Saturday, September 25, 2010

Book Review - My Kind of Transit

Darrin Nordahl's book, My Kind of Transit is a critique of American transit systems. The basic premise of the book, which I found to be overly simplistic, is that riding transit should be an experience in and of itself.

He came to this conclusion when on a trip to Hong Kong. He found that the trips he made on the city's transit vehicles were as interesting as the destinations. This led him to the conclusion that the banality of American systems is caused by the lack of an experience. Every system is similar in that the base system is based on cost. Small design changes, such as no tint, open air possibilities and seating at the front so passengers can see where they are going, can increase transit attractiveness.

The book is primarily chapters of case study comparisons, such as the monorails of Las Vegas and Seattle, shuttles in Santa Barbara and Phoenix and elevated rail lines in New York and Chicago. Using some of the methods described above, Nordahl explained why some systems are more revered and used than others. At he end, he gives suggestions to increase the transit experience.

Overall, I thought the premise was solid, if not 100% convincing. The ideas were portrayed more as a tourist, rather than an everyday user, which is the predominant user of a system, the primary theme of making it an experience seems to appeal more to a new user, rather than existing ones. Folks who use the system everyday are less concerned with the journey, since it is their routine. There may be merit in making it an experience to attract new users, who are then able to become regular users.

The read was easy. However, a basic knowledge of transit might be needed as a base of understanding before partaking in this one, since the ideas discussed have little to do with planning or running a transit agency or routes. Someone can do everything Nordahl suggests but if the routes don't connect people to where they want to go from where they are, it is still a moot point.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Money, Land Use and Transportation.

Every so often when someone asks me where I live, they are surprised when I say downtown. Frequently I hear "Isn't that expensive?" My reply is when you compare rents, yes it is more expensive, but when you add in everything else, like transportation or utilities, it becomes cheaper.

There are also environmental and health benefits to living in denser areas. When you walk and take transit more, you burn more calories and get more exercise while burning less fossil fuels.

On you can enter your address and see the average transportation costs per household of that area and CO2 emissions. It also gives a regional average below it.

At Main and Akard Streets in the center of downtown Dallas, the average transportation cost is $569 and CO2 emissions are .19 metric tons.The regional average is $836 and .7. That is a savings of near $267 and quite a bit lower CO2.

At UTA in Arlington near where I used to live, the cost is $802 and .39 metric tons.

Now,compare that to my rural roots in a farming community outside of Midland, Texas. On average, they spend over $1,000 for transportation per household and pollute more, 1.1 metric tons a month.

For a comparison, the most urban alpha urban city in the country, New York. Per household in Manhattan, the spend $288 per month on transportation. A monthly pass on the MTA is just over $100.

On, when a region is entered, you can see two graphs comparing housing costs and housing + transportation costs. The housing alone shows those that are under and over 30% of total income. The second shows the over and under for the two costs combined at 45% of total income. In the more urban areas where walking is allowed, the graphs don't change.

However, in the suburban areas, large portions are under 30% housing, but over 45% housing and transportation, illustrating how the higher costs of transportation negate the lower housing costs.

So yes, I do pay more in rent. But, without a car payment, insurance, gas, maintenance, etc for a second car, that is would need if I lived in the suburbs, I think it is a wash at best. Now imagine if that was available on a much larger scale to many more. Many thousands would be able to have a greater disposable income, have a greater health (lowering overall health care costs for everyone) and pollute less.

While I don't think it is for everyone, it should be available for more than just a few percentage points of the population.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dallas Mayor and Budget

Big issue in Dallas lately has been the budget for the next fiscal year. Since the end of 2008, Dallas has had to trim over $300 million from a roughly $2.2 billion budget. Slashed the hardest were the typical "non-essential" services of parks, libraries, arts and street maintenance (planning departments also don't fare well in these situations). This year's proposed budget would cut another $130 million. For libraries, the cuts were so severe, they would be open only 44 hours a week and would have no money to purchase new materials. Imagine a library not having a single new book for an entire year.

Some on the city council wanted to raise the tax rate to find new revenue for the parks and libraries as well as street maintenance.

There are those who will say you can trim the waste of government efficiency, but that is small potatoes. Somehow, the general public has been able to paint all government as inefficient. Could there be savings? Yes, I am certain. Would it be this big windfall? Likely not. Contrary to what proponents of down-sizing and privatization say, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Certain things can be handled by the private sector, some can not. Would you like the police or fire departments to charge for their services? Also, finding inefficiencies aren't so easy either. Is centralization the best option? For some things yes. Transit agencies administer best when they are clustered. Fire Departments do not. Finding a balance is key. Water departments have been privatized recently. The public now pays quite a bit more because the private sector wants a profit, not a cost coverage.

Back to Dallas. The mayor is a Republican contemplating a senate run. Opponents would trounce him if he raised taxes. He has been fighting it. Here's a quote form an op-ed piece he wrote for the Dallas Morning News. "Families are dealing with reduced income, lack of jobs and uncertainty about the future. They are forced to tighten their belts. The last thing they need is City Hall demanding more money. We must tighten our belts, too."

Nevermind that townhall meetings consistently played the same message of a small tax increase is okay. The mayor counters that by saying those against haven't had time to come to these things. The council members opposed to a tax increase are all in the wealthier part of town. More than the working mom, they do have the ability to go to these things. If you choose not to participate, then that is your fault. If more people participated in government, I am convinced there would be these problems across the country.

He also says, "...the tax-hike supporters took a different approach. They never bothered to find cuts or savings to try to balance the budget. Their default position to fund add-ons? More of your money. They suggested raising no new savings or revenue to avoid raising taxes."

That isn't true either. They budget has been slashed vigorously the last two years. And I would hardly call parks, libraries and streets add-ons. This is why I dislike the mayor. That is a bold-faced lie. There is no way he doesn't know that is untrue.

Finally, I'd like to point out the hypocrisy here. When he first took office in 2007, he virulently defended a toll road in the floodway. I was opposed and helped in the campaign to defeat it. We lost in a close election. That road's cost? Over $2 billion. He also worked to pass a convention center hotel last year, completely city-owned. The cost? Near $600 billion (the previous most-expensive CCH was $289 million). So, on the one hand, we have a mayor who says we must tighten our belt and cut city services But on the other, we have a mayor who defends expensive civic projects, that also happen to benefit his donors. Four of the top five donors to the mayor were somehow connected to the convention center hotel now under construction. He hasn't rescinded is position on the toll road, so that leads me to believe that he isn't so much concerned about Dallas as he is a campaign run. Not everything is as black and white as the mayor would have you believe.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Downtown's Ills (Long)

An interesting piece by You Plus Media talks about several issues I have railed on for years. First, the tunnel system developed in Dallas during the 60's through 80's saps street life away from the surface and directs it underground. Second, downtown needs more basic retail services. Third, one-way streets destroy urban continuity. I'll address each point individually.

NOTE: This was longer than I expected and hope to keep future posts a bit more concise.

The tunnels
Here's a pictorial tour.

There is nothing more reviled to me than the tunnel system (which includes skywalks) for several reasons. This will be an issue I touch on often. They were originally billed as a pedestrian amenity for downtown. It separates the pedestrian from the noise, pollution and weather of the street and put them underground where there is air conditioning and restaurants and shops. Sounds pleasant. However, in retrospect, the flaws keep them from living up to this. Plus, this is a covert concession to the car, which without would keep the streets less polluted and noisy.

The tunnels are connected to the office buildings (primarily). This means the supposed "public" space is nothing more than a private realm open to the public, much like a mall. When an office building closes, they don't want the average Joe to have access to their property, so the tunnel closes when business is concluded, usually 6-7 pm. As downtown moves from an office park to an urban area, which includes residents, visitors, shoppers and office workers, the flaw of having this public space closed means a lack of options.

There are 6,000 residents downtown and less than 6,000 hotel rooms available (that doesn't include other folks, like transit patrons making transfers, folks passing by and even the homeless, which have money to send and need to shop and eat too). Compare that to roughly 130,000 workers and it is easy to see which segment has the greatest revenue potential for retail and restaurants. When those are closed underground, it means the other segments have no options, since the retail that was at street level is now underground. Since the street is truly a public space, the shops can decide their own hours based on their own business model. Underground, they can not. They are bound by the office hours and, since it is only the office workers with the access, usually things are closed after the lunch rush.

Since the office workers are the prime segment, areas where the tunnels and streets overlap are empty and vacant at the surface, while underground is busy at rush times and vacancy is low. This keeps the streets empty at all times. This emptiness also contributes to the idea that downtown is unsafe.

Reverting back to the private sphere, this also brings up a dilemma that Dallas is facing. The tunnel system is city-owned under public right-of-way, and privately owned under the buildings. But what happens when a building becomes vacant, as has happened several times? The link is broken. When that happens at the street, the sidewalk is still available and the only drawback is the lack of activity a functioning building would contribute. Underneath however, the pedestrian has to rise back to the "polluted, noisy and hot" street to finish the journey.

When glancing at the map, it is apparent that the tunnels, with their dog leg sections aren't the fastest way to a destination. That coupled with the trip to the basement means short trips down the street aren't short. The dog leg turns also add confusion to a trip. "Do I make a left or right? Is this the correct way? This doesn't look familiar?" Unless someone knows it, it is very disorienting.

The weather is perhaps the best argument and the hardest to counter. However, that is not a detriment to street life. Unless Fort Worth has drastically different weather patterns, their tunnelless downtown is quite busy at all hours. They have a lower resident, employment and transit base than Dallas, yet an exponentially active street life. There are ways to mitigate the weather, like shade trees and benches that contribute to an active street life without destroying it like the tunnel system does. Fort Worth shows if you make an urban area attractive people will come...and walk.


Much of the retail "problem" could be solved with the relocation of the tunnel businesses from underground to the surface. The division actually means fewer options for both spheres, since the streets lose business to the tunnels and the streets operate after tunnel hours (New York leaders fight a stratified pedestrian experience, with its much higher residential and employment density for this reason). In the tunnels are an assortment of retail enterprises, like restaurants (fast food, casual dining, and fine dining), convenience stores, shoe shine shops, banks, boutiques, post offices, pharmacy, dry cleaners and gift shops. These would solve the basic problem that exists for current residents and visitors. Where there no division, all businesses would serve all segments all the time.

But it also brings the chicken and egg problem. Do residents need these services or do these services need residents? I lean to the second, simply because residents are moving into downtown without some basic services. Before the latest round of residential openings, downtown had one of the highest occupancy rates for rental units in the region. I tend to think the main issue is lack of residential options. More buildings mean more people and a greater market for those basic residential services. Yes, there are probably some folks who avoid moving downtown or left after one 6 month lease because of the lack, but the high occupancy rate tends to make me believe there is a big demand for urban living.

One way streets

Another '50's planning idea, as a concession to car travel at the expense of everything else, is the one-way street system. Designed to get people in and out of downtown as fast as possible, the one-way system was started in New York and spread rapidly across the country. Planners find themselves at odds with traffic engineers frequently and this is a great example. TE's use formulas and cite their success in moving large amounts of cars. Planners, however, cringe at what they do to the urban environment.

Here's a rapid fire list of some of their effects.
1) Confusion
2) Lowered economic activity
3) Poor pedestrian experience
4) Poor access
5) Lower transit performance

The first is self-explanatory and a real-life example is seen in the video.

The second deals with timing. People tend to take the same route to work. They also tend to do their shopping after work. If you have two one-way streets that serve as the commute, the afternoon outbound street will see higher activity than the inbound, whereas a couple of two-way streets will see activity on both of them.

The third in a way ties into the second and the first. Regardless of posted speed limits, folks will drive their comfort level. In essence, the design of streets will dictate speed. One-way streets tend to be wide and straight, a formula for high speed. The higher the speed, the lower comfort for the pedestrian. No one wants to walk next to a freeway as an example. Mitigations, like on-street parking buffers, can help, but slower speeds in an urban area are preferable.

Also, the faster a car travels, the lower the line-of-sight for the driver is. This is important because it reduces pedestrian safety, lowers economic activity by lowering driver's familiarity with the shops and increases confusion.

Fourth, poor access to properties happens. Example, to walk to pick up my son from daycare, I exit out the door go east, north, east and north again for five blocks and I am there. Were I to drive to the same destination, I would have to go west, south, north, west and north again for 11 blocks. This lowers access to properties and in turn, value and urban convenience. But it does move more traffic faster.

Finally, transit suffers under one-ways. Obviously, a bus can't go against one-way flows but also, by encouraging more cars to go faster, you encourage less transit use. Ample evidence shows that an attractive area will attract activity. The transportation system determines that activity. Encouraging cars means city's get car usage. Encouraging alternate modes like walking and transit means those will be utilized. Two-streets encourage the latter.

First Post

I have been kicking the idea around of starting an urban issues blog focus on planning and design. Every so often I'll come across a topic that I wish to discuss and kick around the points. My wife usually glasses over when I start on these topics, so this will give me an outlet to save her sanity.

Comments are welcomed, but I ask we keep them civil. Disagreements are encouraged, but personal attacks are not. Editorially speaking, I feel this country has taken a step backwards because anyone who disagrees with me must be an idiot (generically speaking). I am of the opinion that any attempts to be made at societal betterment has to come from an understanding of the other side, but more importantly, a middle ground is available and attainable. It has been personally a hard lesson, but one I have made within the last couple of years. It can be done.

If the blog mirrors Car Free in Big D, Goodspeed Update or The Overhead Wire, that's because I have been reading them for a while now. Content will include editorials, news and features like book reviews or maps, similar to those mentioned above.

About me: I am a recent graduate at U Tex-Arlington's School of Urban and Public Affairs. I am job searching, but slightly picky about where I go, primarily, a job where a car is not a necessity, but others too. I have the one wife and six-month old son. I live in downtown Dallas and mostly enjoy life.