Thursday, March 20, 2014

I'm Not a Smart Troll, Jenny

Yet another useless, speculative piece in the DMN posing the suggestion that 345 is a ploy to pay for the Trinity Toll Road.  I suppose it's not entirely useless.  What it is, is cynical.  And desperate.  It's attempting to pit political factions against each other.  The reality is, both issues are independent of each other within a broader, longer-term subset of what the real vision is for the best Dallas that Dallas can be.  The most livable, the most advantageous, the most opportunity for all, that offers the greatest amount of choice, and quality of life.

It's interesting to see that the readily apparent other opportunity is only another highway, useful for the cynical argument, but narrow-minded nonetheless as 20th century transportation planning  The regional trip creates congestion and reduces quality of life while the short trip is good for business.  Keep that in mind.

Again, I point to the issue that we show renderings of Vancouver while building the infrastructure of Detroit.  Those visions of Vancouver real estate investment require Vancouver infrastructure, which favors choice of mode and proximity for efficient trip-making.  That's what the rest of the DMN piece doesn't get.  Infrastructure and real estate are intertwined.  Downtown bottomed out because of what we wrought over 50 years of poor decision-making.  It should be noted that Dallas has a history of fighting every freeway through the city that TxDOT has proposed.  The real estate market of downtown "not having enough jobs," is a by-product of the subsidization of sprawl and job spillage ever northwards.

Then the kicker, the economic injustice angle, is a beauty.  The implication is the ever so cynical, patronizing tone that we're suggesting poor people should pay tolls, which is funny because the last thing the poor can do is afford a car, an hour long commute to those jobs in North Dallas, or four hour bus trips with three transfers.

Economic injustice is forcing people into car ownership whether they like it or not, whether they can afford it or not, just to participate in the local economy.  Economic injustice is tearing apart neighborhoods, particularly poor neighborhoods to build anti-urban highways that have proved a failure in every city they've been built.

I know.  These people can't understand the difference between intra-city and inter-city highways - so all highways are painted the same, and thus, all people are either for highways or against highways.  Cynical.  The reality is we're for appropriate, efficient, sustainable, affordable infrastructure in the appropriate places to make the best Dallas that Dallas can be.  We're also for choice in lifestyle, housing, neighborhood, and mode of transportation.  That's what we're missing in Texas.  Choice.  That's what smart, adaptable, resilient cities have.

Let's briefly look at 345 and the proposed toll road from strictly independent, economic standpoint.  It will cost TxDOT $100 million to maintain 345 til 2040.  The 64 acres of land within the right-of-way alone are worth a minimum of $170 million.  Maybe more given the way the uptown submarket is going bonkers for semi-walkable neighborhoods.  In other words, the infrastructure is totaled.

As for the Tollroad, every group thought to be potential builder/financier of it have backed off.  They've had to re-evaluate their pro-formas which inherently underestimated the pigovian nature of tolls.  They tend to underperform as we're seeing across the country with toll roads defaulting on their debts.  Their simply not getting the revenue they originally projected when tollroads were the next big thing.  It turns out people like free travel.  I do to.  But the only way we can allow (somewhat) free, efficient economic exchange is through increased walkability and a real estate market that favors proximity...which it wants to as evidenced by the pent-up demand in uptown.

It's amazing to me that people get paid to write or think and can do neither.

I'm not suggesting we use the huge value/revenue gains of 345 to pay for the Trinity Toll Road.  If I were king for the day and could decide such things, I would put that expected revenue towards D2.  Towards a world class city.  But I'm not king.  And neither are the antiquated transportation planners.  That's why we have to debate the issues.  Even if those most desperately short on ammo resort to overt cynicism.

Does Form Follow Function? And When?

There's a commonly heard and easily digested axiom in the world of architecture, Form Follows Function.  It's nonsense.  Sometimes.  I'm going to explore when it's appropriate and why.  Certainly not the way it's currently understood.

First, we have to understand what is being talked about with the terms Form and Function.  Then we have to understand there are two different scales at work when we're talking about buildings and cities.  Cities are the higher order of complexity that many buildings come together to form.  Much like a tree is a complex organism that is part of a forest that is also its own organism at a higher order, with its own purposes and processes.

At the building scale, form is the shape of a building and the function is the use.  This is a dangerous phrase to base building design on.  Fundamentally, it makes some sense in the understanding that modernism was about creating maximum efficiency and utilization of space for the purposes of executing a specific use.  However, buildings last longer than uses.  And cities last longer than buildings.

So within this hierarchy, we have to ask what is better prioritization of efficiency?  If a building's design is tethered to a specific use and the use becomes defunct, the building then becomes defunct as well.  That is incredibly wasteful when the adaptive re-use of buildings is one of the greatest commonwealths we pass on between generation.  Adaptability.

In other words at the scale of the individual building or block (a minor sub-set of the complex city), function should actually follow form.  But what does form follow?

It's becoming increasingly clear to me as interest in the city rises, that architectural thinking focused strictly on form is getting applied to the city at large.  That form of not just the building, but the city is the single most important consideration.  However, that is also incorrect to put form over function of the city.  Form must be a subset of function.

In order to correctly prioritize the design and building of cities we have to know what the function of cities actually is.  Given that civilization and cities have grown hand-in-hand throughout the history of mankind, I would argue that function of cities is improved quality of life via social and economic exchange.  That is what a city is, a machine for efficient exchange and improved quality of life that we can pass on to future generations to advance as well.

This gets back to basic systemics, or understanding cities, within the science of complex systems thinking.  To understand complex systems, like an ecology, an individual organism, or entire populations, we have to know what the components of complex systems are, being: PURPOSE, CONNECTIONS, and ELEMENTS.  Purpose is the most important, connections second, elements third.  However, the common mistake is to take the most apparent, the visible, tangible elements of complex systems and focus on those.  We spend most of our efforts, resources, and attention to the least critical elements, literally.

When it comes to cities, this is also apparent, as we too often focus on things like land uses, building forms, specific object buildings, or indeed, the idea that landscape can drive form.  Landscapes and open spaces have many functionalities, such as food production, natural space, water filtration, habitat, rest, respite, and recreation, but they also shouldn't be the single driving 'form creator.'  It's a subset.  That's putting the cart before the horse of the real purpose of cities, again, which is social and economic exchange, value creation.

So what drives form?  Let's detail what those components of the complex city system is:

PURPOSE:  The Function of the city.  Social and Economic exchange towards improved quality of life and expanded opportunity for all.  This can also be understood as policy.  The invisible brain.

CONNECTIONS:  Transportation infrastructure.  These are the links, that in system provide the platform for efficient exchange and opportunity, while providing means of communication within systems, feedback loops.  The invisible arm.

ELEMENTS:  Land uses, open spaces, buildings, businesses, design, etc.  All of those things we as designers and regular old folk tend to focus too much on rather than getting what is more important towards efficient, sustainable, elegant, lovable, and livable cities.  Yes, the invisible hand of the market.  But it's controlled, by degree, of the components above.  Function, the land uses and buildings, follow the form of our infrastructure.

Purpose is not physical.  It's political.  However, it is from there that all physical embodiments are derived.  From that policy we design our movement infrastructure.  That is the key to defining form.  Our infrastructure design and the policy that determines it, is the single more important factor in city building and function.  The network.  This is why I've maintained that IT types inherently get urbanism better than most physical designers.  The first and most critical physical design element is the movement network.  All else within the realm of physical design springs from there.

So, yes.  Form does indeed follow function, at the city scale.  But at the subset scale of individual building blocks, function follows form.  The hierarchy of this way of understanding cities is as follows:

1.  Function of the city - it's purpose and policy

2.  Form of movement - infrastructure, which then shapes...

3.  Form of blocks and buildings within that framework, which then shapes...

3.  Function of land uses and buildings.  This is where the real estate market, building, and open space design resides.  So yes, putting form of landscape and buildings ahead of the needs of the city is to get this entire equation backwards, and thus, incorrect.  It's effective rhetorically, though, which is another way of saying it sounds good, but is ultimately rather pernicious at worst and ignorant at best.

Putting secondary and tertiary concerns above the functionality of the city begets superficial, pseudo-intellectual nonsense.  But, it looks pretty.  I guess.  As long as you're only looking at a picture and not trying to live your life within it.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A New Dallas Petition

If unaware, we've started a petition page on the site.  The primary purpose is that we need a way to compile email addresses and facebook isn't good enough.  Some people don't use facebook.  As you may know, a study is imminent to explore potential options surrounding 345.  I say imminent, I mean within the next year.  There will in all likelihood be public meetings.

We want to invite you to those meetings since at the end of the day this is a political decision about economic realities, costs and benefits, not merely an engineering decision.  We can design and build any kind of city we want.  So please, sign the petition.  Verify your email address.  And come out to be a part of the public discourse.  Because that was the original intent of this effort, a real public dialogue about the future course of Dallas.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Your One-Stop Shop for 345 Talking Points

Thesis: Dallas is exporting tax base via subsidized long trip infrastructure while eroding what makes cities great, the power of proximity and agglomeration economies. Over-built automobile infrastructure has led to tax burden / tax base imbalance.

1 – This is not an engineering problem but a political and economic one. We can design and engineer any city we want. What can we afford and how to maximize the returns on our public investments?

2 – City can’t afford to subsidize every development in downtown. Downtown, Deep Ellum, and Baylor area all need housing but can’t deliver because of upside down economics. Must correct the market so infill development can occur w/o 30% city participation.

3 - Great cities of the world don’t allow big infrastructure to disrupt local economies. Common complaint is about peak hour trips. Avg speed peak hours is about 27mph. Is it better or worse to be stuck on elevated expressway with no other route or have 4-5 routes on high quality walkable boulevards going 25mph. What's better for the city?

4 - Demographics are changing. 68% of Dallasites want more walkability. If we build big, expensive infrastructure that younger generations don't want, we're stuck with the infrastructure til 2050 but we could lose the people. Density cannot work without walkable infrastructure.

5 – Most car-dependent major city in the U.S. – 96% of trips are by car. The only way to accommodate demand for increased density is shortening trips and getting people out of cars. Most car-dependent cities waste 10% more of GDP than the least car-dependent cities.

6 - If we want to grow South Dallas we have to undo the infrastructure that killed it. We must re-orient downtown as the center of real estate investment and job creation. Make it a place to go to, not drive-thru. Investment is risk-averse. It oozes. It doesn’t jump. Therefore, we must steer it by giving it an outlet near downtown and South Dallas.

7 – Affordable Housing Opportunities – Shifting failing public infrastructure and right-of-way to private investment for private gain and public good allows for 17,000 new housing units and potentially 2,000 new affordable housing units near jobs and convenient transit.

8 – Public Safety – Dallas is routinely ranked as one of the least pedestrian friendly cities in the country. You are 51.41x more likely to be killed as a pedestrian in Dallas than in Manhattan. TX-30 (home of IH-345) is the 2nd deadliest US congressional district in the country based on 10-year traffic fatalities.

9 - Dallas is losing jobs and would be losing people if it wasn't for the minor sub-market of uptown, the most walkable place in DFW. From 2000-2010, DFW gained 1.2 million, Dallas captured less than 1% or 9,000 people.

10 – Regional Trips are Bad for Business – Designing infrastructure that rewards long distance, car-based travel only creates the bad kind of congestion, regional traffic, that erodes quality of life, whereas high degree of local traffic is good for business.

The Destructive Fiscal Irresponsibility of Inertia or Doing Nothing

Idiocracy, filmed in future Texas.

There is an important new study out from Smart Growth America about how state DOT's are using their increasingly under pressure budgets.  The full study is linked here.  I'll call out a few points from it in a bit.  It is also linked to at the Dallas Morning News Transpo blog here.  The key point is that Texas is happily building and expanding roads while letting others fall into disrepair.  I'm going to discuss the reasons for this as well as the repercussions.

Before we dig into it, let's recall that city staff just presented a report to Dallas city council that $900 million is required to get existing city roads up to acceptable standards.  The state, apparently, is $35 billion in the hole when adding up debts and deferred maintenance (from the kind of source that would know these things).  The state is planning on letting rural roads, the historic farm-to-market roads, go back to gravel.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the state is trying to push maintenance of state roads within city boundaries onto the cities.  To which I say, let's have 'em.  But we also want the land too.  If cities take on the maintenance they should be able to take on the control of the design and scale of the roads so that they can leverage the highest and best use along them.

Do you see how it's all unraveling?

Let me help a bit more.  The key data point from the SGA study is that from 2009-20011, TxDOT spent $3.377 billion in total.  Of that money, $2.765 went to road expansion, new roads and widenings.  82%.  Conversely, that means 18% went to maintenance of existing facilities.

Also, in the document it shows that Texas is not in nearly as bad of shape regarding the percentage of roads in poor condition.  That's because so many are so new because Texas is so young.  However, we're sewing the seeds of future failure into the system by building roads we can't even maintain today.  I suspect most of the new highways and interchanges we've built recently will have but one generation life span.

Here's a key line from the DMN piece:
TxDOT typically expands highways to keep ahead of projected population growth. That’s expected to change as the agency continues to work with lackluster funding for its needs. Yet Texas’ population is expected to double in coming decades, meaning more people will be driving state roads and highways.

That's a typical line of defense that is used to justify the expansions.  However, it has many flaws within it.  One of which is that it's dependent upon hypothetical future growth statistics.  It is founded upon a formula of unconstrained supply and unconstrained demand, making it truly insane policy.

The unconstrained supply comes from that hypothetical new tax base to pay for the current debt.  However, the question is can that population growth continue in perpetuity without hitting carrying capacity, like how much water do we actually have?  How many people can we feed with loss of arable soils?  How many homes can we power?  Further, will that growth continue when the bills for all of these debts come due?  Those are all supply limits to growth.

On the other hand, their model follows unconstrained demand.  96% of trips in DFW are by car currently.  Similarly, 95% of trips in Houston are by car.  These are two of the most car-dependent metros in the entire country.  The projection models used, don't foresee any changes to that number.  They ignore demographic shifts showing less demand for driving as well as whether any city can even afford (or want) that kind of car-dependence.

It's the exsanguination of cities, their wealth, and their ability to create new wealth.  It's happening right before our eyes when we see the increasingly common news of our inability to maintain the antiquated infrastructure we've created.
So the question remains, why this March of Folly?  Why do we continue following policies despite all evidence to the contrary that it's a good idea?

I have one theory and its rooted in the way we tie road building with economic growth.  And it's also fatally flawed.

I was watching a presentation the other day by a pre-eminent economist who used VMT as an indicator of rising GDP.  GDP is used as an indicator for economic growth as it measures economic activity (without actually measuring whether it's good economic activity or not.  It's merely just a measure of spending, rather than creating.  Sometimes it's both, but there is no measurement within that quantifies the waste leaving the local economy.

Therefore, if VMT = GDP and GDP = economic growth than VMT = GDP.  That's the line of thinking.  One reason is because we also equate VMT with increased mobility.  But that's also incredibly flawed thinking as it externalizes all other forms of travel.  What if I'm far more mobile on foot in a city based on proximity than if I have to drive everywhere?  Shouldn't the goal be to maximize everyone's mobility while minimizing the costs to do so?

It makes sense however that VMT up = GDP up.  Because that means more spending on gas and insurance and cars and traffic accidents, which means more hospital bills and thus more economic activity.  Even if it's horrifying.  However, and I hate this overused phrase, correlation is not causation.  Driving more does not mean a healthier economy.

Both GDP and the traffic models measuring mobility and used to justify new construction have significant externalities that might be subjective or even entirely incalculable.  Can't compute? Don't compute.  It's a bit of a crisis that both financial markets and transportation forecasting rely so heavily on models that don't or won't calculate.  That's what we're seeing play out before our eyes.

So let's look at this an entirely different way.  How can we be more mobile while reducing car-dependence and that 96% of trips by car.  That should be GOAL NUMERO UNO.  First, I've found that car-dependence costs the national economy 2 trillion dollars a year.  Pro-rating that to the Dallas area, that's $7.25 billion per year.  What if we could cut car-dependence in half, keeping 3 to 4 billion in the local economy, while improving mobility via proximity and more walkable, bikeable communities?

Another example.  As we discussed, 95% of trips in Houston are by car.  96% in DFW, so we're using Houston as a proxy here since on the global scale, the statistical behavior patterns of Hou and DFW are virtually identical.  I believe this is the case because of statewide policy rather than Houston and DFW independently arriving at the exact same conclusions.

On the other hand, 54% of trips in metro Copenhagen are by car.  Why does that matter?  Well, CPH also only uses 4% of its local GDP on transportation.  Houston uses 14%.  CPH is making all of the same trips to the store, to jobs, to parks, facilitating social and economic exchange.  Therefore, that 10% difference is all waste.  In Houston's economy, 10% of GDP is about $40 billion (!!!).  Wasted.

Cities are machines of exchange.  CPH runs much more efficiently than our Sun Belt cities.  CPH is also approaching zero traffic fatalities (their stated measurable goal) for a calendar year.  Texas' traffic fatalities are over 3,000 and rising in a calendar year.

CPH is a well oiled machine.  A bicycle, which just so happens to be the single most efficient form of travel ever invented.  Shouldn't we be building cities of safety AND prosperity?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Nothin' More Expensive than Free

"I'll take any [insert expletive]'s money if he givin' it away." Senator Clay Davis, The Wire.

I don't have much time today, but wanted to pop onto the blog to say a few things about TxDOT's money.  A recent concern about anewdallas is that if TxDOT has money, we should take it.  Well, they don't have money.  What money they do is future money, in that it is 1) hypothetical and 2) largely ours from future taxes.  Based on the way their financing works, we would need to add a multiplier on our tax dollars that go towards the way we currently build transportation simply to manage the debt we have already accrued through over-building the wrong kind of anti-urban infrastructure.

In other words, this is about the worst case scenario for how to spend our tax dollars for public good.

The cost of the proposed 345 repair is $100 million for 20 years to keep the thing standing, that nobody wants, from 2020 to 2040.  Yay?  Some believe if that $100 million is there we should take it.  Because why not?  Free money.

Well, free money is also what tore apart the functionality and desirability of our core cities by the way of an interstate system never intended to cut through existing neighborhoods.  The long-term cost of doing so, while it added to meaningless statistics such as GDP, is virtually incalculable.  How would you even calculate replacing an entire city with an entirely new and less sustainable and maintainable city?

Now, let's get back to that $100 million.  If we were to take the $100 million what is our return on that investment?  Preventing catastrophe.  That is it.

On the other hand, removing the road also prevents catastrophe.  It also prevents us from facing the exact same scenario in twenty years.

On top of that it immediately opens 65 acres of public right-of-way underneath an antiquated failing structure for private investment for public good and private gain.  Remember, developers are our city builders.  We just have to set up a system where they're delivering the kind of neighborhoods and city we want, in a way they can make profit.  Right now, that is not possible with the highways subsidizing the exportation of jobs and tax base further afield.

So let's take that 65 acres instead of TxDOT's $100 million.  It's far more valuable.  We think the land could easily fetch $60 per square foot.  That works out to $170 million for raw, unimproved land.  Now which is more valuable?  $100 million just to preserve a status quo that is not meeting the market, or $170 million in land value, ripe for $5 billion in investment?

Perhaps, that's the basis for how we think about whether to preserve inner-city freeways.  When the land beneath the freeway is worth more than the cost of maintaining it, perhaps we should consider it "totaled" and it's time to cash in on it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

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?