Wednesday, April 16, 2014

345, The Funnel, and The Paths Less Traveled

Peter Simek has a good piece on frontburner yesterday if you haven't yet read it, where he encompasses the bigger picture that I don't often talk about, but is absolutely at stake:
More than tearing down I-345, it is a conversation about rethinking the macro-planning of North Texas. The inertia of suburban growth will continue to incentivize regional planning organizations, supported by their multitude of nodal constituents, to sustain the status quo that supports the continued spread of the “anti-city.” It is incumbent on Dallas to seize this opportunity to take control of its own future.
I would hesitate to say that we're at an impasse, however.  Only publicly.  With that said, I'm often reminded of the time the very first story on 345 was published in D Magazine.  It seems like only yesterday, I was having lunch with Zac and Tim from D in KWPark and pitching them the idea.  They'd heard it a million times already because I'd been harping on it for 3-4 years before we even got to that point.

By the time it was published and I started receiving email/phone call responses to the piece, one stood out.  It was from a friend and former co-worker who still worked downtown.  He mentioned that very day he and another co-worker who both live east of White Rock Lake in the Garland Road area decided to have a race to the office (they must really like their job).  They would leave at the same time.  One would take I-30.  The other would take the city streets.  It might've been Gaston or Live Oak or Columbia.  The grid, as it is, has choice built-in.

The result?  They tied.  The highway, despite its promise of speed and inefficiency, when everybody is trying to take advantage of that same promise, is not actually more efficient (less so when you factor in the delayed land use impact they have).
From about the middle of the 20th century until recently, we've prioritized the presumed efficiency of car travel.  The form is dendritic or branching structure rather than a grid.  Instead of allowing for choice and filtering traffic, it funneled traffic into increasingly large corridors.  It didn't understand the point of the city which is fundamentally about congestion, bringing people together to facilitate social and economic exchange.  So it's been fighting the very nature of the city from the onset of the modernist traffic planners.

The result, as I often and Peter quoted from Mumford, anti-city.  Further, as NCTCOG's own documents have referenced, their models don't understand the impact on land use.  Why do we need models to understand what is as plain as day if you just look around at the impact modern transportation planning has wrought.

In my presentations I've begun comparing the two North American cities that have best 'defeated' the bogeyman of congestion.  They are Vancouver and Detroit.  They've done so in two entirely different manners.  I point to Vancouver and Detroit because Dallas has a predilection for these two ends of the spectrum.  Our planning efforts and visions show imagery of Vancouver, meanwhile we build the infrastructure of Detroit.  You can't have both.  So I take the time to dissect the two.

The conventional, modernist, American version of traffic planning funnels all cars into a single corridor.  Thus, due to the "projections" in denser environments that corridor has to become ever larger.  As it transitions from countryside to city, you can see how it gets bigger and bigger.  Too note, what happens when it enters the city.  It rips apart the area, displaces entire neighborhoods and reduces overall connectivity while favoring the person who lives far away and drives in.

The result in the land use market that transpo models admit they don't understand is that eventually that person who realized it was convenient to live outside the city eventually will realize it's also more convenient to work closer to where they live.  Thus, job sprawl follows the housing sprawl.

Vancouver, which never allowed freeways into the city, and subsequently and to the astonishment of all didn't fall into the sea, approaches traffic in a different way.  They valued their neighborhoods so they decided back in the 60s and 70s to protect them.  Thus, the rural highway as it approaches the city doesn't get larger.  It actually gets smaller, transitioning into a boulevard as it enters the suburbs (true sub-urbs, mind), and eventually as the corridor enters the city, it disappears into the grid.  The grid actually has far FAR more implicit capacity than a single highway corridor (and that's before we actually start calculating the increased trips of alternate forms of transpo and the shorter average trip length).

The job sprawl ultimately displaced the center of the city.  It is a delayed reaction.  The highways shifted the neighborhoods out of Dallas and eventually the jobs followed.  Jobs in Dallas county peaked in 2001.  Since then they've fallen 266,000.  That's an incredibly bad number.  The new center of town is now an amorphous T-shaped blob along 635 and 75 from North Dallas to Plano, based on traffic counts.

One might say, so?  Now let's compare how we build our infrastructure to that of another city center, Champs Elysees.  Champs Elysees moves 80,000 cars per day.  But a third of 635.  However, and this is harder to determine, but those 80,000 are in all likelihood several multipliers of 80,000 because you're not counting the same car over and over again.  More importantly, Champs Elysees accommodates 500,000 pedestrians per day.  They say traffic equals value and they ain't kiddin'.

Champs Elysees moves twice the people (at least) in half the right of way, on less costly infrastructure, and has 10x the real estate value per square foot.  And you thought Dallas was a smart business town.  Well, it could be if we started thinking about infrastructure from an economic standpoint.  But maybe that's why TxDOT is so broke.  It's not their spending that's the problem, it's how they spend it and what they build generates no value.
I think of this each time we hear about the moving target that is just exactly who uses 345.  First, it was how do people of South Dallas get to jobs in Far North Dallas.  Then it was Pleasant Grove.  It seems logical.  They could cruise Cole Haan to SM Wright around Dead Man's Curve to 45 to 345 to 75.  Only problem, that's not the most convenient way to get from Pleasant Grove to the job sprawl up 75 once Braess' Paradox takes effect.

Now, after receiving the origin-destination study from NCTCOG, the new belief is that 64% of travel is from Dallas to Dallas, from the Pleasant Grove area to jobs in downtown, uptown, and Parkland area.  We'll get back to that.  It should be noted is theoretical based on census data and suburban transportation patterns rather than real world, thus making it a self-reinforcing, self-fulfilling agent of entropy, continued inertia, and increased car-dependence.

First of all, during peak times, when 345 is typically moving at barely more than a crawl due to Braess Paradox in action (the funnel sucking up all the traffic from the area), google maps will tell you that there are very few destinations where 345 is the most convenient route.

Going to Richardson or points north due to the job sprawl that we've subsidized and incentivized, best to take 635:

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As shown in the variety of options, even taking loop 12 is often more convenient than taking 345.  However, because 345 is most convenient when driving is at its optimal condition (when no other cars are on the road), we wrongly assume it will always be the most convenient route, thus clogging and congesting the system.

Then we're told, hey people have to get to Parkland.

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Google maps suggests not even getting onto 45, but taking 175 to Cesar Chavez to Pearl to Harry Hines, ie city streets.

So I started to wonder, where exactly is the threshold where 345 is optimal during peak periods?

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Turns out that 345 isn't even convenient for going to Central Market at Lovers Lane and Greenville.  Instead, Loop 12 is preferred.

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SMU appears to be the tipping point where it takes equal amount of time to reach whether by city streets or the highway.  We can assume that 345 is really only most convenient, as it currently exists, to reach points between CityPlace and SMU, areas that are already some of the most walkable in the city, want to become more so, and are so valuable BECAUSE of the value premium of walkability.  An improved grid could reach these destinations just as well as a highway.  Hardly worth the cost of exporting 266,195 jobs in a 10-year span when we could re-build the grid, recapture some of the lost jobs, people, and tax base.

Finally, as we fret, "what about the traffic," we must realize that there are a variety of forms of traffic.  Because of the highways through the core of the city, we end up having different types of traffic competing for the same space.  Voila, congestion.  We have to better design our city for the appropriate type of traffic.  When we think about 345 and traffic, think about differentiating types of traffic.

They are:
1) long haul/interstate/NAFTA freight - as Mayor Rawlings rightly said, this traffic only serves to pollute and congest areas we're trying to densify as people space.  This shouldnt be cutting through downtown, but instead ought to be taking 635 and the eventual loop 9 connection to 190.  We believe this to be about 10% of the traffic.

2) long commute (15+ miles) - the key statistic here is that according to census data Dallas County lost 266,000 jobs from 2001-2011 (latest available data).  We shouldn't be asking how to accommodate this traffic but instead asking how we reverse this northward job spillage and bring jobs back to the center of the city.  This is where the land use impact of transportation investment and subsidies are misapplied to incentivizing the wrong thing.

3) short commute - the latest models from COG show the majority of the traffic demand is Dallas to Dallas (64%).  If this is indeed the case, then this shouldnt be under the jurisdiction of USDOT, TxDOT, nor NCTCOG.  Furthermore, the grid in the area is 250,000 cars/day below the capacity it's built for. During peak times, the grid is just as if not more convenient because it provides route choice and adaptability.  In long term, an improved grid also shorten trips by stimulating economic development, relocalizing destinations and making alternate, and more business friendly, modes of travel more convenient.

Congrats.  If you made it to the end of all that you care enough about this city (or your city wherever that may be) to make a difference.