Thursday, December 30, 2010

Kids and Cities

Touching on an earlier post about re-energized cities, I ran across this piece from Grist which is the idea that kids are safer (a subjective term if there is one) in cities than the exurbs. Before I go on, I want to point out that I do not know the methodology of this study, but it does mirror other things I have read elsewhere.

In essence, because parents and kids are so tied to cars in the far-flung areas, these kids are in far more danger of perishing in a car accident than any other stereotypical city danger. Motor Vehicles (MV) present the greatest likelihood of death to our children than anything else. But don't take my word for it. In infants, MV deaths were the cause of less than 1% of all deaths, but that may be due to the great number of natural dangers facing a child so early in life. In toddlers, MV's are number one at 11 percent of all deaths. In kids, it is still number one, but the percentage is higher at 20 percent. In pre- and early teens, still number one and a bit higher percentage of 21 percent. And finally, older teens see the number cause of death from the same category, but a whooping 40 percent of all teen deaths are at the hands of the car.

In both teen cases, suicide is a greater cause of death than homicide, which might be another factor in the case against the car. Since teens are experiencing a greater independent streak at that age, not having easy mobility is the same as being under house arrest. Some researchers have found higher rates in rural versus urban, and higher in suburban than urban, but others have found no such link. However, the number one factor in teen suicide is depression. My opinion, based a little on research, a little reasoning and a little instinct, is that suburbs, not just because of the car, offer little to stimulate the growing senses of teens. If everything looks the same and you have to have a car to pass through it, which means dependence on parents, that does nothing for the independent-minded teen. This helps set in a depression, which in turn increases the chance of a suicide.

Now this study does nothing to assuage the other concerns of the parent who chooses the suburb over the city, such as better schools, bigger yards or more space. Just as the rational person can make the claim that cities are safer, you can also make the claim that parents do more for kids than schools can, for example.

But the underlying theme may be, just as with the downtown business post, that the generations following the baby boomers, and specifically, Gen X, Gen Y and the Millennial's, are fundamentally changing how America lives. Cities and their planners may find that an increasing amount of families will be heading back to the city. Those that prepare now will be better off than those who don't.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

This Goes Out to All you Amateur Planners

First, hope everyone had a merry Christmas and may 2011 be prosperous and healthy.

Second, ran across this piece from one of the blogs I follow. Anyone who has every considered planning has likely played some version of Sim City at one time or another. Me personally, I have played all four (I ignore Societies and pretend Maxis didn't offer that one), with my personal triumph coming from from the Rush Hour expansion of Sim City 4.

While I won't get into most of the critiques the post made, such as the lack of mixed use and the one entrance per property, I do wish to touch on the transit points.

Sim City is lacking in transit options. Capital expenditures and physical infrastructure are represented and done ok. However, virtually everything else is not. I have always wished for a video/computer game that would be strictly transit. They make/made an Airport Tycoon, Railroad Tycoon and Roller Coaster Tycoon but nothing that would allow to choose modes, routes, frequency times, etc for a city or regional transit system. In Sim City, you plop bus stops and the routes are just there, or basically, one bus stop equals one route, so that each connecting bus stop is a route. I suppose if you use your imagination you can assume there are transfers there, but that is really the whole point. I don't want to use my imagination, I want to actually do it.

This I think leads to expert amateur planners as can be witnessed on forums like this. You have the internet wizard, who can cut, copy and paste with the best of them, but has no real comprehension of what that means. You have the guys who say "I don't understand why they just don't do x", when as usual, there is always a good reason why, or the guys who just don't have a good understanding of how transit works, such as the one where "DART should run past two A.M. so people who leave the bars don't have to drive." Perhaps, somewhere down the way, they built a city that carries 100,000 people on its transit system and therefore they know how it works.

Or perhaps Sim City isn't the reason and it is like near every other aspect of our society where the average person knows it all anyway. Either way, I still want my transit simulator.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Could transit help the Rangers win the World Series?

Thanks to my mom (in-law) for finding this one.

If you believe the pundits, Cliff Lee would have had the Rangers competing for championship titles for the next few years. However, in a move that shocked the baseball world, he spurned more expensive contract offers from the Rangers and New York Yankees to sign with Philadelphia Phillies. Turns out, the money and competing for championships weren't the only reason.

In the Fort Worth Star Telegram, Bud Grant wrote of Kristen Lee, Cliff's wife, and her desire to be in Philadelphia. Select quotes from his story.

"Kristen Lee wanted her husband to return to the Phillies because of "how easy it is to get from point A to point B" in Philadelphia, she was quoted as saying by the Philadelphia Inquirer."


"'Even in Dallas," Kristen Lee was quoted, "[from] where we were staying, it was hard to get to the ballpark.'"

"Kristen Lee's fondness for transit isn't limited to commuter rail.
She's also happy to be a 11/2-hour train ride away from road games in New York or Washington.
"We liked the easy travel on a train for our kids to other cities," Kristen Lee was quoted."

This isn't just a sports issue here. It is going to effect cities in the future. As I have posted before, the younger generation is fundamentally changing how we live. The baby boomers and their parents set up the suburban model. Gen X on down is rethinking that idea. (Should point out, baby boomers becoming empty nesters and moving to the city is also reinvigorating cities)

It also serves a different point. Both of the Lee's are from small town Arkansas. It is from these places you often here the every one wants a house and car, no one wants to live in a dense area. Simply put, that isn't true. Some may want the typical offering. However, others don't.

What should be noted here is the need for some form of balance. Areas that offer one type of living arrangement may be great at some point, but it will never be sustainable in the long run. Single-family cities will find folks leaving when parents watch the kids take off and then leave themselves as they become empty-nesters. Those cities that offer a balance of urban and suburban will have a better advantage in the long run.

Perhaps if Arlington were one of those cities offering balance, they would also have a World-Series-winning team.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Are companies and firms moving downtown?

Yes, according to the Wall Street Journal. Using data from REIS, they point out that the vacancy rate for downtowns nationally is 14.9%, roughly the same rate as in 2005. Meanwhile the current vacancy rate of 19% is 2.3% higher than its 2005 counterpart. Similarly, since the beginning of the year, suburbs have lost 16 million square feet of space, compared to 119,000 square feet for downtowns. They also cited some real world examples in Detroit and Houston of companies relocating from their suburbs to the downtown area.

So what does it mean? Is it just a consequence of the current economic climate? Is it a trend of the younger generation wanting a more urban lifestyle? Is it a sign of downtowns reemergence as the center of the region? Is it that the firms who are downtown happen to be better off than suburban companies? Is it just a coincidence?

In my opinion, it may be some of it all. Obviously, when cities reinvest in the cores, there are bound to be upsides to it, though to be certain some expenditures have greater benefits to the public than others and not every investment will see an improvement in the payoff. Investing in transit will likely see a better return than convention center hotels. But overall, this has had some return in making the downtown area more appealing.

And certainly firms that office downtown are more recession proof. It is the clustering effect. If I am a law firm, I want to be near the courts. Law firms certainly have need for support services, which want to be near their clients. Since all levels of government and not just the courts, happen to be a major if not the biggest employer downtown, that helps keep every downtown stable.

But I think the biggest factor happens to be the younger generation, those that seek a more vibrant, car-less, healthier, environmentally-friendlier, culturally-filled lifestyle. They are what is known as the creative class. These folks are generally more educated and are vacating the suburbs for urban areas at a much greater rate than the rest of the population.

One thing that wasn't made clear is what is the definition of downtown? To use Dallas as an example, everything within the freeway loop is considered downtown. But the actual dense, urban area, primarily Uptown, extends much further than that. Uptown has had a low office vacancy rate. While it is not as urban as the stereotypical downtown, it is far more so than the standard suburb. I'm sure this example plays out all over the country. When that happens, it turns more into a city vs. suburb contest, rather than downtown vs. suburb.

Will this trend line continue? I doubt it. While I do see the downtown portion to continue, I just have a hard time believing the suburban office market will be continuing a downward trend. At worst it stabilizes. But, the likelihood is that American cities will start to achieve some balance between suburban living and urban. That in and of itself may be the best news of all.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Green Line Critique

It's been a week since I rode the Green Line, as well as read a weeks worth of news, saw the system wok firsthand, and seen the effects. While I would say the overall effect is positive, there re several things that could use improvement, both in the control of DART and outside.

I am going to post several links that will build the basis for this entry. The Dallas Morning News did several stories, one the day before opening, which in its own right was a large negative critique, one from a columnist, which is largely a fluff piece, and one the day after chronicling the events. Perhaps the most referenced piece will be this one from the transport politic, which shares many of the same critiques I have, as can be seen from the Skyscraper Page message board, of which you can find my points as FoUTASportscaster.

I don't fully blame DART for this, but my number one gripe about the DART rail system is that it is built in old freight right-of-way and/or near freeways. The one exception is the Blue Line in South Dallas on Lancaster, as it is in the median of a major street, right next to destinations. The Blue Line north is on old freight railroad, as is the Red Line south and the two Green Line segments. The Red Line north is under a freeway for the first three miles and on old ROW after that.

The other major point is the historical formation of the city has affected the modern transit system. Back in the day the railroad made or broke cities. Dallas didn't take off until the Houston & Texas Central and Texas & Pacific Railroads came into town. Then roads followed the railroads. Highways followed the roads. Interstates and freeways followed the highways. As an example, using the T&P alignment, old Bankhead Highway followed roughly the T&P route. Highway 80 followed the road. Finally, Highway 80 turned into Interstate 20 in between cities and around, with highway 80 turning into Business Loop 20. Sometimes, one became the other, as Central Expressway in North Dallas was built on the old H&TC railroad.

Now, what that means is that when the old rail lines are converted to light rail lines, they largely are near freeways. That limits a lot of ridership potential. Rail works best when it goes in the middle of places. The most active stretch of the current DART Line is downtown, which it runs in the middle. The second densest section is the Blue Line south, which it runs in street median, with usable land on either side.

This following of existing ROW ignores already built up and dense neighborhoods. Uptown is probably the best candidate for rail service, yet it has a streetcar and a decent but not great connection to an existing station. If there were two stations in or under McKinney Avenue, they would rank in the top ten in boardings.

For many reasons, such as cost, FTA requirements, disruptions, local politics and regional politics, DART did what they had to do. Building in old railroad ROW is cheaper than a new alignment, a la the upcoming Orange Line in Las Colinas. The FTA's funding formula favored lines that offered commute time savings, hence a commuter type system. Building in the median of streets disrupts various properties. Local political example abound, but the best is the Blue Line's northern alignment. DART planners favored an option to run through East Dallas that would have 600% more riders than the second alignment, which was built. Since DART cannot construct a line without the local jurisdictions approval, the City Council effectively put the kibosh on that route since some residential neighborhoods didn't want it. Now we are stuck with what we have, a line that carries less than 10,000 riders a day. Finally, I don't think it is a stretch to say that the reader can easily imagine the regional politics of city vs. city and "where's my rail line when they already have one."

Dallas has not done much to encourage rail ridership. While many of the suburbs have approved transit supportive zoning, Dallas has not. The only real regulation that has much effect on the built environment is that within a quarter mile radius of a DART Station, developers and property owners have to provide ten percent less parking than required otherwise. While that is nice, it isn't urban at all. In a story reference in the Dallas Observer's Unfair Park, a club in Deep Ellum would have to provide 34 spaces to open, rather than the normal 38. That makes little differences to the smaller scale projects, which is precisely what builds urban environments, which in turn is what precisely builds your transit ridership.

These urban systems generate tremendously more ridership in any measurement than its commuter or suburban counterparts. Yet, DART has designed a commuter system, using the most expensive urban rail technology. This system is designed primarily for one function, get people to and from downtown. Since downtown is composed of mostly office workers, it becomes a commuter system.

When you build a rail system in the manner that Dallas has, you have to rely on transfers, whether that comes from buses, walking, cycling and even cars in a park-n-ride. The problem with that approach is that transfers lower ridership. This is the result of increased time and uncertainty. In many cases, unless you live or work directly on a rail line, which is generally the case, there are two transfers that are needed. For the time-strapped or transit-uncertain commuter, this is a killer.

Now one of the ways to help minimize the above deficiencies is through new supportive developments. There are two problems for Dallas. The first, as noted, is the lack of development controls. Since there aren't even basic TOD type zoning around rail stations, depending on supportive development seems a bit too enthusiastic. Mockingbird Station is an accident. It still has suburban parking requirements. There were little suburban building codes before, which is part of the reason the developer chose that site. Most of the sites around the existing stations will require a zoning change for any type of urban development.

The second problem is that developers may not get it right. Park Lane is another great example. It is closer to being a transit adjacent development. The only part riders can see from the rail line is the parking garage. If they do know it is there, they have to cross busy Park Lane and hike up a grassy hill to get into the development. There is very little, if any, increase in ridership because of it.

It is no surprise that in the DART system, the Green Line's projections show it will be the most ridden line. Currently, the highest ridden segment of the current lines is the Red Line north, followed by the Blue Line south, Red Line south and Blue Line north. The northern section of the Green Line will likely be number two, since, like the Red Line, it follows a highly congested freeway. At a close third, if not tied for second is the Pleasant Grove section of the Green Line. The highly-ridden buses in that area were converted into rail feeders to go into the new line. The 165, which was a semi-express bus that was discontinued since it was a duplicate service carried 4,000 riders a day. They are now rail riders. The big question is, will the new Green Line, operating as a system with the rest of the lines, attract choice riders, those who have access to other modes? For the reasons listed in this entry, I don't think there will be too many.

For the record, I do like the Green Line. It improves the reach of the region for me. But, since I live downtown, I don't suffer the same fate as everyone else. I can easily reach the station, have one less transfer, if any at all, and a lot more immediate destinations since it is the hub. With a few design changes, that could have been the case for more people outside of downtown. That in a nutshell is why Dallas, as the largest Light Rail operator in the country, has the lowest ridership per mile of any other mid-major operator in the country, and that is a shame.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Green Line Opening

The family and I went to Super Saturday, which was the preview in advance of the new DART Green Line opening. I'll do a more in depth critque of the line later.

But first, pictures from the day. First up, whole new track north of Victory.

 DART claims that each station is different, and in a sense, that is true. However, it is usually just differences in the columns and floor tile. Here is Burbank Station, just outside the headquarters of Southwest Airlines, complete with ad space.

 The view of the other side.

Large portions of the Green Line are elevated, leading to some very nice views of the surrounding areas.

Bachman Station. Note the different columns and floor tile. This will also be the junction for the Orange Line and current terminus of said line. Eventually, it will make its way west toward Las Colinas and DFW Airport.

Royal Lane, again with different columns and floor. This is an elevated station, requiring elevators to meet disability requirements.

Trinity Mills, rather non-descript. Come June, if things go well, the A-Train, which is the commuter line from Denton County, will terminate here. Initially, it will run to Lewisville. In a couple of years, it will end in downtown Denton.

This is the end of the line, North Carrollton/Frankford Station. Otherwise, it is like every other DART station, but with different columns and floors.

The only portion of the line that is depressed, though not completely underground, is the stretch that runs under Mockingbird Street.

Finally, this was taken the following Monday. What is shows is a three car train. This wasn't an uncommon site before DART added a middle section to its cars (the section where the white line dips is the new section). This is the first time a three car train has been seen with the new sections. The other nice thing, the cars were full. DART expects 30,000 trips on the Green Line after its first year. The Red Line, the current leader, sees less than 27,000 per weekday, eight years after it was completed in its current form.

Finally, here's a map of the system. This was actually designed by a friend of mine. An extreme improvement over the previous system map. It will also change again in 2012, when the Orange and Blue Lines are extended.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Another Link

It seems that when I bring up a point, I find some bit to back it up. This time around, it is about the traffic engineer. In a previous post, I linked a story about how the Florida DOT won't make an urban street with a State Highway designation urban friendly in Miami.

This link comes from a former traffic engineer. I find myself taking this at face value (I have no idea who the guy is and if is is truly a traffic engineer). But it does make the same points I did, with a couple exceptions.

The first, they are doing what they are doing in their version of safety, primarily car users. Though, it would appear the author came to a revelation that planners have argued for a while. The "safer" streets generally have more accidents.

This has everything to do with the anomaly of human behavior. We tend to slow down, look more and overall drive better when we feel unsafe. Real world example happens here in downtown all the time. You can tell a visitor from a worker by how they drive. Visitors tend to be slower and looking around more while those that drive here frequently go faster, text or run lights.

Which leads to the second, that math-based applications for human behavior is prone to failure. On a very general level, math is useful. Modelling traffic patterns is no more than several mathematical equations based over a geography divided into zones. Still, in every region, the model has to be calibrated, meaning the original equations do not fit well and have to be modified to fit real world observations.

Yet, traffic engineers will float these formulas out there as if it is physics and say we need X across all spectrum's. This is bad for our streets and bad for our urban cities. What's good for suburban Long Island isn't for downtown Dallas. What works for Arlington, doesn't for Oakland. Yet, for decades now, traffic engineers have used these math formulas, usually derived from regression analysis and applied them unilaterally across the board.

Ironically, there are places that are taking spaces for cars only and making them for everybody. New York, San Francisco, Milwaukee and Portland have all taken highways or major routes away from cars and usually turned them into "complete streets" or pedestrian ways. Each time, traffic engineers warned of increased congestion and traffic nightmares. Each time, that proved to be false. Apparently, they have no mathematical formula for decreased space. But, if they were to use a standard linear regression analysis, they'd have to observe it in the real world, which is precisely what they work towards not seeing happen. What little has actually happened, is so small that the statistical margin of error would make the formula irrelevant