Monday, November 15, 2010

Several Quick Links

Several stories have come out in the last two weeks that I have been meaning to post and discuss, so I'll knock them out here.

First up, we look at the car ownership rates of one of the youngest driving generations, or perhaps more specifically, the declining rate. There have been these stories for years now, usually in the form of demographers or planners predicting the future. This one is a bit different, in that it comes from people who care, the car companies.

The cause are quite numerous, from personal reasons (environmental conscientiousness, social networks, time), to social (economic slowdown, cities investments in transit and urban areas, convenience) but the underlying point is still the same, if car companies are focused on this, planners should be too. Cities that are adequately prepared for the car-lite/free lifestyle will be ahead in the game.

New York has always avoided the population fate of its peers, but don't be surprised to see other NE cities stabilize/gain population. Conversely, cities like Dallas and Los Angeles that are building extensive systems to offer that lifestyle in car dominant areas will also be winners of this population segment.

Of course, this coincides with the youngsters parents moving back to the city as well as staying in place, a well documented phenomenon for a few years now. This is important for two reasons. One, cities need to provide for a variety of lifestyles, not just the boomers or Gen Y. Second, do we really want the largest elderly generation (as well as the largest current generation) behind the wheel for everything with their deteriorating physical skills?

The next link comes from USA Today. I read the paper version and immediately thought of the planning ramifications. In essence, for the first time in...perhaps ever Americans are buying smaller houses. The median size house has dropped 200 square feet since its peak in 2007. Again the reasons are varied and even the same as before, but one thing isn't clear. Is this a response to the current economic situation or a longer term trend? Certainly this is unheard of in prior recessions, but none have been as severe either.

Personally, I hope the trend continues. These types of houses are more costly to serve from a civic standpoint. Take a piece of paper and draw one-inch square. then draw a line connecting those squares. Do the same again, but this time draw squares with only 3/4 inch sides. The line connecting them can be a number of infrastructure types/services, water, sewer, roads, postal, fire, police, etc. Obviously, the longer line means a greater cost. It is more expensive to serve low-density areas, primarily because the tax revenues generated do not cover the costs of more infrastructure. This may help balance civic budgets in coming years.

Finally, I post this link from the Miami Herald to back up an earlier point on parking. This concerns Brickell Avenue in Miami, which according to the article is one of the densest places in Florida. Planners residents and city officials want this road to become what is termed a "complete street" where cars, pedestrians, transit, cyclists, etc. all can use the space equally.

However, the State Department of Transportation, composed largely of traffic engineers, is making the street an auto-oriented one, to get as many cars through as fast as possible. It is common place to see pedestrians dodge oncoming cars and see cut-through's in the bushy median.

It hearkens back to something I have said consistently, if Americans do indeed love our cars, it is similar to an arranged marriage. People tend to do what is convenient. When we build for cars, we all of a sudden love them. We will never divorce our cars if we keep following a traffic manual designed for maximum car use at the expense of any other mode.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Map of Historic Streetcar Lines in Dallas

Here's a map transposed onto Google Maps showing all lines in Dallas. This isn't an accurate map at one point in time, since some lines were laid and then ripped out before others were laid, but it does show a comprehensive map from start to finish.

Amazing what we once had.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Dowtown Dallas Parking, a Pictorial Tour

To highlight my points from the second to last post, I took several pictures around downtown.

First, this is Ceasar Chavez Parkway. It is eight lanes in both directions. Yet, not one of those lanes are dedicated to on-street parking.
The second is a stretch of Jackson between Harwood and Pearl. There are 11 curb cuts, greatly diminishing the on-street parking quantity.
The next is one of the 11 curb cuts, though it is no longer in use. Though there are meters in this picture, it is far more common for an unused curb cut to be meter-less.
This is a garage curb cut just outside my residential building. The curb cut takes the space of 4.5 on-street spaces. Also in the picture is a truck. It is notable because the picture was taken before 9 am. It is illegally parked.
Here is a stretch of Elm. It is just a block away from the heart of downtown and between almost 3 million square feet of office space. Yet, the view from the street is one of desolation. Note the lack of any parking meters.
The following series is the retail section of my argument. The first is Chase, CVS and Jason's Deli on Main Street. A prime place for metered, convenient parking, yet you'll see the no parking signs all up and down this section.
Next up is a 7-11 on Commerce. However, it is more important for people to turn left than park and spend money.
If you forgot your anniversary and you want to stop by the Flagship Neiman Marcus to get your significant other a gift, well you'll have to drive into the garage, pay, take the elevator down, cross the street and go in, because you can't drive up to the meter, drop in some change and go in.

Are you on your way home, but want to stop by and get a bite to eat? Unless you do it outside of rush hour, you are out of luck. Go to your home outside the downtown area and spend money on Italian.
What about the downtown grocery store? Nope, even on little-used Jackson Street, you can not stop on the street and get what you need. The ironic thing is that the city at the behest of downtown stakeholders subsidized the grocer at the tune of $1 million over two years.
Continuing the theme of don't stop by during rush hour, the donut shop on Elm Street might be particularly keen on attracting the morning customer. Sadly, the parking meters out front are not. The clothing shops hours might be dictated by the availability of convenient parking, meaning shorter than they might otherwise be.
And finally, downtown is chock full of "no parking from here to corner" signs. I guess the idea is that having the corner available makes it easier on traffic. I can certainly understand outbound, ie easier turning right, but in bound makes no sense, like the one in the picture. Either way though, I feel it is at least one wasted space on each corner.
Also, compare the last picture with the fifth picture. Even though they have the same amount of pedestrians (0), this one looks like there's more activity, thanks to the parked cars.

Finally, a look back at the Stockyards, which does allow cars until the corner.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Stockyards, a Small Urban Oasis

The wife and I took a visit to the Fort Worth Stockyards yesterday, and proof that I am not a constant complainer, only an urban elitist, I was pleasantly surprised. The Stockyards are a collection of near-turn-of-the-century buildings on or near Exchange Avenue just north of downtown. It receives a lot of hype as a popular and family-friendly urban area.

My wife, almost 8-month old son and I rode the TRE from downtown Dallas to downtown Fort Worth, then caught the Fort Worth Transportation Authority's # 1 bus to the Stockyards. We've taken the TRE often, but rarely Fort Worth's buses. This bus, especially considering it was a Saturday, was well-ridden.

We departed on Main Street just south of Exchange. There were some nice urban buildings, but nothing outstanding until exactly one block south of Exchange. We were hungry and my wife had a destination in mind, a place called Love Shack Burgers. I was mildly surprised that it wasn't a building.
In essence, this was a place where an old building was demolished, and rather than making it a parking lot, the property owners added a shack where the food was cooked and another for restrooms. A couple of small decks were added to make for seating and a stage was added at the far end for live music.
It was nice to see that although an important piece of the urban fabric had been removed, there was a cheap and inexpensive way to integrate the property back into the urban fabric. On the Dallas side, it would be a parking lot and start to degrade the urban fabric.

The street scenes were quite lively. There were all types of people, old and young, families and couples and friends and strangers. All different types of ethnicities were present as well as different types. By that I mean folks like bikers, cowboys, tourists and yuppies. In its basic form, it does what a true urban environment does. Everyone from all walks of life getting along.
The physical design was still well done. What I mean by still is that in a lot of these types of neighborhoods built before the car, changes happen to make it accommodate the car. On Main Street, before entering the Stockyards from downtown, the street looks like a lot do in car-oriented areas. However, on Exchange and the Stockyards section of Main, it looks like a pedestrian area. The lanes are narrower, the street is made of brick instead of concrete and the lanes aren't clearly marked. Now keep in mind, the same amount of cars fit into the street. But instead of encouraging them to get through as fast as possible, they encourage all types of transportation, not just one.

The parking issue was also encouraging. Instead of vast amounts of surface parking, there was ample amounts of on-street parking. Other off-street parking was available at the edges. The parking didn't destroy the urban fabric, at least at the center. A lot of the points I made in the previous post were followed and made the area attractive.

I'd also be remiss to point out that auto congestion was high, yet the area was still active and vibrant. This defies the logic that if there is high congestion, the area will decline. These types generally advocate bigger and wider roads to promote vitality, when it these projects that eventually destroy it.

Note the long line of cars on both sides of Exchange, yet there are still just as many people out strolling. This exemplifies a balanced system in an urban environment. As soon as this proportion changes and favors the car, the other aspect, people, fade as the streets feel less comfortable.

The adaptive reuse was well done too. As near as I can tell, a former train depot for loading livestock has been converted to an outdoor pedestrian mall with a variety of shops.
In fact, that was well done throughout the entire district. Unlike Deep Ellum in Dallas, which has the same feel, but entirely different use, the Stockyards different uses keep it active. There were stores typical of what you'd see in Deep Ellum, but so much more. Typical old time stores such as antiques and trinket shops were present, but others such as tattoo parlors and bars. Again, it was this mix of uses that kept the scene vibrant.

Not all was well. There were parts, unlike Love Shack Burgers, where the replacement building didn't quite go over. You can tell the architect tried to fit the building, a hotel, into the existing urban area using the same building materials. However, the buildings physical design does not fit in well. There are too many setbacks, unimportant landscape and no interaction. 
It is obvious in the above picture that the hotel does not fit in with the surrounding areas of the other pictures, even though the hotel is directly adjacent to them.

The irony is that had it been in reverse, the buildings materials didn't fit in, but the design did, it would flow well. This is an all too common occurrence that architects do in redevelopment projects. These in turn degrade the overall quality of the urban environment, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Another concern is can this place stay vibrant. The positive is that the actual stockyards anchor the area. There was a rodeo there during our visit. That activity alone helps attract visitors. The area itself as it is arranged is attractive as well. In fact, urban areas in the Sunbelt are an attractive area in and of themselves, since they are a novelty in a car-oriented oasis.

However, beside retail and the livestock attraction, there are very little other uses. There are old residential houses on the far outskirts that do count (proof that suburban development can be walkable), but within there is none. There are a smattering of offices here and there, but not many. This may be something planners will have to address in the not-so-distant future.

One other thing that was really well done was the extreme amount of street furniture. There were several benches, trash cans, shade and other street furniture that made the street scene friendly and inviting for pedestrians. There are even some made for little ones.
This may have been a shameless attempt to post a picture of family, but it illustrates well the basic premise of an attractive urban environment.