Friday, January 24, 2014

The State of the City Address. Minus the States.

New mayor of NYC Bill De Blasio, like our own fair mayor, is in DC for the US Conference of Mayors.  Whereas our mayor is asking how to fix our decrepit and dysfunctional public school system (and presumably telling the other mayors not to beat their wives or husbands, whatever the case may be), De Blasio suggested something interesting (at least to me) that deserves more attention:
Let’s forge that new national urban consensus together – not just around priorities like pre-K and paid sick leave, but around strategic investments in affordable housing and 21st century transportation. Let’s work together to bring Congress back to the table so we can rebuild our public housing and revive our Section 8 programs for our seniors and vulnerable families. Let’s secure more dynamic funding for our roads and mass transit to give cities the flexibility to set their own priorities. I daresay – I think I’ll find agreement in the room – that we know what’s best for our own people.
So much this.  To translate mayor-ese, what he's saying is that transportation funding decisions shouldn't be made so much at the federal level (particularly not in Congress.  Ohhhh, the pork.)  And not so much the state level, but where it is actually needed and for the most part, best understood exactly where, what, and how it is needed.

At the state level, funds all to often go to the increasingly more aptly named Dept of Highways and More Highways and Bigger Highways.  The thing about states, like the US Senate, it disproportionately represents the hinterlands rather than the people.  The states are also in the position to dictate to the cities what and how transportation will be within their city, despite, as I once told a mayor, "__insert state abbrev here___DOT does not have your city's best interest in mind."

As countless writers and economists have noted, cities are the wealth of nations.  They are the engines that make the economies go.  Transportation money and decisions should primarily be made at that level.  For one reason, the majority of trips are local.  And as the streetsblog piece points out, the money all too often disappears at the state level into a vortex of highway spending (and I'd add corruption, bureaucracy, and waste).

So let's play a hypothetical game where I take an extreme position and hope we can some day find a middle ground.

The USDOT budget is $77 billion per year.  That equals about $245 per person per year.  Funny enough that's almost enough to get you an annual DART pass, but not enough to cover your monthly car payment, insurance payment, and gas.

Let's say we proportionally dedicate $200/person to the municipal level to use how they see fit for transportation, mobility, and housing/affordable housing programs near transit/transpo options.  The rest of the money can stay at federal level for interstate transportation.  Is that enough?  Probably not.  Hopefully not.  It will at least take expansion of the table and encourage smarter thinking.  If regional transportation decisions have to be made, their facilitated by MPOs to bring the municipalities together and prove up the reasoning to pool their money.

$200/person means Dallas would get an additional $250 million per year to put towards transportation.  A 10% bump in the city's budget.  The metro would get about $1.3 billion.  The state collectively (but not ya know, the actual state) would receive 5.2 billion, which is 2.5x TxDOT's existing budget, but without TxDOT's hands on it.  All state level roads within city boundaries are deeded over to the city, thus allowing cities to determine the best way to design the roads rather than adhering to state and federal level standards which typically are geared only towards high-speed travel, low-density development.

More overall money to transportation projects, more focused on cities, and better transportation more suited to the specifics of that place and its goals.

Putting the money in the hands of the cities, facilitates the competition amongst cities whereas the smartest will win.  Rather than Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio virtually being identical.  Yes, Texans, I know you can tell the difference, but nobody else can.  Further, behavioral statistics are also virtually identical.  That is because virtually all of the underlying "DNA" of city form is determined either at the state level via transportation, "the bones of the city," or like zoning, was merely copy and pasted and spread across the Sun Belt like a virus.

Cities would have increased ability and incentive to get the road systems appropriated and optimized.  And more importantly, get the road to tax base ratio right, which means less incentive for mega-projects.  As soon as some cities begin having success, for example, shifting towards highly efficient bicycle travel and infrastructure, other cities are increasingly nimble to follow suit rather than having to beg, borrow, and steal for scraps to make any kind of shift from the status quo.

How would regional transportation like High Speed Rail get done?  Well, Texas is showing that can happen via private investment.  A city could use their transpo funds to help build the station where it best suits them.  The private investors would work with locating that station where it also drives the highest ridership.  A win-win.

Is the idea out there?  Of course.  But no more crazy than the existing model.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bike Sharing Event

When: Next Thursday January 30th, 2014, 6 to 8 pm
Where:  City Tavern, 2nd Floor
What: CNU_NTX happy hour conversation

Why:  Would you like to hear about bike sharing?  Or just have a beer amongst like-minded civically-active people interested in improving your city?  Well, do both!

Kristen Camareno and Nick Olivier of Fort Worth Bike Sharing will be coming over to Dallas to talk about their experience starting up and operating bike sharing in cow town, err funky town, err panther city.  

Open to any interested individuals:

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Bad Intersections of DFW: A Series

There will be blood.

Well, hopefully not.  I mentioned on twitter that I've been meaning to get this ball rolling for a while now, so here goes.  Rather than idle kvetching, but rather identifications of the problems and then potential solutions.  Also, I'm opening the forum to suggestions via twitter and email for bad intersections around the metroplex.  There are many.  I haven't been on every intersection in the city, but all of us have.  Typically, I'll just have the one most recently on the mind.

For example, due to some health issues in the WalkableDFW household I've become the
chauffeurdriver in the house.  What would life be without its ironies?  And as such, living in downtown, working in uptown, and our various destinations in and around about a 2-mile radius, I'm most often making the most difficult drives in Dallas.  That's right.  It is far easier to hop on the highway and drive straight for twenty miles than it is to navigate the roads not funneling you onto the highway.  And we wonder wha- wha- wha happened to downtown?  Well, we opened the trap door and everybody fell out.

One of those typical convoluted routes I must take is the very Left-Right-Right-Right-Left just to make a right.  One way streets.  Gotta love'm.

Here is Federal Street at Akard.  It's a ten-second photoshop drawing.  I'm not getting paid for this, so no autoCAD drawing for you.  Suck it up.

Federal east of Akard was recently one of the very minor roads in downtown to undergo two-way conversion.  Unfortunately, because the planning profession is under the spell that all interventions must be "quick wins!"  Apparently quick wins means just doing anything.  And to make a one-way to two-way conversion in downtown Dallas could very well mean doing it on the streets that matter least, the small service alleys to minimize disruption.  So in the end we get all of the problems of a two-way conversion with very little if any of the benefits.  Woo!  Copy/Paste planning!

Ok.  So let's get into why this intersection is problematic:

You'll see there are three crosswalks.  Crossing Federal on both sides of Akard and crossing Akard in between the bisected and non-linear Federal.  Federal is one-way approaching Akard from the west and two-way on the East as I mentioned.  Akard is two-way north to south.  Problems occur with drivers on Akard turning left onto Federal and cutting the corner where drivers are now approaching Akard.  Conflict point 1.

There are also problems if you are on Federal approaching Akard from the west and wish to continue on Federal eastward.  Doing so, you have to make a quick right-quick left S-curving action.  Because Akard is one-way, the drivers are leaning out and only looking left, meanwhile pedestrians are to the right.  In other words, they're not looking where the pedestrians are.  Conflict 2.

The driver making the S-curve then waits in the middle of the street while the pedestrian crosses.  Then that pedestrian often makes a right to cross Federal, at which point the vehicle S-turning onto Federal eastbound is waiting for the pedestrian again.  Conflict 3.

Instead, what if we ditched the middle crosswalk and treated the two Federals like one big intersection:

There doesn't have to be a boat load of money for fancy paving patterns in the center square (TEXAS STAR!) or textured brick(-ish) pavers for the crosswalks providing a bit of traffic calming rumble to the cars passing as if to say, "look buddy time to slow down a bit, pedestrians be lurking and ready to jump into your grill and ruin your day."  GEICO on line 2.

I understand the desire lines of pedestrians can often compel them to make the shortest distance angle, but the new crosswalks would provide a bit more clarity for where they should be as well as where drivers should expect them, while providing a bit more room to swivel head, see them, and slow down if necessary.
Send me your "Bad Intersections of DFW" and if they make the cut for suitable BEFORE/AFTER analysis and recommendations, I'll include them in this on-going series.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Open Letter Series

To me!  I thought this was very kind.

Dear Patrick,
I never officially thanked you for your quote in my Oak Cliff Trolley article for Dallas CultureMap. Your input really helped guide my piece, thank you.
My new personal project is to write a letter a day to a different person of interest. Today’s letter (email really) is for you.
I know that your current hot-button issue is what to do with the expiring Highway 345. My guess is that most people don’t even know what/where 345 is and assume it is either the end of Central or the beginning of I-45 (I know I did). I’ve shared ANewDallas with all kinds of people and am totally on-board, even though it will add a few minutes to my drive to Galveston. But that is exactly your point. Highways were intended for travel between two distant places, not intra-city transportation. They divide and marginalize people. I think my neighborhood Hamilton Park is a decent example, which is in the shadow of the Hi-5 and bordered by both Central Expressway and 635 LBJ. The area is steps away from some of the most affluent neighborhoods in Dallas but battles blight and isolation.
Can’t we just tear the damn thing down and see if it works? That is probably way too rational a solution (and not enough money in it for the city contractors) for Dallas to actually try it. If it is complete chaos, it seems they can always find a few billion dollars to build a new highway.
I have 350+ letters to write this year so rest assured that I will write Mayor Rawlings and various City Council persons about this project. I guess my real question is how can I/we build awareness and make something happen with this campaign? When will decisions be made?
Thanks for your time.

Not-so-fun with Numbers

A couple of statistics floating in or past the head this morning:

There are 254,000,000 registered vehicles in the country.

On Think with Krys Boyd yesterday, Happy City author Charles Montgomery cited that there are 7-9 parking spaces for every car.  Let's go with 8.

That's 2,032,000,000 parking spaces in the country.

A typical parking space is abou 18x9, but it also needs a drive aisle to deliver the car to its space.  We typically use about 320 square feet.  That's 650 billion square feet of parking.

That's 14.9 million acres of land dedicated to parking.

That's 23,324 square miles of parking.

Garage spaces and underground spaces are significantly more expensive than surface spaces but the vast majority are surface spaces.  Let's go with an approximation of $5,000 per parking space.

That's $10 TRILLION spent on building parking, when only 15% of it is every full at one time.  Efficient!


That's the less depressing part of this post.  I had a much more caustic version of this written in my head this morning, but time subsides the rage.

My office is in uptown near the Walmart neighborhood market.  Any time I've ever been there to pick up various office-type needs like coffee or a screw driver to put together newly ordered office furniture, there are a couple constants.  1) a fire truck is always parked out front with the guys stocking up their station.  2) there is always a family getting out of a cab to do their grocery shopping for the week(?).

I bring this up, because in the discussion regarding car-sharing apps, a council person defended the cabs because his constituency was dependent upon the cabs for basic services like groceries.  Decades of mismanagement aside leading us to such car-dependence aside, let's think about this for a second.

There are many neighborhoods of South Dallas where the median household income is in the teens, like $12-18,000/year.

As somebody who has willingly given up their car, I've taken my share of cabs over the years.  I've also become a fairly consistent Lyft rider of late.  Most of my trips are about the 3-mile range.  A cab fare for such a trip will run you about $15 dollars. More if you happen to have another passenger or two, because yeah that certainly reduces the gas mileage 10-20%.  A typical Lyft (and possibly UberX) fare for these kinds of rides is $7-9 dollars.

Both are far more expensive than convenient public transit, as if that was more than a dream.  Again, car dependence through policy coercion.  So if you want to load a car with groceries and you can't afford to own a car, until now, cab it was.

Now let's say it's a $15/fare to reach the grocery store.  We're going to have to add $2 per child passenger because we can't afford child care.  Let's make that $19.  The trip is two ways.  $39.  And there is idling in between while you do the shopping.  Let's call it an even $50.  What have I said about car dependence being a tax on the local economy?  On every point of socio-economic exchange?

That's $50/week on top of the grocery bill, which is a necessity anyway for sustenance so that doesn't factor in the equation.  Multiplied by 52 weeks a year to feed the family.  $2600/year just to participate in the local economy.  For some of these households, that can be 20% of household income, let alone whatever is going towards the groceries.

Car dependence, a tax just to participate in the local economy.  Except a tax usually goes towards something positive.  This just creates more cost burden via ever expanding infrastructure.  Do you see why these systems collapse?  Why South Dallas looks like Detroit?

Is our council really looking out for their constituents?  I guess, it just depends what you mean by constituents.

Now let's think about these ride sharing services like Lyft, which regulate their drivers more stringently than the city regulates the cabbies.  Anybody with a car, in decent condition, a positive disposition, and insurance can be a lyft driver.  They split the fare with the tech company.  South Dallas could use some more job opportunities.

I took Lyft saturday night to/fro a night on Henderson Ave.  When it was time to go, I pulled up the app, it showed me dozens of operating cars in the area.  I hit the button and I get a call from the nearest driver.  They're there in two minutes tops.  Try getting a cab if you're not going to or from the airport or at the airport or a hotel.  The cabbies don't even consider it worth their time to make these 5 minute rides.  Are we really asking the cabbies what they think or what their ownership thinks?  There is some overlapping service, but not as much as one might think.

Rather than fighting the car-sharing apps, should our council people be thinking about how to work with them to help their constituents?  So that getting groceries is cheaper than taking a cab?  So their constituents can make a little money by offering ride sharing?

Who is this supposed benevolent paternalistic (which, red flag immediately) grand-standing really helping?  In my experience the best form of leadership is to help people help themselves.  And the car-sharing services offer that potential.  I just wish there was more convenient walking and public transit, but that's another battle for another (every other) day.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Undeniable Relationship Between Spatial Integration and Value

City building is both a creative and quantitative endeavor.  It takes two sides of the collective brain.  Unfortunately, both of these are fairly limited to trial and error as we design and continually evolve our cities.

Two separate equations produce nearly identical results.  As you may know, I created a Spatial Integration map of Austin, Texas.  I did this because I wanted to measure what kind of relationship there might be between the space syntax formula and real estate value.

Below is a sample Spatial Integration map I created for pre-highway Dallas.  Each of those color codes is based on the mathematical formula measuring connectivity.  The important thing to note about the color-coded map below is that red is highest and blue is lowest.

The program has no idea where it is.  It doesn't know the above is Dallas or the model of Austin is Austin.  All it knows is the road network and how interconnected it may or may not be.  Every road has a numerical value assigned to it.  The color code is just a visual gradient applied to the meta-data within the program, available when you click on each segment.  Since every road has a value, therefore every two roads forming an intersection has a value.  Since intersections have a value, therefore the four intersections that comprise a block within will also have a value.

Also, every block has a real estate value.  I wanted to find the relationship between these two things.

So as part of the Austin study, I built a spatial integration map (above) and then I tabulated all the property data from the below blocks.  I then averaged the blocks by their distance from I-35.  For example, A4, B4, and C4 were lumped together in order to smooth out some of the noise within an individual block.

So I have every property within every block shown above listed into a database with values for amount of square footage by use, land value, assessed improvement value, amount of parking, lot area, etc.  After summarizing each property within its block of three, I was able to put together the below chart:

It shows land value per square feet on the y-axis and distance each block of three is in relation to each other.  It is shown in section from west to east with Congress and I-35 clearly shown as gray bars.  As you can see, there is a clear value drop off away from Congress and towards I-35.  To the east of I-35 is a near flatline.  I wanted to know whether these values had more to do with Congress as proxy for the center of town as a value creator or 35 as a value 'deflator'.  More on that specific analysis is at the link above.

Then after creating the spatial integration map, I went through every block and aggregating its block-value by averaging its four-intersections.  That gave me an integration number for each block.  When creating a similar chart to the one above, it produced this:

Strikingly similar.  The beauty is the two data sources are completely independent of one another.  But the real estate market inherently 'knows' or intuits that greater interconnectivity leads to greater demand, and thus the market builds more supply of improvements (square footage) towards that demand based on interconnectivity.

Because the graphs are so startlingly similar, I decided to cut out the middle man and find the equation of connectivity equals expected land value by eliminating distance from the equation, since distance was created solely for visual purposes and measured from the highway.  The highway was shown to lower global connectivity, so therefore it is already factored into the equation.

Relating global connectivity to land value produced the following exponential equation:

71820 times Global Integration Integer to the 23.145 power.  This may not be the exact equation in every city or even every area within a city, but it is at this particular area.

A remarkably high r-squared value of .9434.  That means the degree of correlation is almost perfect (=1).  In other words, we can say with near 100% confidence that higher degree of connectivity = higher land value.  Furthermore, with this equation we can see if global connectivity is x than land value should be y.

We can also say with similar confidence that the highway is what lowers connectivity and thus diminishes real estate value.  As one of my favorite quotes from a 1912 plan of Saint Louis states, "the art and science (two sides of the brain) of city building is to design streets and public spaces to maximize the private use of land."  Clearly, when it comes to downtowns that means highways are antithetical to those aims.

We can then take these numbers and produce a suitable FAR (floor area ratio) or density based on expected value.  Because the correlation is so strong, even in a dynamic, volatile market like downtown Austin, this means the real estate is already highly adapted to its current infrastructure.  Hence, the tendency towards roughly conical skylines.  The greatest density (most supply of square footage per acre) is at the core of the city where connectivity is highest (demand).  Buildings respond to connectivity, supply to demand.

How do you increase demand?  Well, some "urban designers" (note: anybody can and does call themselves or their firm this these days) don't believe changes are necessary to the infrastructural network when revitalizing areas (or clumsily attempting to).  Draw a few buildings, wave a magic wand (of subsidy) and voila!  Of course, as I often say, subsidizing supply again does very little for demand and a better, more targeted use of public funds is into driving demand via interconnectivity.

Having these kinds of formulas can allow us to determine which properties might be over-valued or under-valued based on current conditions.  Or perhaps more critically, can determine what new potential value there might be with a couple tweaks to the surrounding infrastructure by improving connectivity.  Strategy: buy a property, work with the city to improve connectivity, profit.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

HSIPR or HSR for Short

I suppose we should start using the more technical name of High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) rather than the more conventional HSR for High Speed Rail, as this is about to get serious.  But forget the semantics because in a twitter world characters are at a premium (unlike parking spaces downtown).  It's also worth checking out the full Mattingly study which has a number of interesting points about HSR's ability to capture percentages of air travel (85-90% if HSR can achieve the link in under 2 hours, 50-80% for up to 3.5 hours).

The primary purpose of the study was to examine the suitability of existing highway corridors for the geometries and right-of-way availability to bring HSR along side (or even in some cases over the top of) the highway corridor.  This makes a lot of sense.  For one, TxDOT wants to avoid the mess that the Trans-Texas Corridor caused in terms of right-of-way acquisition (as well as its myriad of other issues).  Also, as I've said a million times rail creates disconnections except at its station areas or termini.  It creates edges and border vacuums just like a highway, so might as well pair the edge-makers up together (like highways and floodplains -- see: downtown Denver).

There are also recommended criteria for selecting station areas.  One stipulation was approximately 20 acres for a downtown station.  I have just the place:

Since there's no need for 345 anymore.  Wink wink. Nudge nudge.  Amirite?

Actually this location does solve a number of problems (assuming 345 goes bye bye).  It utilizes the examined 45 right-of-way to steer the trains into downtown, there is redevelopable area nearby, it avoids the border vacuum problem by not bringing the rail deeper into downtown, in all likelihood the D2 link will be somewhere near this vicinity, linking HSR to the broader train network, and it doesn't disturb the Elm/Main/Commerce trio.

Just a quick thought as I sifted through the Mattingly study, found here.  Thanks to Owen Wilson-Chavez who linked to the study, to which he contributed, via twitter.

Let me add (if I have never put it in print before) that the Texas triangle is just about perfect for high speed rail, given the distances allowing for sustained top speed, but not so long that air travel begins to make more sense.  Aus-Dal-Hou is almost identical in scale to the Madrid-Barcelona-Valencia triangle that I had the pleasure to train around two years ago.  Each about two hours in duration and far more comfortable than on a plane, let alone the minimal security, wait time, and discomfort of airports in general.

Monday, January 6, 2014

When the Levee Breaks

City of Dallas is proposing to offer $50 million in downtown TIF funds to jumpstart a derelict office tower.  This is exactly what we're trying to avoid with proposing the the 345 tear-out.  It wasn't the only impetus for the study, but the endless heavy subsidization of any and all downtown investment was one of the primary reasons for the tear-out proposal.

1) It's too big of a chunk of money for too little return.  I'm saying that generally, but in this particular instance the public investment is in hopes of returning 511 residential units (a lot to absorb in one project), 71K of office, and 71k square feet of retail (a ton in the downtown market to absorb).  Oh, and "much needed parking" (which is nonsense).  Sounds great.  But can it?  And should it really take $50 million in gap funding to return?  If it works, it will add supply of space.  But this gap funding is a glaring symptom of the underlying problem with the downtown market.  That we'll get to in a bit.

2) It guarantees added supply with no guarantee of added demand or absorption.  It is antiquated, late 20th century, Keynesian urban planning.  I'm not saying there isn't a role for public investment to leverage private investment.  I'm saying with limited resources, it has to be much smarter.  In the past 5 years, downtown Dallas has added a number of new residential buildings.  Thus, you see the "population" of downtown climbing.  Looking deeper at the numbers however, what is cited is always "residential units."  Not actual downtown resident population.  That has been stagnating in the 6,000-7,000 range for sometime.  We're adding new space, but at high(er than necessary) cost.

3) It allows for favoritism games to be played.  Picking and choosing investors (which makes sense on some level), but it also minimizes the amount that can and would invest in downtown.  Too many big money players don't believe in downtown simply because they don't want to deal with the city.  We have to alter the rules so it allows more investors to return to downtown, to meet the huge pent-up demand for walkable urban living, and minimize the unpredictability that scares them away.

4) One hand out leads to another hand out.  When does it stop?  Any smart investor that sees somebody get $50 million will expect the same.  If they don't, they'll go back to whatever else that is working for them.  Considering our current long drive favoring infrastructure, that generally means more sprawl towards Oklahoma.

This is what you have to do when the real estate equation is upside down.  the market isn't healthy enough for profitable investment.  land costs are too high, but demand is too low.  Public agencies create public-private partnerships to fill that gap that won't be filled otherwise in order to add new buildings.  New supply.  But there is no guarantee that anything or anybody will fill that new supply.  You haven't changed the demand model.  But we could.  And by doing so, invest in the city much more wisely and at much greater returns.

Let's prorate that investment and proposed return out in comparison with the 345 plan.  We originally suggested the highway tear-out would cost about $65 million.  That was based on Milwaukee numbers from early 2000s.  Now, based on more up to date comparison (the Rochester plan that is about to happen), we're looking at more like $80 million.  Or 1.6x the investment.

One Building:  $50M public investment
345 Tear-out:  $80M

One Building:  511 units, 71k retail, 71k office
345 Tear-out:  17097 units, 812k retail, 1.22M office, and another 400k square feet of what we categorized as miscellaneous.  Go ahead and lump that in as "hotels"

At 1.6x the investment, the city gets a "supply" return of 33.29x the residential (with a greater likelihood of affordable housing component), 11.43x the retail, and 17.18x the office (plus the additional hotel space).  On a dollar to dollar basis, that's 20.8x the return on investment for residential (what is most needed), 7.14x the retail, and 10.74 times the office.

I'd say that's a better use of public dollars.  Of course, the question that remains is, why is that not a lot for the area to absorb when the singular project would be a lot for the market to absorb?

The answer is in the supply-demand model.  
Adding a new building online in downtown, does very little to shift the needle on the demand market.  Maybe a little, but it is predominantly supply-sided view of development.  If it does increase demand around it, it is only very slightly, and limited to that localized area.  Whereas, by removing the highway, we would be driving demand, via new interconnections, driving value via the multiplying effect of integrating neighborhoods, and shifting the macro-market to favor proximity.  We do so by making it more difficult to drive long distances, thus the rational choice of the real estate market is to once again benefit agglomeration, proximity, and walkability.

If we get that right, the demand equation rises to the point where renovating these tired old buildings makes market-sense and the city won't have to kick in $50 million every time somebody shows up to city hall with an idea.

Supply-side-ism is easy.
We can look like we're doing something by simply throwing money at a problem, getting out the shovels and cameras, and cutting a ribbon for the next brick and mortar success.  The theory of the Keynesian urbanist, is that if you just keep adding new buildings via public-private partnership, eventually a tipping point will be reached and the market will take over.  However, we have no idea where or when that tipping point is.  Hence, the additional hands out expecting help just to get one building built or renovated.

Instead, set the framework for success through a more sophisticated understanding of demand as leveraged through spatial-infrastructural network.  Our current highway-based infrastructure acts as a dam against the tidal demographic shift back towards the core, towards more walkable urbanism, towards greater choice in lifestyle.  The current infill development is but a trickle through cracks in the dike as long as we continue to favor sprawl and car-based living.  Eventually either the dam or the swell will give in.

Which do we mean to destroy?  The highway-infrastructure holding the city back or Dallas' aspirations to be a global city?

It's time to start planning and building an infrastructure for such a city so that designers can design it and developers can build it.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Fighting "Data" with Data

Two can play this game.  I'm a bit fired up.  So let's delve straight into it shall we?  If you recall, in this morning's post I took a brief look at the Reason Foundation's latest and greatest.  Well, I have all the same data they use from (some of their own reports) as well as the US Census.  What I won't use is their Travel Time Index because it is abstract, arbitrary, and meaningless.

Over the past year or two I've been compiling all of this data into a few very large spreadsheets that list the top 250 metros or so.  I'll stick to the top 20 or so for these purposes since they're the cities with at least some modicum of transit investment.  Plus, we need to compare apples to apples.  For much broader data dump that breaks cities down by size, see this link.

Keep a close eye on the r-squared values because as I shift from the type of data they're focusing on to the type of data that I consider more critical to what their stated end is, better use of public resources towards better public decisions and behavior patterns, you'll catch a noticeable change.  (higher the r-squared, the greater the correlation, the more significant the data set).

First, we have Lane Miles per Capita with Average Commute Times

 photo Untitled-6_zps9d2d5b9b.jpg

The Reason Report is suggesting we build more roads.  If you deliver more highway capacity, you are going to increase the number of highway lane miles per capita.  You'll notice STL and Hou way up at the top for highway capacity per capita.  Then there is a giant mass in the middle with little correlation between anything.  And then two off to the right with higher commute times.

The first point to be made is how statistically little significance there is here.  There is a very VERY slight relationship between more highway capacity and reduced commute times.  The primary issue is because our transportation infrastructure shapes our real estate markets in a way that produces a statistical equilibrium in commute times.  We like being about 25 minutes from work.  Every city revolves around 25-30 minutes.  The kind of infrastructure is fairly irrelevant.

Now about those two off to the right with higher commute times.

Here we have Congestion vs Average Commute Times.

You'll see those same two cities off to the left in terms of longer commute times.  As you see it's DC and NYC (and this is for metropolitan statistical areas or MSAs).  Yes, DC and NYC have the highest commute times of the 20 biggest metros.  They also have the highest transit ridership.  

In Reason's world, this is bad.  High transit, high commute time, baaaaaad.  What it also means is those commuters can be more productive with their time while spending less to commute to and from work.  In the world of transit vs car-dependence, the issue is high public spending/reduced private spending vs high public spending/high private spending.  Car dependence costs a lot and doesn't save much time.  

As you see, there is virtually zero relationship between congestion, measured as traffic per travel lane to commute time.  So if congestion has nothing to do with commute times, why are we bothering?

Next, we have Density vs Average Commute Times.

 photo Untitled-8_zps725d98b3.jpg

No relationship.  Because once again, on average, we all look for some distance between home and work.  Some separation between the disparate tasks of our day and the mindsets between them.  Cities adapt to equilibrium.


Vehicles Miles Traveled vs. Average Commute Times

 photo Untitled-9_zpsb7096079.jpg

Not a terribly strong relationship here, but there is some decrease in commute time for driving more.  Is that a good trade-off?


Car Dependence vs Lane Miles per Capita

 photo Untitled-10_zps78dffd41.jpg

The relationship is beginning to strengthen ever so slightly and based on the data points available, the trendline doesn't show the relationship as strong as it actually exists when you start factoring in non-US cities.  When you do, you start seeing an even stronger and sharper relationship between highway capacity per capita and car dependence, which I measure as commuting by individual car or carpooling.

The nearly free good (since highway users only cover about 43% of costs through user fees (tolls and gas taxes) of free, fast highway travel skews behavior patterns.  This is basic economics and behavioral science at work.  People like free stuff (and hate to let go of their entitlements) but there are few things more expensive than free.

Travel Time vs Lane Miles per capita

 photo Untitled-11_zps31fbac96.jpg

This is a similar graphic to the one at the top.  Same categories.

However, I want to show it in a way here that illustrates how little effect new highway capacity has on reducing travel times.  The slope is virtually flat.  But think about it this way. A doubling of highway capacity per capita, from the lower end to the higher end of this spectrum (from 5 to 10) comes with a cost.  For a metro the size of DFW to double highway capacity (which would have little effect on commute times), would costs $304 billion at $80 million per mile.

So, yay?


Lane Miles per Capita vs Vehicle Miles Traveled per Capita

Now we're seeing a big jump in r-squared, thus correlation between data sets.  More lane miles, in all likelihood you're going to be driving more.  Highways disconnect as much as they connect, but when they connect, they connect long distances.  Thus, you're driving more.


Travel Time vs Car Dependence

They're right!  The higher transit use the longer the commute time, which echoes the DC/NY information above.  Also, by increasing car dependence, which in my estimation is their goal, they can suggest gains in commute times.  But by increasing dependence, which at these levels suggests choice is undermined, is that really the ideal?  Again, what's more efficient in terms of energy, infrastructure, and use of time.

Furthermore, why would people live in DC or NYC in the first place by this logic?  Why isn't Saint Louis the ideal?  It is Reason's ideal.

The Congestion Hamster Wheel: Choose Your Own Adventure

I was asked today to weigh in on a new study put out by the Reason Foundation suggesting that 'roads, not transit, is the way to reduce congestion.'  We'll unpack all of that in a little bit, but first you should understand that it's linked from the Houston Chronicle's 'Highwayman' blog if you want to understand how deeply their transportation reporter actually cares to dig into the real issues.  But, as one of my favorite professors in school drilled into me, we must first understand who is doing the study and what their motivations might be.

Always look for their angle, those that might oppose their angle, and then decide which makes the most sense.  But you also need at least 10 peer reviewed studies, not just one or two, to begin forming an informed opinion.  Do not simply accept that which makes you feel better about an issue nor reflexively falling somewhere in the middle because that also feels good.  We face incredibly difficult issues in the 21st century, many of which haven't even begun to show their full face/force.  They're all too important to be taken lightly.


Understand that the Reason Foundation is a pseudo-libertarian thinktank that hinds behind the cloak of perceived objectivity that the word libertarian provides.  The assumption is that "libertarian" objectively seeks to put public dollars to the best and only best possible uses, rather than merely maintain the status quo.  Their MO is to counter studies with studies and muddy the waters so that we all presumably fall somewhere in between because it feels warm and fuzzy to be in the middle of often one if not two wrong polar opposites.

Always follow the money.  And then if there are "studies" check where their sources come from.  The oldest trick in the book is to fill the endnotes/footnotes with a million sources to conceal the fact that it is really the same circle of groups citing each other in pretend scientific endeavors.

Reason is primarily funded by the who's who of front groups and foundations all supporting various semi-libertarian causes in the pursuit of "free markets" but really are about coercing car dependence, producing captive markets for the oil and gas industry, and maintaining the inertia of public highway investment.

The two largest donors on the books are from the Koch and Scaife families (and even the other foundations that donate tend to also get money from the various network of Koch and Scaife foundations that are legally obligated to donate money to causes every year.  They often end up just donating to other foundations which then donate to the same causes.  Hence, the 20 or so foundations that all donate to groups like Reason.).   Seriously.  Click on any of the donors to Reason and chances are you'll find a network that leads back to Koch or Scaife inherited money.

You surely know quite a bit about the Koch's and their (daddy's) money made through the oil and gas industries.  If you don't know Richard Mellon Scaife, let me introduce you to a Pennsylvanian who also was born on third base, having inherited the majority of his fortune from Mellon Bank and Gulf Oil.  He has since become a mini-, but much more secretive, Rupert Murdoch, buying up media outlets like Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and NewsMax, making them both absolutely horrendous outlets for news, but terrific mouthpieces for his personal and political causes (that no sane person actually listens to).  Furthermore, Scaife's various web of foundations buy up hundreds of thousands of books from authors such as Ann Coulter to ensure they get up to the top of New York Times BestSeller lists and stay there.

In other words, the Koch's and the Scaife's are people who skew facts, promote pseudo-science for personal gain, and oppose real opportunity and choice, which you would think to be true libertarian causes.

So that's where the money comes from, what about this particular mouthpiece.  Reason has a history of skewing stats about the efficacy of transit and its ridership.  And for the last nail in the coffin, if it's actually needed, you may remember the Reason Foundation in the 1990's as one of the mouthpieces for the tobacco industry arguing that second hand smoke wasn't bad for you.  Reason is Clay Davis and "they'll take anybody's money if they givin' it away."  And they'll take whatever position you want them to.

So what about this particular study?

I'll admit.  Yes, roads lead to less congestion.  It's also the wrong question to be asking.  Because while more road investment (particularly in highways which is what is being promoted here) also leads to huge public debts and deficit spending, increasingly high rates of car-dependence, reduced safety for citizens, diminished environmental quality, and reduced money in every household's bank account.

The first and last points are the ones that matter here.  High public spending and debt (which the road lobby is trying to corner) and increased spending on transportation by every household via compulsory car ownership (money the road lobby is also seeking to separate you from).  Clearly this is not about wise public spending.

Why is congestion an irrelevant bogeyman?  Because it is the nature of the city as a human invention to allow and encourage interaction for social and economic exchange.

Furthemore, the entire study is flawed because it is all based on Texas Transportation Institute's (TTI) Travel Time Index.  This metric  has been thoroughly debunked for valuing speed over other considerations, like reduced cost (to public entities building the infrastructure or to private households that have to spend to get between their destinations) or reduced energy and thus more efficient trips.

What does valuing speed suggest?  Well, to TTI it means efficiency.  There is little slow down on your way via whatever theoretical congestion there might be.  The reality is, that it favors cities with high transportation infrastructure burden (lane miles per capita) since there will be less congestion on the roads.  It pushes cities and states toward building ever more highways so that we can get a little higher on their "congestion" rankings.

For a second, let's play their game about time as a priority.  First, know that almost every city in the country is going to hover around a 30-minute average commute.  This gets to a couple of concepts.  First, is the inherent push-pull tension of city's and how they organize themselves.  We want about 20 or so minutes between where we work and live.  Enough time to prepare or decompress before/after work.

Such is the basis for Peter Newman's hour-wide city theory.  Every city will be about a half-hour in radius using the primary forms of transportation.  The question is, what forms of transportation do we build for/allow, which then determines behavior and in turn real estate patterns.

Furthermore, what is time and convenience?  Walkable places aren't walkable because of sidewalks (no matter that Next City clumsily refers to me as 'supporting sidewalks').  They're walkable because of proximity.  Or a better word, propinquity, which is the proximity of lots of things in relation to each other.  All of our daily needs within 20 minutes.  If I can walk to everything I need, I'm going very slowly.  But it is healthful for me, healthy for the city, uses very little energy (for me), and takes very little cost for public infrastructure.

Barcelona is one of the easiest places to get around, because of propinquity AND an incredibly efficient, if aging, public transit system.  The headways are minimal meaning you have a very short wait between trains and there aren't too many stops between destinations (like in Madrid).  What is really efficient for the public and private sectors?

Congestion Crusaders point to numbers like "the country wastes $110 billion per year in congestion delays."  Which is bullshit.  Because we spend way more than that trying to address the problem that even if we do make a dent is minimal on a per capita basis.  Furthermore, that $110 billion per year is miniscule compared to the costs of car dependence, where this country wastes about $3 trillion a year just to get from here to there.

In other words, basing this entire report on a useless if not fraudulent metric undermines the conclusions they draw.  Even though they are technically correct.
The real question is whether you want to be Detroit?  Would you like your city to look like this (which hilariously and without irony was used in the Chronicles blog post)?

It's not a question of congestion or no congestion.  That's the three card monty game they're trying to pull, making congestion out to be this big bad bogeyman, because, who likes sitting in traffic?  No one.  So they've got their built-in straw man argument.

Detroit's congestion problem is solved.  That is one way to solve congestion.  Build so many big highway roads that the city becomes so unwieldy, overburdened, and undesirable that every leaves.

Another way to solve the problem is how Vancouver, New York, and Copenhagen are doing it.  Getting people out of cars.  Vancouver refused to build highways through their urban core and have been reducing vehicular congestion for the past fifteen years or so as they promote urban living (recapturing tax base from the 'burbs) and alternative, more efficient transportation like bikes.

Vancouver doesn't have much congestion because people on foot or bike don't take up much space.

Cities are congestion machines, economic reactors that fuse ideas and markets into new wealth and opportunities.  The question is whether you have or don't have the choice of how you want to live, how you want to get around, and how your city looks, feels, and operates.  Listen to Reason and you lose those things as car dependence increases as well as your city's ability to function as a wealth and prosperity generator for more than just the top of the oil and gas food chain.

I don't even need to get in to how inefficient the public spending is towards endless highway construction, long-term infrastructural debt burden, and reduced tax base.  Because that is precisely what Reason and their benefactors are afraid of.