Friday, August 15, 2014

Complex Systems: Hierarchies vs Networks

President of the New England Complex Systems Institute, Yaneer Bar-Yam, gives a talk to Wikimania conference in London recently.

From about 25:00 to 35:00 he talks about the contrast between hierarchical systems and complex networks and how/when hierarchical systems fail.  It took me about five listens to fully grasp what was going on, but when listening think about the way we design road networks, particularly hierarchical, dendritic systems, which funnel traffic to bigger and bigger roads (the modernist approach and the predominant paradigm for past 80 years, still clinging to life in Texas) vs multiply interconnected, reticulated grid networks.

The hierarchy fails when the bigger system overwhelms the highest order in the hierarchy, the largest individual.  In transportation, that's the biggest highway and thus, when thinking within this outdated logic the response is to expand the capacity of that individual rather than thinking within the frame of a complex system, the capacity of the network, of multiple routes, and multiple modes of transportation.

It's why center cities don't fail when they shed themselves of their inner-city highways, but rather upgrade to 2.0, a new more adaptable, more complex, smarter system.

Monday, August 11, 2014

First Priority of Public Sector: Public Safety or Fast Cars?

This is the big joker.  If you've ever played Spades, which is the greatest card game ever invented -- because theoretically you always have a playable hand, every card matters, and there is just something about the synergieeeees between you and your teammate when you get on the same wavelength as you shift tactics mid-hand -- the big joker trumps all.  That is, of course, if your opponents aren't playing towards a nil bid or saddling you with bags.

OK that was a tangent.  The real point being is that "congestion" and "level of service" are used as trump cards for any and all argument over how to design and build cities.  We must widen all roads because god forbid you might have to wait in traffic for another minute on your morning commute because we've effectively told you via our infrastructure that it's the logical thing to do, to live outside the city, take your property taxes with you, and commute in daily, expecting free flowing traffic.  Because those outsiders are more important than residents.  So goes the logic.  Or at least the illogic and the resultant inertia that 'who could've ever predicted?' Well, Lewis Mumford predicted exactly that.  In 1961.  Yet, we're still ignoring him being exactly correct.

With that said, uptown Dallas is the hottest real estate submarket in North Texas.  Population density is pouring in as developers can't get buildings out of the ground fast enough to keep up with demand.  It's important to note the history of uptown.  It was once the thriving middle class African American neighborhood until the 70s and 80s, our Harlem so to speak for a geographical analogy, when suburbanized infrastructure ripped apart the social and economic fabric, which of course led to neighborhood decay, and then the S&L banks bought up huge swaths of State Thomas neighborhood expecting to build bank high-rises.  That all went kerplooey along with the banks themselves and the neighborhood sat as broken crockery, a house here a house there.  Huge fields sat within the historic street and block structure.

Long story short, developers saw an opportunity to deliver legitimate urban housing near where most people worked, downtown.  They had to fight the city to maintain the historic scale of streets.  They won and then uptown was born.  It's value expanding beyond the borders of State Thomas to CityPlace, now down towards Lower McKinney and Victory and eventually even across the dam that is Central Expressway to East Dallas.

However, it's important to note that other than State Thomas maintaining the historic street and block structure, the demand for uptown real estate is larely demographically driven.  Not place or infrastructurally induced.  We now see urban density conflicting with the suburbanized infrastructure that was imposed upon the original neighborhood.  The conflict is increasing demand for pedestrian activity and fast moving traffic.  The cars move fast, dangerously so, because the streets allow them to.  Nay, practically invite them to.

I took a ride around with a DPD patrol officer recently, asking him to show me all of the problem areas as he sees them from public safety standpoint.  This was after I spent a day walking around with a radar gun shooting average speeds.  He showed me the spots where he typically sits to catch speeders.  All of his spots converged with those same places where I observed speeds tipping past 35 mph, the speed at which pedestrians start dying when they're hit.  One of those spots, seems to be particularly problematic.  To wit, reddit:

So I'm walking my dog this morning and two Audi R8s come roaring down the street in front of my house around 8:00am. Two seconds later, there is a huge BOOM at the end of block. Myself and a few others go down wall someone calls the police. The black R8 had run a red light at the end of the block and had been t-boned by a Prius headed West. It appeared that the silver R8 was un-damaged, but shortly after I snapped the first pic, the driver of the silver car jumped in his car and drove off. First thing we checked was for injuries, but miraculously everyone appeared to be ok. The police did not show up for 45 minutes which is where things got interesting.
At the crash scene are 4 males 19-20 years old at best driving cars that cost well over 6 figures each. They have managed to total one and almost kill some people in the process. Instead of keeping quiet and waiting for the police to arrive, they start running their mouths and insulting some witnesses who had seen the accident and at one point trying to start a fight with a couple guys who had also seen the accident and called them out for racing. One witness had seen them hide a red cooler right after the accident. When the police arrived, he showed them the hiding spot where the found a bunch of liquor. Again, at this point you'd think logic would somehow step into the heads of these clearly busted drivers before the situation gets worse. Nope. At least 6 officers are now on the scene and two of suspects are yelling insults/threats at witnesses and flipping them off while one of the other suspects sits in wet grass in handcuffs...also running his mouth. At a couple points we heard officers tell them to shut their "punk mouths." You always here these crazy stories of entitled rich shitheads, but this is the first I've ever witnessed firsthand to such a degree.

Some redditors seem to agree:

I used to live right there! I saw three different accidents at that light, every single one there was a really expensive car that got smashed. Always heard lots of screeching brakes from midnight to 3 on the weekends too.

As does twitter:

  1. We have already had one guy end up dead in our fence. It's only a matter of time before someone plows into a group of peds.
  2. McKinney Ave is just as bad, I live at McKinney & Oak Grove and that stop light is used as a drag strip.

There are even pics.

Perhaps it's only my experience, but whenever I've witnessed drag racing around town, it's always on one-way streets:  Elm, Commerce, Carlisle, McKinney.  Perhaps, the risk averse personality types that are drawn to this kind of behavior, find driving in a lane of oncoming traffic a bridge too far.

Fortunately, this particular incident wasn't nearly as tragic as it could've been, as jmckee's tweets suggest.  But why is it even happening here in the first place?  What are our priorities?  If it was really public safety, would we even allow streets to be design in the middle of neighborhoods encouraging people to drive at unsafe speeds?  It's all about the rules of game we're playing.  Maybe the joker of congestion and traffic flow is actually the little joker and we have a bigger trump card.  The one where we prioritize public safety, economic development, and improved quality of life.  If and when we do, the traffic will take care of itself.  So why let it be the trump card?

Peter Hall: Life and Lessons

If you're a professional urbanist, there's a good chance this book sits upon your shelf.  The title is a bit misleading in that it's not necessarily about future cities, but the history of city planning.  And of course, embedded in the idea of planning is the fourth dimension of time, the dynamic of ever changing places and the tantalizing possibility of something better.  Unfortunately, city planners throughout history have a history of misunderstanding where the magic and vitality comes from.  Too often leaning towards the overly prescriptive, restrictive, and controlling rather than focusing on the framework for life to evolve by and for those that live it.

It's a lesson Hall learned during his career as his obituary from the Economist spells out.

At first, Mr Hall was an enthusiastic supporter of that top-down, rational approach. One of his early books, “London 2000”, published in 1963, argued that London and the south-east should be comprehensively rebuilt, with vast areas of the inner cities bulldozed and replaced by blocks of flats, winding streets by a rectilinear system of motorways and on-ramps, and pedestrians segregated from traffic by walkways in the sky. Detroit, the spiritual home of the motor car, was his guiding light. The planners, in their patrician wisdom, would determine where the people would live, where they would work, and how they would spend their leisure time. 
He soon changed his mind. Wherever that approach was tried—in Birmingham, or Glasgow, or around the elevated Westway in north-west London—it caused exactly the sort of ugliness and alienation he had hoped to banish. In the 1970s he began arguing that one way to deal with urban decay might be a bonfire of regulations; the idea, he said, was to “recreate the Hong Kong of the 1950s and 1960s inside inner Liverpool or inner Glasgow”. That sort of fertile chaos, he came to believe, was exactly what made cities so important, and such exciting places to live. He was an early advocate of the view—these days the received wisdom—that by allowing people to form connections with like-minded colleagues, cities are the engines of a country’s economic, cultural and artistic life.
Those sentences.  Re-read them.  It's an important lesson that what he witnessed was far different from the theoretical visions of the leading urbanists of his day, of which he was one.  The empiricist is always a better urbanist than the theorist.  Today, we've ceded this authority and top-down control to the traffic engineers in pursuit of the theory that if we just build a few more travel lanes, congestion will be cured.  Thine eyes on the street say differently.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Dallas AIA / GDPC Transportation Summit

Some interesting names listed. Tumlin will be worth seeing, as well as Monte Anderson who is doing some revolutionary stuff in the finance/development world for small-scale incremental development in the southern sector. I have no idea the format of the presentations yet.

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Monday, August 4, 2014

News, Notes, and Newts

First, the city of Dallas seems to think they need more park space and replacing a ten year old parks masterplan for 500k seems like a good idea.

Here's a link to the 'old' masterplan.

A critical aspect seems to be the amount of park space per capita and the expenditures per resident.  It plays well politically to say, "we need more parks and to spend more for parks."  But the reality is that we have 1) too much park space that we can't afford (city has been selling off park space) 2) they are individually too large and 3) are poorly located (are primarily drive-to), disembodied from their surroundings, ie the parks aren't integral to their neighborhoods nor the city (for the most part).  Those that were, like Fair Park, have been fenced, surrounded by exceedingly larger roads, and ringed by parking.  "Park."  

If the masterplan is to be replaced, it ought to be done for far cheaper.  No study of that scale can get into all of the details worthy of 500k.  It ought to remain at an overarching strategic level, outlining goals and best practices, and how to leverage development/investment in order to finance maintenance, ie sustain what we have.  Then proceed with more detailed studies on an area by area basis.


That brings us to everybody's favorite topic.  Say it with me, "How. COG. Doesn't. Get. Urbanism!!!"

First, a quote by 'transportation czar' Michael Morris from a 2007 article by Robert Wilonsky to whet your appetite:
"Most states are in the maintenance business," he says, "but thanks to this innovative approach in Dallas-Fort Worth, we're in the capacity-building business."
Bon appetit.

So adding capacity is the goal.  The only goal.  There is no larger purpose of infrastructure, such as long-term economic viability, ability to maintain infrastructure, allocated goods, services, skills, markets in an cost and energy efficient manner, choice to the consumer, etc.  Nope.  Just building bigger roads for the sake of building.

Let's also recall that the head of NCTCOG recently said, "we can't afford to expand our road system."
Let's stay in the way back machine to examine the 2009 NCTCOG sustainability grant call for projects.  Remember the words, "sustainability grants."

First, notice the focus areas consist of two types of areas, highway adjacencies and depressed areas of southeast Fort Worth and South Dallas.  The former ought to speak for itself, the latter makes some sense...for now.  We'll get back to that.

Okey doke.  Sounds great.  Let's shrink some of those horrifically overscaled roads that have plowed through South Dallas, destroyed neighborhoods, and made it downright deadly to live there... We can recapture that unnecessary, wasted land in the ROW and use it to leverage new investment, better housing opportunities, and new jobs in downmarket areas...

Reducing roadway capacity is ineligible for something called a sustainability grant.  Furthermore, when a transportation planner uses "capacity," keep in mind they are ONLY talking about cars.  They don't count pedestrians or bikes.  They don't care about pedestrians or bikes or getting people onto what is far more efficient, or building in ways that encourage other, more sustainable and economically productive forms of travel.  No broader understanding or discussion about capacity of networks or capacity of multiple modality.  Just more cars.  "Sustainability."  In a cup.

Ok.  So what is eligible?

Item 1.

Given that their focus areas are 1) highways, so entirely car oriented and 2) poor areas, what kind of projects would the private sector bring to those poor areas?  The answer is none.  So the only way to bring "investment" into those downtrodden areas is to just spend on infrastructure that doesn't leverage any kind of real investment or improved anything.  If anything, expanded roads will just exacerbate the problem.  Hooray!

And then if you try to argue the opposite of this little swindle, you too can be called a racist!

That brings us to the final point, which was a discussion on twitter:

Had a convo w/NCTCOG staffer once, raised several green txport ideas. Told me would lead to gentrification; bad.

Strong proponent of keeping housing prices low and avoiding death spiral by ubiquitous tolling.

I think staffer had very static view of zoning. I didn't understand. Cars depreciate, houses appreciate.

Paying more tolls from cheaper housing seems to lead to lower household net worths at aggregate level.

Did you catch that? A policy of actively trying to depress value. In theory, the idea of affordable housing sounds grand, but in reality housing is pegged to incomes (at least until foreign cash money floods in, but only a select few cities deal with that kind of outside inflationary pressure). CityBeautiful21 is also right in pointing out

Furthermore, why would an MPO concern themselves with what is a local issue? Gentrification is far more complicated a subject than "eww, bad" /sprays mace at it. In fact, another term of gentrification is demand and investment. At its core, gentrification is defined by the 'gilded gentry' moving into an area, housing stock improving due to the investment and demands of the upper classes, which often pushes the poor to move out. That's the simplest of understandings, the reality is that when done right, the locals are actually positioned to benefit the most from gentrification.  With investment comes demand for goods and services, that's job opportunities and the opportunity to start businesses. Half the problem in depressed areas is there is no local market. Locals have to leave to participate in the local economy. In NCTCOG-land, which really ought to be the new name of DFW, that means driving and paying tolls, which the poor can afford the least.

Nothing stays the same. Things either get better or worse. Without investment, even the Mona Lisa falls apart. NCTCOG, whether they're aware of it or not, is actively further depressing places if this is really the kind of policy to which they adhere.

Cities require an entirely different logic than the one that "was trained" into transportation engineers 40 years ago. Some, the good ones, have evolved, learned. If our core cities are to survive and once again thrive, it's clear we need transportation planners and officials that understand that cities require a different mindset, that urban design isn't a sideshow for decorating the side of highways with some planting, but integral to the form, function, and resultant behavior of cities.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Starting a Public Dialogue. Achievement: UNLOCKED

So August 7th will be a busy day.  I'll be on panels for both the Urban Land Institute (breakfast) and the Dallas BAR Association (lunch) discussing the present and future of infrastructure in cities with quite a distinguished panel.  See the links below for registration information:

One of the primary goals of ANewDallas was to start a public dialogue about the appropriate infrastructure spending for the appropriate infrastructure types/modes/designs for appropriate locations.  I think we're getting to that point of heightened awareness, of what was once considered banal and something to leave to the "experts."  However, transportation is one of, if not, the most critical elements in the equation of city building.  It is the branch structure which dictates what kind of and where the leaves go.  Yet, for too long the experts have been building branches to reach the fallen leaves scattered on the ground.  All we've been left with is a lot of dead or dying branches lying around like litter.