Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Bad Intx Catablog: Perhaps the Worst, Expo/Canton/Main

This is fundamentally about transforming sociofugal space to sociopetal spaces.  Intersections are inevitable in street networks.  In fact, when designed right, they are amplifiers of value around them.  After all, the intersection is the atom of the city.  Or alternatively, they can be subtractors of value as they create disorienting, unsafe experience that repels people and investment rather than attracting both.

A couple points of note.  An intersection is by nature a convergence point that concentrates activity.  Furthermore, a city by nature is about social and economic exchange, which is friction.  However, in urban areas, where we want to maximize activity in proportion to the infrastructure that facilitates it, we can't design for free flow and fast moving traffic.  This is the fire hose.  It erodes friction.

Today's example for the bad intersection catablog is my favorite/least favorite.  The clusterf of a centerfuge where Canton, Exposition, Main, and Commerce somehow come together and nobody comes out of the black hole formed by it alive.

I've used this intersection countless times in my 12 years in the area as a driver, a passenger, a bicyclist, and a pedestrian and I never, ever know on what side I'll be coming out of this intersection.  Or what road for that matter.  It actually looks quite logical in plan in the way that most oversimplified suburbanized intersections look in plan.  However, like this kind of engineering in general, it works for worse in practice than it does in theory.  One ways turn into two-ways, road names change, flying right turns facilitate high speed movements and scare pedestrians away, while visibility and overall intuition in how to move about in it is poor. I'm not sure there is a metric that this succeeds on...no wait!  There is one.

The traffic counts are incredibly, shockingly low on all sides.  Listed above are the rough counts/capacities the roads are built for.  In our race to avoid the bogeyman of congestion, there is something worse:  traffic counts that are too low if not downright negligible.  The result is economic activity can't occur, businesses, close, and thus it can't support the wait of the infrastructure built to facilitate it.

Places for cars first become invaded, then they become abandoned.  On a long enough time line the survival rate of all things drops to zero.  Suburbanized logic tends to expedite that time line as it externalized complexity and similar elements that can't effectively be quantified, like quality of place, comfort, and thus the impact on real estate value, which is in effect, a measure of demand and the socio-economic potential of a place.

However, those concerns are quickly erased when you prioritize the firehose for the sake of free and easy traffic flow, which is always a myth except for on rural roads.  Damn those human needs for socio-economic exchange getting in the way of the engineered ideal that Detroit and South Dallas have achieved, fully ruralized urban places.  Or as everybody else calls them: failed places.

However, if we were to re-work this network into a re-urbanized grid, we're able to recapture much of this leftover space that has been decorated but not activated as well as the adjacent vacant lands that are a reaction to the repellent nature of traffic flow.  Density is energy condensed into a slow vibration.  Compare the atomic energy of pedestrian oriented places to high speed car flow.  This is the difference between a diamond and methane gas.  People are attracted to one and repelled by the other.

When you successfully focus these convergence points into pedestrianized spaces, you can create great spaces that attract development and thus reposition all of the surrounding underdevelopment.  When the suburbanized street network based on ruralized logic is the reason for the evacuation of investment, the network must be re-worked.  There is no tactical solution outside of tactical drone strike that can fix it.  Rather, it takes a fundamental reworking of the street block structure.  A re-urbanization in order to re-colonize abandoned places.

Why the Sam's Fight Matters to the Entire City

The crux of the fight over the proposed Sam's Club site at CityPlace to date has centered around whether 100,000+ square feet big box retail is appropriate within a transit-oriented development, whether it's compatible with the neighborhood (and whether that neighborhood was properly informed), the entirely car-dependent traffic it will generate, and whether it adheres to the city's comprehensive plan.  Those are all important debates, however in this post I'm going to examine the potential value of Sam's club on this particular piece of land in relation to other Sam's Club sites as well as nearby other forms of development, the mixed-use CityVille development as well as the multi-family Residences at CityPlace.

First, some assumptions and acknowledgements.  I don't have sales tax data.  Nor am I able to project the amount of sales and sales tax revenue from a hypothetical future Sam's.  I'm sure it will be astronomical.  However, 1) the majority of sales tax revenue leaves the city for state coffers and 2) the city's primary source of revenue is not these slivers of sales taxes but rather property tax revenue, which is distributed to the city's general fund as well as to city services such as DISD and public hospitals.  Therefore, from the city's perspective, property taxes are the holy grail and more importantly, we need to be thinking about them on a per acre and lifespan viewpoint.

Second, I don't have job data for a Sam's or a mixed-use building.  So in absence that specific data, see Joe Minnicozzi's chart comparing a walmart to a mixed-use building on a per acre basis.  The take away from this is that if you can fill the same amount of land on the full walmart site with mixed-use type development, you will blow away the walmart with smarter, more compact, more vibrant form of development.  With that said, there is little reason to expect that even the huge potential for sales tax revenue from the Sam's or any big box, wouldn't be matched by a mixed-use development (if not surpassed).  After all, retail sales will happen either way as a product of demand.  We might as well control the form.

I looked up each site in DCAD for land value, total value (improved + land), land area, and annual tax revenue.  Then I let excel spit out each of these data points on a per acre basis.  Lastly, I took these per acre numbers and applied each of these development prototypes to the proposed site for the new Sam's Club.

The comparables I'm using are the CityVille at CityPlace mixed use development, the nearby Residences at CityPlace, the existing site which is largely vacant, the Sam's Club at Loop 12 and its satellite pad sites, and the vacant Sam's Club at Five Points/Park Lane.  I felt it was important to compare an active Sam's to the existing condition as well as some future condition, because after all, how long is the life span of a big box?

MultiFam Comp: Residences at CityPlace:

Mixed-Use Comp:

Proposed Sam's Development (which shows a bit of the Residences in the foreground and CityVille in background):


The critical notes from the table are:
 - Mixed-Use comp has a total value double of the active Sam's
 - Multi-Fam comp has a similar total value of the active Sam's
 - Thus the ratios for total tax revenue are similarly 2:1 for the former and roughly 1:1 for the latter, respectively

However, on a per acre basis these numbers begin to change quite a bit:
 - Value and Tax revenue per acre for the Mixed Use rise to 4.91x that of the active Sam's Club at Loop 12
 - Value and Tax revenue per acre for the Multi-Fam rises to 3.5x that of the Loop 12 Sam's.


Above, we can see the significant jump in total value per acre as well as property tax revenue per acre once the residential component is added, essentially density.  For more on the economic productivity of building a walkable, mixed use city, see Joe Minicozzi's presentation to downtown Austin below:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Round-up in DOT Reform

So not only has the new executive director of TxDOT said some encouraging things displaying his understanding of the broader issues he and we face in dealing with issues of traffic congestion, the weaknesses of current supply-side measures in dealing with it, and the negative outcome of traffic fatalities and road safety due to car-dependence, but other states are also demonstrating the capacity for reform.

Arizona DOT commissioned a study a few years back showing that compact, mixed-use development actually reduces demand for driving and thus reducing congestion.

And that's only showing up to 10 people per acre, which is barely dense at all.  Real gains start to reveal themselves at around 30 to 40.

California is dumping Level of Service as a metric because you know there is a problem when engineers give a grade A or F and economists give the exact opposite grade.  Something is clearly amiss.

Tennessee, hardly the bastion of progress, says they will only be about building projects that are community-based and needed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Lesson in Capacity and Mobility

Too often transportation planning externalizes far too much information.  In fact, it always does.  Furthermore, the focus is always far too narrow, thinking about singular corridors rather than the network, only cars rather than all forms of transportation, a static land use form and density rather than a dynamic market that reacts to any changes to the transportation network, and rarely does it account for trip length, which is largely a by-product of the previous point.

Transportation is currently reactive rather than proactive when we should be treating it proactively in order to nudge the real estate market to respond favorably to a better city form.  Developers will always be profitable.  They're just playing by the rules of the game we establish.  Build transportation to instill and incentive to sprawl, they'll respond that way because the market seeks the cheaper, freer good.  Even though in this case, it is actually quite expensive...all because we have the transportation / land use equation backwards.  Helluva price to pay for an entire generation of transportation planners that were trained with no concept of how their work negatively impacts city form and human behavior.

Today (and often), I lament how much easier it is to make much longer trips in DFW than short trips.  This is subsidization of bad behavior and puts more cost on both the private sector (longer trips) as well as the public sector (bigger, more, ever new infrastructure) because the real estate market responds to this perceived advantage by stretching out along the hierarchical dendritic network that funnels you to ever bigger roads, eliminating route choice and adaptability by disconnecting the grid...because intersections are friction that slows flow.

Unfortunately for this logic, friction is also social and economic exchange occurring.  City, in action.  Precisely why this logic is fundamentally anti-urban, anti-social, anti-economic and is failing the world over.  It just takes 2 to 3 generations to play out as it takes a generation to build the system, a generation to test the system, and the third generation to say, "hey, wait a minute!"

Here's a critical point.  In the arterial/highway network, the hierarchy is imposed by central planners.  Therefore, it's more often than not going to fail.  On the other hand, through a highly interconnected gridded or grid-like system, hierarchy of place emerges based on accessibility.  The market responds to the most attractive, most accessible, most compelling places.  It HAS to be attractive and pedestrian friendly.

This is why the great public spaces in the world are at convergence points in the network.  Look no further than Campus Martius in Detroit how a convergence point can be redesigned for people rather than flow, a place to go to rather than thru (though you can still go through), to drive exponential value.

There has been no shortage of research about the advantages of reticulated (multiply interconnected) grids vs dendritic hierarchical networks.  You can glean a bit of that from these graphics:

Before even getting into the impact on real estate, the instilled demand for more parking, the widening throughout the hierarchy which then makes places pedestrian unfriendly and repulsive where commercial areas need to be attractive, in the physical sense of the world (compelling), this graphic illustrates how each trip is lengthened by the funneling and minimization of route choice.

I have no idea why the above image skipped so much space.  Deal.

Transportation planners love to talk about mobility.  However, you can see how much more mobile a pedestrian is in the grid network vs. the disconnected, hierarchical system.  A 1-mile walk on the loopy doopy streets barely gets you a quarter of a mile.  Incredibly inefficient.  Similar for a car.  And even worse, because of the inherent, imposed hierarchy, all trips must funnel to bigger and bigger roads, which means the traffic will inherently be worse and more congested on the higher ordered road, thus compelling transpo dinosaurs to further widen.  And on it goes.  Until it dies.

I'm going to take the remainder of this post to compare generic versions of the two systems to show how notions of capacity and mobility from the conventional, 20th century perspective fail.  And fail even to their own standards and priorities.
Before we compare the two road networks, a couple of assumptions.  First, we're going to approach it statically rather than dynamically.  In other words, we won't factor that a more highly interconnected network will generate more accessibility thus more demand thus higher density and greater commercial activity.  That's space syntax in action and I've covered that ad nauseum.  For this post, we'll approach it in the narrow-sighted, static approach that nothing changes after road widenings, but instead road widenings are a response to what we may conceive as demand.  Wrongly, because it is shaped by the network.  Tally ho...

First, we're going to assume these two squares are each exactly a square mile.  I drew them in CAD at 5280 x 5280.  The internal streets have roughly the same linear distance, ie roughly the same amount of total infrastructure.  For now, until some of the behavioral dynamics start to compel changes to the system, depending on the logic you use to approach the design.

As for further assumptions, let's use Dallas average population density of 3,645 people per square mile.  Let's also use FHWA data suggesting each person makes 3.79 average trips per day.  So below, we have two square miles each with 3,645 people living, for a combined total of 7,290.  Each square produces 13,814 trips.  Our starting point is that every street is two lanes, and the central spine is four lanes.

Moving North-South for the purposes of this analysis you see there are two totally different capacities.  First, the gridded side would have 12 total lanes getting you north-south.  The less connected, hierarchical system (with less intersections so you can go faster, yay flow!  Kids, out of the street!  Pedestrians, dive for cover!) only has 6 lanes.  So more of the traffic has to funnel over to the central spine.

However, no system exists in such a bubble.  We're dealing with 7,000 people total which is enough for a few neighborhood services like a small convenience store and a dry cleaners.  It can't support a grocery and all of the other daily needs we have, so we have to expand the system.  Let's say we extrude these two blocks into eight:

On the left, we remain connected.  On the right, because the logic is one of isolation and minimized "friction"/maximized flow we even further disconnect.  So the middle north-south road is no longer connected between neighborhoods.  All traffic must funnel to the central spine road.  Let's see what that looks like.

If we're just adding up the right side of the spine road, we now have 14,580 people.  Enough to start supporting far more commercial and recreational amenities, particularly if we add the two sides for 29,000 people.  From just the right side, that's 55,200 trips that MUST funnel to the spine road.  That means the formulas and standards will suggest we need to widen the east-west connectors to 4 to 6 lanes and the spine road to 8 lanes plus however many protected left turns.  The intersections get huge and we have to condemn all sorts of private property all because of the terrible road network (another disinvestment and displacement dynamic that we're not focused on here).

Total capacity is only 8 lanes and it is always congested with primarily only cars, travel speeds are likely much higher due to widened roads, reduced intersection density, and in all likelihood density/tax base diminishes and thus the area can no longer support it's own infrastructure.

On the flipside, because the entire left side remains connected north south, we still have 12 lanes linking north-south, more capacity than the 8 lane road has because we have multiple streets.

Also, similar to the analyses at the beginning, if you pick any random point on one side, mirror it on the other, the distance to get to the commercial spine would always be much longer, less convenient, and less adaptable on the right than on the more interconnected left.  Thus, there will likely be more pedestrian activity on the left.

Remember, the daily 3.79 trips doesn't necessarily mean vehicular trips.  That's how many times we're leaving the house.  If you don't need or want a car to make a specific trip, and you don't have to, that won't count against the vehicular capacity of the road network.

That allows us to reduce the 4 lane spine road to 2 lanes with more sidewalk space for the increased pedestrian activity, increased space for programming and activities like cafes, public art, bike lanes, etc etc.  All of which is even higher capacity because people obviously take up far less space than does a car.  Speaking of, since these trips can be made conveniently by foot or bike, that's less necessary parking space which maintains higher quality of space, less cost on the developer/business to provide the parking, and less cost on the consumer/residents since those costs will get past through to them.

Transportation planners from the modernist 20th century like to city "their training" says this or their training dictates that.  What if their training was wrong all along?  Should they be making the most important decisions that dictate urban form and market behavior?  That is precisely why the require increased oversight and communities and their elected officials must stand up to them in order to achieve the goals of better neighborhoods, better communities, and a better city.

Monday, July 7, 2014

False Dichotomies

Because we're American and apparently stupid, every discussion within the public sphere and virtual town hall/rabble rallies that are online comment sections is distilled into two, often false, choices.  Apparently we like things black and white.  Right and wrong.  My side is right.  Your side is wrong.  When the reality is there are many ways, often better when further examining with nuance and a creative eye.

Take for example two pieces of news this week.  First, Texas GOP is backing away from policies supporting public money to build private toll roads.  Then this morning Diane Rehm had a panel discussion similar infrastructure problems / infrastructure funding problems.  The panel understood and conveyed the issues as if there are only two sides:  either you generate revenue via new taxes/tolls or you don't build or repair roads.  At the bottom of the article you get a vague sense of that from the two gubernatorial planks.  One says they'll raise more money (for maybe more of the same?  We don't know).  The other says the magical fairy dust (presumably of more debt) will keep us truckin'.

These false dichotomies tend to occur as civilization sheds one skin for another.  People are still too hung up on past models.  I imagine this is how the Catholic Church might have seen the emerging reformation: "do we punish these people with new and more tithes or ignore their gripes entirely?"  The key word in there is of course the root of reformation, reform.  Those in charge often fail to see it coming because they're too set in their ways to adapt with changing needs and circumstance.  Such is the thesis of Barbara Tuchman's book.

This isn't a raise money vs cut spending problem, although there might be some nuance therein.  It is that precise debate that obscures the real problem and solution.  What are we designing, financing, and building, and is it generating the greatest possible return on our public investment?  Considering half of TxDOT's budget goes to debt service, I'd say we're not doing a terribly good job of that at the moment.

The false simple choice debate also obscures another issue, whether public infrastructure is a public good.  One side says, "Yes!" emphatically.  The other side very well might presume it is best achieved and cared for entirely through private investment, but are unable to reconcile the privatization mantra from the public adherence to their entitlement of free roads.

I see infrastructure as a public good, when it is designed and built appropriately to maximize both the public and private good.  Unfortunately, we've gone off the deep end building something that is and ultimately will fail while projecting future growth will somehow save everything as we run faster and faster on the ponzi scheme hamster wheel.  When you over-build certain kinds of infrastructure (we have a habit of overbuilding every single kind of infrastructure in Dallas from streetcars to rail to light rail to highways) it is no longer a public good but a public burden.  It stretches private land use so thin that we can support the amount of infrastructure we've built.  More of the same only exacerbates the problem.

Worse politically, is the expectation that the Regionalism! approach that is sprawling towards Oklahoma will somehow continue to be willing to bail out the failing areas they cannibalized from.  The erosion of the ponzi starts at the center and slowly works its way outwards.
The other big news story to my mind was the Bexar Street development in South Dallas.  The debate I'm seeing emerge is also the wrong one.  Some seem to be saying it's too much money shoveled into an area.  Others might say, it takes a lot of money, time, and investment to revitalize impoverished areas.  The bigger issue at hand is appropriate uses in appropriate places.

Every subsidized, affordable housing development in the world will attract the desperate to their hallways.  They always have.  That doesn't make them successful.  In fact, more often than not, they're pernicious.  Because the indigent are moving in because they have fewer to no better options doesn't give them access to markets, skills, transit, and everything else they need.

We tried to create a top down affordable housing/mixed use neighborhood in an area that will never be able to support the kind of retail square footage that was allotted.  Never.  The area is an extreme edge, a border vacuum.  Almost three-quarters of a 1-mile radius around the area will and always will be floodplain.  Where will retail traffic come from?  Retail needs energy.  You create it at nodes, at convergence points in networks.  It needs to be the center of gravity, where the commercial component is appropriately in balance with transportation accessibility and for lack of a better term, gravitational pull.

I don't necessarily blame the effort, but rather the execution.  It was inappropriately sited for the scale of what was proposed.  Malcolm X and MLK would've probably been a better place to start.  If the land doesn't work from there, start radiating outward until it does.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

High Cost of Big Books err Free Parking

I have The High Cost of Free Parking, the book this article is based on.  You probably don't need to buy it.  It's huge and expensive.  You really only need the various articles like this one that summarize it because you couldn't nor wouldn't possibly sit down to casually read it.
"When you have people driving around looking for parking, this adds to traffic congestion and carbon emissions," Shoup says. This effect isn't trivial: Shoup has estimated that in a 15-block area in Los Angeles' Westwood Village alone, cars travel about 950,000 miles annually just cruising for parking, burning 47,000 gallons of gasoline and emitting 730 tons of carbon dioxide.