they'd be foundering for a while until the density that they drive arrives.  Instead, if they catch it on the upswing, they benefit from the recent growth, while then help leverage further development and increased density.  Furthermore, by catching that upswing at the right moment, they can get into markets and establish a beachhead before competitors.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Just played around for a few minutes on google trends to see what people are googling and where.  It turns out, of Austin, Dallas, and Houston, Dallas tends to google terms like "walkable," "bike friendly," and "urbanism," the least of the three.  Does that mean anything?  I'm not sure.  I do think there is still a hierarchy of southern cities that has yet to fully shake out.  They're all young, which will emerge as the "capital of the south?"  I've always felt Dallas had the most advantages, but seems like the least focused on doing so.

What might be more concerning is that nationwide, googling "urbanism" is on a pretty severe downward curve.  Could that simply be that more people now know what it is?

On Infrastructure Banks and Symposiums

I rather enjoyed this NextCity piece on Chicago's new infrastructure bank.  I really like the concept in that it forces the city to be smart in figuring out how the investment pays off, what to invest in, and increased transparency, all of which would be necessary 1) to draw private investment and 2) because the taxpayers deserve it.  Chicago has been doing a lot of great things since Emanuel took over in terms of rewiring the DNA of the city rather than focusing first on bricks and mortar and other "quick wins."  They're in pretty deep financially and they have to repurpose the city for the long-term.

At the end of the day, if we don't invest in infrastructure, we're screwed.  If we continue to invest in the wrong infrastructure, we're screwed.  The key is setting up the mechanisms to deliver the right infrastructure in the right places to serve the city for the long-term.  Oh, and getting the right leaders in the right places.  That matters too.  And they have that at several levels, including transportation.
This Friday is the David Dillon Symposium, entitled this year "The Networked City," which is heartening in a way that we're at the very least titling things in a direction towards what we really should be talking about.
It also happens to be the core of what I write about.

Like here:
Converging Parallel Geographies of the Digital and Physical Worlds
Intersection Density and Decay
Planes, Trains, and Autos & the Paths Less Travelled
Inaccuracy of Supply-Side Congestion Combat
The Intersection as the Atom of the City
The Value and Efficiency of Small Block Structure
Trams, Trollies, Trains, and Trampolines
Dendritic vs. Reticulated Networks: A study in market forces of networks
What is the Prime Directive?

I'm happy that the dialogue is shifting.  I'm also excited about Mark Lamster, the new architecture critic for the DMN who recently said this:
Lamster: “Yes, I think Dallas has become very attached to what we call ‘the architecture of genius.’ And I think now it’s a question of figuring out how we make the city a more humane, connected place, a city that’s a network rather than a city of discrete objects and roads.”
This tells me that he gets it.

Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be able to catch any of it.  Instead, I'll be at the other event which unfortunately was scheduled at the same time, same day:

What Makes a Resilient City?

Though we can talk about it all we want.  We can also plan about it all we want.  But can we get the right leadership in the right places at city, region, and state levels to begin building an infrastructure of the future that will allow the city of the future?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Detroit, Redux

NYT has a good piece on Detroit and Dan Gilbert's efforts to revitalize it.  The best bits get into the reasons for the decay, which are more accurate than the typical, reflexive answer: auto industry.  But alas, it is far more complicated than that.

There are many causes — the decline of the auto industry and white flight among them — but the one that Professor Galster returns to time and again is development in the suburbs. 
“The villains are the rules of the game,” he said. “Developers find it far more profitable to build in farmland in the suburbs than in vacant land in the core. It’s easier to acquire big sites without worrying about hidden basements, or gas stations, or a reputation for violence, or corruption or inefficiency or the potential racism of your customers.” 
It makes financial sense for developers, but it is disemboweling the city, he said. Which is why he believes that without reform to housing and development laws, neither Mr. Gilbert nor the emergency manager, nor any combination of earthly forces, can salvage Detroit.

If Detroit isn't thinking about some highway tear-outs, particularly the rather useless 375 through downtown, they're not trying hard enough.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Tales of Griffindor or just Griffin Street

I can't believe I never thought of this before.  I suppose it's one of those things that afflicts us all, that infrastructure is static and inevitable.  That there is nothing we can do about it in our learned helplessness.  After all, we're told these are "improvements" and "needed" and "gotta move those cars" and "get this here road up to level of service A."  The implication of course being that LOS A is a good thing.  Because it isn't an F.  Needless to say, just about every great road in any city operates at a D level or "worse" in the parlance of transportation planners, that rare species that cares not for the negative externalities and indirect casualties of their war on the bogeyman of congestion happening outside of their incredibly narrow scope of view.  Those casualties are our cities.

All of this brings me to Griffin Street, the road that was relocated, I'm guessing sometime around the time Woodall Rodgers Freeway was constructed to accommodate the distance needed to cover the elevation change for the exit ramp to traverse down to the city streets from the elevated freeway.  No matter.  The history is relevant.  What matters is not why it's there, but rather the present of what has it done and what is a preferred future for this property?  How can we leverage something better particularly as a few projects have died on this New Griffin site and as Tim Headington is poking around the Field Street surface parking lots.

Macro-effect of disconnectivity displaced people from downtown to the ever increasingly bleeding edge of sprawl.  The micro-effect is also interesting.  Griffin, acting as the access route to/fro the regional highway system displaced Field as a primary arterial, though Field has retained its size.  The new Griffin killed any existing or potential development and vitality by slicing through developable blocks and carving them into uselessness.  And by doing so it also killed Field by sapping it of its lifeblood.

Field no longer has the traffic to fill that capacity however and in turn, everything around it dies so that highest and best use of it too is as surface parking lot.  Looking specifically at the traffic counts Field runs about 9,000 vehicles per day or about 29% of the capacity its built for.  Griffin has quite a bit of noise year to year but it seems to average around 15,000 to 18,000 cars per day or about 35% of its 6-lane capacity.  You can also bet the vast majority of this is not local traffic.

We're left with a decrepit old fire station, a 7-11 gas station, a fedex store, and a drive-thru bank (that if memory serves might be closed?  I don't know.  I don't have much use for drive-thru banks and frankly loathe any that occupy downtown land.).  All of that on the 14 acres the New Griffin swath cut through, presumably knocking several buildings down and condemning private land.  All in the name of "public good."  Unfortunately, we're not better off for it.  Unless a few drive-thrus seems like a good use of downtown land to you.

Let's take a look at how to kill 2 birds with one stone, ie leveraging both the Griffin area (by adding land) and the Field area (by adding traffic).  Excuse the incredibly quick, sketchy photoshop work:

Meet the "New Griffin."  It was designed like it's a suburban road with suburban radii and curvatures.  Especially good for traffic to drive much to fast for the urban, downtown context.  Unless you want to eradicate pedestrians like the pests that they are.

Here's an old map I made comparing outdoor cafes to overly large road radii.  Cafes are indicator species of pleasant people space + critical pedestrian activity.  Cafes as businesses won't last very long if people aren't walking by.  Business needs traffic, just not the kind that moves fast and kills and pollutes.

Above is curb cuts.  Design streets for cars and you'll instill demand for 1) parking and 2) access to that parking.  Cars have a nasty way of diving in and out of parking facilities without much regard for human life.  Gotta beat that traffic.  The red spots are areas of heavy concentration of curb cuts.  Coincidentally they are also areas of high parking.  The Griffin/Field area is the big red oval on top.  Green is Main Street.  Main Street is a highly popular, pedestrian friendly place.  It actually feels something like a city.  For three blocks.

Here is the parking along the New Griffin.  Yellow is surface, orange is parking garage.  There are actually more garages than shown as some exist under and/or within other buildings.  I'm only highlighting strictly parking facilities.  There are quite a bit.  And (far too many) people think the key to revitalizing downtown is more parking.  We're almost there...if the goal is one big parking lot.

Let's do some restitching.  Abandoning New Griffin yields approx. 4 acres of right-of-way land which can be packaged into a deal to leverage private investment and development of this land.  The exit ramp, rather than winding around to meet grade below probably should be redesigned to meet Akard, which actually rises up to a similar level as the highway dives down below.  This is more contextually and spatially efficient rather than cloverleaves, which should never ever ever ever ever find their way into downtowns.

Hey look!  It's buildings.  But not by magic like most planning.  We're actually repurposing the street network in the direction needed by both the Field and Griffin sites.  Field needs more activity, Griffin needs more developable land.

Also, don't pay much attention to the layout and design.  For rhetorical purposes only.  The only thought that went into it was 1) restitch grid 2) apportion developable, walkable block sizes 3) throw a couple of open spaces in there.  In this case I gave the aquarium and FountainPlace new front door open spaces.

With Field being retrofitted back to a two-way road, it can and should return to function for the size and traffic of the primary street it was originally intended as.  By abandoning the New Griffin and realigning it as the Old Griffin we accomplish several things:

  • The Field properties have increased value and viability as mixed-use commercial and residential developments.  Right now, without the traffic the only value here is as residential.  Tim Headington should like that idea.
  • Abandoning New Griffin gives the city leverage (in the way of 4 acres of land to toss into a deal) for packaging a partnership deal with the current private landowners to develop this land to add new residential which would support West End, Victory, and the new Field commercial/mixed-use mentioned previously.
  • Griffin can better tie this part of downtown with Victory by bending the existing right-of-way which sits in the surface parking lots north of Woodall Rodgers into Market Street through Victory.
  • The Fire Station can be relocated into one of the new mixed-use developments.  I'm sure the Firefighters would tell you they need better facilities.

First, it should also be noted that you should freak out that Field narrows as it gets to the core when it begins handling more traffic.  All roads should narrow as the grid around them tightens and strengthens.  The lost capacity is handled by the increased capacity of the complex grid around it and traffic filters, as it should.

I haven't bothered scaling these blocks and elaborating the study into actual capacity numbers but based on a cursory glance, it looks like abandoning Griffin repositions about 30 acres of development, which could easily yield +2 million square feet of development (which is all low- to mid-rise.  Bump those numbers up significantly if you think high-rise can work here).  If 75% of that square footage is dedicated to residential (just a stab at what the land and market will yield right now), that could be 2,000 to 2,500 new residents.

Hey, this isn't a bad idea for an hour of brainstorming.  Maybe I'll do some real sketching and turn this into an actual capacity study.

In conclusion, the swath created a bunch of inefficient and nigh-undevelopable parcels at a highway exit ramp virtually ensuring a highest and best use of surface parking.  You know surface parking.  It all becomes an extravagant convenience to live outside of Dallas and commute in.  That old upside down real estate market. Meanwhile, surface lot owners rake in the cash while waiting for the next Museum Tower golden parachute to rain down upon them as a gift from bizarro over-ambitious financial heaven.

The lesson as always is that land value, demand, activity, and building form are all inextricably linked to transportation and movement network layout and design.  You change the invisible hand by moving the invisible arm.  However, it often takes a generation or so for the true value to shake out as property finds its level, usually under- or over-shooting a few times before properly calibrating.  In this case, that means surface parking on both Field and Griffin.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Tuesday Linkages

A couple of quick things as I get back into the swing of things (though I returned from Charleston on Sunday):

First, a good piece about Detroit and Ed Glaeser from Rustwire, who effectively argues that Detroit's failings were sewn by bad, anti-urban infrastructural choices not a lack of entrepreneurial nous:
Although Detroit did make a substantial investment in infrastructure throughout the twentieth century, such investments were shaped by anti-urban ideals. Apart from the People Mover project that Glaeser references, which was far too little (three miles of light rail) and far too late (mid-1980s), Detroit’s urban renewal investments in “transportation infrastructure” were devoted to miles-upon-miles of highways. Such highways ripped up and divided scores of once-functional neighborhoods throughout Detroit. Glaeser is no friend of highway spending, but it is misleading and misguided to use Detroit’s twentieth century “transportation investments” to argue broadly against public investments in transportation infrastructure.
And I agree.  But here is the missing part: entrepreneurial opportunities (Glaeser) and the Creative Class (Florida) are intricately tethered to transportation infrastructure.  They both require the opportunity afforded and the productivity provided by networks of interconnectivity.  Detroit built (and now the Sun Belt is busy still building) networks of disconnectivity and isolation.  Those with means left for opportunities that were relocated away from the city by the misguided public investments.  That the poor were left behind should be thought of in morphological understanding as the last remaining leaves of a dying tree.  In other words, everybody's right, but only partially.
Monorail, monorail, monorail!  Ahh the golden age of the gondola is almost here!  Everyone rejoice the inelegance of Rube Goldberg-esque transportation networks while we neglect improving and perfecting the key interaction and integration between movement and land use of the ground plane.

And posts in defense of the capacity of gondolas in comparison to say light rail and street car leave out a few factors:  1) speed of light rails and subways - a typical NYC subway line moves about 5x more than the peak number gondola advocates are projecting while the busiest Hong Kong line (perhaps the best system in the world moves more than 10x the people per hour) 2) the effect streetcars have on improving walkability by calming streets the busy commercial streets they share.

As for cost in comparison to other forms of mass transit, I disregard that as a factor because it plays in the hands of the current model of gold-plated highways while neglecting other forms that produce better, more livable, lovable, and efficient cities.  On the flipside is it really that cost effective in terms of ridership (and ridership gets into that efficiency and need for expedience issue)?  The Emirates Air Line in London cost $100 million and moves 4,500 people per day (though with regard to the Olympics, the price of everything is inflated by a certain "corruption" percent).

The neatly veiled caveat in the Atlantic Cities piece is to specify "in certain cases" cable drawn is best.  Yes, when steep inclines are involved or you want to sell a view to tourists.  And that's pretty much it.  Because it only stacks up otherwise when you dumb down the arguments or capitulate to the failed transportation and city building political apparatus currently in place.
Apparently, community organizing and outreach yields $115 for every $1 invested.  And walkability nearly $40.  I'm going to try and spend some time digging into these reports over the next few days to parse how they derived those numbers.  Though I'm sure there are a plenitude of reports stating for every highway dollar spent every one gets a pony and the world will be filled with rainbows.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Investing to Save

Chicago wants 650 miles of segregated bike lanes by 2020.  NYC has a goal of 1800 miles by 2030.  London has budgeted spending $1.4 billion over the next decade, Toronto will spend $500 million over the next two years, and the USDOT is finally getting into the act

That's a lot of cheddar.  These cities must like throwing it around willy nilly... au contraire.  There is method to the madness.  They're spending now to save later.  Save on what?  Well, first there is personal mobility costs considering the average cost to own and operate a car for one year hovers around $9,000.  Second, getting people out of cars puts less stress on roads, meaning less potholes, less reconstruction, etc.  Third, getting people out of cars is healthier for cardiovascular system let alone the damage done by vehicular collisions (considering 34,000 people died on roads in 2012 and about a million are injured each year).  Fourth, getting people out of cars reduces congestion and therefore the costs associated with 1) delays and 2) pollution and particulate matter in the air.

As far as I know, the city of Copenhagen has gone the furthest putting monetary values to these various auxiliary and external costs.  They found for each mile by bicycle generates 1.22 DKK in net value, whereas for each mile driven there is a .69 DKK net social loss.  In other words, these cities are following CPH's path and not just spending, but actually investing.  Reducing car travel and car dependence empowers the people, enables choice:  of how to get around, but also what to do with the extra money in their pocket.  Invest it?  Start a business?  Save it?  Afford better housing?  Spend it?  Any of these things is better than where it goes due to infrastructurally-coerced car dependence.

Closer to home, we have bike plan.  There is also a complete streets plan.  And a downtown plan.  And a comprehensive plan.  Adding the costs of each of those consulting fees together, the city of Dallas could have a few dozen miles of segregated bike lanes.  Instead, we get together with NCTCOG for ribbon cuttings on newly opened trails which follow the antiquated Robert Moses model of segregating modes of transportation.  By doing so, the bikes on trails model ensures that the bikes are not actually part of the street network and therefore not adapted to real estate the market.  It dilutes rather than concentrates.  Therefore, Dallas doesn't capture the value generated by increased local business through bicycle ridership.

One form of transportation must always be sacrificed. It's either car-dependence or legitimate choice in all modes including cars, which will always find their place.  The choice is simple really: invest to save or spend to spend some more and go broke (or stay broke).