Monday, March 3, 2014

Dallas: at a Crossroads

I don't believe in magic.  By now, we should all realize it is nothing more than a sleight of hand.  A distraction.  Instead, I believe in honest assessments and appropriate solutions, no matter how unpalatable they might be to some.

Magic believes Dallas was never a walkable, high density, transit-friendly city.

Magic believes cities are inanimate objects that never change.

Magic turns a 1.4-mile stretch of road into a 2-mile road as if that will help make a floundering case.

Magic turns 165,000 cars into 200,000 cars.  As if that is something we would ever want or that we have not control over it.  That we must accept it as an inevitability.

Magic is believing we can afford the antiquated infrastructure we've built and then double down on it.

Magic ignores that there is no problemo whatsoever with a massive infrastructure burden to tax base balance, while writing from outside city proper.

Magic ignores that the city is $900 million behind on its streets and perhaps even up to $10 billion behind on all facilities upkeep and maintenance based on recent staff reports to council.  Or, that TxDOT is $35 billion in debt and deferred maintenance.

Magic believes we don't have to do anything to revitalize South Dallas, particularly when it comes to un-doing the mistakes that made South Dallas into "South Dallas" where those that could flee, did.

Magic doesn't understand that bad infrastructure can actually sap areas of opportunity, particularly those that depend on proximity and agglomeration economies.

Magic is insulting some of the smartest and most successful people in the city and expecting them to come to your side.

Magic thinks writing in one sentence paragraphs is somehow interesting or more powerful.

Magic calls you naive.

Magic believes in magic.
The image at the top of this represents two paths to two very different end states.

They also happen to be the two largest North American cities that have effectively "solved" the demon beast known as "congestion" using two totally opposite approaches.  Vancouver densified while not building a single highway and not adding a single lane of traffic.  Instead, they reduced car lanes and increased bicycling capacity and added transit.  Detroit, well, you know.

There is an engineering company out there proudly promoting this image as, I dunno, progress?  Well, to one metric it scores an A-plus.  Free flowing traffic, zero congestion.  Zero city.

They also happen to be the two most relevant cities in the discussion about Dallas's present and future.  Every time there is some grand vision plan for Dallas the artist renderings depict something very Vancouver-like or at least, heavily inspired by the high degree of livability, density, while maintaining access to nature that Vancouver-ites enjoy.

Meanwhile.  Yes, meanwhile these drawings are shown while we're building the same infrastructure of Detroit, doubling down on car-dependence.  It's almost like we're depending upon this imaginary world being as round as the real world and that if we keep driving towards Detroit eventually we'll come full circle to Vancouver.  Infrastructure policy and design is the foundation for what a city's future form will look like and how its citizens will behave.  This is basic systems thinking.

A couple of numbers for you.

In the 1950's before the highways were built through the heart of Dallas, tearing up community fabric and displacing their social and economic bonds into disaggregated detritus strewn about a now 16-county metropolitan area, the city of Dallas comprised 60% of the region's population.  Do you know what that percentage is now?  19% and falling.

Also in the 1950's, Detroit composed 56% of its metro population.  Today, that number sits at 17%.  That may very well be the bottoming out because their region has now finally flatlined despite decades of continued growth while the city of Detroit is showing signs of green shoots as a city of affordable opportunity.

If we hit 17% perhaps it's time to sound the alarms.  Why?  Because the core city inevitably gets larded up with all of the infrastructure, amenity and cost burden of the larger city while we're actively subsidizing life outside the core, pushing tax base to live outside and commute in.

Between the 2000 and 2010 census, the metro gained 1.2 million people.  The city of Dallas gained 9,000.  Less than 1% of the growth.  That's the least the city of Dallas has grown during a 10-year span since we grew from 3,000 to 10,000 in 1880.  1880.  Now, I'm not the type to say "growth is king!" Or even always a good thing.  But it's a bad thing when the core city gets all cost of growth and no benefit.

Let's roll those numbers forward because extending trend lines to infinity is fun.  If the region gains another 1.2 million by 2020 and the city grows from 1.2 million to 1.3 million, that puts us at 17.3%.  If it wasn't for uptown adding about 20,000 people (due to being the most walkable place in the ENTIRE metropolitan area), I suspect Dallas would still be in complete free-fall.

Luckily enough we're about twenty years behind Detroit's life cycle and we've been able to catch the demographic shift back to cities.  But we're not doubling down on that new paradigm.  Instead, we're doubling down on the failing old one.  The trip to Detroit is running on fumes.  I don't think we'll make it full circle.

Some respond to this saying, "well that's because the entire region has grown."  Well, let me add that the metro is also 1/14th of the density it once was (and apparently there is some collective amnesia going around like the flu that Dallas was never a high density, walkable, transit-oriented city).  That is entirely due to car-dependent infrastructure.  Every city in the world began de-densifying due to the car.  Every city came to a reckoning at some point, deciding that wasn't working for them, nor was it the future they wanted.  The most livable cities in the world today came to that conclusion the earliest.

Because of that de-densification, we can conclude that DFW's growth is not solely organic population growth.  If it were, Dallas would still be a dense place, like the market is trying to become again, if only the infrastructure was more supportive of high density.  Instead, there is a great deal of cannibalization occuring, incentivized by big free roads and long distance travel.  All of which are conspiring to put us in untenable fiscal situation we're quickly approaching.

We're lucky that we're a younger city than Detroit.  We can learn from their mistakes.  Will we?