Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Moving Cars to Get to Jobs or Rather, Why We Should Focus on Housing Closer to Jobs

Just when you think the DMN editorial section couldn't get lower than the quality of their own commentariat (which is in all likelihood based in the Kremlin considering their grasp of the english language), the cringeworth-iest of smarmy pieces ran yesterday reaching a point where you have to wonder what is going on over there.

The gist, as always, how ever will people get to jobs in the Stemmons Corridor, home to one million hospitals or something in the vicinity, without a Trinity Toll Road?  Let's forget for a moment that between Industrial-turned-Riverfront Boulevard, Stemmons Highway itself, and Harry Hines Boulevard we already have 26 lanes of traffic.  Let's also forget that this might be the single best served corridor for rail service with the green and orange DART lines running past as well as the TRE linking Dallas to DFW airport to Fort Worth.  All of which have stops at the hospitals.

The short-sighted and reactionary logic that we must cater to origins and destinations as they currently exist puts the cart before the horse in thinking that transportation infrastructure has no effect on where those origins and destinations occur in the first place, ie the real estate market and how it arranges itself.  By catering to the origins and destinations as they exist and adding more capacity, the new infrastructure creates more outward inertia by undermining the quality of real estate locally and creating a profit margin on land regionally, further out that was not previously worth anything.

Since the effort to make driving more convenient is successful in a Braess-ian sense and that it disperses population even further, no other form of transportation is convenient if even viable.  Everyone has to get into cars, and own cars - despite 25% of the city below the poverty line - and everybody gets funneled into the same few corridors because 1) there are few other routes because of the inherent disconnection created by the highways and 2) we always assume the highways are our best route even when they rarely move more than 20-30 mph at peak hours, a similar speed achieved on under-utilized city streets.

Rather than putting more people into cars (particularly those that can't afford the high cost of private automobile use) through incredibly expensive infrastructure that doesn't pay for itself (as evidenced by the unwillingness of anybody to build it), we should be working to create more housing opportunities by improving the quality of place and desirability of the area to empower the real estate market to capitalize on the housing boom in order to reach the wide variety of needs for all income classes in high quality, walkable neighborhoods closer to where people work.

The reality is, there currently is no or very little option but to live outside of town and drive very long distances in.  The assumption that "this is Dallas therefore everyone wants to somehow live outside of Dallas" (you unwrap that twisted logic) is ignorant, at best.  That's the nicest way I can possibly put it.

So let's look at the Stemmons Corridor shall we?

The official Stemmons Business Corridor Association claims to be home to 170,000 workers (a strangely round number), 149,027 day-time population, and 14,852 residents.  I compared this data to what I found from  US Dept of Commerce census data to verify.  I replicated their boundary to the best of my abilities (using this graphic) but did not allow for any buffer that might draw from a larger surrounding area.  So when these numbers come back much lower, perhaps my boundary was too small, but I don't think so.

The above is a zoom-in on the boundary I selected for study.  You can compare it to the actual SCBA to see if it's way off.  It likely is in small places.  However, not enough to badly distort the numbers I don't believe.

More important than the blue blob graphical heat map is the numbers to the right and the radar above.  It shows that there are more like 118,000 jobs in the corridor (at least, on the tax rolls by 2011).  It also shows that 25.4% of commuters into the corridor are commuting more than 25 miles to get to those jobs.  That's an awful number.  There is no way those 30,000 commuters are anywhere close to approaching the national commuting average of 25 minutes (it's important to note here the surveys that show the preferred commute length in terms of time is about 22-23 minutes.  We like a bit of decompression time between home and work.  It's also worth noting how consistent that is throughout history of cities as well as by mode of travel, whether that be by bike, foot, train, or car).

This tells me that a great number of people aren't living that far away because they necessarily WANT to, but that they had limited choice.  Dallasites aren't somehow a different species.  We all have the same basic wants, needs, and emotions, and therein lies the consistency in real estate dynamics in every city of the world.

Lastly, the radar shows that the Stemmons Corridor is pretty central to where the commuters are coming from.  There isn't really a noticeable imbalance to which direction the majority of commuters are coming from, except the least amount are coming from the southwest and southeast.  There is a spike for due south, which is Oak Cliff and the 45 corridor.

Above is the same graphic zoomed out so you can get a sense of the heat map spread over the region.

The above graphic narrows down the commuters by income segment.  Unfortunately, the segments are very limited that we can choose from.  Above is only those making more than $40k/year which is the highest income bracket we can isolate.  The percentages are pretty similar in terms of the distances traveled, however there is a noticeable shift in the radar to the north.

What is worth noting is that the commuting numbers fall to 58k, which is 49% of total jobs in the area, meaning 51% are making less than $40/year.

Above is the lowest income segment available, only those making less than $15k/year.  While this is only 16,500 of the jobs in the area or about 15%, the average commute length increases and is derived increasingly from the south.  30.2% of these commuters making less than $15k/year are (presumably) driving more than 25 miles to get to these jobs.

Above is 2002 commuting patterns.  It doesn't really reveal too much insight except that the number of jobs has increased in the corridor a paltry 9k (low given the regional population growth of over 1 million in that time span).  The radar also suggests a significant shift to the north by 2011.  The super commutes of over 25 miles are pretty steady at 24%.  The biggest difference is about a 4% shift in the less than 10 miles to the 10-24 mile commutes by 2011.

All of the previous graphics were for jobs in the corridor.  For this graphic I shifted the analysis to commuters living within the boundary.  This is where it gets important.  Despite the official statement that nearly 15k residents live in the area, the data above suggests only 2,810 people commute to work from within here.  If we're to assume a roughly 60% resident employment to population ratio, that would mean the total population in that boundary might be 4,683.

That boundary is 10.82 square miles, meaning a population density of 432 or 12% of the Dallas citywide average.  If we were to apply Dallas citywide average density to the area, we could fit a resident population of almost 40,000 just within that boundary, or an increase of 34,756.  What is also important to note, is how short the commutes are for the residents of the area.  64% are under 10 miles.  90% are under 25 miles.  What if we could accommodate 70-80k vehicular trips per day via a density increase of 35,000 or so by city streets, walks, bikes, or bus rides all within a few miles of these jobs?  Guess what that would mean?  Solving congestion.

As a reminder, this area is home to the Trinity River, Trinity Strand and Trinity Strand Trail, lots of jobs, and lots of amenities.  Everything you need to create a real estate play for housing except walkable infrastructure when we're proposing more highways and car-dependence.  There is huge potential for housing in the area as evidence by the recent shift in the Design District towards residential densification.

As I mentioned before, there are indeed train lines running through.  The DART green line has 129 stops at Medical Market each day.  The orange line has 109.  The TRE stops 46 times per weekday.  Adding up the capacity of those trains is 53,120 passengers per day.  All of which surely wouldn't be disembarking at Medical Market, but it suggests there is further opportunity for increased commuting by train as long as it is convenient if not more convenient than driving.

Too much of transportation planning is far too narrow-minded.  The only solution for car congestion is vehicular capacity.  But it's not.  It takes a variety of strategic initiatives to get people out of cars and off the congested corridors including: 1) increasing grid connectivity as many city streets and arterials are well under capacity as the highways suck up their volumes, 2) improving DART service and convenience to increase commuting by train, 3) increasing housing options closer to jobs, and 4) doing so by improving the desirability of the land for higher density, walkable urban development which requires walkable, urban infrastructure.  The result is more tax base, less infrastructural cost/tax burden, and a more sustainable and desirable way to live.

The conventional wisdom for the impetus behind the Trinity Toll Road was that it was a real estate play.  If that is the case, and I believe that to be true, then this is not in any way about traffic or congestion relief or anything else.  If it were about traffic then TxDOT and NTTA would be all over it.  They're not.  So we're left with it being a real estate play.  However, that play is no longer viable.  The market wants housing and it wants it closer to jobs, towards an improved jobs/housing balance, higher quality and more diverse neighborhoods supporting a range of incomes.  The new real estate play is to kill the Trinity Toll Road to maximize the value of land and population density along the Trinity.