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.

1 comment:

Courtney said...

Very insightful. Great blog so far!